10 questions the Bucs must answer in ’17

by Gary Shelton on August 2, 2017 · 0 comments

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Can Winston cut down on his interceptions?/CARMEN MANDATO

Can Winston cut down on his interceptions?/CARMEN MANDATO

Wednesday, 4 a.m.

You can measure a training camp by the drills. There are endless drills, endless groups of moving around the field in the name of a regular season more than a month off.

You can measure a training camp by the beads of sweat, those relentless beads dripping down an athlete's body. It is hot in Florida. Perhaps you have heard. But effort today makes for ease tomorrow, and so the Bucs push on.

You can measure a training camp by the bodies that come and the bodies that leave. It is a constant work of art, the building of a team. Coaches always want to look at one more safety, at one more receiver, even on a team where most of the players are firmly in place.

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DeSean Jackson leads the Bucs' new weapons./CARMEN MANDATO

DeSean Jackson leads the Bucs' new weapons./CARMEN MANDATO

Or, you can measure a training camp by the questions it answers. Oh, other things are important, too. The building of chemistry and the forging of trust, for instance. The learning of plays. The demands in the voice of the coaches.

Mainly, however, a training camp is a time to iron out the final wrinkles. It is a time for a coach to determine his strong points, and prepare to take advantage of them. And it is a time for that coach to uncover his weak points, and to move to protect his team from them.

And so it is that Bucs inch toward resolving their own issues.

Here we are, then: The top 10 questions of the season:

1. Can the new weapons create more of a window for Winston to throw into and, as a result, lead to fewer interceptions?

Certainly, that's the hope. Winston threw 18 interceptions a year ago, an average of more than one a game. Granted, some of those passes were deflections off of his own receivers, and some came in the late stages of a half or a game. Still, 18 is too many.

Will last year's failures hurt Aguayo?CARMEN MANDATO

Will last year's failures hurt Aguayo?CARMEN MANDATO

One of the biggest defenses for Winston was the speed of his receivers, however. Mike Evans was a Pro Bowler, but he isn't the world's fleetest receiver. For the receiving corps in general, separation could be a problem.

But this year's receiving corps includes free agent DeSean Jackson, and draft picks O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin. That's a lot of imported speed for the Bucs. Oh, there can still be deflections, and the halves still will end with the team facing desperation. But Winston should have a better shot at making plays.

A warning: Winston should watch the way he starts. Last season, he threw eight of his 18 picks in his first four games. In 2015, he threw seven of his 15.

2. Who wins this placekicking competition? Nick Folk or Roberto Aguayo?

Placekicking is one of the positions on the NFL where the incumbent doesn't always have an advantage? Remember, it was the failure of Aguayo a year ago that led the Bucs to seek out Folk to begin with. And if it's close, memories of last year's frustrations may hurt Aguayo.

On the other hand, if Aguayo really does have a clean sheet, then he was still a player that general manager Jason Licht thought was worthy of taking in the second round.

martin

The Bucs have to work around Martin's absence./CARMEN MANDATO

The Bucs, frankly, were fortunate that Aguayo didn't miss a last-second, win-or-lose kick in 2016. (The closest was his miss against the Rams. Providing the rest of the game had played out the same, Aguayo would then have been in position for a game-winning kick in the final seconds.

3. How will the running back rotation work itself out in the season's first three games? And once Doug Martin returns, how will it work itself out?

One of the surprises of the off-season was that the Bucs didn't make more of an effort to supplant Martin, who will be suspended for the season's first three games. It would have been fairly easy for the Bucs to make a change.

But Tampa Bay thought it had something in Martin, despite a bad year last year. They thought he was worth waiting on. After all, the Bucs open up against Miami (30th against the run), Chicago (27th) and Minnesota (20th).

Look for the team to try to ride Jacquizz Rodgers. Rookie Jeremy McNichols may surprise with his carries.

4. Can Noah Spence really be the pass-rusher this team has lacked?

Since Simeon Rice left the building, the Bucs have looked for a true rusher from the

No. 2 draft pick Justin Evans will try to play early./CARMEN MANDATO

No. 2 draft pick Justin Evans will try to play early./CARMEN MANDATO

edge. It wasn't Gaines Adams, and it wasn't Da'Quan Bowers. Spence is still a little light for the position, but he has a burst. That makes him the best threat to get to an opposing quarterback.

