In less than a month, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will begin their 2012 training camp, bringing 90 players to team headquarters for three weeks of learning, conditioning and, most importantly, competition. It might be the most competitive camp the Bucs have ever staged; it will definitely be one of the most crowded.
The new CBA signed into agreement roughly a year ago increased the offseason and training camp roster limit from 80 players to 90. A camp of over 80 players is not unprecedented; during the various incarnations of NFL Europe/World League, teams were given roster exemptions for players who were allocated to and chosen to play in that springtime circuit. Depending upon how many of its players made it overseas, a team could start camp with anywhere between 80 and 90 men.
This year, however, all 32 teams will start training camp with 90 hopefuls, assuming that each squad chooses to use all of its spots. The Buccaneers have had their roster maxed out for most of the offseason since the NFL Draft and will certainly keep it that way for camp. (That currently includes the inspirational
Some of the men among those 90 on the Bucs' roster are household names in the Bay area –
With such a packed roster, there are very few Tampa Bay fans who could name all 90 men coming to training camp. Thus, it should be instructive to break that roster down on the cusp of reporting day, taking a position-by-position look at what the team has, what the known commodities are and what questions remain to be answered before the start of the regular season.
It should be noted that Head Coach Greg Schiano has said there will be competition for every job on the roster and in the starting lineup. That said, there certainly appear to be some areas that are more predictable than others as training camp looms. At each position, the players are listed alphabetically.
Common Number Kept During the Regular Season: Two or three. Before the inactive-third-quarterback provision was eliminated last year, it was most common for a team to carry three quarterbacks. Prior to 2011, teams were allowed to keep 45 players active on game day, plus a 46th man if he were designated as the inactive third quarterback. This player could play in the game but if he entered before the fourth quarter the team's other two quarterbacks would then be ineligible to return to action. As of last year, the rule was simplified to allow teams to have 46 active players on game day, period, and most of the time that 46th spot was used for a player at a position other than quarterback. Thus, it didn't help a team on game day to have three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, and it became a fairly common practice to carry only two passers and keep a third one on the practice squad instead. That was the Buccaneers' approach with their third quarterback, Rudy Carpenter, last year.
Known Commodities: Josh Freeman is fully expected to go into his third straight season opener as the starting quarterback. He has opened 40 of the team's last 41 contests, missing just one game last year due to injury. He is certainly an entrenched starter, but the next step will be for him to emerge as one of the league's elite quarterbacks. The Bucs' overall fortunes in 2012 could hinge on whether Freeman produces results more like his 2010 season than 2011.
Remaining Questions: Dan Orlovsky was signed this offseason and Brett Ratliff didn't join Tampa Bay's practice squad until the final month of 2011. Neither one has thrown a pass in a game as a Buccaneer, but one will presumably be Freeman's primary backup, a spot that has been filled the past three years by Josh Johnson, who is now with the San Francisco 49ers. Orlovsky has more overall regular-season experience and was a starter for five games for the Indianapolis Colts last year but Ratliff has been in the NFL since 2007 and has already been retained in favor of Carpenter. There is also the aforementioned matter of whether the Buccaneers choose to keep two or three quarterbacks among their 53 active-roster players, a decision that could be affected by how proficient Orlovsky and Ratliff look this preseason.
* This number is complicated by the fact that the team is currently listing Lorig,
Common Number Kept During the Regular Season: Four or five. One approach to a running back stable is to keep three tailbacks and two fullbacks, particularly if at least one of the fullbacks is capable of adding some carries, such as in short-yardage situations. However, depending upon how prominently the fullback is featured in an offense – on some teams, the position has been largely marginalized – and how successfully the personnel department has been in tracking down viable lead blockers, the balance can swing to 4-1, or even 3-1. After the season-ending injury to Earnest Graham last year, Lorig was essentially the team's only fullback for the rest of the campaign. The Bucs also spent much of last season with only four backs on the roster overall, though the position seems to have more depth to it this year.
