Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers announced the public practice schedule for their upcoming training camp, revealing precise information about when and where fans can get a firsthand look at the 2010 team coming together.
There is even a training camp information page here on Buccaneers.com, complete with parking information, night practice details and more. Camp - and thus the 2010 season - is right around the corner, and now Buccaneer fans know exactly when it will begin.
There are other questions, however, that won't begin to find resolution until the 80 players on Tampa Bay's training camp roster have taken the field and finally put on the pad. These are questions that will be decided by competition, and the answers will shape just how successful the Buccaneers will be in 2010.
With the first practice of training camp now less than four weeks away, let's look at seven unresolved issues that will be worth tracking once camp begins. This is not a comprehensive list - the Bucs are fostering intense competition at every position, so the potential for depth-chart developments is endless - but it certainly includes some of the team's top 2010 storylines.
7. How many of the Buccaneers' 2010 draft picks will step immediately into significant roles?
Tampa Bay management spent more than a year targeting the loaded 2010 NFL draft, then executed their nine selections in a fashion that impressed outside analysts. The Bucs believed before the draft, and even more so afterward, that this year's class could make an immediate impact as rookies, and they even rearranged their offseason OTA schedule to get the newcomers more involved.
So, how many of those nine will not only make the 53-man regular-season roster but also see significant playing time this fall? It is always difficult to predict how quickly a rookie will adjust to the NFL, regardless of how talented a prospect he was considered to be. Certainly, teams often expect their first-round choices to step right in, as the Bucs will with defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, but lower-round picks sometimes spend a season or two in special teams roles before cracking the starting lineup.
The Buccaneers, for instance, got 2009 first-rounder Josh Freeman into the starting lineup for the last nine games last fall, and Freeman is now the undisputed starter heading into 2010. That wasn't necessarily the plan in August, but it certainly paid off. After that, however, it's fair to say that seventh-round wide receiver Sammie Stroughter challenged third-round defensive tackle Roy Miller as the next most impactful rookie out of that class.
Similarly, it wouldn't be a surprise to see any of the Bucs' current nine draftees rise above the rest. Fourth-round wide receiver Mike Williams had the most eye-opening offseason of the group, routinely making big plays in practice and showing great hands along with an impressive burst. As the offseason developed, second-round wide receiver Arrelious Benn, a dangerous runner after the catch, also started to emerge. Given the obvious changes the Bucs' receiving corps is undergoing, it wouldn't be a surprise to see either or both get major playing time.
McCoy and second-round defensive tackle Brian Price could similarly reshape the Bucs' interior defensive front. Price has been limited by UCLA's class schedule and a minor muscle strain so far, but he and McCoy will get a chance to state their cases more strongly once the pads go on in August. Third-round cornerback Myron Lewis also finds himself in a situation where the job at stake - nickel back behind starters Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber - appears to be up for grabs.
Sixth-round punter Brent Bowden actually has the clearest route to a job this fall, as he's the only player on the roster at his position. And the Bucs' seventh-round picks are as intriguing this year as Stroughter and cornerback E.J. Biggers were last year. Cody Grimm, Dekoda Watson and Erik Lorig - all three defenders are probably long shots to crack the starting 11 this year but they are all considered good bets to contribute on special teams.
6. Beyond any of the rookies, who will be this year's breakout players?
As starting middle linebacker Barrett Ruud noted recently, the Bucs' chances for improvement this year might rest less on the 2010 class and more on the continued development of the team's young but promising veterans. Team management has rejuvenated a previously-aging roster over the past few years, and now they're ready for some of that young talent to pay off.
Head Coach Raheem Morris tagged a possible breakout prospect shortly before the end of the offseason in strongside linebacker Quincy Black. A third-round pick in 2007, Black got his first crack at the starting lineup last fall. Like the Bucs' defense as a whole, he produced better results down the stretch and has rolled that into a very strong 2010 offseason. Black could be used on occasion as a stand-up pass-rusher off the edge of the line, an idea that could boost his production significantly.
What other players might be in position to take advantage of a greater opportunity in 2010? Fifth-year wide receiver Maurice Stovall filled in well for injured starters at times in 2009 and has looked like a factor on the practice field this offseason. Defensive end Kyle Moore has improved since his rookie year, according to Morris, and has a shot at a starting role. Safety Tanard Jackson is already one of the team's most important defenders but he could potentially elevate his game to Pro Bowl level.
There are other possibilities of course, some of whom may not be obvious at this point. Sorting them out is exactly what training camp is supposed to accomplish.
5. Who will provide a pass rush off the edge?
The Bucs suddenly seem loaded at defensive tackle, where recent picks Miller, McCoy and Price could all figure quickly into the mix along with such veterans as Ryan Sims and Dre Moore. The picture isn't quite as clear on the ends, however, though there are certainly just as many intriguing candidates.
