A healthy and happy Michael Clayton adds more juice to what should be an intriguing training-camp battle at wide receiver
How many offensive linemen will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers keep on their 53-man roster? Will there be any new starters on that front line? Who is the main backup to Chris Simms? How will the defensive tackle rotation shape up? If the team keeps 11 backs and receivers, how will it distribute those roster spots? Or will they keep 12?
Answers? That's what training camp is for, and the Bucs are less than a month away from starting that process. The roster has been assembled, the foundation for camp put in place with a productive offseason program.
Before camp opens on July 27, the Bucs will make a few snips to that roster, which stands at 100 players now but will likely be trimmed to 89 for the start of practice. Occasionally, the team tweaks the list in a few places in late June or during the pre-camp days of July, such as last week's signings of quarterback Jay Fiedler and tight end Matt Kranchick.
For the most part, however, the roster is ready for camp. The competition has yet to unfold, but the pieces are in place.
With camp looming, now is the time to look at each position and see who is battling for roster spots and where the competition might be toughest. We're going to look at offense first, defense later in the week. At each position, the competitors are listed alphabetically.
Quarterback: Jared Allen, Jay Fiedler, Bruce Gradkowski, Luke McCown, Tim Rattay, Chris Simms
Right off the bat we have a position where the Bucs have both a very solid answer and a very significant question.
Simms is entrenched at the top of the depth chart, heading into his first season as the opening-day starter, but the job of primary backup appears to be up for grabs.
Just a few weeks ago, it seemed likely that third-year man McCown and veteran Rattay – two players acquired in separate trades last year – would battle for that job. However, McCown's practice-field knee injury took him off the board for at least the first part of the 2006 season and gave the Bucs one fewer option. Rattay, who opened 16 games over his five-and-a-half seasons in San Francisco, actually has more starting experience than Simms and is obviously a strong candidate. Rattay's career passer rating is a strong 81.6 and he was the 49ers' opening-day starter a year ago, even with number-one overall draft pick Alex Smith on hand.
The competition got more interesting with Fiedler's arrival, however. Fiedler is easily the most experienced quarterback on the roster and he has previous ties with Head Coach Jon Gruden. Fiedler, a starter with the Dolphins as recently as the 2004 season, is recovering from a shoulder injury suffered last season with the New York Jets, so that issue must be monitored, as well.
On the other hand, the Bucs are certain that they want to hand the reins to Simms, who proved capable of handling the job in the last 10 games of 2005. After a shaky start, Simms rebounded quickly and then made obvious strides from week to week last fall, emerging from the season with an 81.4 passer rating, a 61.0% completion rate and a 10/7 touchdown-to-interception ratio. A full camp as the starter should make Simms even more of a weapon heading into the 2006 season.
The Bucs are also excited about Gradkowski, a sixth-round selection and the first quarterback the team has drafted since Simms in the third round in 2003. The highly-productive Toledo star is intelligent, accurate and very mobile, an aspect in a quarterback's game that always seems to interest Head Coach Jon Gruden. Gruden's first impression of Gradkowski is that the rookie will not be bothered by the pressures of trying to make it in the NFL.
Even without another veteran signee, the Bucs can head to camp with four starters because of the return of first-year man Allen. Fresh off a successful run in the NFL Europe League, Allen goes into his second Tampa Bay camp with a better feel for the Bucs' offense.
The Bucs usually take four or five quarterbacks to training camp, then decide on three for the regular season.
Running Back: Andre Hall, Earnest Graham, Jacque Lewis, Michael Pittman, Derek Watson, Cadillac Williams
A year ago, we mused that running back would be the "most scrutinized" position of the Bucs' camp, if only because the team was likely to rely heavily on a rookie for the first time in almost a decade.
Well, the running backs and that rookie, Williams, got plenty of attention alright, but not due to any uncertainty. Williams looked sharp from day one at camp and, after getting only a few cursory carries in the preseason, exploded onto the scene with the most prolific three-game debut in NFL history. After racking up 434 rushing yards in those first three contests, Williams fought through a foot injury to set a team rookie record with 1,176 yards, winning NFL Rookie of the Year honors in the process.
Obviously, even with a very productive Pittman still on hand, Williams is going to be the focal point of the Bucs' rushing attack. That being said, the team feels it has excellent depth at the position, which obviously means the competition for spots will be very strong. Of course, the team could go into 2006 with the same backs it took out of 2005: Williams, Pittman, Graham and Watson.
Pittman was outstanding in a complimentary role in '05, rushing for 436 yards and 6.2 yards per carry and catching 36 passes. He even assumed the kickoff return role late in the year. Pittman will turn 31 towards the end of camp, but he remains in ridiculously good shape and has less mileage on his legs than many other 30-something NFL backs.
Graham got only 28 carries last year with Williams and Pittman around, but the team loves his versatility (he could play fullback in a pinch) and hard-nosed running style. The 25-year-old Watson is even more of an unproven commodity, having yet to notch a regular-season NFL carry, but the team showed how much it valued his potential when it activated him to the active roster last fall rather than lose him to another team.
