Tampa Bay’s first mini-camp in the Lovie Smith era is in the books and there were plenty of interesting observations about the Bucs’ new offensive and defensive scheme, the team’s personnel and some interesting nuances about the way Smith conducts his practices. PewterReport.com was on hand for all three days of practices at One Buccaneer Place and has made the following five observations:
1. McCown Is The Real Deal At Quarterback For The BuccaneersAs good of a fit as Josh McCown was in Marc Trestman’s offense in Chicago last year, evidenced by the fact that he completed 66.5 percent of his passes for 1,829 yards with 13 touchdowns and just one interception in relief of Jay Cutler, he has the chance for being an even better fit in Jeff Tedford’s offense in Tampa Bay. Based on upon what PewterReport.com saw in Tampa Bay’s three-day mini-camp, Tedford’s quarterbacks need to have four attributes.
The first of which is accuracy, and McCown looked like he was auditioning for NFL teams at a college pro day. His completion percentage in 1-on-1’s, 7-on-7’s and 11-on-11’s was likely over 80 percent. Now a lot of McCown’s passes were very short in nature with receivers running smoke routes and running backs running flare passes, but he was on the money with his throws on all three days.
The second attribute is intelligence. McCown had complete command of the offense and looked like he has been operating in this scheme for years during the initial mini-camp. The third attribute is anticipation, and McCown showed unwavering confidence to throw the ball to a spot where the receiver is going to be whether it’s a short, intermediate or deep throw. There’s never hesitation during McCown’s wind up and he has shown the confidence to let ‘er rip.
The fourth attribute is mobility. Despite being 34 years old, McCown still has elite athleticism. He moves around like he’s approaching 25 – not 35 – and has plenty of mobility to execute the rollouts and waggles in Tedford’s system.
Getting a first look at Tampa Bay’s offense, if the Bucs draft a quarterback early the best fits for this system and it’s quick-release, high-percentage passes and option routes are Fresno State’s Derek Carr, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garappolo and SMU’s Garrett Gilbert.
2. Tampa Bay’s Offense Is Ahead Of The Defense At This StageIt’s not uncommon for defenses to be ahead of offenses in spring football – whether it’s at the college or NFL level – due to the time it takes to get the timing down between quarterbacks and receivers in the passing game. That was not the case during the Bucs’ first mini-camp last week.
It wasn’t just McCown who looked sharp for Tampa Bay’s offense during the three-day mini-camp. The entire offensive unit looked sharp. The revamped offensive line looked quicker and more athletic than a year ago without 31-year olds Donald Penn and Davin Joseph.
The running backs showed great quickness in hitting the holes, which were big, and getting to the second level. The backs also did a very good job of catching the ball out of the backfield and turning up field for extra yardage.
The tight end position looks much improved from a year ago. Tim Wright has added 10 pounds to bulk up to 235 and looks like he’s ready to pick up where he left off. Wright led all Tampa Bay tight ends last year with 54 catches for 571 yards and five touchdowns. Brandon Myers adds another pass-catching, route-running tight end to the mix, and Tom Crabtree and Luke Stocker are back from injuries that stymied them a year ago.
Tampa Bay’s wide receivers put on a clinic during the mini-camp, with nearly every receiver having a couple of big plays in the passing game. Veteran Vincent Jackson is already in sync with McCown and had a sensational debut in Tedford’s offense outside and in the slot on occasion. There was plenty of speed on the field, and newcomers Louis Murphy, Tommy Streeter, a 6-foot-5, 215-pound sleeper, and Lavelle Hawkins really flashed some play-making skills. Holdovers Chris Owusu, Skye Dawson and Eric Page also showed the ability to create separation and pick up yards after the catch.
“Not many were on the ground,” Smith said. “We have been [airing it out], plus just the tempo of guys not getting tired and continuing to run. Our tempo has been pretty good. Again, our glass half-full, we wanted to see something like that. This is a good start, couldn’t have drawn up the start any better. To play receiver, in general, there’s a lot that you have to do. Telling you a little bit about the shape our players came in, ready not only to run forever and run a lot, but the mental preparation and all that.” McCown looked sensational throwing the ball in mini-camp, and it’s easy to see why he was named the early starter. Mike Glennon, last year’s starter for 13 games during his rookie season, isn’t a bad fit in this offense. But you get the sense that if the Bucs select a quarterback early in the draft that Glennon could be dealt immediately for a 2014 or 2015 choice because Mike Kafka showed he could execute the offense as the team’s No. 3 QB.
Even though the Bucs defense had only installed two coverages, Cover 2 and Cover 1, there were far more completions and big plays surrendered by the defense during the three-day mini-camp than one would expect. Pass breakups and interceptions were few and far between, but it should be noted that the starting safety tandem of Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson was missing due to minor injuries.