Known Commodities: Like Freeman, LeGarrette Blount had lesser results last year than in 2010, and of course the team's overall struggles played a part in that for both players. Blount may not have duplicated his 1,000-yard rookie campaign, but he did still average 4.2 yards per carry (it was 5.0 in 2010) and was still good for a breathtaking highlight from time to time. Blount is a huge tailback (6-0, 250) but he also has surprising athleticism, as he shows with the occasional hurdle over a surprised defender. Lorig got a lot of experience at fullback last year after making the switch from defensive end in 2010.
Remaining Questions: There are a lot of these, but that's a good thing for the Buccaneers, who think they have the makings of a dynamic backfield after some key offseason acquisitions. Most notably, the team spent a late first-round pick on Boise State running back Doug Martin, which obviously tasks the coaching staff with figuring out the best way to combine Martin and Blount in the ground attack. Schiano says his offense will be built around a power running game, so there is sure to be plenty of action for both Blount and Martin but it remains to see how much action each back will see. In addition, seventh-round pick Michael Smith is intriguing as a high-speed option and Mossis Madu showed potential in a very brief opportunity last year.
Common Number Kept During the Regular Season: Five or six. This number tends to fluctuate over the course of a season, as minor injuries are incurred and promising players on the practice squad get their shots. It can also be influenced by how many receivers a team tends to keep inactive on game day – the Bucs often went with only four last year – and whether any of the receivers are also primary return men. If an offense calls for very few four or five-receiver sets, than a team may opt to keep only four wideouts active on game day and, by extension, one fewer receiver on the 53-man roster. On the other hand, a team occasionally carries more than six receivers if it utilizes a lot of spread sets or has a young player it wants to develop but doesn't want to expose to the waiver wire. Tampa Bay kept Preston Parker, an undrafted free agent, on the active roster all of 2010 even though he appeared in only nine games and had just four catches and 10 kickoff returns.
Known Commodities: Vincent Jackson headlines both this second and the next one. He is obviously the most proven of the Bucs' receivers from an NFL standpoint, having played seven seasons in San Diego, posted three 1,000-yard seasons and been to the Pro Bowl. And Mike Williams has to be considered a proven NFL producer after getting exactly 65 catches in each of his two seasons so far, even if the first one was overall a better campaign than the second. Parker could still develop into a bigger threat, but it's fair to say he's already a proven weapon as a slot receiver and a solid option on kick returns.
Remaining Questions: There's no questioning Jackson's talents, but the Bucs must obviously prove that they can make a prolific tandem out of him and Freeman. Arrelious Benn has done nothing to disappoint during his first two NFL seasons, but there's a sense that the former second-round pick is still on the verge of his own breakout. Benn is fast, strong and a good runner after the catch, and his career 15.2 yards per catch number suggest that he could put up a 1,000-yard campaign if he became a more common target in the offense. The question is whether the arrival of Jackson will mean more or fewer opportunities for Benn. The team liked what it saw from Ed Gant last summer and kept him on the practice squad all of 2011.
* See note above regarding which positions Dunsmore, Pianalto and Erik Lorig are listed with.
Common Number Kept During the Regular Season: Three. The Buccaneers occasionally carry four tight ends on the 53-man unit, but rarely for an entire season. Conversely, teams are reluctant to go lower than three because an injury would then make it difficult to run two-TE packages. This number could be a little more difficult to pinpoint if there is some sort of H-back or hybrid role in the Bucs' new offense, as the new position listings for several players indicate there could be. The Bucs numerical decisions at running back and tight end could hinge on that issue.
Known Commodities: There isn't much left for Dallas Clark to prove, unless one is concerned about his ability to regain his Pro Bowl form after two seasons shortened by injuries. As one of only two tight ends in NFL history with a 100-catch season under his belt, Clark is obviously a premier pass-catching tight end when at peak form, and the Bucs believe that's the player they signed in May. As evidenced by his very first practice as a Buccaneer, Clark obviously still has incredible hands. Second-year man Luke Stocker is quite clearly the team's other top option at the position.