Hall and Lewis are smaller backs who could fight for a third-down type of role. Hall is the local hero who racked up the yards at South Florida while Lewis will go into his second Buccaneer camp after a strong showing in the NFLEL this spring. Both might also be kickoff return candidates.
The Bucs generally carried six running backs last year, including two fullbacks. That number can go up or down slightly depending upon how many receivers and tight ends make the squad.
Fullback: Mike Alstott, Carey Davis, Robert Douglas, Rick Razzano and Jerald Sowell
This year, the fullback position might be more intriguing than running back, thanks to several key offseason moves.
First, the team re-signed fullback Mike Alstott on the first day of free agency, refuting the growing rumors of Alstott's retirement. After a resurgent season in 2006 in which it was obvious he was still a dominant goal-line presence, Alstott clearly still fits into the team's plans in 2006. He also reportedly blocked as well in 2005 as he had at just about any point in his career.
The Bucs also brought in another proven and productive veteran at the position, signing former New York Jet Jerald Sowell. The 240-pound Sowell has long been considered one of the league's better lead-blockers, and he has plied that trade for years in front of the Hall of Fame-bound Curtis Martin. Even if both Sowell and Alstott are on the 53-man roster, there should be plenty of playing time available to both.
The Bucs also remain high on Rick Razzano, a seventh-round pick in 2005 who barely played as a rookie. The rock-hard Razzano is a fullback at its purest, a rugged lead-blocker who seeks out contact. Davis and Douglas, two undrafted first-year players, have shown some intriguing skills in previous NFL camps.
As indicated above, the Bucs have most often kept either five or six runners, with a combination of tailbacks and fullbacks.
Wide Receiver: David Boston, Larry Brackins, Jonathan Carter, Michael Clayton, Joey Galloway, Chas Gessner, Ike Hilliard, Mark Jones, Derek McCoy, J.R. Russell, Edell Shepherd, Maurice Stovall, Terrence Stubbs, Paris Warren
There are always good storylines among the receivers in training camp because there are always so many of them. The Bucs currently have a whopping 14 receivers on the roster, although with some cuts to come before camp, that number could take a small hit. In addition, that includes Carter, who suffered an injury preparing for the NFL Europe season and has been rehabbing at the NFLEL's facility in Birmingham.
The Bucs most commonly keep six receivers among the 53 regulars and, as usual, when you start ticking off the strong candidates for those spots, you get to a half-dozen in a hurry.
Clearly, Galloway and Clayton are good bets to earn spots. Galloway had a tremendous season in 2005 and offers the kind of speed that is hard to duplicate with another player. Clayton struggled last year due to injuries but was extremely productive as a rookie in 2004 and is expected to hit training camp at full speed.
Boston and Hilliard are the most experienced of the rest. Hilliard was the Bucs' third receiver for most of 2005 and was able to pitch in with 35 receptions. Boston has played very little over the last two years, both in Miami, due to knee problems, but he too is counting on being physically fine by the start of camp. If you consider Boston's upside to be the levels he has reached as recently as 2003 – he has three seasons of 70 or more receptions – than the chiseled veteran is potentially a very valuable addition.
Three of the candidates as of late June are 2005 draftees – Larry Brackins, Paris Warren and J.R. Russell – which means the Bucs are looking forward to taking another extended look at them. All three have good size, and Russell and Warren have major-college experience in prolific offenses.
Shepherd has been on the Bucs' radar for several years, but injuries held him back until last year. In 2005, he was essentially the team's fourth receiver, which means he saw significant action any time Clayton was unavailable. That put Shepherd into some very key situations, particularly in the two games against Washington, and the slight speedster showed a definite big-play ability.
Mark Jones was a Bucs' 2004 draftee, but he spent his rookie season with the New York Giants. Tampa Bay got him back last year and installed him as the punt returner, a job he is likely first in line for again in 2006. At 5-9, 185, Jones is the smallest of the Buc receiving candidates but he obviously has speed and elusiveness.
There is a handful of inexperienced first-year players in this group, as usual, and they should not be taken lightly. Shepherd was in this category at one point, for example. Of these players, McCoy is the one with the longest relationship with the Buccaneers, having first appeared on Tampa Bay's roster during a brief stint in 2004. He went to NFL Europe as a Buc allocate a year ago and was in Tampa Bay's camp last summer.
Stubbs has two Jets camps under his belt. Gessner is the type of prospect that intrigues scouts with his size (6-4, 215) and skills but played his college ball at a lower level, at Brown. He starred in the NFL Europe League for Berlin in 2004, however.
As mentioned, the Bucs usually keep six receivers on the 53-man roster, though generally only four of those dress out on game day.
Tight End: Mark Anelli, Anthony Becht, Matt Kranchick, Tim Massaquoi, Dave Moore, Alex Smith, Boone Stutz and T.J. Williams
The Bucs could take seven tight ends to camp, three of whom are candidates for the long-snapping job, too. Moore held that role in 2005 and did not play extensively on offense; Anelli and Stutz also have long-snapping backgrounds.
