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[Winston's virtual rookie card
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin training camp practice on Saturday, giving fans their first chance to see Jameis Winston and his fellow rookies up close and personal. Many expect Winston, the first overall draft pick back in April, to be under center when the 2015 regular season begins, but he'll have to legitimately beat out Mike Glennon for the job.
That battle will obviously be front and center on the fields behind One Buccaneer Place, but it will be just one of many situations pitting teammates against each other for depth chart answers. Two more high-profile rookies – Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet – will try to leapfrog veterans for critical jobs on the offensive line, for instance. The potential kick returners will be under a spotlight. The safety position needs some serious sorting out. Danny Lansanah and Kwon Alexander may end up in a death match for the SAM linebacker role.
Some of the other competitions will be less obvious, but just as important. That's our focus with training camp just around the corner. Below are four battles that will play out over the next month that may have slipped under the radar to this point.
1. Swing Tackle
That job the aforementioned Donovan Smith is gunning for? Just a little spot you might have seen near the top of the NFL positional hierarchy known as left tackle. In this case, potentially, the blind side protection of an asset no less important than the expected franchise quarterback.
If things go as planned, Smith will prove worthy of that job and Demar Dotson will settle back in at right tackle, where he has been the team's most effective offensive linemen for the last few seasons. Any other tackles who make the 53-man roster will be reserves.
Those reserve jobs are far from marginal, however. With current Oakland Raider Donald Penn running up an impressive streak of 108 straight starts at left tackle from 2007-13 and Dotson-plus-Jeremy-Trueblood keeping right tackle occupied for most of the last nine years, the Buccaneers haven't had to test their OL edge reserves much in the last decade. They did to some extent last year when Anthony Collins was injured and then ineffective (in some order), and that led to several starts for Oniel Cousins. At the moment, neither Cousins or Collins is on an NFL roster.
Hopefully, the Buccaneers will get 32 effective starts out of Smith and Dotson. If injuries or some other issues arise, however, the player they have trained to step in will become incredibly important. On game day, most teams keep seven offensive linemen active, which includes the five starters plus one player who can cover the three interior spots and one who can play either tackle position. The latter is called a "swing tackle."
That player may be 2014 fifth-round pick Kevin Pamphile, who got a chance to play fairly extensively in last year's season finale. The former Purdue standout seems like the obvious choice, but it may not be that simple. The Buccaneers' coaching staff spent the entire offseason experimenting with different combinations up front on offense, and one of the new options on the edge is Patrick Omameh, who started all of last season at right guard. The 6-4, 305-pound Omameh definitely has the size to play on the outside, particularly at right tackle, and his versatility would be particularly valuable on game day. The Bucs' staff has also tried Garrett Gilkey out at a number of positions, and he could easily force himself into the conversation.
It is very common, especially with the rosters expanded to 90 players, for NFL teams to carry at least two kickers and two punters during training camp. No matter how intense the actual competition is for those positions, the depth helps spread out reps and avoid leg fatigue.
As such, incumbent Buccaneers punter Michael Koenen has plenty of experience sharing time with young NFL hopefuls. University of Buffalo's Jacob Schum spent the offseason with the Bucs last year but didn't make it to camp. In 2013, Chas Henry gave it a shot. In 2012, it was Eric Guthrie. Schum, Henry and Guthrie were all very good college players who didn't manage to get a foothold in the league, which numbers them among the thousands.
It's a little bit different this year. The Buccaneers are bringing two punters to training camp and both of them were on NFL rosters for all 16 games last year. The first is Koenen, of course, and he's been Tampa Bay's punter and kickoff man for four years since signing a lucrative contract in 2011. The other is Spencer Lanning, who was claimed off waivers in June after he was cut by the Cleveland Browns.
Lanning's arrival in Tampa is the end of a domino effect that began with San Francisco's drafting of Clemons punter Bradley Pinion in the fifth round in the 2015 draft. The 49ers then traded Andy Lee, who had earned four Associated Press All-Pro honors during his 11 years in San Fran, to the Cleveland Browns in June. The Browns subsequently cut ties with Lanning, who had spent a little time bouncing around as most young punters do before booting 177 punts for Cleveland in 2013-14.
