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One More Spot

Posted Aug 25, 2010

Few aspects of Saturday’s game against the Jaguars will be more interesting to watch than the ongoing battle within the Bucs’ suddenly deep group of receiving prospects, as up to nine players fight for what is essentially the last starting spot not yet claimed


Since early in the 2010 offseason, when it was clear that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ starting lineup was going to undergo a few changes before the new season began, Head Coach Raheem Morris has targeted the third week of the preseason as his team’s final dress rehearsal.

 

By that game, Morris planned, the primary actors should be in place and the show should greatly resemble what the audience sees when the curtains go up on opening night.

 

There were some positions that were going to have new starters by necessity.  For instance, the team’s starting left end in 2009, Jimmy Wilkerson, is now a New Orleans Saint.  There were other positions where a new competition was specifically staged in order to determine whether a change was in order or the status quo was preferable.  Such a battle went on at strong safety, where newcomer Sean Jones has claimed the spot.  And there were some positions where a player simply couldn’t be denied.  Meet your new starting split end, Mike Williams.

 

And while the competition will go on indefinitely at all points of the depth chart – players are always pushing those in front of them for their jobs – the Buccaneers have indeed hit the third week of the 2010 preseason with their starting 22 almost completely set.  Morris verified on Tuesday that the lineup he’ll field to open the game against Jacksonville this Saturday is, barring unforeseen circumstances, the same one that will start against Cleveland on September 12.

 

"Week Three in the preseason for us is our mock game day, how you want to open up the season,” said Morris.  “Unless something happens out of my control, that's how we would like to start the season, with the guys we have on our depth chart.”

 

There is one spot on the playbill, however, that has not yet been decided: flanker.  Williams will start at the receiver position the Bucs call “X,” but the competition for the “Z” starting spot remains open.  Who will get top billing and who will be the understudies?  In this case, Saturday’s game may be less a dress rehearsal for the Bucs receivers and more another round of intense auditions.

 

On the current depth chart, the Buccaneers have fifth-year man Maurice Stovall listed as the starter along with Williams, and indeed the 2006 third-round pick did indeed take the first snap in the preseason opener at Miami.  Unfortunately, Stovall suffered an ankle injury early in that game and hasn’t played since, which has only served to keep the door wide open.

 

Also listed at that spot on the depth chart behind Stovall are Sammie Stroughter, Arrelious Benn, Michael Clayton and Preston Parker.  Those four comprise an intriguing enough group as it is, but even that doesn’t contain all the possible candidates.  Reggie Brown, the offseason trade acquisition from Philly, is listed as the primary backup to Williams at X, but he actually started the second preseason game at Z.  That would seem to indicate that any of the Bucs wideouts – which also include Micheal Spurlock, Terrence Nunn and Chris Brooks – can be considered for the job at flanker, no matter where they were distributed on the opening depth chart.

 

Given all this, it’s fair to say that the performance of the Buccaneers receivers will be one of the most important things to watch this Saturday when the Bucs take on the Jaguars at Raymond James Stadium.  While it’s true that the team’s starters will play longer into this game than they did in the first two, that doesn’t necessarily mean the first-half snaps will be dominated by just two or three wideouts.  The Bucs kept their starting offensive line and de facto starting quarterback Josh Johnson in for a good portion of the first half last Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs yet still rotated their receivers in and out of the game regularly.  Williams, Stroughter, Spurlock and Clayton all caught passes in that first half against the Chiefs and Brown was also in the mix.

 

So, as perhaps the key audition for the Bucs’ last remaining starting spot approaches, let’s review what the various candidates have put on display so far, listing them alphabetically.  We’ll consider all the receivers on the roster, with the obvious exception of Williams.

 

