Second-year DE Dewayne White is one of the team's most improved players in 2004, according to Head Coach Jon Gruden
In one month and one week, approximately 90 men will report to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp knowing that only 53 permanent spots are available. That's the very definition of competition.
More importantly, the early evidence coming out of the current three-day mini-camp taking place at Buc headquarters suggest that it will be stiff competition.
For proof, start up front. The Buccaneer defense has long prided itself on a ferocious pass rush, and the departure of Warren Sapp will focus the attention on a defensive line that wants to prove it can still get to the passer. Proven performers like Simeon Rice (consecutive seasons of 15 or more sacks) and Anthony McFarland (now at the more aggressive under tackle position) will lead the charge, but there is serious depth with the likes of Greg Spires, Chartric Darby, Ellis Wyms, Darrell Russell, Reinard Wilson, Lamar King, Corey Smith and Dewayne White, last year's top draft pick.
"Man, that's competitive, I'll tell you," said Gruden of the defensive line mix. "Reinard Wilson is running hot right now, from sideline to sideline. Dewayne White might be the most improved football player on this team right now. He's in great shape. Lamar King has turned some heads. When you couple that with Simeon Rice and Spires; and McFarland and Wyms going at in there inside; and Darrell Russell is doing some things as well with Darby at the nose; it's going to be competitive and we're very, very enthused with the defensive line."
The Buccaneer defense recorded 36 sacks last year, tied with three other teams for 13th-most in the NFL…in other words, an average total, despite Rice's 15, which tied for the second-best individual mark. It was Tampa Bay's lowest sack total since 1998, the last year the team didn't make the playoffs.
Along the way, the Bucs saw a very impressive streak come to an end. Before failing to introduce Brett Favre's back to the Raymond James Stadium grass on November 16, Tampa Bay had recorded at least one sack in 69 consecutive games, the longest run in NFL history. The Bucs still mustered seven- and five-sack games against New Orleans and Houston before the year was up, but were also held without a sack on three more occasions, including the final two contests.
"We went sack-less last year twice in two games and ended a streak," said Gruden. "That's intolerable based on the kind of players we think we have here and the kind of code that has been unwritten here by [Defensive Line Coach Rod] Marinelli. We've got to have more Marinelli's Madness this fall."
ACL Sidelines Morris
As feared, the left knee injury suffered by WR Sylvester Morris on the practice field Tuesday will require season-ending surgery.
Morris will miss his fourth consecutive season. A very similar right knee injury, involving a torn ACL and other ligaments, cost him 2001 and 2002 and a hip ailment knocked out his 2003 campaign. Upon announcing the unhappy news, Gruden commiserated with the hard-luck receiver.
"[I'm] very disappointed, not only because he was doing some good things, obviously, but here's a guy who's had a lot of adversity in his career," said Gruden. "He had really been working so hard to make a comeback, but it's unfortunate. He'll be out for the season."
The injury to Morris did not worry Gruden in terms of the Bucs' receiving depth, even with 2003 catch leader Keenan McCardell still absent. The team still has 12 other receivers on the roster, including valuable trade acquisition Joey Galloway and first-round pick Michael Clayton.
"We bulked up the receiving corps," said Gruden. "Galloway gives us something that is unique, and I'm very upbeat and excited about that. Michael Clayton is a first-round draft choice who gives our football team a beefed-up look. Joe Jurevicius is going to be fine and he didn't play last year, so there are three guys who have beefed up the receiving corps just to start talking here."
Jurevicius left the morning practice early and has been limited during the current mini-camp, but is still on schedule to practice full-speed at the start of training camp.
"He's just starting to run and I think his lower back tightened up a little bit (on Wednesday)," said Gruden. "But the knee feels good. His launching pad is July 31st. He'll be ready to go then. He's just taking part in some individual things right now, but he's okay."
Galloway and Clayton were the Bucs' big-name acquisitions of the spring, and holdover Charles Lee made a very strong impression in the second half of the 2003 season. But there are some lesser-known players who have made a good early impression, as well.
"Edell Shepherd, a guy from our practice squad who we activated late last season, is doing some very good things," said Gruden. "Marcus Knight, who came from the Raiders, is a guy who can return kickoffs, play on [special] teams and play in any formation. So we're excited about some of the younger guys who are developing."
Six-time Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott, who underwent a delicate bit of neck surgery last fall, is bouncing around the Bucs' practice field as if he were an unscarred rookie. It might be difficult for a back who plays with such a bruising style to forget a significant neck injury, but that's exactly the point to which both Alstott and Gruden would like to get.
"He's okay, he's been cleared to play…I just want to leave him alone," said Gruden. "He's inflicted as many blows upon himself as a man can. He's hitting himself on the head with garbage cans, running into cars. 'You're going to be fine, Mike.' We've got to be optimistic here."
The final verdict on Alstott's return may have to wait until the Bucs start playing games, but he appears to be the same player who has rushed for 4,600 yards, many of them over and through defenders. Just having Alstott on the practice field is a positive influence on some of the team's younger runners.
"It's just so great to have him back," said Gruden. "For people who have covered him and know him, he's an inspiration. Ask Casey Cramer and some of these other young backs, do they understand what it means to be a Buccaneer running back? If you don't, you've got to ask Mike Alstott."