Robert Ayers had a good season two years ago for the Giants, but he's never replicated that. Odds are, the Bucs are going to have to try to get to the quarterback from a lot of different places. That includes the interior, where Chris Baker and Gerald McCoy play.

But that elusive 10-sack-season guy? Maybe. Spence had 5.5 as a rookie while playing with an injured shoulder.

5. Who lines up at safety?

Finally, there seem to be choices. The Bucs' safety play improved as much in the second half of the season as any spot on the field. Still, the team drafted Justin Evans and signed J.J. Wilcox as a free agent.

Keith Tandy had a lot of big plays for the Bucs, so it's hard to see him not getting one of the two slots -- at least at the start of the season. He's an instinctive player.

That leaves one slot for Chris Conti, Evans and Wilcox to fight over. In the long run, that may be Evans' job. Remember, the Bucs liked him more than highly regarded Obi Melifonwu. A team doesn't take a second-rounder that it doesn't believe in.

Conti could get the edge early, however. He's a good athlete, and his play against Kansas City turned the game. Evans should pass him on the depth chart during the season, however.

6. Is this offensive line good enough?

Will new receivers surpass Adam Humphries?/CARMEN MANDATO

Will new receivers surpass Adam Humphries?/CARMEN MANDATO

There is no bigger difference of opinion on the Bucs than the offensive line. Analysts hate the Bucs' offensive line, and in particular, they pick on tackle Donovan Smith. But the Bucs love their line, and line coach George Warhop has predicted that Smith will be among the best 2-3 left tackles in the game.

If this line can flourish, it helps the quarterback and it helps the running game. J.R. Sweezy, who missed all of last season, will start at guard, enabling Ali Marpet to move to center.

If the Bucs are right about their line, then this offense should blossom.

7. With No. 1 draft pick O.J. Howard making his presence known, what does that mean for incumbent Cameron Brate?

It probably means fewer catches, to be honest, but football teams don't throw away good players. There are plenty of two-tight end sets (the Patriots have been devastating with two tight ends) that the team can use.

Don't think of it in terms of catches or yards. Think of it in terms of threats. The Bucs have never had more.

McCoy needs January.

McCoy needs January.

8. Isn't it time this team got Gerald McCoy into a playoff game?

Absolutely. And it isn't just McCoy. A lot of players want to see the post-season.

For McCoy, who has never been in the playoffs, it's a big deal. The Bucs haven't been in the post-season sine the 2007 season, four coaches ago. Ronde Barber and Earnest Graham played here way back then.

You couldn't come much closer than the Bucs did last year. If the team played by this year's rules, it would have snuck in (the overtime loss to the Raiders would have ended in a tie).

This year, the Bucs need to get over the hump.

9. He's been criticized, but at some point this season, can backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick win a football game?

Well, not if Winston stays healthy. Winston has thrown all but 11 passes by the team in his first two seasons and, once again, the Bucs would prefer their backup quarterback be called on for only mop-up duty.

But a lot of backups start games in the NFL. The injury factor is simply too great.

Say what you want about Fitzpatrick, but he has won 46 games in the NFL. All isn't

McNichols could get carries early./CARMEN MANDATO

McNichols could get carries early./CARMEN MANDATO

lost if he has to play. Pretty much, that's what a team wants out of its backup. Just give the team a chance to win around him.

10. Will the Bucs' schedule catch up to them?

At the start of the season, a lot of schedules look imposing. But the Bucs' schedule ranks only 14th, about the middle of the pack as far as last year's won-loss records.

Still, there are some obstacles. The Bucs play defending Super Bowl champion New England, and they play the runner up (Atlanta) twice. They play the previous season's Super Bowl runner up twice (Carolina). They play New Orleans, which can give them fits, and Green Bay. They play the Cardinals, the Giants and the Dolphins.

Of course, a year ago, few people would have predicted that the Bucs would sweep Carolina, beat Kansas City, Seattle and San Diego..

 

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