The tight end position became increasingly important as the 2005 season progressed because the Bucs' offense gradually began to run more and more two-TE sets. Given Alex Smith's emergence, Anthony Becht's blocking and the team's running success out of such formations, it was easy to understand why. The Bucs may do more of the same in 2006, particularly if they come out of camp with several pass-catching threats at the position.
Smith was just that as a rookie, ranking second on the team and second among all NFL rookies (including receivers) with 41 receptions. He also proved to be a much better blocker than many scouts projected, and he has downfield seam-exploiting capabilities into which the Bucs have yet to fully tap. Becht, a 2005 free agent signee from the Jets, has been an NFL starter for six straight years now and will be atop the depth chart again as camp starts.
The Bucs just added Kranchick, who was released by the Giants in June after New York acquired former New Orleans Saint Boo Williams. Kranchick, a sixth-round draft pick of the Steelers in 2004, has played in eight games with one start and has an intriguing mix of size and speed.
The Bucs used two of their eight 2006 draft picks on tight ends, picking up Williams from North Carolina State in the sixth round and Massaquoi from Michigan in the seventh. That's another indication of the planned importance of the position in 2006. The 6-3, 260-pound Massaquoi is a converted receiver who caught 46 passes at Michigan and is considered a good route-runner. Williams (6-2, 253) was twice the Wolfpack's leading receiver and finished his career with 97 receptions.
Stutz is the third rookie in the bunch and he was primarily a long-snapper at Texas A&M, one who can fire the ball back with astounding speed. Moore, a Buccaneer since 1992 (with a two-year detour to Buffalo), is well-known to Tampa Bay fans and remains a very accurate snapper and willing kick coverage man. Anelli has shown NFL potential in the past; he played in several games as a 49er in 2002. Though a good snapper, he also displayed pass-catching abilities in the NFL Europe League in 2005, hauling in 35 passes for 395 yards and three touchdowns for the Frankfurt Galaxy.
Three is a default number for tight ends on most rosters, two of which usually play regularly. If a fourth tight end is kept, he is often a contributor in some other way, such as with the long-snapping. Given last year's success by Becht and Smith and the two new draftees, this should be a position of heavy competition.
Offensive Line: G Phil Bogle, G Dan Buenning, G/C Jonathan Clinkscale, T Chris Colmer, T Anthony Davis, G Toniu Fonoti, C Scott Jackson, G Davin Joseph, T Sam Lightbody, G/C Sean Mahan, C/G Jason Nerys, G Jeb Terry, T Jeremy Trueblood, T Torrin Tucker, C John Wade, T Kenyatta Walker, T Todd Williams
As far as the offensive line is accomplished, it's "mission accomplished" for the Buccaneers.
No, the Bucs haven't determined their five starters with iron-clad certainty or even proved that they will be better at that position in 2006. However, they have definitely met their goal of fleshing out the competition in dramatic fashion, to the point that it's hard to imagine this group not coming out stronger this fall.
How they get there should be fun…at least fun for those of us watching training camp. For the players, camp can be grueling, and the offensive line position was hit particularly hard by injuries a year ago. But the competition could be fascinating, with a number of intriguing options on paper, at least.
That begins with the starting line of 2005, which comes back intact after three of the five (Walker, Mahan and Davis) were re-signed as free agents of varying types. Those five (also including Wade and Buenning) started every game together and did a fine job of opening lanes for Williams. The man they are charged with protecting on passing plays, Simms, has raved about the work of those five during the 2006 offseason.
Obviously, bringing those five starters back was important to the Buccaneers, but that didn't stop the team from focusing on the line in free agency and, especially, the draft. The Bucs added two former NFL starters in Tucker and Fonoti, both of whom are still young, and spent their first and second-round picks on the line. Joseph and Trueblood will push to get into the lineup early, as Buenning did last year.
Rewinding just a bit, the Bucs also have two other linemen from recent drafts who could make their marks this year. Terry, a fifth-rounder in 2004, was in the running for a starting spot last summer and has reportedly had a very strong spring. Colmer, a third-round pick in 2005, is looking to overcome offseason injuries and make another run at playing time.
Jackson has been with the Bucs' since '04 and he started the '05 season on the team's practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in October. Though he has yet to see any regular-season game action, he has good size (6-4, 300) and is obviously well-versed in the Bucs' offense. Clinkscale and Lightbody went to camp with the Bucs last year as undrafted free agent rookies and were quickly re-signed after the conclusion of the season.
Bogle made a cameo in the Bucs' 2005 training camp, signing late after that aforementioned rash of injuries. He actually has starting experience, having opened 13 games as a rookie in 2003 despite being an undrafted free agent out of Division II New Haven. Nerys just returned from a stint in the NFLEL, where he split time at center for the eventual champions, Frankfurt. The massive Williams (6-5, 325) made it onto the Titans' active roster in three different seasons but still hasn't seen much playing time.
The Bucs finished last season with nine offensive linemen on the 53-man roster. The specific number of O-linemen retained after camp could depend on how flexible some of the candidates are in terms of playing multiple positions. Last year, the Bucs kept the starting five plus two additional tackles, one center and one guard.