Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Updating Bucs' Key Position Battles Early in Training Camp
The pads have started popping at One Buccaneer Place, bringing the rubber of all offseason speculation to the road of on-field action.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have three practices in the books, with Sunday's being the team's first day in full pads. There's obviously still a long way to go, but early impressions on key position battles have already started to take shape.
Will Johnthan Banks continue to build on the flashes of his rookie season to hold off veteran free-agent signing Mike Jenkins at one of the starting corner spots? Will rookie second-rounder Austin Seferian-Jenkins be able to catch up after getting a late start on offseason workouts?
Let's take a look at where things stand with those battles and more after the first few days of action down in Tampa.
Luke Easterling is a Featured Columnist covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotations in this article were obtained by the author at training camp practices.
No. 2 Corner
Not too long ago, Bucs fans didn't feel too thrilled when looking at the team's depth chart at cornerback. But thanks to some key free-agent signings and the growth of younger players, corner looks to be a position of strength heading into the 2014 season.
That strength is evident in the battle for the No. 2 corner spot opposite Alterraun Verner, where second-year man Johnthan Banks is fighting to hold off Mike Jenkins, a veteran free agent who signed a one-year deal with the Bucs this offseason.
Banks is getting the first look with the starters, but he'll have to keep playing at a high level to hold off Jenkins, who has looked like a strong signing so far in training camp.
Despite the battle with Banks, Jenkins says he's simply focusing on his own game:
Just keep practicing. Just come out and work hard. Not really focus on the battle, just focus on my own game and play, and try to make the team better. Just keep working on my craft. I'm in a new system, so I've gotta learn the plays. I'm just going from there.
No matter who wins the competition heading into Week 1, the Bucs should have valuable depth at the corner position, which will be vital in stopping the high-powered offenses in the NFC South.
This likely switches the starting guard competition over to the right side. Getting first crack at the top job this weekend was Oniel Cousins, who was signed by the Bucs as a free agent this offseason.
Getting the nod over Patrick Omameh and rookie fifth-rounder Kadeem Edwards, Cousins said he's always been prepared to start:
My mentality is that I'm always going to prepare myself as if I'm going to start, no matter what my role is. You're only one play away, so my mentality will never change. I'm a guy that likes to get after it. I like to have fun.
Cousins has the most NFL experience of the group challenging for the right guard spot, so it wouldn't be a shock if he stays ahead of the pack. The Bucs also have yet to fill Nicks' roster spot, and there's always the possibility that general manager Jason Licht could bring in additional competition.
With only one day of full-pad practice in the books, there's still plenty of time for this battle to lean one way or another. But for the moment, it looks like Lovie Smith is going with Cousins' experience over the more green options.
The Bucs have made it clear they're treating the nickel corner spot as its own separate position, hiring Larry Marmie to specifically coach that unit. There also looks to be a bitter competition for first-team reps in that role, but Leonard Johnson looks to have the upper hand so far.
Despite defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier saying that D.J. Moore was "running ahead of the pack" at the nickel spot, the former Chicago Bear was surprisingly released last week. This evidently opened the door for Johnson, a former undrafted free agent who grew up a Bucs fan in nearby Largo.
Speaking after practice on Saturday, Johnson said he's looking forward to playing the position made famous by former Buccaneer Ronde Barber, even calling on the five-time Pro Bowler for some insight into the role:
It feels great to play in (that same role as Barber). It's an honor. I talked to Ronde a lot this offseason, and got some tips and pointers. I definitely looked at his film and just tried to mimic him in each way.
Rashaan Melvin spent Sunday's practice on the sideline with a boot on his left foot, but head coach Lovie Smith said in his post-practice press conference that it's an injury he's not worried about. He'll need to get back on the field quickly to compete for snaps in the nickel with Johnson, Deveron Carr and Danny Gorrer.
Johnson looks to have a pretty strong hold on the job right now, and barring injury, don't expect that to change heading into the regular season.
The emergence of rookie undrafted free agent Tim Wright was one of the brightest spots on the Bucs' offense last season, but that didn't stop the team from bringing in competition for the upcoming year.
Tampa Bay signed Brandon Myers right out of the gate in free agency this offseason, bringing in the veteran on a two-year deal. Then in May, the Bucs spent their second-round pick on Washington's Austin Seferian-Jenkins, a massive playmaker who fits the new breed of tight end that is becoming an NFL trend.
Myers brings a veteran presence, but Wright is a more natural receiver, having been converted from the wideout position.
The wild card is Seferian-Jenkins, who brings stellar size and physical tools to the table, but has plenty of catching up to do thanks to foot surgery and academic commitments that kept him from participating in all of the offseason workouts. Though the rookie says his foot is feeling good, he acknowledges that he's behind the rest of the unit:
Today was really my first time getting out there and running around with a defense in almost six months now, so it felt good where I'm at, but there's a lot of room to improve all over the board. I'm obviously behind the ball. Those guys were here, working together, getting chemistry together. But that's what training camp is for, and I'm going to a lot of time to catch up. I feel comfortable where I'm at right now, and I'm going to keep progressing.
Wright and Myers might have the advantage for the time being, but once Seferian-Jenkins gets up to speed with the offense, his superior physical skills should make him the every-down starter.
With gigantic targets like Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Austin Seferian-Jenkins, the Bucs' offense should be able to clear plenty of space for the slot receivers to be successful.
The first to get a chance at exploiting that space looks to be Chris Owusu, who took the first-team reps in the slot this weekend. Following Saturday's practice, the third-year receiver out of Stanford gave me some insight about what makes the slot job different from playing out the outside:
You have to be versatile, especially in this offense. I felt great out there. There's a lot of competition with us, we're all going to rise, and I'm sure that's going to make our team better. You've got to be quick (to play the slot). The safety's going to come down, you're going to have a lot of different people on you. You've got to be able to read the defense real fast. On the outside, you're going to see a lot of the same stuff. In the slot, you're gonna have to check for linebacker rotation, check for blitzes a lot more.
Rookie sixth-rounder Robert Herron showed his speed in one-on-one drills, getting behind his man deep a couple of times, though he was overthrown on both. Lavelle Hawkins, Skye Dawson and Eric Ward are also still fighting for reps in the slot, as well.
I still like Herron to challenge for this spot, but it might be too steep a climb for a rookie at the moment. With Owusu having already impressed the Bucs' new coaching staff throughout offseason workouts, don't be surprised if he stays in the driver's seat of this competition and starts in the slot in Week 1.