Fri, 01 Jul 2022

5 Things to Watch at Bucs OTAs

Buccaneers
25 May 2022, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay BuccaneersStorylines to follow at the Bucs' second OTA practice on Wednesday. Brianna Dix

The NFL offseason is in full swing as teams around the league prepare for the fast-approaching 2022 season. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers began Phase III of their offseason workout program last Tuesday as the first week of organized team activities (OTAs) officially kicked off.

At this point, OTAs are voluntary, and teams are permitted to partake in offense versus defense, 11-on-11 drills. During the three-week span of OTAs, the Bucs will have open media availability on Tuesday, May 17, Wednesday, May 25 and Wednesday, June 1. Before the team breaks for summer, the Buccaneers will hold a mandatory mini-camp from June 7-9, which will be open to media at the AdventHealth Training Facility. The workouts will set a foundation for the future before the club returns for training camp in late July.

Ahead of Wednesday's practice, here are five things to watch.

1) Bolstered offensive line?

For an offensive line, the biggest link to success is continuity: five men playing as one. The Buccaneers' offensive line is touted as one of the best in football but this year the unit will undergo a transition as two new faces will join the starting lineup. Former Patriots' anchor Shaq Mason will start at right guard following the departure of Alex Cappa in free agency (Bengals). The question surrounds the left guard successor for Bucs' legend, Ali Marpet. Due to his talent, intangibles and high-draft status, Luke Goedeke is a strong contender for the vacant role.

It will be intriguing to watch who gets the majority of first-team reps throughout OTAs. The acclimation process to the NFL for rookie Goedeke will have to be accelerated. Whoever steps up to the line of scrimmage will be protecting Tom Brady, regarded as the greatest quarterback of all time. There is little room for error as the Bucs journey towards another Lombardi Trophy in 2022. Veteran Aaron Stinnie has the most experience at the position, albeit on the right side, where he stepped in for an injured Cappa during the 2022 postseason. Robert Hainsey, who primarily serves as the backup center will also compete at left guard, along with Nick Leverett. The battle will heat up on Wednesday and will continue throughout the preseason.

"Shaq and I came into the league during the same year, and he is a phenomenal player," Marpet noted at the Day of Service outreach initiative. "I love watching him play. He is so good at what he does. He is in the right spots, and you know what you are going to get out of him. That is a hard thing to do and Stinnie, I think from a level of play, he has increased drastically. He has that insatiable desire to get better and I think that that goes a long way. I think with great coaching and great players around him, that has helped him get much better and fine-tune the rougher edges of his game."

2) How does the new defensive line look?

Much like the offensive line, the Bucs' defensive front will undergo some changes to the lineup. Vita Vea is the anchor in the middle and a three-down force in Tampa Bay's attack styled scheme. Will Gholston will start on one end and second-round pick Logan Hall is projected to be the team's starting three-technique on the other side. Ndamukong Suh has yet to be re-signed, leading to the shift. Hall will be tested early and often by Mason.

Hall will continue to develop his strength to shed blockers and anchor at the NFL level and has the traits to be a matchup weapon in the trenches for the Bucs' 3-4 base. As he adapts to the Bucs' system during playbook installation and his block recognition improves at the pro level, his ceiling will rise. Hall has taken reps beside Vea during OTAs and joked from the podium last week following practice, stating Vea can "eat up blocks" while he gets to the quarterback.

3) How will the wide receiver position turn out with the addition of Russell Gage?

Along with Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, Russell Gage will be the additional starter in 11 personnel (three-receiver sets). The expected first look at Gage in a Bucs uniform will be during OTAs as he adjusts to Byron Leftwich's system. Godwin is recovering from a torn ACL that could force him to miss time to begin the 2022 season. There is no set timetable on his return, but Gage provides an insurance policy and solidifies the depth chart.

The biggest learning curve for Gage will be learning new terminology, the intricacies of the Bucs' route running and getting on the same page with Tom Brady. Building trust with Brady is of the utmost importance as he throws receivers open - releasing the ball and anticipating where the receiver will be before he gets to the specific hash. During OTAs and/or mini-camp, Gage will have the opportunity to work through alignments and installations before the start of training camp in July. Both Godwin and Gage will likely be used interchangeably in the slot and out wide. Gage can stretch the field vertically and horizontally to elevate the Bucs' aerial attack. The former NFC South rival will now don a Bucs' jersey. OTAs provides an opportunity to see the deep threat in action.

4) How will the safety competition shake out?

This will be the likely debut for newcomers Keanu Neal, and Logan Ryan. Both will compete for playing time with strong safety Mike Edwards and nickel cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting. Edwards could step into the role vacated by Jordan Whitehead (Jets), but Neal and Ryan will vie for a full-time gig. Todd Bowles utilizes disguises to keep offenses off-balance once the ball is snapped. There will be differing roles in certain packages but both Neal and Ryan can line up in the box or work the deep middle of the field in Cover 3 or Cover 1 (single high safety).

Safety will be one of the best position battles to watch with two veterans entering the scene in Tampa Bay. The Bucs play the run first but as the NFL has evolved, ushering in pass-centric offenses, more pressure is placed on the safety position. Keep an eye on reps in the secondary as each member works to cement a starting role on the 53.

5) How will Zyon McCollum fare against pro receivers?

In a man-heavy scheme at Sam Houston State, Zyon McCollum showcased his vertical speed to carry deep threats on go routes and disrupt at the catch point. With rare testing numbers at 6-foot-2 and 199 pounds, McCollum ran a 4.33 40-yard dash (96th percentile per MockDraftable), 1.52 seconds in the 10-yard split and 3.94 seconds in the 20-yard shuttle. Per Kent Lee Platte, the inventor of the Relative Athletic Score (RAS), McCollum graded out with a perfect 10/10. That puts him first among 2,001 cornerback prospects evaluated from 1987-2022.

He certainly possesses the athletic measurables to be successful, but the question remains, how will he fare against NFL receivers? At the pro level, a corner cannot rely solely on speed. Until the mental challenges of the game are grasped, the physical traits remain limited. McCollum put up impressive stats in 52 game starts over five seasons for the Bearkats: 54 pass breakups, 13 interceptions and six forced fumbles. However, in the NFL, a quarterback's accuracy, a receiver's nuanced route-running and timing between the two are superior to the college game. The speed element to McCollum's game will solidify experience as a gunner on special teams early in his career but he is not placing any limitations on himself as a rookie. OTAs will reveal the mental absorption process as the classroom translates to the grass. McCollum will be one to watch as he gets paired man-to-man with the weapons in Leftwich's arsenal.

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