LB Rod Wilson is taking advantage of a greater number of snaps as he tries to learn a new position
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have new starters in at least seven spots in 2009: quarterback, tight end, left defensive end, defensive tackle, strongside linebacker, weakside linebacker and left cornerback. If the answer at WLB is Jermaine Phillips, then there will be a new starter at strong safety as well; in fact, every other position is open to competition, according to the coaching staff.
The answers at those seven-plus positions will emerge over the next three months; obviously, that's one of the main tasks the Bucs must accomplish between now and opening weekend. The battles for each spot have already begun, ready to kick into high gear when training camp begins. However, the competition won't be over when the starting 22 is announced.
As the Buccaneers reconstruct the team behind the plan slowly being unveiled by new Head Coach Raheem Morris and new General Manager Mark Dominik, they will work on an entire depth chart. It will be two-deep at some positions, three or four-deep at others. And choosing who to slot behind the first 22 is just as important as identifying the starters themselves. As is demonstrated year after year in the NFL, the starting lineup at the end of the season never looks quite like the one that started it off.
In its most basic form, the Bucs' plan is to build quality depth at every position on the team. That is why Derrick Ward was brought in when the team already had a starting-caliber back in Earnest Graham. That is why Angelo Crowell was signed to compete at strongside linebacker even though the Bucs also want to find out if Quincy Black can win that job. That is why the coaching staff is pushing a young group of young receivers like Brian Clark and Kelly Campbell, to see who would best fill out the corps of wideouts behind Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton.
And it's also why a practice field injury, assuming its minor, can sometimes be a blessing in disguise for a coaching staff and a young player at this time of the year. In fact, a player's absence for any reason during this time of 85-man rosters and voluntary workouts, is just practice for the coaches for a time when injuries are more meaningful.
For instance, third-year linebacker Rod Wilson is seeing extensive playing time at middle linebacker during organized team activity (OTA) practices this month with Pro Bowl-caliber starter Barrett Ruud not in attendance. Wilson signed with the Buccaneers last December after spending several seasons as a standout special teamer with the Chicago Bears. Wilson could help the Buccaneers in that manner if he makes the team this fall – linebackers often make up the core of a team's kick-coverage units – but he might also prove to be valuable depth behind Ruud.
Like any head coach, the Bucs' Raheem Morris would like to have all of his players on the field for every practice. But he also knows that is rarely the case. Moreover, he knows he'll be faced with tough decisions regarding unavailable players at some point this fall, during his first year at a team's helm in the NFL.
"The silver lining's for me," said Morris of responding to absences. "This is how you deal with injuries. I don't know who's going down or what week or what time. I can't blink as a head coach and I'm not going to.
"The guy in the shoes [at middle linebacker] right now is Wilson and I'm loving it. Let him go out there and play. You don't know what's going to happen. Unpredictable. Learn how to deal with it. I can stand in front of [the media] and not think I'm being decimated by injuries. I can learn to embrace it and attack it and play the next guy."
Rookie free agent Josh Vaughan has begun taking some snaps at fullback after the season-ending injury to Byron Storer (of course, it's harder to think positively about such a long-term mishap). Wide receiver Maurice Stovall has missed some time with a back ailment; that's just more snaps for Campbell and Clark and the rest. After the trade of Alex Smith and before Kellen Winslow returned to Tampa this week, young tight ends like Jason Pociask and Ryan Purvis had a slightly larger window of opportunity to demonstrate they belonged on the regular-season roster.
And Wilson has been sharing time in the middle with Niko Koutouvides over the last three weeks. Though he played primarily as an outside linebacker reserve in Chicago, the 6-2, 230-pound South Carolina product seems to be taking well to his new assignment.
"He's doing great," said Morris. "He's locked in, he's dialed in. He's a sharp young man. He's here every day, he works hard. I can't say enough good things about him, enough positive things about the young man. Let him go play."
Obviously Wilson isn't going to balk at any move the coaching staff wants to make regarding his primary position, as he's still trying to gain a firm foothold in the NFL. Still, it helps when established veterans like Phillips show the same willingness to take on any job in order to help the team.
"You can ask those types of players to do anything you want," said an appreciative Morris. "Just like the Jermaine Phillips type, they just want to play football and they want to help do everything they can do to win. That's all they want to do.
"It's exactly what we talked about around here, what we want and what we need: competition at every position."