TAMPA BAY — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp opened on Wednesday with plenty of storylines to monitor during camp and throughout the preseason, including the loss of Rob Gronkowski, return of Chris Godwin, signing of Julio Jones, new faces on the offensive line, and plenty more.
But on Day 1, the story was about the offense. More specifically, the wide receivers, who were without Godwin and Jones. While Mike Evans looked sharp in the limited amount of time he was involved in team drills, it was a mixed day of results for the others.
And that’s why the return of Godwin, along with the anticipation that Jones can regain his form, should be on the top of everyone’s mind, including Tom Brady.
Can Chris Godwin and Julio Jones stabilize the Buccaneers’ wide receiver group?
Overall, Brady, Blaine Gabbert, and Kyle Trask looked sharp running their respective units, but their receivers struggled to consistently catch the balls that were thrown their way.
It’s no secret that if Brady doesn’t have his full arsenal of weapons available to him to begin the season, we may see Tampa Bay’s offense struggle out of the gate when airing it out. Of course, it’s Brady, but as we saw in his final years with the New England Patriots, he can only do so much without a strong supporting cast around him.
And that’s one of the reasons why the Buccaneers went out and signed Jones on the eve of training camp — to ensure that the wide receiver group doesn’t miss a beat if and when a wide receiver is sidelined at any point during the season.
Head coach Todd Bowles noted that Tampa limped to the finish line at the end of the 2021 season after a rash of injuries hit the wide receiver room, and they didn’t want that to happen again this year. Bowles said they’re building depth now rather than having to pick up whatever might be left on the waiver wire. Still, he expects Jones can make a difference on the field when the regular season kicks off.
“[Jones] is still a good football player. We have to replace Gronk’s catches,” Bowles said. “So, now we have an extra weapon, especially in the red zone and out on the field. We’re going to put him to use and give us a chance to be more creative in some of the things that we do.”
Bowles did note, though, that Jones has struggled with health in the past, and although he is healthy now, it’s something they will monitor. So, there is no certainty there, which means after Evans and Godwin (once he is healthy and ready to return), it’s anyone’s guess as to who steps up to put the rest of the puzzle together.
It will be a spirited competition between Jones, Russell Gage, Cyril Grayson, Scotty Miller, and others. But keep a close eye on Grayson — he drew some eyeballs with his crisp route running and increased attention in the passing game.
Kyle Rudolph and Cameron Brate tasked with filling the void left by Rob Gronkowski
At the tight end position, it’s Kyle Rudolph and Cameron Brate, with Rudolph, who was personally recruited by Brady in the offseason, leading the way.
“When Tom reached out earlier this year, even before Rob made a decision, he said, ‘we don’t know what Rob is going to do at this point, but regardless, we need you down here.’ That was my first time thinking about coming down to play with Tampa,” said Rudolph. “Then Rob retired, and I thought what better opportunity for me to come down here and not only play with the greatest QB of all time but also be around this winning culture.”
Rudolph, entering his 12th NFL season, said he is cramming to learn the playbook, the different nuances associated with routes, Brady’s preferences, and more. But he expects to be full-steam ahead when he steps on the field in Week 1.
“We play the Dallas Cowboys Week 1 in September, and my goal out there is to be on the same page with Tom like we’ve been playing together for 10 years,” Rudolph said.
Rudolph knows he can’t fill Gronkowski’s shoes — he admitted so himself — but what he can do is provide a reliable target and safety blanket for Brady. During his 10 years with the Minnesota Vikings and one season with the New York Giants, Rudolph pulled in 479 receptions for 4,475 yards and 49 touchdowns.
And for Rudolph, he has one clear goal: win a championship.
“The only thing I haven’t done is win a championship, and that’s all I want to do,” he said. “It’s very evident the first two days here [in Tampa] — everything we do individually and collectively as team … is about reaching that ultimate goal.”
New pieces on the offensive line to monitor during Buccaneers training camp
While the Buccaneers’ pass-catching situation gets sorted, there will also be plenty of attention on the offensive line. That’s because there’ll be two new faces who are tasked with protecting Brady — LG Aaron Stinnie, who replaces now-retired Ali Marpet, and RG Shaq Mason, who replaces Alex Cappa after he signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in free agency.
It was an uneventful first day of practice for the offensive line — as it should be — but this is something to watch as the preseason and regular-season games get underway.
The Buccaneers spent a second-round pick on Luke Goedeke, and Stinnie will work to hold him off for as long as possible. But if he struggles, don’t be surprised to see Tampa Bay have a short leash, especially if Goedeke impresses during camp.
The good news for Stinnie (or Goedeke) and Mason are that the center of the line is still anchored by eight-year veteran Ryan Jensen, who played in Tampa the past four seasons. At left tackle is Donovan Smith and on the right side is Tristan Wirfs.
The hope, of course, is that two new faces don’t disrupt a whole lot, especially with the three anchors returning to the same system.
Other news and notes from Buccaneers training camp
- There was a lot of chatter the past few weeks about RB Leonard Fournette’s weight, but Bowles said it’s hard for a lot of players to consistently stay in shape year-round, and he’s happy with the way Fournette looked on the first day of camp. Bowles noted that if they had a game today, Fournette could play.
- Bowles on Godwin: “Chris has been working like crazy. He’s getting better every day. We don’t have a timetable yet, but we’ll be happy to have him when he comes out.”
- Jones arrived in Tampa on Monday evening and took his physical on Tuesday morning. The Buccaneers will look to get him on the field and up to speed as quickly as possible. As far as his uniform number and if he will try to grab No. 11 or 2, Jones said, “I make the number. The number doesn’t make me.”
- Breshad Perriman caught a 30+ yard pass from Brady in team drills, while Grayson pulled in an acrobatic sideline catch in the midst of several defenders.