Second-year man Aqib Talib should step into the starting LCB spot, but that creates a new opening at nickel back
During his team's series of offseason practices, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris favored the occasional "sudden change" period in the middle of the workout schedule.
The content of the period could be any specific game situation – a goal-line drill, perhaps, or one with the offense backed up at its own two – but more important was the setting. Players didn't know the sudden change period was coming but were expected to react to it swiftly and smoothly. Sometimes, as can be the case in May and June, it took a couple tries to get it right.
There is little doubt that Morris will insert some sudden change into the Buccaneers' 2009 training camp, which is set to begin in less than a month. Change, in fact, will be a significant theme in this year's camp, the first with Morris at the helm and Mark Dominik in the general manager's office; simply as a result of the players who have arrived or moved on since the end of the 2008 campaign, there will be at least seven new starters on the field for the Buccaneers this year.
It wouldn't be accurate to call all of this change "sudden," however. Many of the lineup alterations were made a necessity way back in February in March, when former starters such as Derrick Brooks and Jeff Garcia were either released or not pursued in free agency. The Buccaneers have been working on filling those spots all spring and summer, and now it's time to see how it will actually play out on the field. The OTAs and classroom sessions of the spring months were good for laying a foundation, but the real job search begins in training camp.
To be sure, not all of the starting jobs that are changing hands are significant mysteries. Competition always exists at every spot, but some of the likely solutions are clear. It's fairly obvious, for instance, that trade-acquisition Kellen Winslow, the two-time Pro Bowler, is the expected replacement for Alex Smith, and that second-year man Aqib Talib is the first option to replace left cornerback Phillip Buchanon.
Still, we can examine these spots where change will occur, noting any battles that exist and what the team can expect in 2009 as compared to what it received in 2008. And there is much to examine. If one takes the 22 starting spots on offense and defense, adds the two primary kicking and kick return jobs as well as the enormous non-starting roles of nickel back and third receiver, then you have 28 primary positions to fill. At least nine of those will have new starters in 2009 as the previous occupants have moved on or will likely have new jobs: quarterback, tight end, third receiver, left defensive end, defensive tackle, weakside linebacker, strongside linebacker, left cornerback and nickel back.
In addition, if Jermaine Phillips proves to be the answer at weakside linebacker, then there will be a new starter at his former position, strong safety, as well. And when the Buccaneers signed former New York Jets kicker Mike Nugent in March, they made it clear that Nugent and incumbent Matt Bryant would conduct an open competition for the job.
In this brief series before the start of training camp that we'll call "Hot Spots," we'll look at a number of those positions one at a time, or occasionally two at a time if they are related. For the purposes of this series, we've identified the 28 regulars that primarily filled the above positions in 2008, whether or not they happened to be in that spot for the season finale. (Running back Earnest Graham, who made a team-high eight starts at that spot in 2008, is a perfect example.)
Our first Hot Spots: Left cornerback and nickel back.
As mentioned, 2008 first-round draft pick Aqib Talib is earmarked to replace the departed Buchanon, who became a free agent in March and is now with the Detroit Lions. Obviously, the Buccaneers expected Talib to be a starter before too long after using the 20th overall pick on the Kansas star in '08. They wasted no time getting him on the field in his rookie campaign, installing him as the nickel back, which gave him extensive playing time.
As has long been the case in the Buccaneers' system, coming in as the third cornerback in the nickel package does not necessarily put the extra player into the slot. Ronde Barber, who starts at right cornerback, generally moves into the slot in the nickel package, meaning the incoming cornerback is on the outside, where the starters would usually line up. Thus Talib played extensively in his rookie season and is very much a known commodity.
And what the Buccaneers know is that he looks like a star in the making. Big (6-1, 205), quick and supremely athletic, Talib showed flashes of brilliance last year, evidenced in part by his four interceptions. That total tied with Barber for the team lead, and Talib's 10 passes defensed were close to the totals posted by the two starters (12 for Buchanon, 16 for Barber).
Buchanon had another solid season in 2008, his third with the team since arriving midway through the 2006 campaign. The Buccaneers signed Buchanon after he had been released by the Houston Texans, who had originally acquired the former first-round pick in a trade with the Oakland Raiders. Buchanon's brief stint in Houston wasn't particularly successful, but he seemed to fit well in the Bucs' scheme and was able to get his career back on track.
Buchanon had seven interceptions in 42 games as a Buccaneer, including two picks in 16 starts last season. The Buccaneers believe that Talib will be able to replace those respectable numbers, and perhaps bring more of a playmaking element to the team's first and second-down defense.
Of course, if Talib does step in as a starter as expected, the team will be searching for a new solution at nickel back. Regardless of the lineup, there will be a new primary figure in the team's top-three rotation at cornerback, and that player will be relatively inexperienced in the role.
There are two candidates in the group who have played nickel back with the Buccaneers in the past, though of course that was in Monte Kiffin's system, not Jim Bates. Last year, rookie Elbert Mack, a surprisingly effective rookie free agent out of Troy, saw time in that role early in the season, when Talib was dealing with injuries. Mack not only proved effective in coverage but also belied his smallish frame (5-10, 175 pounds) with tackling that was hard and technically-sound. Veteran Torrie Cox has struggled with injuries throughout his six-year NFL career but has always shown talent that has intrigued the coaching staff. While he is firmly entrenched as one of the league's better special teams players, Cox could also still find a role on defense, as he did briefly in 2004 and 2006.
The Bucs' other four candidates at cornerback are all young players: Kyle Arrington, E.J. Biggers, Marshall McDuffie and DeAngelo Willingham. Arrington has the advantage of time spent at One Buccaneer Place, where he has worked under Morris' guidance since his arrival in Week Three of last season. Arrington spent the last 15 weeks of the season on the Buccaneers' practice squad, learning from Morris, who was then the team's defensive backs coach, and veterans like Barber and Buchanon.
Biggers came on strong near the end of the team's offseason program after he was drafted in the seventh round this past April out of Western Michigan. The 6-0, 180-pound DB has very good speed and took to Buccaneer coaching well this offseason. As undrafted free agents out of Florida International and Tennessee, respectively, McDuffie and Willingham may be lesser-known prospects but as Mack demonstrated last year, that's irrelevant once the competition begins. All of the young players will have a better chance to stick around long enough to grab time at nickel back if they first prove they can make a difference on special teams.
Obviously, the Buccaneers believe they got very good production out of the nickel back spot last year, with Talib filling that role. Talib was the first non-starter to have as many as four interceptions in a season for the Buccaneers since Dwight Smith did so in the nickel back role for the Super Bowl team in 2002. Smith moved to a starting safety position in 2003, at least to start the season, and the Bucs struggled to replace his contributions in the nickel, especially after Brian Kelly went down with an injury and Tim Wansley became a starter. Smith eventually moved back to a starting cornerback job while the likes of Wansley, Corey Ivy and Ronyell Whitaker tried to solidify the three-man rotation.
The Buccaneers hope to make a more seamless transition this year with Talib likely becoming a starter and a new nickel back emerging. The coaching staff has characterized the battle for that latter job as wide open; it should prove to be one of the more interesting storylines of training camp.