The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' will report to training camp in nine days and begin practice the next morning. Fifteen days after that, the team will head to Miami for its first preseason game of 2012. In other words, the competition is about to begin.
A year after missing an entire offseason of work due to a labor impasse, the Buccaneers had a very productive spring and summer to prepare themselves for Training Camp 2012. Impressions were made, to be sure, and it's likely some players began to separate themselves from the pack. But all the pads were left in the locker room during the offseason, and not one tackle was made. First-year Head Coach Greg Schiano has made it clear that no starting jobs could really be won until he sees what his players can do in live action.
Training camp, when the pads can go on and the hitting can begin, is much closer to the real thing…and the preseason games are obviously the best proving grounds of all. The best part is, it will all play out in front of the fans. Unlike all other practices during the offseason and the regular-season, training camp is largely open to the public. Nine of the those camp practices, eight of which will be held at the team's One Buccaneer Place headquarters, are open to all comers (and free); click here for a schedule of those workouts. And, of course, the preseason games are, as the old sitcoms used to say, filmed before a live studio audience.
Every position on the depth chart is theoretically open for competition, as is the case every summer. That said, it's evident that some spots are more settled than others, barring injury. It would be quite shocking, for instance, if Josh Freeman isn't under center on opening day or if Pro Bowlers Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks aren't manning the guard spots in front of him. There are other positions, however, where roster additions and subtractions have made turnover a virtual certainty, and where the competition in July and August will be the fiercest.
With the first camp practice just around the corner, let's take a look at some of the battles that will be most entertaining to watch this summer at One Buccaneer Place and Raymond James Stadium. We'll highlight two positions each on offense and defense plus one on special teams.
1. Weakside linebacker
In truth, the entire linebacker lineup is still in the works, thanks to the valuable flexibility that such players as Quincy Black, Mason Foster, Lavonte David and Adam Hayward bring to the table. However, on paper the Bucs have returning starters on both the strong side (Black) and in the middle (Foster), while last year's weakside starter, Geno Hayes, has since departed.
Adding to the field of linebacker candidates was obviously important to the Buccaneers this spring, as they traded up to grab David in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. David is clearly seen as a potential starter, given both his draft position and the fact that he spent the team's final mini-camp running with the first team defense. Schiano has made it clear, however, that he will continue to try different combinations with that three-man group, and David knows nothing will be handed to him.
The former Nebraska star is an intriguing candidate, though. He was a tackling machine for the Cornhuskers and the Buccaneers were deficient in that department in 2011, ranking last in the NFL against the run. David also has outstanding speed, which could help him develop into the kind of sideline-to-sideline playmaker that has driven Buccaneer defenses of the past (think Derrick Brooks and Hardy Nickerson).
Foster, going into his second season after arriving as a third-round pick in 2011, should also be considered a candidate on the weak side if Schiano and company choose to shuffle the lineup a bit more. Foster started his entire rookie season at middle linebacker, and the coaches have liked what they've seen from him at that spot this offseason. But he has college experience on the outside and could potentially be a big-time playmaker in that role. If that move were to occur, David would then become a candidate in the middle, as would fellow 2011 draft pick Najee Goode. There is also the notion that the very athletic Black could switch from the strong side to the weak side and, of course, one has to factor in that the job descriptions of those positions will change a bit with the change in coaching staffs.
Camp observers should also not count out veteran Adam Hayward, who has proven in his five seasons so far that he is capable of filling in at all three starting spots. Hayward opened one game at that spot in 2009, in fact, though his spot starts in the last two seasons have all come on the strong side. Offseason pickup Rennie Curran has to be included in the mix, as well, since he also got significant practice time with the first team this spring, and the versatile Goode could make a run for the job as well.
2. Nose tackle
The Buccaneers' interior defensive line was in constant flux last season due to Gerald McCoy's early-season injury and nagging issues for Brian Price (though Price did start 14 contests). McCoy is back to full health, however, and is the likely starter at one of the two defensive tackle positions. A gifted pass-rusher, McCoy should fill the spot often referred to as "under tackle" or "three-technique," leaving the question mark next to him at nose tackle.
