With the conclusion of the offseason program on Thursday, position battles will be on hold for a while, but the competition at kicker and backup quarterback will be critical when training camp begins.
The Buccaneers wrapped up their offseason on Thursday with their final day of mini-camp, culminating in a two-hour morning practice. Well, it was supposed to be two hours, but the final period of practice was lopped off thanks to the good work of kickers Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk. Challenged by Head Coach Dirk Koetter to make a series of four alternating kicks in order to buy their teammates an early finish, the two kickers went four-for-four, all from relatively deep and all good with room to spare.
Aguayo and Folk were showered with cheers from their teammates, with the exception of quarterback Jameis Winston, the workaholic who wanted to get in a few more reps before practice ended. Koetter wasn’t surprised that Winston was the dissenting voice.
“We called practice early there and Jameis is the one guy in the huddle who wanted to keep going,” said Koetter. “He’s the one guy who wanted it to keep going.
After two straight 4,000-yard passing seasons to start his NFL career, and a total of 50 touchdowns, Winston is working to take his game to another level. For a team that has very serious playoff aspirations in 2017, that next step might be the single most critical factor in meeting that goal. That said, there is obviously no doubt that Winston will be starting under center on September 10.
Things are not near as certain for Aguayo or Folk. Meanwhile, Ryan Griffin and Ryan Fitzpatrick are in a very similar two-men-for-one-spot competition as the Bucs’ kickers. Those two important battles will go on hold for the next six weeks, as players and coaches alike take a final break before training camp, but they will heat up immediately when the team reconvenes in late July.
As for the two kickers, they both had a strong mini-camp, which should send them into the break with a boost of confidence. That’s probably more important for Aguayo, the second-year incumbent who struggled through a difficult rookie season. The Buccaneers drafted the former Florida State star late in the second round in 2016 with the obvious hope that he would be a long term solution at kicker. His troubles last fall prompted the team to bring in the veteran Folk, who has tried 294 career regular-season field goals and was an 87.1% kicker last year for the Jets.
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The best performer between now and September 10 will get the job, regardless of background. The coaching staff is obviously paying very close attention to every one of their kicks, but Koetter declined to indicate if either one had pulled ahead during the offseason.
“We’re just going to leave it as a competition,” he said. “We obviously know the numbers – we charted everything this whole spring. We’re just going to let that thing keep going.”
It doesn’t take long to run a field goal drill in practice, so Aguayo and Folk should see plenty of action in training camp. Most likely, however, it will be their results in preseason games that will hold the most weight.
As with the kickers, Koetter said the QB competition has a long way to go.
“It’s going to play out,” said the coach. “What we have in Ryan Fitzpatrick is 116 career starts, so we’ve got plenty of film. What’s tough about the way the calendar is in the NFL, other backup quarterbacks like Ryan Griffin, the only time they really get to prove themselves is practice and preseason games. And the best judge is obviously preseason games. So it will play itself out. We’re happy with both those guys. I’m probably less worried about our backup quarterback situation than most people.”
For Aguayo and Folk, it’s definitely in or out. The Buccaneers will not carry two kickers on the regular-season roster. That’s not necessarily the case at quarterback, where that number might be two or three. With their desire to hang on to Griffin, the Bucs have carried three passers throughout the past two years, but many teams only devote two spots to the position and keep a third quarterback on the practice squad. It appears as if the Bucs would prefer to take that latter route, but that’s not as certain as the single-kicker proposition.
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“Anything’s possible,” said Koetter. “[General Manager] Jason [Licht] – that will be something we have to talk about. We’ve done the three, we’d probably prefer to go with two, but we’re going to pick the best 53 guys that we think give us the best chance to win.”
Of course, the “two or three” question is a secondary concern to who is actually number two. Those aforementioned playoff aspirations? Much of it clearly rests on Winston’s shoulders, but the Buccaneers don’t want to head into the season without a quarterback they trust to keep their hopes alive if Winston is unavailable for any amount of time. And, of course, they also don’t want to head into the season with doubts about their kicker. Those two battles may be on hold for the next six weeks, but they’re going to be extremely important once training camp begins.