As players report to the facility for training camp, it’s time to take a look at some of the Buccaneers’ most closely contested position battles heading into late July.
DEFENSIVE END: SPENCE VS. SMITH
With the addition of Robert Ayers in free agency, followed by the second-round selection of Noah Spence to join returning veterans Jacquies Smith and Will Gholston, the Bucs have four possible starters at defensive end, albeit no clear favorite.
Bucs DE Jacquies Smith – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Considering Ayers’ contract – three-year, $21 million deal signed in March – after a career-best 9.5-sack season in New York, it’s safe to assume he’ll be given a fair shot to start at either end position. That leaves three players to battle for the role opposite Ayers: Smith, Spence and Gholston.
Smith, who recorded seven sacks in 11 games in 2015, nursed a shoulder injury throughout most of OTAs and minicamp but is expected to be at full health by training camp. He’s shown promise in the past – 5.5 sacks during a five-game span in 2014 and four sacks in the first two games of 2015 – but has struggled to stay healthy and find any consistency on defense. Gholston, for his part, has improved every season but has somewhat flown under the radar as a rotational player with ability to play inside and outside.
And as for Spence, the rookie has been as advertised throughout the offseason. He’s drawn rave reviews from coaches and teammates, particularly for his athleticism and receptivity of the scheme, and there’s even been talk of him standing up in certain packages. Whether or not he starts on Day 1, it seems pretty apparent that coordinator Mike Smith and his defensive staff will find ways to get Spence on the field.
Same goes for the other three defensive ends. The Bucs would prefer to have a steady rotation at a position that requires intensity and energy through four quarters, and Tampa Bay is confident all four edge rushers can contribute.
CORNERBACK: BANKS VS. VERNER
Similar to the defensive end position, the Bucs also appear to have four candidates who could start at cornerback: Brent Grimes, Alterraun Verner, Vernon Hargreaves and Johnthan Banks.
Photo by: Mark LoMoglio/PR
And like defensive end, the team added one through free agency (Grimes) and spent a high draft pick on another (Hargreaves) shortly after. With Grimes, who signed a two-year, $16.5 million deal, expected to start at outside corner and Hargreaves, drafted No. 11 overall, getting the majority of work at nickel, it’s expected that Verner and Banks will compete for the other outside position. That’s not to count out Jude Adjei-Barimah, who is said to have also really taken to the new scheme, and in particular the position coaches. But this is about the looming battle for the starting role, and from the outside looking in, it would seem, as of now, to be between the higher paid and higher drafted veterans, Verner and Banks.
Both players, who were benched at one point during the season last year, have been given a clean slate in Mike Smith’s defense. Verner’s a former Pro Bowler and prized free agent addition while Banks, a 6-foot-2 former second-round pick, has been able to use his unique cornerback-size to his advantage in the past.
While both had a particularly tough season in 2015, it’ll be interesting to see how they recover in a new defense and who ultimately wins the starting job in training camp.
TIGHT END: BRATE VS. SEFERIAN-JENKINS
Tight end is a featured position in Dirk Koetter’s offense and the Bucs currently appear to have a tight competition between Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Cameron Brate for the No. 1 spot.
Bucs TE Cameron Brate – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Injuries have largely been the story of Seferian-Jenkins’ career, but he’s finally at full health and confident he can become the impact player the Bucs’ drafted in the second round in 2014. Seferian-Jenkins has shown flashes of promise over the last two years, but as Dirk Koetter says, “The best ability is availability.” This is a critical season for the third-year pro and it starts in training camp, where he’s sure to have tough competition from Brate.
The Harvard product came on strong for Tampa Bay in 2015 and developed a strong rapport with Jameis Winston – one that Koetter said is hard to replicate. Brate only continued to progress this offseason, drawing praise from Koetter in mandatory minicamp for his knack to make big plays in the red zone.
While both players are expected to see plenty of snaps this year, the distinction between No. 1 and No. 2 on the depth chart, combined with the potential of both players, is significant enough to make the battle at tight end the most intriguing offensive competition heading into camp.
NOSE TACKLE: SPENCE VS. MCDONALD
Competing for the starting nose tackle position is Clinton McDonald and Akeem Spence. The former looks to regain his 2014 form after suffering a season-ending pectoral injury in Week 7, while the latter is entering the final year of his rookie contract.
McDonald, who tallied 31 tackles through the first five weeks last season, will be reunited with his former defensive line coach in Cincinnati, Jay Hayes, which should only help his case. Coaches have praised the veteran tackle’s work ethic and leadership and he’s been taking first team reps along side Gerald McCoy so far in the offseason.