Price is the incumbent, but he was able to get in only limited work with Schiano's crew during the offseason due to health and personal issues. He was, for instance, excused from the mandatory mini-camp in June that capped the offseason program. A high second-round pick in 2010, Price is a gifted athlete and a potential difference-maker on the Bucs' line but he is a bit of an unknown quantity heading into camp.
The Buccaneers' cupboard is far from bare on the interior line, however. While it didn't get quite the fanfare of the team's opening free agency salvo of Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright, the Bucs' signing of former Texan and Bear defensive tackle Amobi Okoye could be very significant. Okoye is an experienced starter, having opened 59 games over five seasons since being drafted in the first round by Houston in 2007. Though he's been around a bit longer than McCoy and Price, Okoye has the same youthful profile. He's still only 24, having been drafted at the age of 19 and, in 2007, becoming the youngest player to appear in an NFL game since 1967. Okoye also fits in well at the nose tackle position and would be an obvious candidate to step in if Price isn't filling the spot. Even though he was mostly a reserve for Chicago last year, Okoye still recorded four sacks, to give him 15 in his career so far.
And, of course, the Bucs have their own experienced starter at nose tackle in fourth-year man Roy Miller. A third-round pick in 2009, Miller has made 20 starters already in his career, including three last year. In 2010, the former Texas Longhorn started all 16 games at nose tackle and produced 60 tackles and one sack. A very compact 310 pounds, Miller is strong at the point of attack and could help the team's young pass-rushers get free by occupying blockers in the middle of the line.
The candidates don't end there. Fifth-year man Frank Okam, the team's biggest lineman, has started for the Buccaneers in the past, including three games last year. An even later-in-the-offseason signing, former Ram Gary Gibson, has 22 career NFL starts, including 16 for St. Louis in 2010. And if you're looking for a dark horse to back, don't forget second-year player E.J. Wilson, a versatile defender who can play both inside and outside. Wilson was having an outstanding camp for the Buccaneers a year ago, primarily at defensive tackle, before suffering a season-ending injury in the preseason. He's back to join the competition once again.
3. Running back
This is one position where the battle for the title of "starter" is far from the entire story. The Buccaneers are likely to make use of a full stable of backs in 2012, as is the practice with most teams in today's NFL. Third-year player LeGarrette Blount is the returning starter and rookie Doug Martin is the prized newcomer, but it would be surprise if either of them failed to earn a significant role in Mike Sullivan's attack. There may also be a significant number of carries available for the likes of Michael Smith, Mossis Madu, Robert Hughes or De'Anthony Curtis.
Still, as those preparing for their fantasy football drafts are aware, the exact makeup of the Bucs' rushing attack is still to be determined. Will Blount remain the starter or will that job go to Martin…and will that title even matter in the long run? The best-case scenario for the Buccaneers is a rushing attack that proves very potent, which will lead to more carries for everyone involved.
Much of it may depend on how versatile Blount and Martin prove to be. Obviously, being competent in the passing game – both as a receiver and, just as importantly, a blocker in the backfield – will increase the chances for either back to remain on the field for all downs. Martin was seen as that sort of multi-talented every-down back by scouts and analysts before the draft, and Blount is determined to prove that the same description applies to him.
It will also be interesting to see which back emerges as the team's best option in short yardage situations and around the goal line. Counter-intuitively, that hasn't been the best part of Blount's game in his first two NFL seasons, but his 250-pound frame and tendency to break tackles suggest it still could be. Martin is a smaller back, but certainly not small (5-9, 223) and he ran well between the tackles at Boise State.
And, again, if the rushing attack proves to be strong, there will be more opportunities for other candidates in the field. Smith, the team's seventh-round pick, has breakaway speed and is thus a very interesting option as a third-down back and a pass-catcher out of the backfield. Madu got a small cameo in the Bucs' offense late last season and made a good impression; he, too, has the speed to get around the corner. Hughes and Curtis are both undrafted rookies seeking a chance to make a good impression, but the Buccaneers have certainly had some success with undrafted backs in the past (Earnest Graham, Aaron Stecker, etc.).
