Ahoy! Thar be Buccaneers off the starboard bow, young ones who could pilot the ship to glory. First mate Danny Kelly sails through the new faces to know on the Pirate Ship.
This upcoming 2014 NFL season, a wide variety of relatively unheralded sophomore and third-year players will inherit or take over key roles for even the best teams in the NFL. Whether it's an already established starter who will now be assuming more responsibility, or a green, untested player who will now look to become a reliable backup, every roster depth chart has a few big question marks.
In this series, I've been breaking down "who" I think those players are, "where" they play, "why" they'll potentially play a key role in 2014 and "how" they'll succeed in that.
On tap today, we have the Buccaneers.
Who: Barron was the Bucs' first-round pick in 2012, seventh overall. Barron has started every game he's played in as a Buccaneer, and in 2013 he racked up 88 tackles, two sacks and two interceptions.
Where: Barron will again man the strong safety spot in the Buccaneers defense and with Lovie Smith bringing his Tampa 2 defense with him to Tampa Bay, Barron will play a key role in it.
Gerald McCoy is set to assume the fabled Warren Sapp spot and Lavonte David the key Derrick Brooks position, but Smith likes Barron to step in with the underrated John Lynch role. "We've talked a lot about and I've heard you talk a lot about Lavonte David and, of course, Gerald McCoy being compared to two Hall of Famers (Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp)," Smith said last week. "But we had another great safety here in John Lynch. Mark Barron looks the part."
Why: Barron has been a little overlooked with the talent that's been around him on the Tampa Bay defense, but with the role he'll play this year, you could hear his name more often. Lovie notes that he's "very pleased with him. I really like what he did at Alabama when he came out. He had a good season last year, but it's ahead of him. We need a big strong safety moving down into the box. But he went three days and had interceptions on three days (at training camp). He has good hands for a big guy. I could talk about Mark for quite a while here, as you can see. But we like the direction he's going.''
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How: After two years of learning to read NFL offenses, I would assume the game has slowed down for Barron, which means he can speed up.
DT Akeem Spence
Who: Spence was a fourth-rounder out of Illinois in 2013 for the Bucs, and started 14 games his rookie season. He grabbed 29 tackles and a sack.
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Why: As the incumbent starter at the position, Spence should have an advantage -- he's played next to McCoy for a whole season so that familiarity could help. He'll have to prove he can time the snap, get off quickly, push the line of scrimmage back off the snap and absorb double teams at times, and he's got the athleticism to do so.
How: As Bucs general manager Jason Licht said last month, Spence hasn't let up since McDonald was brought in for competition, but he has risen to the challenge. "We bring in Clinton and essentially, the writing could have been on the wall for Akeem that he's no longer the starter. But Akeem's been working harder than anybody. He just hasn't let up on the gas. It was fun watching that competition between him and Clinton during our OTAs and our mincamps, and I expect it to continue.''
TE Tim Wright
Who: Wright was an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers in 2013 who was signed by his former college coach Greg Schiano. A college receiver at 6'4, 220 pounds, Wright was switched to the tight end position, where he moved around the formation as a joker. Developing some rapport with Mike Glennon, Wright caught 54 passes for 571 yards and five touchdowns his rookie year.
Where: Move tight end.
Why: Wright will likely have to vie for playing time with rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins (and Brandon Myers), but with ASJ's versatility inline and as a movable joker piece, the Bucs could likely use both on the field at the same time to create mismatches. Wright is highly athletic and proved to be a very good red zone threat last year -- so it makes sense that he'll be used similarly this season.
How: The Bucs' decision to bring in Myers and draft ASJ was not necessarily a ringing endorsement, but Wright needs to stay confident and play his role, specifically as a guy who can move all over the field. "Tim gives us a lot of flexibility,'' Lovie Smith noted recently. "The trend in the league now seems to be to line your tight end up out wide (like a wide receiver), and with Tim in there, we can do that. So you'll see him split out (wide) from time to time, and we can also line him up just like you would a true tight end. We can even line him up in the backfield. There's a lot we can do with him.''
CB Johnthan Banks
Who: Banks was the Bucs' second-round pick in 2013 out of Mississippi State. He started all 16 games his rookie season and grabbed three picks, but he struggled to adjust to the pro game.
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Why: Banks thinks the switch to Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 suits him well, and he has experience in it from his time at Mississippi State. "I love this defense," Banks said recently. "I played this defense in college. A lot of people said I wouldn't fit, but I caught 16 interceptions and won the Jim Thorpe Award in college while playing this defense. So we'll see."
How: With cornerback, so much of success is just sticking to fundamentals and technique. It's always easier to concentrate on that when you know what's going on in front of you better. "I'm smarter than I was last year," Banks said. "I'm not nervous going out there playing timid. I'm playing fast and I'm having fun."