What to watch for in Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first mandatory minicamp under Todd Bowles

TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are set to kick off their three-day mandatory minicamp Tuesday, which will be the first time the entire team – veterans, new free agents and draft picks – will take the practice field together under new head coach Todd Bowles, who said he expects full attendance and more competition overall.

“There will be more 'good-on-good.' But, not more in the physical sense – more of a competitive, situational standpoint sense – as far as executing the plays,” Bowles said. “Whether it’s fourth-and-goal on the 5-yard line, whether it’s a two-minute drive, whether it’s third down, whether it’s backed up – we’ll emphasize more situational things with ‘good-on-good,’ with the defense understanding what the offense is trying to do and vice versa.”

There will also be an emphasis this year on batting balls down at the line of scrimmage -- after the Bucs saw a high number of three-step drops last season -- as well as an emphasis on stretching to help try to remedy the amount of soft-tissue issues the team suffered last season.

Here are some top storylines to watch for:

Will this be the last hurrah for Tom Brady?

Will the footwork still look pristine and the ball placement still be on the money? That level of execution has come to define Tom Brady’s career, even last season when he didn’t attend OTAs, per then-head coach Bruce Arians’ orders (Arians said at the time that he wanted the veterans to rest and the younger players to get the reps).

But how engaged will he be with teammates and coaches? Is there still that same passion for football after a 40-day retirement stint or will he look like a man with one foot out the door? Brady said in an interview with TNT on Wednesday that he felt “pressured” into coming out of retirement because of free agency, and that he felt because of his growing list of priorities outside of football-- particularly his wife and three children -- that he wasn't all-in quite yet.

He did tell teammates on his first day back practicing, “This is the most fun I’ve had all offseason,” so that’s a good sign.

He hasn’t committed to playing beyond 2022 though, and as of right now, his contract is set to expire after this season. Considering he has long said he wants to play until age 45 -- a mark he will hit in August -- this could certainly be it.

Still, don’t expect some grand announcement going into the season, as he has been adamant about not wanting a farewell tour.

Can the Bucs’ revamped defense get to the QB?

The Bucs opted not to re-sign outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, with last year’s first-round draft pick Joe Tryon-Shoyinka stepping into the role of a full-time starter opposite Shaq Barrett, moving Anthony Nelson into a rotational role. Tryon-Shoyinka was disruptive and found ways to affect the quarterback in 2021, but this didn’t necessarily result in sacks (he had 4.0 of them) which is the next step for him. Can he handle a full-time role?

This also means that Nelson needs to continue to step up in the Bucs’ rotation after playing 341 defensive snaps last season, with 181 of them being pass-rush snaps, and recording 5.0 sacks.

The Bucs also opted not to re-sign veteran defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh, instead signing defensive lineman Akiem Hicks this week.

Hicks played in 138 career games, with 110 starts, 40.5 sacks, 6 forced fumbles, 6 fumble recoveries and 9 passes defensed, and he was named to the Pro Bowl in 2018. He still has an explosive first step at age 32, and he can take on double teams. But there are injury concerns, as he’s missed 20 of 49 games over the past three seasons, whereas Suh has been one of the most durable athletes at the position.

Logan Hall was lined up at the starting 3-technique defensive tackle next to nose tackle Vita Vea during OTAs (and got some pointers from Pro Football Hall of Famer Warren Sapp, who was at a recent practice), whereas Hicks has the ability to line up all across the defensive line, having played in both a 3-4 and 4-3 defense between the New England Patriots and Chicago Bears.

Who will be the front-runner to start at left guard?

Bowles said this was the battle he was looking forward to most this offseason. Aaron Stinnie, who stepped in when Alex Cappa suffered a broken leg in the wild-card playoff game in 2020, got first-team reps to start OTAs over rookie Luke Goedeke, a second-round draft pick. That was to be expected, given Goedeke is still learning the offense, but he can, and should, push to win that role. He’ll also be competing with Nick Leverett, who possess the rare ability to play all five positions along the line.

Will there be any updates on tight end Rob Gronkowski?

Gronkowski was recently spotted at the New York Yankees' spring training practice field shagging balls in the outfield while Brady took batting practice. It’s a sign he’s kept himself in shape and is open to the idea of returning. But he has yet to formally re-sign with the Bucs, although general manager Jason Licht has kept an open line of communication with him.

The Bucs selected Cade Otton in the fourth round of the draft and Ko Kieft in the sixth, but neither of them bring what Gronkowski, arguably one of the greatest tight ends ever, does. Not to mention, Otton is still recovering from ankle surgery, although he is expected to be ready or close to it, for training camp.