Remaining Questions: Just about everything else about the position falls into this category. Buccaneer management still has very high hopes for Stocker, the former Tennessee star, considering him their long-term fixture at the position. However, a hip injury helped limit him during his rookie campaign so he still must prove himself as a well-rounded blocking/catching option. The Bucs used a seventh-round pick on Northwestern's Drake Dunsmore, a big-time pass-catcher in college but not one who saw a traditional tight end blocking role. Zack Pianalto was the team's third tight end all last year but he hasn't been to a training camp with the team yet and had just four catches last year.
Rostered players (15): T
Common Number Kept During the Regular Season: Nine or 10. Obviously, the number cannot go below five and can't practically go below seven or eight. In recent years, the Buccaneers have commonly kept seven offensive linemen active on game days – the five starters plus one back-up for the tackle spots and one for the three interior spots – and the versatility of Jeremy Zuttah has helped make that possible. Last year, the Bucs kept the same nine offensive linemen on the 53-man roster for the entire year.
Known Commodities: With the usual caveat that what looks good on paper still has to be proven on the field, the Buccaneers' entire starting five looks not only solid but capable of great things. With the addition of Carl Nicks, the Bucs have three starters on the line who have been to a Pro Bowl in the last two seasons, and the team also believes Jeremy Zuttah is primed for his best work now that he's the starting center. Noting again that no spot is free from competition, the Bucs appear to be heading into camp mostly set on the starting line with LT Donald Penn, LG Nicks, C Zuttah, RG Davin Joseph and RT Jeremy Trueblood. In addition, the team has some well-established back-up depth in Demar Dotson, Derek Hardman and Ted Larsen.
Remaining Questions: This group doesn't have a lot of them, but the decision to designate a handful of the candidates as tackles-slash-guards suggest that some of the younger players could still be finding their best positions on the NFL level. In addition, some of the potential reserves could help their cases by demonstrating that they can play several positions, which is particularly useful when the team makes its game-day active/inactive decisions. If the starting five does remain solid and healthy, then the main battles will be between returning players such as Hardman and 2012 additions such as Desmond Wynn for reserve spots.
Rostered Players (16): DE
Common Number Kept During the Regular Season: Eight or nine. Injuries kept the Bucs' defensive line in constant flux during the final two-thirds of the 2011 season, but for the most part there were always eight or nine linemen on the roster. The exception was the final two weeks, when a full 10 of the team's 53 players were D-Linemen, and nine were even active on game day. Eight is a pretty common number for this unit, basically allowing for a two-deep at every spot, though the high value of promising pass-rushers sometimes leads a team to keep a ninth lineman.
Known Commodities: That's in short supply with this group, at least in absolute terms. The Buccaneers' certainly believe they have amassed a lot of talent along the defensive line in the last two years, but most of the starting candidates are still very young, and there are injury concerns as well. Still, the season could start with up to three former first-round picks in the starting four, and the ceiling seems especially high for RE Adrian Clayborn and DT Gerald McCoy.
Remaining Questions: The most unfortunate question with this group is the status of second-year man Da'Quan Bowers, who finished his rookie season as the starting left end opposite fellow 2011 draft pick Clayborn. Bowers suffered an Achilles tendon tear in May and will miss at least a good portion of the season, though the Bucs hope to get him back at some point in the second half. That obviously raises the attached question of who will start at left end, though Michael Bennett, who held that job for much of 2011, is the obvious first choice. Returning starter Brian Price has missed a good portion of the offseason work due to personal issues and that obviously makes his training camp role tougher to predict. Amobi Okoye is an established NFL starter signed during the offseason but he must prove he fits in the Bucs' system. The team tried to add to its DE depth late in the offseason with the additions of Wallace Gilberry and Jayme Mitchell, and it will be interesting to see how much either one can contribute. The same is true for George Johnson, a promising young player from Rutgers who hasn't seen much actual field time the last two years due to injuries.
Common Number Kept During the Regular Season: Six or seven. The Bucs actually spent the last five weeks of last season with only five linebackers on the roster (using the depth for the defensive line instead), but started the season with six and went up to seven for a few midseason weeks. This number is usually higher if a good part of the team's core special teamers are linebackers, as the starting linebackers are often not used heavily in the return-and-cover game. The linebacking crew could eat a little into the possible secondary depth if more of its players prove to be promising special-teamers this summer.
