The arrival in January of Lovie Smith as the 10th head coach in Buccaneers history led to significant roster changes for 2014. All players — holdovers and plenty of newcomers — are required to report to training camp Thursday, with the first practice scheduled for Friday. To get you ready, over the next five days we will examine key issues for Smith’s first training camp. Today, a look at five key newcomers.
DE Michael Johnson
Johnson signed a five-year, $43.75 million deal on the first day of free agency and was immediately named the starting right end. At 6-foot-7, 270 pounds, he’s built much like former Bucs sackmaster Simeon Rice, and the Bucs expect Rice-like production. They might be asking too much. In five years with the Bengals, Johnson produced just one double-digit sack season — 11.5 in 2012 — and slipped to 3.5 last year, nearly two off his career average. He did, however, rank eighth among 4-3 ends in quarterback hits (16) and 14th in total quarterback pressures (61), so has the potential to make the impact the Bucs need.
QB Josh McCown
Smith’s faith in McCown might be unparalleled. On the same day Smith signed the 12-year career backup to a two-year, $10 million contract, he named him the opening day starter. Both moves are based on a belief that McCown, 35, can replicate the breakout-like season he had last year in Chicago, where he stepped in for injured Jay Cutler and kept the Bears’ playoff hopes alive with a 109.0 passer rating that ranked third in the league. Doubters argue the 2013 sample size – McCown played in eight games with five starts and threw only 224 passes – is too small to warrant such a big promotion, but Smith is convinced McCown is capable of producing over 16 starts.
LT Anthony Collins
In six years with the Bengals, Collins never started more than seven games in a season. But after signing a five-year, $30 million deal on the first day of free agency, he was immediately named the starting left tackle. The concern is whether Collins has the athleticism to play at a high level on the left side. At 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds, Collins is more of a mauler than a technician, scouts say. But he’s done a good job proving those scouts wrong. Since 2009, Collins played 755 snaps in 23 games at left tackle and allowed no sacks and just one quarterback hit, according to ProFootballFocus.
CB Alterraun Verner
The Bucs let go of a perennial Pro Bowl corner in Darrelle Revis as part of their offseason makeover, but filled the vacancy with another Pro Bowler in Verner. The Bucs believe Verner will be a better fit in their zone-based Cover 2 scheme — with good reason. Verner is small and lacks ideal speed, but has a knack for sitting back in a zone and taking the ball away. He led the AFC last year with five interceptions. Verner also ranked second overall in pass breakups with 14, according to PFF.
WR Mike Evans
At 6-foot-5, 231 pounds, Evans has been described by some scouts as a Vincent Jackson clone. The Bucs will be ecstatic if those scouts prove to be right. The Bucs picked Evans at No. 7 in the 2014 draft in part because they want big passing targets who can win the battle for jump balls downfield. A former basketball player, Evans looks to box out defenders and use his strong hands to snatch the ball away. Evans got off to a slow start after a hamstring strain forced him to miss most of the offseason workout program. To live up to expectations, he’ll have to make up some ground.