NFL.com has dispatched several writers to report on the 32 training camps over the next few weeks. Jeff Darlington details his visit with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (Click here for the complete archive of Training Camp Reports.)
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As one practice drill melted into another on Monday, triggering a frenzy of organized chaos at the Bucs' training camp, new coach Greg Schiano was barking orders in the deep, scratchy voice that has already changed the culture at One Buccaneer Place. Everyone was doing something. Everyone was moving. Everyone was working. "This might actually be the calmest practice yet," a member of the Bucs organization said. Sure, many NFL camps deliver this type of high intensity. But in Tampa, as Schiano will tell you, the clock can be your best friend or your worst enemy. He hates wasting time, which is vividly apparent at his practices. That's good news for the Bucs, who will need all the time they can get to put the franchise back on a better path after a terrible 2011 campaign.
1. Vincent Jackson is drawing rave reviews. Easily the biggest addition to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster this season, the veteran wide receiver has already started earning his cash this training camp with a work ethic and level of production that's rubbing off on the rest of the team. Schiano wanted guys who would help him change the culture in Tampa -- and it appears he found one. Jackson has been openly tutoring younger players, like third-year receiver Mike Williams, while serving as a much-needed vocal force, according to several members of the organization. Not to mention, he's also providing quarterback Josh Freeman with the kind of high-caliber hands that haven't been seen in these parts for a very long time.
2. Rookie running back Doug Martin's versatility could earn him the starting job over LeGarrette Blount. During the first two days of practice, Martin appeared to many observers to be getting the bulk of the carries with the first-team offense. But when I attended camp on Monday, I saw an almost even split between the rookie and Blount. So what would it take to eventually sway this competition in one direction or the other? Two factors: versatility and ball security. In theory, these players could easily wind up serving as a one-two punch, since Martin is a shifty, fast back and Blount is more of a bulldozer. However, if Martin continues to impress in a wide array of areas -- from sweeps to receptions -- that might be enough to turn him into a featured player. Blount can keep this competition close by keeping the ball off the ground. He's fumbled nine times in the last two years -- a huge negative when playing for a coach who is particularly adamant about securing the football.
3. There's more optimism regarding the defensive line -- but that's not hard to muster after a dismal 2011. Tampa Bay posted just 23 sacks last season -- easily the lowest total in the NFL. If the Bucs are really going to rebound in 2012, it's going to take a far more ferocious pass rush. Now, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that tackle Gerald McCoy missed 10 games due to injury. And defensive end Adrian Clayborn should be even better after a solid rookie season. Finally, the line added some coaching (in new assistant Bryan Cox) and some depth. But with Da'Quan Bowers likely out of the mix for a big chunk of time thanks to a ruptured Achilles, the rest of this group must stay healthy. If that happens, they'll absolutely be better.
THE NEW GUYS
Carl Nicks: While it's fair to say that Jackson is the key to Freeman being able to rebound from his struggles of 2011, you could also make an argument for the importance of Nicks. The Bucs needed better players to protect and support the quarterback -- and they proved willing to invest heavily in Nicks to do just that. With Davin Joseph playing guard opposite Nicks, Tampa boasts one of the best guard tandems in the NFL. The Bucs need a big year from tackle Donald Penn; Nicks, who will be playing alongside him, should help in that area, too.
Eric Wright: The signing of Wright is part of the reason that Tampa Bay was able to successfully transition Ronde Barber to the safety spot this offseason. The Buccaneers got creative, giving Wright a five-year deal worth $37.5 million, drafting Mark Barron to start alongside Barber at safety and coupling Wright with Aqib Talib at cornerback. The secondary has a very different look, and it might just work, though Wright could be facing a suspension after this offseason's felony arrest on suspicion of driving under the influence. Charges were dropped against Wright, but the league hasn't indicated whether it will punish him. Barber could shift back to cornerback for any span of time that Wright misses. Wright skipped practice Monday with an undisclosed injury.
Barron: The best way to describe Barron's presence on the Bucs' defense? Ready. The seventh overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft looks like a beast -- capable of easily and seamlessly making the jump from college to the NFL. Barron has opened the eyes of some defensive veterans, who say he already looks and acts like a grown man in the NFL. He's physically and mentally prepared to make a major impact, and he might prove worth watching as a prime candidate to be the top defensive rookie. He hasn't had a chance to do any full-blown hitting, an activity that always provides a better idea about a safety's promise, but the early reviews are extremely positive.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't want 20 to 25 carries per game, but no running back in the league is ever going to deny that. As a team player, I'm not opposed to splitting carries with any back on this team, whether that's Doug (Martin) or someone else."
-- Blount, on the situation at running back.
Before training camp even began, Schiano had already altered the expectations of the Bucs. Last year, this was a young team playing for a young coach who had loose rules. No more. Schiano is a strict disciplinarian who can't stand anything other than structure. So far, the players have proven fully willing to buy into this new system. But Schiano's tough ways have to bear fruit sooner rather than later if he's going to keep this locker room on board. That doesn't mean he needs to make the playoffs -- nor does it mean anyone expects him to. But it won't be hard to tell if this system has the Buccaneers headed in the right direction.