With Jimmy Wilkerson gone, the two holdovers with the most starting time in 2009 are Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder, the latter of whom is capable of starting or filling in at either side of the line. White is the Bucs' most accomplished pass-rusher, but the team knows more production will be needed from whoever joins him on the ends.
Kyle Moore, the fourth-round pick out of USC in 2009, is clearly a player the Buccaneers would like to see emerge from the pack. He has the skills to be a potential every-down player, able to stop the run and generate something of a pass-rush. Another '09 rookie, September pick-up Michael Bennett, also showed promise last year.
The rest of the group is very green but definitely worth watching. In addition to seventh-rounder Lorig, there are fellow rookies Brandon Gilbeaux, George Johnson, Carlton Powell and James Ruffin. Again, it's almost impossible to predict who among that group will emerge, if any, but it will definitely be one of the more interesting stories of training camp.
4. Who will be Josh Freeman's favorite target?
Last fall, with 2008 leading receiver Antonio Bryant battling injuries, the Bucs' three quarterbacks favored tight end Kellen Winslow, a gifted pass-catcher. Winslow finished with 77 catches, almost exactly twice that of Bryant and more than double any other player on the team.
Winslow returns and is sure to be a frequent target for Freeman in 2010. It would be no surprise if the rangy tight end once again leads the team in receptions. However, it would also be no surprise to see that mantle passed to one of the team's many potential receiving standouts. In fact, if the Bucs' passing game develops as well as the team hopes, Winslow could be in the 70-catch range again but not be the team's leading receiver.
Benn and Williams are probably the most intriguing names in this discussion but it is the rare rookie receiver that takes an immediate lead role. Trade acquisition Reggie Brown has several big-number seasons on his resume and could benefit quickly from a fresh start. Stovall might be ready for his big breakthrough and veteran Michael Clayton is the one man in the bunch who already owns an 80-catch campaign. Stroughter proved in 2009 that he could produce out of the slot and make the big play when necessary.
The only thing that is clear, really, is that the role of Freeman Favorite is up for grabs.
3. Who will start at strong safety?
For much of the offseason, the Buccaneers rotated Sabby Piscitelli and Sean Jones in that spot with the first-team defense. Piscitelli, the starter in 2009, would get most of the front-line activity one day and then Jones, a free-agent signee out of Philadelphia, would step in next to Jackson the next day. It's clear the Buccaneers are giving both players ample opportunity to seize the role.
As Jones has said, the answer to this one isn't all-or-nothing. The Buccaneers always try to go into the season with at least three safeties they consider capable of starting, and all three are expected to see significant playing time. Jones said he believes he, Jackson and Piscitelli will all play extensively this fall.
Still, there is only one starting spot available to the two, assuming Jackson continues his strong play, and the starter does tend to get the larger share of the action. The Bucs see big-play potential in the physically-gifted Piscitelli, a second-round pick in 2007. They also see proven production and ball-hawking skills in Jones, who has made a habit of picking off about five passes a season in Cleveland and Philly.
2. How good will the running game be?
This one is critical. The Bucs went into 2009 intending to rely heavily on a power running game but saw the plan somewhat derailed by circumstance. The team was frequently behind early during the first half of the season and had to rely on the passing game to catch up. The offensive system was something of a work-in-progress during the campaign, something that is no longer true after a full season of installation of Greg Olson's scheme.
The offensive line remains as promising as it did a year ago, when the Bucs were very high on that squad. Center Jeff Faine still anchors the unit, and he's flanked by a 2008 Pro Bowler in right guard Davin Joseph. The line is mobile and strong, and a breakout season is possible.
Behind them, the Bucs return their three-headed attack of Cadillac Williams, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham. Williams turned in a surprisingly strong comeback season in 2009 and says he feels as healthy as he has been since entering the NFL as the fifth-overall pick in 2005. Ward has attacked the 2010 offseason aggressively, planning to emerge as a team leader and greatly improve on his 2009 numbers. And Graham will likely remain a factor in the running game even if he slides over into the starting fullback role.
As promising as Freeman is, he is obviously still a very young quarterback. Few things help a young quarterback more than a running game that can force the defense to commit to stopping it.
1. Are the 2010 Bucs as improved as the growing evidence seems to indicate?
The 2009 Buccaneers lost more games than they expected to but did stick to the overall plan of building a core that would keep the team in playoff contention year after year. Ideally, that plan would produce a playoff contender as early as this fall.
The reasons for optimism are clear and not exaggerated. In Freeman, the team believes it has the franchise quarterback it has lacked for long, and few factors are more obviously tied in with annual success in the NFL than that one. Several areas that lagged in production a year ago - notably defensive tackle and wide receiver - were addressed in aggressive and dramatic fashion in the draft. And there is much more stability at the top heading into 2010, a fact that players frequent mentioned as being critical during this offseason.
Will it all come together this fall? Will most of it come together? Will the plan begin to produce results where it matters, in the win and loss columns?
That's the most important question the Buccaneers will begin to answer when they open training camp in a little less than four weeks.