In training camp, every position on the depth chart is open to competition. While that's true it's largely theoretical when it comes to some of those positions. There's no reason to believe that Lavonte David is in real danger of losing his starting weakside linebacker job in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp this summer. Barring injuries, one should expect Gerald McCoy, Mike Evans, Ali Marpet and Kwon Alexander to be in their normal spots when the season begins, just to randomly name a few.
There are some real position battles on tap in the Bucs' camp this year. For instance, Kevin Pamphile and J.R. Sweezy combined to make 29 of the 32 available starts at the two offensive guard positions last year, and Pamphile is now a Tennessee Titan while Sweezy's availability remains uncertain. Ali Marpet is expected to slide over to left guard after the team signed center Ryan Jensen in free agency, but the right guard spot is clearly open for competition. Likewise, the order at tailback is up in the air after the departure of Doug Martin and the drafting of Ronald Jones, and some future right tackle candidates could get first-team snaps until Demar Dotson returns from his injuries.
There are other positions will be watching closely in training to see who emerges as starting candidates, and that's our topic for today as our Roundtable Week continues. All week, Buccaneers.com contributors Casey Phillips, Carmen Vitali and I are going to conduct roundtable discussions on a selection of team-related topics. Here's the schedule:
Monday: Which player will emerge as a training camp surprise?
Tuesday: Who will be the Buccaneers' team MVP in 2018?
Wednesday: What will be the most interesting position battle in training camp?
Thursday: In what area will the Buccaneers make the biggest statistical improvement in 2018?
Friday: What game on the Buccaneers' 2018 schedule are you anticipating the most?
As previously noted, the three of us are making a point not to duplicate picks during this Roundtable Week. As such, the order of selection is relevant, and we'll be rotating that all week. I get first choice today, followed by Carmen and then Casey.
Scott Smith: Cornerback
This is the top position to watch in training camp, in my opinion, simply for the sheer volume of possible outcomes. Brent Grimes seems like the only sure thing as one of the two starters on the outside; after that, anything could happen.
If one includes the slot corner job – and one should because that player is usually on the field for 50-60% of the team's defensive snaps – then there are three starting assignments to go around. In addition to Grimes, there are at least five other players who could grab one of those roles without it being a massive surprise. That includes Ryan Smith, who started most of last season and got a lot of valuable experience, and Vernon Hargreaves, the third-year man who played almost every snap as a rookie before running into injury and inconsistency issues last year. It also includes a pair of second-round rookies who are likely to be in the team's long-term secondary plans, M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis. And it's even fair to include Javien Elliott in that group given that he owned the nickel job down the stretch in 2016 and acquitted himself well.
That's not to discount David Rivers or Marko Myers, but it would be more of an upset if either leap-frogged all those other competitors into a starting role. It's certainly possible, and Rivers in particular saw some front-line action during this year's OTAs, but let's focus on the aforementioned five for now.
Davis also saw first-team snaps during OTAs and mini-camp and generated a lot of positive buzz. The Bucs drafted the former Auburn star in part because he's bigger than the rest of the team's cornerbacks and could be a weapon against the many oversized receivers in the NFL. Hargreaves seemed to take very well to the slot job this offseason and would seem like a front-runner there, but he also apparently will be competing for a job on the outside. He could end up in a hybrid inside-outside role. Smith has to be considered the incumbent opposite Grimes unless somebody can unseat him in camp. Stewart was slowed a bit injuries after he was drafted but the Bucs liked him in particular because of what he can do in the slot.
That's a lot of options, and the Bucs will have about a month to figure out which combination is best for the start of the regular season.
Carmen Vitali: Defensive Line
This isn’t exactly a battle as much as it is my being curious as to what the rotation is going to end up being and how often it’s going to be switched out. Will there be a specific stop-the-run package that includes bringing Vinny Curry inside with Beau Allen? Or Vita Vea and Allen? Or Vea and Curry? Or Vea and Mitch Unrein – and so on and so forth.
No, I didn’t accidentally leave Gerald McCoy out – but in OTAs I saw a rotation made up of Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul on the outside with Vita Vea and Beau Allen in the middle with the ones at one point. But ok, how about just the starters? Is it McCoy and Allen on the inside? With JPP and Curry on the outside? Or does Vea make enough strides during training camp to earn the starting spot next to McCoy? How much has defensive end Noah Spence progressed? We know he’s put on serious muscle and defensive end Will Gholston has trimmed down. How much does that shake things up?
The thing that keeps all this from being an actual battle is the fact that I don’t hate any of these scenarios – especially if they’re tailored by game or scenario. Coach Dirk Koetter did say during OTAs that they would try to nail down a rotation in the preseason and perhaps very early part of the regular season but they would want to be pretty consistent. Still, I have a lot of questions and not a ton of answers right now, which makes this the must-see 'battle' during camp.
Casey Phillips: Linebacker
Scott already took his favorite position to talk about and the group I’m most excited to watch in camp and preseason, so I’ll go with a slightly less flashy choice.
When I say linebacker, don’t panic. I’m not talking about Kwon Alexander or Lavonte David. And if Kendell Beckwith hadn’t gotten in a car wreck this offseason, we would hardly be talking about linebackers at all, as this was such a consistent group on the roster last year. But if Beckwith has to miss any time, who will fill his shoes? And who will secure those last few spots on the depth chart, whether for their linebacker play or contribution to special teams?
You have Adarius Taylor (formerly Adarius Glanton), who broke his leg at the end of the year but has been practicing at full speed and has been filling in for Beckwith so far. You have Devante Bond, who the team has faith in but has struggled to stay healthy. Then there’s Hard Knocks darling Riley Bullough, special teams stalwart Cameron Lynch, and draft pick Jack Cichy. Cichy is the most interesting part of this equation to me. He’s a former walk-on at Wisconsin who earned a starting role, but then missed the entire 2017 season with a torn ACL. He may have Beckwith’s incredible recovery from injury to thank for the Bucs being willing to take a gamble on him. Depending on how he looks physically, as well as his ability to mentally grasp the game after being away for a while, he could shake up the depth chart.