  • Benn is trying to join his fellow 2010 draftee, Williams, in the starting lineup.  While starting a pair of rookies might seem like a gamble, the Bucs are obviously hoping that their second round pick forces his way into the mix.  Benn has one catch for 16 yards – it was a big one that helped the Bucs drive for the winning touchdown against Kansas City – but Morris said the physical receiver has been coming on of late.  Morris also credited Benn with a very good block that helped spring Kareem Huggins on a nice run.
  • Brooks, an undrafted rookie out of Nebraska, was the Bucs’ leading receiver in the preseason opener at Miami, with three catches for 50 yards.  He combined his best and worst preseason moment on the same play in that contest, catching a 31-yard pass late in the fourth quarter that could have led to the go-ahead touchdown and then losing the football when he was stripped from behind.  The 6-2, 215-pound Brooks is an intriguing prospect with a good combination of size and speed, but he didn’t see any action in the Kansas City game on Saturday.
  • Brown, as mentioned, got the call to start Game Two of the preseason, possibly a nod to his veteran experience.  The former Eagle has just one catch for 12 yards so far in the preseason, but he has certainly looked like that savvy veteran on the practice field.  A precise route-runner with big-play ability, Brown averaged 50 catches per season from 2005-07 and has a fine career average of 14.5 yards per catch.
  • Clayton, like Brown, has an NFL track record that suggests he could put up big numbers as a starter, specifically his 80-catch campaign as a rookie in 2004.  It’s both true and relevant that Clayton has not surpassed 38 receptions in any of his five Buccaneer seasons since, but he remains a very hard worker who is ready to take advantage of his next opportunity.  In addition, Clayton remains an outstanding blocker, which makes him a good choice to be on the field when the running game is working.
  • Nunn has two catches for 11 yards so far this preseason, but one of them produced a five-yard game-winning touchdown against the Chiefs.  On the play, Nunn caught a short pass right down the line of scrimmage and then simply fought his way through a one-on-one battle with a Kansas City defender to make it into the end zone.  The Bucs plucked Nunn off of New England’s practice squad last November and thought enough of his potential to keep him on the active roster the rest of the way.
  • Parker has given the Buccaneers three rookie receivers to be excited about this summer.  The former North Alabama and Florida State wideout has not caught a pass yet in the preseason but he’s seen a lot of action in the return game.  In fact, Parker has seven of the Bucs’ 10 preseason punt returns and he’s averaging 12.9 yards per try.  He has looked like a promising prospect on the practice field and still has two more games to try to make his mark in the passing game.
  • Spurlock has emerged as perhaps the breakout star of the group since the preseason games began.  Through two weeks he is tied for second on the team with four catches and is the Bucs leader with 95 receiving yards.  His 23.8 yards per catch was obviously helped by the 53-yard catch-and-run touchdown with which he stung the Chiefs, but Spurlock also caught a 20-yard pass on a third-and-long in Miami and a 22-yarder in the second half against K.C. that set up a field goal.  A converted college quarterback and a dangerous return man, Spurlock is trying to prove he can play receiver on the NFL level.
  • Stroughter leads the team through two games with five receptions, gaining 60 yards and scoring the team’s first touchdown of the year on a nifty move after a short pass in Miami.  He, too, carried ample evidence over from 2009 that he can be productive in the Bucs’ offense and the team clearly values his good hands and consistent play.  Stroughter would seem like the obvious candidate to fill the team’s need for a slot receiver – a job at which he excelled as a rookie – but that in itself does not rule out the possibility of him also starting.
  • Stovall caught one eight-yard pass in Miami before sustaining his injury; obviously, he’s been unable to add to his case since.  However, Stovall was reportedly having a very strong camp before the games began.  That, and his emergence as a viable starter at certain points in 2009, combined to make him the choice to open the preseason in the starter’s role.  Stovall may or may not play against the Jaguars, but his injury is nothing serious, and nothing that will affect his readiness for the regular-season opener.

 

“All those guys are really fighting for a spot,” said Morris.  “Right now, that's the only spot that's really not solidified.”

 

After his star turn on Saturday against the Chiefs, Spurlock spread the love around, saying all of the candidates in that crowded competition are pulling for each other.  And, of course, there is more available to those nine players than just that one starting position; the Bucs may choose to keep five, six or seven players out of that crew on the active roster, and there are always practice squad spots for interesting prospects still waiting their turns.

 

But that spot is up for grabs, and it’s highly coveted.  Perhaps it’s the truly wide-open competition at their position that has kept the entire receiving corps focused and intense throughout training camp and the first half of the preseason.  Wide receiver was clearly a position of need for Tampa Bay as the 2009 season came to an end; now it appears as if it could be a team strength, no matter who claims the last starting spot.

 

"When I was coaching defensive backs, I believed that we drove the heartbeat of the football team,” said Morris.  “Whether it was true or not, I just believed that.  I was going to keep telling them that every day until they believed me as well.  Right now in that receiver room, you've kind of got that feel.  The other night, Arrelious Benn came in there, and as he hit a safety you heard the whole stadium go, 'Ooooh.'  I feel that room.  I feel those guys driving our team in practice and in the games.  I just feel that group really driving us right now."

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