The Tampa Bay Buccaneers worked out at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night, inviting fans inside to fill the stands and take in the action. The stadium turf, the responsive crowd and the giant scoreboard in each end zone added a dose of realism to what was, in most other respects, a typical training camp practice.
Hopefully, some of the results from Saturday's practice were also a realistic representation of what Buccaneer fans will see on Sunday afternoons this fall.
In particular, the first-team offense put together one very impressive drive during a full-team drill in the middle of practice. The march covered most of the field and ended in a "touchdown" pass to wide receiver Mike Williams, setting off the Raymond James Stadium cannons in the opposite end zone. The evidence from a practice-field drive, with no real tackling allowed, must obviously be taken with a grain of salt. Still, several of the players the Buccaneers hope will be key contributors on offense this fall were heavily involved – including Williams, rookie running back Doug Martin and tight end Dallas Clark – and that was very encouraging.
Williams, of course, has been the Bucs' leading pass-catcher among wideouts each of the last two seasons, and the team obviously knew that Martin would be heavily involved in the offense when they spent the 31st overall pick the Boise State back in April. The arrival of Clark, on the other hand, was a less predictable development.
The Buccaneers signed Clark on May 21, and on the same day traded their tight end starter of the past three seasons, Kellen Winslow, to Seattle. Clark was one of the most prolific tight ends in the entire NFL for a good portion of the past decade playing in the Indianapolis Colts' high-powered offense, but he had been hampered by injuries the last two seasons. The Colts released Clark (along with quarterback Peyton Manning and several others) this spring in a dramatic change of franchise direction. The Buccaneers, quarterback Josh Freeman and Offensive Coordinator Mike Sullivan's attack all represent brand new starts for the 33-year-old veteran (though he did get to keep his familiar #44 jersey).
As such, it's reasonable to wonder how quickly Clark will be integrated into the Bucs' attack, and how significant his contributions will be. It's also reasonable to expect big things from Clark; after all, he did catch 100 passes in his last fully-healthy season, 2009.
Recent results on the practice field suggest that Clark will indeed figure heavily in Tampa Bay's offensive plans this fall. It appears that he has gained the confidence – and an early look on many snaps – from the man distributing the football, quarterback Josh Freeman.
"He's great," said Freeman of Clark. "He didn't have all the OTAs with us, but coming in, everybody knows him. He's an absolute stud, a great guy to be around. The guy loves football, he's passionate, and it's going to be great. We connected a few times the other night, connected a few times [Monday]. We just continue to work."
Two of the longest plays during that aforementioned drive on Saturday night were Freeman-Clark hook-ups, one a short pass that involved running after the catch, and one a downfield throw into an open hole in the zone defense. Clark had also been a very visible contributor during the team's Friday morning practice at One Buccaneer Place, and he and Freeman kept their momentum going on Monday after getting Saturday off.
"Like any relationship between a quarterback and a receiver, it's a matter of getting different looks, a different sort of leverage, what angle he's going to come out of, things like that," said Freeman. "He's doing a good job…he's doing a great job, actually, and I'm glad we have him."
That seems to be the prevailing opinion around One Buccaneer Place. The team still has yet to play an actual game and Clark hasn't worn anything but a white practice jersey to this point, so there are still many who will reserve their opinions until the real action takes place. But Clark looks more and more comfortable every day within the confines of One Buc Place, Mike Sullivan's offense and his relationship with Josh Freeman. So far, the Bucs are feeling good about their spring decision to bring Clark into the fold.
"I think he looks really good and I think he's working his tail off," said Head Coach Greg Schiano. "He's a true professional. Like anybody else you keep your fingers crossed because it's a violent game. But I'm really excited to have Dallas on our club. Not only [due to] how he's performed so far, but the leadership and maturity, all those things are a key part of what we do."
Rookies Barron, David Among Starters on First Depth Chart
The Buccaneers released their first official depth chart of 2012 on Tuesday morning, a league requirement in advance of the team's preseason opener in Miami on Friday. Obviously, considering that the team is just past the halfway point of its training camp, the chart should still be considered very much a work in progress.
That's especially true given that there are four preseason games still to be played, as well as a pair of significant roster cuts. Schiano has said on several occasions that the live games are the best opportunities for the coaching staff to evaluate the competitors and come to important roster decisions.
Still, the rotation of players has to begin somewhere, and Tuesday's release does offer some clues as to how the competition in training camp is developing so far. Here are a few observations regarding the team's first depth chart of 2012 (click here to check out the entire chart):
- Two rookies have cracked the starting lineup at this point, both on defense. First-round pick Mark Barron is leading the way at strong safety, where he is paired with free safety Ronde Barber. Second-round selection Lavonte David is currently occupying the first chair at weakside linebacker. "Lavonte has really picked things up quickly and he's playing at a high level," said Schiano on Monday. "We haven't played a game yet so I want to control that enthusiasm, but he sure is fun to coach so far."
- The Buccaneers' other first-round pick, running back Doug Martin is not listed as the starter at running back, but it's not likely that means a whole lot. It's fairly clear that the team intends to make significant use of both him and incumbent starter LeGarrette Blount. Blount, who has led the team in rushing each of the past two years and has a career 4.6 yards per carry in the NFL, is the first back listed on the depth chart. Mossis Madu, who got a brief but interesting cameo late last season, remains third on the chart, ahead of rookie Michael Smith, a seventh-round pick.
- Second-year defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who is on the active/PUP list due to the Achilles tendon injury he suffered in May, has been put fourth on the list at left end for practical reasons. He is expected to miss a good portion of the upcoming season, though he hopes to return in the second half. Michael Bennett is listed as the starter, with E.J. Wilson second on the chart. George Johnson, a promising third-year player out of Rutgers, is second behind Adrian Clayborn at right defensive end.
- Roy Miller, a third-round pick in 2009 who has made 20 starts over the past three seasons, is listed first at the defensive tackle position next to Gerald McCoy. McCoy is expected to start at the "three-technique" position in Schiano's defense, which makes Miller the front-runner at nose tackle. Amobi Okoye, the versatile veteran signed from Chicago in the offseason, is listed behind McCoy at the three-technique spot, which is considered Okoye's more natural position.
- Anthony Gaitor, a seventh-round pick out of Florida International a year ago, has made an impressive rise in his time with the team. He is currently listed second behind Eric Wright at right cornerback, which would seem to make him a strong candidate for the nickel back spot. E.J. Biggers, who was probably the leader in that nickel back competition coming into camp, is currently out with a foot injury but still listed behind Aqib Talib at left cornerback. Myron Lewis, who has been impressive on the practice field in recent days, is listed behind Biggers and promising undrafted free agent Leonard Johnson comes in behind Gaitor.
- Preston Parker appears to be the front runner for the Bucs' return job. He is listed first at both punt return and kickoff return, with Sammie Stroughter second on both lines.