3. Tampa Bay’s Running Back Stable Is Loaded With Capable RushersIt wasn’t just McCown and the receivers that put on a show during Tampa Bay’s three-day mini-camp at One Buccaneer Place. Martin came back from injured reserve and didn’t show any ill effects from the missed time due to a torn labrum in 2013. While Martin caught the ball well out of the backfield and showed a good downhill burst through the offensive line, he did have a fumble on each day of the mini-camp, which was a bit concerning.
As well as Martin looked last week, Bobby Rainey was the best looking back during the mini-camp. Rainey caught every pass thrown his way, which was quite a few as Tampa Bay’s running backs are very involved in the passing game. Rainey has even better quickness and burst than Martin has, and could steal some reps from him during the regular season if he shows well in training camp and the preseason and picks up where he left off last year as Tampa Bay’s leading rusher.
With Mike James not participating due to his continued rehab of a broken left ankle that ended his rookie season prematurely, Jeff Demps got extended reps as the third-string running back. Demps’ world-class speed and elusiveness is eye-opening. By leaving track behind and focusing on football this year, Demps is positioning himself for playing time at running back and slot receiver, in addition to returning kicks.
With so much talent at the running back position, it’s highly unlikely that Tampa Bay will be drafting another halfback. Also, don’t be surprised to see the Bucs have three running backs with at least 400 yards on the ground in Tedford’s run-first offense, led by a 1,000-yard running back, likely Martin.
4. The Buccaneers Are Already A Well-Conditioned Football TeamAs a whole, the Buccaneers are very much in shape already with the exception of a select few, notably defensive end Da’Quan Bowers. During a hot, three-day mini-camp in April, the players seemed to handle the rigors of a very up-tempo practice schedule that ran 2.5 hours without any dehydration or cramping issues.
“It’s 80-plus temperatures around here right now, so it’s good to see how the guys work,” Smith said. “With the emphasis that we’ve placed on being a fast team, running to the ball defensively, playing hard offense and all of that, you have to condition the body for all of that and we’ve done that. We had two weeks of offseason program and from what (head strength and conditioning coach) Dave Kennedy tells me it’s been pretty impressive.
“The guys came back in pretty good shape, which is important and what we’ve seen out there; it’s not like we’re easing in, we have a two and a half hour practice and it’s up-tempo and thank god we haven’t had any major injuries or anything like that. The guys are just running. We haven’t had players cramping up and that’s tough, that’s pretty impressive in the offseason, in April to be putting guys through this. I’ve been very impressed with the condition the players came back in.”
Smith is no different than his predecessors, Greg Schiano and Raheem Morris. Every Bucs head coach wants to use the heat and humidity to his team’s advantage, especially since the hot, tropical conditions extend deep into October in the Tampa Bay area. But the practice tempo with what Smith deploys, which hasn’t been seen since the Jon Gruden era, ensures that this Bucs will be well-conditioned and well-prepared come September.
“If I was a team coming in here, if I was Carolina, I’d be really concerned about that heat down here,” Smith said of Tampa Bay’s 2014 season-opening opponent. “They say it really gets hot. When I was in Chicago, I talked about the cold always and late [in the season] it was pretty cold. Down here that heat is tough, cramp up, there’s a lot of things that happen and we want them to think that way.”
5. Smith’s Practices Feature A Few Interesting NuancesIt was Tampa Bay’s first mini-camp of the Smith era, but it didn’t look like it. The Bucs looked like a well-oiled machine, and that’s a testament to the preparation by both the coaches and the players.
Smith and the coaching staff brought out the walkie-talkies right away and began to use them to call plays in. That helped create the up-tempo practice environment he wanted to achieve on offense and defense.
“It’s a part of – really if you look at it you should probably do that more,” Smith said. “You’re trying to simulate what happens during the game and that’s a part of the communication in letting the players hear and that’s both sides of the ball. Of course offensively we’re doing that, we’re also doing it with our defense, and linebackers are just getting used to hearing those calls coming in. Again, simulating as many game-type situations as you possibly can.”
Another practice feature that really stood out was having defensive players pick up every loose ball on the ground as if it was a fumble – even incomplete passes.
“I just don’t think you get takeaways by chance, that they just happen,” Smith said. “No, it’s got to be a mindset. As you watch our practices, we treat an incomplete pass like it’s a fumble, so we’re getting something out of that. I want defense to constantly be thinking about the ball, picking it up and running with it. That should be just a staple [thing] – the story should be if you don’t see us doing that in practice. Then we aren’t doing our job.”
Bucs cornerback Rashaan Melvin, who impressed during the mini-camp, liked the genius approach of not wasting any opportunity to recover fumbles, especially with incompletions in practice.
“I definitely agree with it,” Melvin said. “We understand the importance of picking up fumbles and scooping and scoring. Our philosophy is to score on the defensive side of the ball. Whatever we do in practice – whether we intercept it or if a ball hits the ground as an incompletion, we scoop it up and score. That’s going to prepare us for the games when the ball is on the ground and the Bucs will come up with it.”
Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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