Bucs NTs Clinton McDonald and Akeem Spence – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
As for Spence, the fourth-year pro spoke to PewterReport.com after the final day of mandatory minicamp and expressed his desire to remain in Tampa beyond 2016. That means becoming a reliable force in the run game. Spence spent half of last season either injured or suspended, but after relatively productive seasons in 2014 and 2015 in a rotational role, he’s shown capability as a solid contributor on the D-Line.
This is another case where both players are near locks to make the final 53-man roster, but the starter should see considerably more snaps and take the field during the most critical of run-stopping situations.
CENTER: SMITH VS. HAWLEY
Though Joe Hawley has previous ties to Dirk Koetter in Atlanta and was handpicked by the head coach to sign and take over for an injured Evan Smith early last season, there appears to be an open competition at center heading into training camp.
Bucs C Joe Hawley – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
After Smith went down with an injury in Week 1, Hawley joined the Bucs and played exceptionally well, bringing an attitude and leadership that rubbed off on rookies Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith. Building a nice chemistry with the O-Line and Jameis Winston, Hawley remained the starting center even when Smith returned healthy. That, however, was when the Bucs didn’t want to disrupt rhythm. Now it’s a new season. The team wants whoever can best call the offensive line’s protections and snap the ball seamlessly to Winston, as well as block. As Smith enters the third year of his four-year contract, he’ll likely be given a fair opportunity to reclaim his starting job.
The former Packer has struggled at times, but he’s also shown versatility by playing a little at guard last year. In two seasons in Tampa Bay, Smith’s played 24 games with 20 starts.
Zach is entering his 3rd year covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a writer for PewterReport.com. Since 2014, he's handled a large part of the beat reporting responsibilities at PR, attending all media gatherings and publishing and promoting content daily. Zach is a native of Sarasota, FL, and a graduate of the University of Tampa. He has also covered high school football for the Tampa Tribune and the NFL for Pro Player Insiders.
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Has training camp started yet?
It’s great to see all of this legitimate depth at the mentioned positions. I’m still thinking that the Bucs will start the season with ASJ and end it with Brate at TE.
My predictions for what they are worth. Lol.
I think Smith beats out Spence at D.E. if he can stay healthy.
Banks and Verner is a tough one to guess and I don’t know Mike Smiths defense well enough to say who might have the upper hand. Gut says Verner, but who knows.
Agree with e ASJ likely start and Brate ends season as starter due to injury most likely.
McDonald will beat Spence.
Hawley will beat Smith.
I was surprised to see that there was a competition between Smith and Hawley. I thought Hawley would easily be the starter. I saw him on the Falcons’ version of Hard Knocks. Man, he is one tough son of a gun with a mean streak. The falcons’ loss is the Bucs’ gain. Go Bucs!!
Yea I agree EDS has looked very average at best compared to Hawley, but I suppose we are lucky to have two veteran centers.
I’m not expecting Spence this season to be dynamic, but it would be a nice surprise. I believe Spence will be given time to improve as he learns. I don’t get the Spence-McDonald thing as McDonald is far better, and Hawley is better Smith.
Looks like we’ll need to add an ‘A’ or ‘N’ to our Spence discussions in the future…aside from the Banks-Verner battle, the others seem to have injuries play into the speculation. I think Verner wins it, but Banks shows some flashes again this year
Surprised that slot receiver is not listed as a position to watch.
Watson, I completely agree. All the other positions listed have reliable veterans mostly other then Spence, Hargraves is a lock as I see it.
The slot guys are Mostly unproven as a group. Murphy won’t be there for a while as he is still recovering from injury. Seems to me this is one of the biggest battles to be settled and most important.
I’ll be there this weekend to watch the battles unfold. Maybe even that heated punter competition. Hard to watch everything. One thing I do is to try to ignore the player’s number so my opinion isn’t biased by expectations or reputation. I’m sure some observers will be touting the likes of Brate and Vitale over ASJ no matter what their eyes tell them. There will no doubt be a player or two who are thought to be “camp bodies” who keep making a case for themselves and a few others who are thought to be sure to make the roster but are unable to fend off their competition.
Smith beats out Spence in our base 4-3 look (when I comes down to our nickel group I think you will see a d-line of Smith-DE, GMC-DT, Ayers-DT and Spence-DE)
Verner will beat out banks (I’m hoping Brett Maxie gets him back to Pro Bowl form)
ASJ beats out Brate (but we are going to see a lot of two TE groups with the lack of receiver Depth)
Hawley beats out Smith(I can’t believe this is a battle)
But I cant wait to see how it shacks out with training camp starting!!!! Fire the cannons
Have I missed what happened to Josh Robinson?
Noticed that as well
Well, they mentioned him an had a pic of him breaking up a pass in the FAB 5-
Well It seems that these players will solified the team more-Go Bucs
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