The road to success in the NFL begins each year with the hard work and wide-open possibilities of training camp. As teams around the league gear up for the 2015 campaign, NFL Media reporters will be checking in from all 32 camps around the league. For our next stop, Jeff Darlington visits the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
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After a start to training camp that included day after day of record rainfall in the Tampa area, the practice fields have finally had a chance to dry out. And appropriately enough, with a more consistent practice schedule, the Buccaneers appear to be starting to find their rhythm in Lovie Smith's second year as head coach.
1) I have a confession to make: While watching Jameis Winston's first several NFL practices (from rookie minicamp until now), I was extremely underwhelmed. Admittedly, I'm not a football scout -- but Winston seemingly did nothing special. Nothing that popped. Nothing that made you say, "That's why he went No. 1 overall." And hearing all the glowing reports coming out of Tennessee about No. 2 pick Marcus Mariota, I was kind of left scratching my head. Suddenly, however, something seems to have clicked. This past weekend, Winston strung together two solid practices (notching five red-zone touchdowns in one day) leading up to the practice I watched on Wednesday. Winston certainly looks like he's found his rhythm. He's throwing with more authority and, as a result, more accuracy. He looks more poised -- his passes have more zip. This all makes sense, no doubt, since it's perfectly fair for a rookie to take his time understanding the NFL. That's the reason I never criticized Winston upon those earlier observations. And I'm glad I didn't. Winston just needs some time. I'm now more convinced that he'll be just fine than I was only a few weeks ago.
2) People often ask why the Bucs will be any better this year than they were in 2014. It'd be easy to point to the quarterback, no doubt. Also, the new additions on the offensive line should help a bit. But there's one underrated aspect of this team that is being overlooked: the offensive coordinator. Let us not forget about Jeff Tedford's unexpected absence last year. Let us not forget the Bucs were essentially figuring it out as they went without a quarterback capable of such drastic responsibilities. It remains to be seen how Dirk Koetter will fare as the new OC, but his charges say it is a "player-friendly" offense. The good news for Koetter? We at least know he will be more productive than last year's offensive coordinator.
3) Putting the Winston selection aside, it might be easy to dismiss the Bucs' offseason because of the lack of sizzle when it came to signing new players. But that's actually why general manager Jason Licht deserves credit. He avoided overpaying -- a sin of one year earlier -- and instead took a more calculated approach to picking up players like Bruce Carter, George Johnson, Chris Conte, Henry Melton and Tony McDaniel. He also rewarded Lavonte David with a long-term contract (after doing the same for Gerald McCoy last October). Carter is already showing signs that he'll be a nice starter for the team at middle linebacker, and Johnson might lock up a top job by Week 1, too. The Bucs aren't going from bust to boom this year -- but they should make some nice strides on both sides of the football.
Ali Marpet, OG: When the Bucs took Donovan Smith at No. 34 overall and Marpet at 61 in this year's draft, it seemed more reasonable to expect Smith to start and Marpet to slowly come along. It appears, however, that scenario might have flip-flopped. While Smith is doing just fine at tackle, where he could still wind up starting, Marpet appears to have solidified a starting guard job already. The Division III product out of Hobart looks and sounds comfortable. And while he had a tougher day Thursday going up against McCoy, Marpet's work ethic and energy should allow him to bounce back quickly.
Bruce Carter, MLB: Carter will replace Mason Foster as the team's middle linebacker. Foster struggled in the Tampa 2 defense that Lovie Smith installed upon his return to the Bucs, mostly because Foster wasn't as effective in pass coverage. That's an area where Carter should help the team. He had five interceptions for Dallas last season -- quite the output for a player who will handle Mike responsibilities.
"He's put together a few good days. It seems like he's taken a step toward being a little closer to where we want him to be."
It was hard not to notice Doug Martin in recent Bucs practices. He looked very good in Wednesday's session -- a sign that perhaps Martin is ready to use a contract year to return to his 2012 form. But Martin looking legit on the practice field doesn't guarantee success in 2015. To achieve that, he'll also need to stay healthy. Martin missed 15 games over the last two seasons because of three separate injuries.