4. Second and third receiver
Repeating the caveat that all positions are still open for competition, it is widely expected, and for good reason, that prized free agent acquisition Vincent Jackson will be one of the team's two starting receivers. Jackson is coming off his third 1,000-yard season in the last four years, all with San Diego, and his sizeable presence is expected to make the entire receiving corps better. Jackson is a legitimate big-play threat, with a career average of 17.5 yards per catch, and that's exactly what the still-developing Freeman needed.
If Jackson is indeed in the starting lineup, that is going to necessitate a change from the last two years. Fellow 2010 draft picks Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn have been the Buccaneers' starters for most of the past two seasons, but there will presumably only be one spot in the starting 11 open to them to start 2012.
Williams has started more games (31 to 23) and caught more passes (130 to 55) than Benn, and thus would appear to have the inside track on the other job entering training camp. It's an interesting situation, however, because it is Benn that has been starting at the "Z" position the last two years, and that's the spot available opposite Jackson. Jackson is the likely starter at "X," where Williams has spent his first two years in the league. Of course, as was mentioned in regard to the linebacker competition, the definitions of those positions could now be somewhat different under a new coaching staff.
As with the running backs, the story doesn't end with the starting assignments. Most NFL offenses spend a good portion of the team with at least three receivers on the field, so there should be significant action for several other pass-catchers after the two starters. Obviously, whoever is not starting along with Jackson between Williams and Benn is a prime candidate to be the next player on the field. There is good reason, however, for the coaching staff to want to get several other receivers into the mix. The two most notable men in that field are Preston Parker and Dezmon Briscoe.
Parker was actually the Bucs' second-leading pass-catcher among wideouts last year, with 40. He did most of his damage out of the slot and thus is another strong candidate to be included in three-receiver sets. It hasn't hurt Parker's cause that he has had a strong offseason and has drawn praise from both the coaching staff and his quarterback, Freeman. Briscoe was nearly as productive as Parker in 2011, catching 35 passes, and he was actually the team's leading scorer in the aerial attack, with six touchdowns. Sammie Stroughter, heading into his fourth season, was injured much of last fall but is also a proven producer in the slot.
There are a handful of newcomers and unproven youngsters trying to catch on as well, and with a new coaching staff in place it would be unwise to discount any of them. That group includes Ed Gant, Tiquan Underwood; the former spent all of last season on the Bucs' practice squad and was a strong performer in last year's camp, while the latter most recently played for the Patriots and is a product of Schiano's former Rutgers program. The receiver position is often one of the most competitive spots on the depth chart during training camp, and this year appears to be no different.
5. Kick returner
Parker and Stroughter handled most of the team's return duties last year, and both players are returning for this year's camp, so there isn't necessarily a need for change here. However, that job – or those two jobs if the team chooses to have separate punt and kickoff returners – have passed through a lot of hands in recent seasons, and the new coaching staff is likely to do a thorough search before reaching a decision for 2012.
Parker and Stroughter should get their opportunities, of course. Parker handled both the punt and kickoff return tasks for a good portion of 2011 and did well, particularly in the punting game. His average of 9.1 yards per punt return was good for eighth-best in the NFC. Stroughter's midseason return from injury meant the two players ended up splitting the kickoff return job, getting 20 tries each. Overall, Stroughter was more productive, averaging 27.0 yards per runback to Parker's 22.0, though it's a small sample size for both.
Stroughter has proven himself on a slightly larger scale as a kickoff returner, however. In his career he has returned 34 kickoffs and compiled an average of 27.7 yards per try, the second-best career mark in franchise history. He has returned only 13 punts in his career, but for a nice average of 9.2 yards each.
With a bloated camp roster of 90 players, there is no shortage of additional options. Rookie running backs Martin and Smith are two very intriguing options, and Smith breakaway speed and a proven collegiate track record in that job. New Special Teams Coordinator Bob Ligashesky even mentioned Mike Williams as a potential option for the return jobs, though that is something Williams has not yet attempted at the NFL level. Underwood has done it before, returning kickoffs for Jacksonville in 2010, and the team might also consider Madu for either job. Chances are, Schiano and Ligashesky have identified several other candidates that have yet to be revealed, and seeing who they are will be another very entertaining aspect of training camp.