Lanning had better gross and net punting averages than Koenen last year, but neither player ranked among the league's top half. Koenen fared better in kickoff touchback percentage, and, more to the point, handled the Bucs' kickoff duties all year while Lanning did not do the same in Cleveland.
Koenen has been one of the Buccaneers' most valuable special teams players for the past four seasons. Still, he would appear to have a realistic threat to his job in the summer of 2015.
3. Nickel Back
The Buccaneers return their two starting cornerbacks from 2015 in Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks, and there's reason to be optimistic about both. Verner came over as a high-profile free-agent acquisition in the 2014 offseason and had a good year on a defense that struggled to rush the passer. Banks, in his second year, was one of the team's most improved defenders down the stretch.
Veteran Mike Jenkins, re-signed in March after spending almost all of the 2014 season on injured reserve, figures to offer some competition for Banks. Where the competition seems more unpredictable, however, is at the nickel back job, which is one of the more sneakily important positions in the game.
Most NFL defenses spend between 40-50% of the time in a nickel package, which means there is one additional defensive back on the field and one fewer linebacker. This is meant to combat three-receiver sets on offense; an extra wideout on the field means an extra DB so that a linebacker doesn't end up covering a 190-pound burner.
Most Buc fans know all of that. What they may not know – and how could they at this point? – is the identity of that third cornerback who will come on the field in nickel situations this year. There's a good reason for that uncertainty; that position is far from settled.
There is a relatively high-profile candidate for that job, in that the Buccaneers signed cornerback Sterling Moore away from the Dallas Cowboys this past spring. Given that the team did so while already employing Verner and Banks, it's fair to assume it was thinking of Moore as a strong nickel candidate. That said, Moore spent a good amount of time during offseason OTAs and mini-camps playing on the outside. Lovie Smith's Buccaneers tend to split off their "nickel cornerbacks" into separate drills during practice, and that was often the province of Leonard Johnson and Isaiah Frey.
Johnson has every reason to believe he can win that job. Since signing on with his hometown team (Johnson is from Clearwater) as an undrafted free agent out of Iowa State in 2012, he has started 17 games and played extensively in multiple-DB packages. Frey joined the Bucs as waiver claim from the Bears in the middle of last year and clearly knows the system.
If Moore can't unseat Banks or Verner, will he return to the slot and beat out that competition. That's the kind of training camp battle that will be difficult to discern from the stands but potentially very important for the fate of the Buccaneers' defense.
4. Third/Fourth TE
Everyone from USA Today to, uh, me, expects second-year tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins to have a breakout campaign in 2015. ASJ, as we refer to him as a matter of convenience, is fully healthy after a dinged-up rookie campaign and he potentially has a dynamic young quarterback feeding him the football.
No matter what happens with ASJ, the Buccaneers have an intriguingly deep set of tight ends. They could do just fine starting Brandon Myers, who has started 48 games in his six year career (including 36 over the last three seasons) and who is a proven pass-catcher with decent blocking capabilities. Depending upon the amount of emphasis the team plays on the running game, Luke Stocker could see a lot of time as a blocker. And many Buccaneer fans were thrilled when the team claimed Tim Wright off waivers from the Patriots in June, given Wright's impressive rookie season in Tampa in 2013.
The question is, how many tight ends will the team be able to keep? Will the addition of Wright cause the coaching staff to look for ways to keep all of the players mentioned above, potentially at the expense of an extra wide receiver or running back? And, before we cut short the debate at those four players, should we forget about second-year player Cameron Brate, the Harvard product who had a brief but positive debut last year when injuries thinned out the position?
Seferian-Jenkins is potentially a red-zone monster, which means he's probably going to be the kind of performer who attracts eyeballs during training camp practices. That is likely to pull attention away from the rest of his group. It shouldn't, because the competition all up and down the tight end depth chart is likely to be fierce.