The 2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers have two clear starters at wide receiver and is returning one of the NFL's best 1-2 punches at tailback. However, the number-three job at both positions is completely up in the air, as of May. The competition for the slot receiver job and the third line on the running back depth chart will create some of the team's most entertaining battles come August.
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Barring injuries, third-year man Mike Evans and returned-to-health veteran Vincent Jackson will be the team's front-line starters. After that, the only receiver on the roster with extensive NFL experience is Louis Murphy, who is recovering from a 2015 knee injury and is expected to be ready for training camp.
The eventual third receiver behind Evans and Jackson won't necessarily take all of his snaps in the slot. Dirk Koetter could devise some alignments that put Evans in the slot and put the third man in on the outside, particularly if he's got the speed to threaten a defense with a deep route. And, of course, the third receiver would have to be ready to step into a larger role if one of the starters is unavailable for any period of time, something Murphy has done several times to good effect. Still, working the middle of the field out of the slot between the Bucs' two 6-5 pass-catchers should be a major part of the job description.
Other than Murphy, the most intriguing candidate is probably Kenny Bell, a fifth-round pick in 2015 who spent his rookie campaign on injured reserve. Bell had an impressive first offseason in Tampa before he was sidelined by a hamstring injury and proved he could be a deep threat at Nebraska. Todd Monken, who is both the Buccaneers' receivers coach and the offensive coordinator – though Koetter is still the play-caller – sees promise in Bell and wants to help him make the most of it. For his part, Bell did all he could to stay involved last year on injured reserve, and that could serve as an advantage now that he's in his first full NFL offseason.
"Kenny's got talent," said Monken. "Kenny can run, he can bend, he's athletic, he's really smart. I think he's excited about getting back out there and giving himself a chance to compete. Sure. I think you can always benefit from standing back and watching. I think that helped Kenny. I think he's getting better every day. He's maturing every day as a player, and [with] his confidence level.
"Half of it is believing that you belong here. Half of it is believing that you can play at this level. Grit, determination, want-to, perseverance, intelligence – does he have that? We'll find out."
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Evan Spencer, a sixth-round pick by Washington in 2015 who ended up on the Buccaneers' practice squad for most of his rookie campaign, is also an interesting candidate. He got a late-season promotion to the active roster but only played sparingly in one game. On the other hand, 2015 undrafted free agents Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries saw quite a bit of playing time after the Bell, Murphy and Jackson injuries, which gives them an edge in understanding the offense.
At this point in the offseason, with OTA practices still a week away and the donning of pads still months away, there is a limit to what players at any position can prove. Receivers can obviously show off their speed, route-running, hands and knowledge of the system, but no one is going to win a job in May. The slot-receiver competition is just beginning and there's no clear answer yet.
"There are no helmets, no winners, no losers," said Monken. "I think we've got a good group of young players. Someone asked me the other day about not having many draft picks to add to the mix, and that's not true. We have Kenny Bell, who was injured last year. We have Evan Spencer; both were draft picks who add to the mix and will get a chance in the slot."
With the proliferation of three and four-receiver sets in the NFL, the winner of that job will see a lot of time on offense. That's not necessarily the case for the third running back, who will probably need to prove he can add value in other ways. Bobby Rainey was the Bucs' third running back a year ago and he saw a total of 33 offensive snaps during the season, 13 of those in Week One. That's what happens when a team has two backs who both put up more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage – starter Doug Martin and versatile backup Charles Sims.
Rainey, of course, added value by handling most of the punt and kickoff return work. He's now a New York Giant and the Buccaneers are trying to determine who will handle those jobs this year. There's a very good chance that one or both of them will go to a wide receiver like Humphries or Bell (or maybe even a defensive back), but the third back will still likely find work on special teams.
"Those are probably the two biggest things – who can protect the football, who can play on special teams," said Monken. "I think it's pretty set in terms of who are top two players are but that third back has to be very versatile in terms of special teams and protecting the ball, be able to protect and be able to go into the game when needed."
](http://www.buccaneers.com/news/article-smith/Buc-Draft-History-Earliest-vs-Best/9fcc25e8-ff18-4155-a349-6db4da6fa97c)Mike James was the Bucs' fourth back a year ago, a spot that actually pushed him to the practice squad for about two-thirds of the season. He did not see any game action last year, but he played in 19 contests with three starts in his first two years in the league after being drafted in the sixth round in 2013. Though the Bucs didn't always have room for him on the 53-man roster last year, they still clearly wanted him around, in part because he is a team-first player willing to take on any role. The Bucs also signed former Jaguar running back Storm Johnson in April; he and James would appear to be the leading candidates for the third tailback job, though undrafted free agents Peyton Barber and Russell Hansbrough will do their best to impress.
"Obviously, Mike and Storm are heads-up for right now in terms of being first, but I think with the four of those guys fighting for it it's going to be pretty solid," said Running Backs Coach Tim Spencer. "I like Mike, Mike's been around. Mike's smart, he's a pro, he's worked his tail off. I think even when he was in, before I even got here, he had a couple nice games. So I feel pretty good about that."
As for the rookies, Barber has good size and was rarely stopped for no gain at Auburn while Hansbrough is a smaller, shiftier type who might be able to serve as a third-down back. They both have gotten off to good starts in Tampa.
"Both of them are very quick and quick to learn," said Spencer. "I feel pretty good about them; I didn't know much about them before they came here but I like the way they work and I think that they add a little bit of some things that we can use and maybe don't have. But I do like both of them. I think they will definitely help us out."
The Bucs could conceivably keep a fourth tailback as well, and the rookies might get a shot at launching their careers gradually through time on the practice squad. Right now, though, all four of them are aiming for that primary spot behind Martin and Sims, and that's another battle that is just getting started.