Known Commodities: Quincy Black is the most established starter in the group, having held down the strongside linebacker spot for most of the last three years. Before that, he was a standout special teamer, and there isn't a non-specialist who has been more important to the Bucs' special teams efforts the last several seasons than Adam Hayward. Hayward has also proved to be a valuable reserve in that he can fill in at all three spots. Mason Foster showed enough as a rookie to make it seem very likely he'll be on the field somewhere for the Bucs' defense this fall.
Remaining Questions: Where will Foster play and, relatedly, will rookie second-rounder Lavonte David step right into the starting lineup. In June, Schiano often fielded a starting trio of SLB Black, MLB Foster and WLB David, but the coach also said he was going to continue to experiment with other combinations, and that could also include fifth-round rookie Najee Goode. Even if the Black-Foster-David lineup seems like a solid bet to be the opening-day starters, that decision is far from set at this point. The inside-outside versatility of Foster and David increases Schiano's options but could keep us guessing for a while.
Rostered Players (16): S
Common Number Kept During the Regular Season: Ten or 11. Tampa Bay carried 10 defensive backs for most of last season, spiking to 11 for a few weeks. We've chosen to list all the defensive backs together, here, rather than splitting them into safeties and cornerbacks, because Schiano's staff is testing out the versatility of a good number of those 16 players. The most obvious example of that is veteran standout Ronde Barber, who may end up primarily playing safety after 15 years at cornerback, but others such as Keith Tandy and Devin Holland are being considered at several spots also. Of course, that type of versatility could affect the final numbers the Bucs keep at cornerback and safety, but overall the number of DBs is not likely to go much below 10 because so many players in the secondary are key on special teams.
Known Commodities: Despite the potential position switch, Barber is about as known as an NFL commodity could get. On September 9, he is likely to make his 200th consecutive start; his 199 in a row are already an all-time league record for cornerbacks. He has been to five Pro Bowls and was still playing at a high level last year as a 36-year-old. Barber could play safety, cornerback or some mixture of the two (he's one of the best slot corners of all time and might still do that in the nickel package if he's a safety), but if he's on the field he is almost sure to be playmaking presence. Aqib Talib has four seasons in the NFL and 17 interceptions already, including at least four in three of those four campaigns.
Remaining Questions: Mark Barron was the seventh pick in the draft and he is the likely starter at strong safety. The team thinks he can be a playmaker almost immediately, but no rookie is ever a sure thing until he's established himself. If Barber moves somewhat permanently to safety, the starting right cornerback job will be open for the first time since before the debut of Napster. Prized free agent Eric Wright and fourth-year man E.J. Biggers could be the top competitors for that job. Paring this group from 16 down to 10 or 11 could be difficult as there are such intriguing young options as Gaitor, Ahmad Black and Leonard Johnson.
Common Number Kept During the Regular Season: Three. One kicker, one punter, one long-snapper – that's the formula for most teams, though one occasionally sees a club carry two kickers if one of them is a kickoff specialist. That's not an issue for the Buccaneers, as punter Michael Koenen doubles as an outstanding kickoff artist.
Known Commodities: The returning trio of Koenen, kicker Connor Barth and long-snapper Andrew Economos is about as solid as the franchise has ever had. That's reflected in the long-term deals that both Koenen and Barth have received over the past year, Koenen to defect from Atlanta and Barth to stay after getting the franchise tag. Barth is coming off a 26-of-28 campaign that gave him the Bucs' single-season record for field goal accuracy, and he is also the team's career record-holder in that category. Koenen has given the Bucs a field position weapon with both his outstanding punting hang time and his deep kickoffs. Economos, as dependable as they come, has had amazing longevity as the Bucs' long-snapper since 2006.
Remaining Questions: It's hard to find any with this group. Forbath and Guthrie will get the chance to compete but will face an uphill battle to unseat the incumbent. The only real question is whether Barth and Koenen can continue to improve on what are already outstanding results.