The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will open training camp in a little over two weeks and, technically speaking, every starting job and every reserve spot on the depth chart will be open for competition. The more practical reality, of course, is that some jobs are more secure than others and some positions on the depth chart are going to feature wilder battles than others. Last week, in fact, Casey Phillips, Carmen Vitali and I debated which competitions would be most interesting to watch.
When the players line up for the first full-team drill of training camp, Gerald McCoy and Mike Evans will be holding down starting spots, as will Lavonte David and Ali Marpet. Barring injury, they will be in those same spots when camp ends and the regular season begins. Contrastingly, if you can tell us right now who will be starting at right guard or right cornerback when the season starts, you're ahead of the game.
Today we're going to take another look at that training camp depth chart and decide which positions seem most set and which still need a lot of figuring out. Below you'll find 11 positions arranged by how certain the lineups are, in my opinion. Specifically, I've ranked them from most to least certain, and provided a few bits of commentary as to how the list took shape.
One quick note: I used the caveat "barring injury" up above when discussing sure things on the depth chart. I don't want to keep repeating that phrase, but you can mentally add it to the analysis of each position below.
1. Tight End
The Buccaneers invested a 2017 first-round pick on O.J. Howard and gave Cameron Brate a well-deserved and lucrative new deal this offseason. Those two tied for the team lead in 2017 with six touchdowns each. There aren't many better 1-2 combinations at the position in the NFL, and the man right behind them, Canadian Antony Auclair, is a very intriguing talent as well. The Bucs also know what they have in the useful Alan Cross. The only real question is whether any of the undrafted rookies – Donnie Ernsberger, Tanner Hudson or Jason Reese – can challenge for a spot or prompt the team to keep an extra tight end.
Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander give the Bucs Pro Bowl-caliber players at two of the three starting spots. The one big question mark heading into camp at this position is the health of the third presumptive starter, Kendell Beckwith, who fractured an ankle in a spring car accident. Beckwith proved to be a very quick healer last year and if he repeats that type of speedy recovery there should be little mystery to the starting lineup. The reserves are primarily well-known commodities – Adarius Taylor, Devante Bond, Cameron Lynch, Riley Bullough – though it remains to be seen how sixth-round draft pick Jack Cichy fits in the picture.
3. Wide Receiver
The top of the depth chart seems pretty straightforward. Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson are obvious starters on Day One, although Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken said that second-year man Chris Godwin has "earned the right" to start, as well. Adam Humphries is well entrenched as the slot receiver. Those four may jockey a bit for playing time, particularly if Godwin continues his ascension, but it would be surprising if any of them dropped totally out of the picture. The Buccaneers would probably like to keep a spot for fifth-round rookie Justin Watson, too, even if Watson's early role in the offense is minimal. If all of that holds true, the real question marks here will be what happens with the likes of Freddie Martino, Bernard Reedy and Bobo Wilson, all players the coaches are clearly very high on.
Most of these jobs seem very set. Chandler Catanzaro got a nice deal in unrestricted free agency to stabilize a kicker position that has been a trouble spot in Tampa for several years. Bryan Anger is unopposed at punter after two good years in that position and is only in the second year of the four-year contract he got right after the 2017 campaign. Drew Ferris has yet to play in a regular-season game but he's the only long-snapper on the roster. The reason that this group doesn't rank at the top of the certainty list is the return game. The Buccaneers could easily stick with incumbents Adam Humphries (on punts) and Jacquizz Rodgers (on kickoffs) and they also have Reedy back in the fold with his proven return skills. However, there will be some young candidates vying for those jobs as a way to make the roster and one or more could prove to be a more dynamic option.
5. Defensive Tackle
I've split the defensive line into inside and outside players simply because there are so many of them. The tackles seem just a bit more set than the ends because the up-front rotation of Gerald McCoy, Beau Allen and Vita Vea is so obvious and attractive. Mitch Unrein is in the mix, too, but might be the type of player who sees both inside and outside. Stevie Tu'ikolovatu is a bit of a question mark after spending his rookie season on injured reserve, and there's the possibility that some players listed as ends – William Gholston, Davonte Lambert, Channing Ward, Vinny Curry – will take some inside snaps. Still, that top trio is solid.
6. Running Back
In terms of personnel, this one could be higher on the list. Three of the four tailbacks from last year return in Peyton Barber, Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims, and second-round pick Ronald Jones seems like a one-for-one replacement for the fourth, Doug Martin. Young backs Dalton Crossan and Shaun Wilson will fight for a spot but aren't likely to substantively change that lineup. The uncertainty comes in how those backs are deployed on Sundays. Will Jones or Barber be the starter, and will that designation really even matter? How much action will the other backs see on offense? Will the team stick to a certain plan for splitting snaps or roll with the hot hand?
7. Defensive End
This is good uncertainty. If things go well, the Buccaneers will have enough dynamic edge rushers to make it difficult for the coaches to dole out the snaps. Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul seem like the front-runners to start, on the right and left ends respectively, but Will Gholston started 10 games last year and has dropped weight to try to regain his strong 2016 form. Noah Spence added bulk and should be able to avoid repeats of his shoulder injuries thanks to an offseason surgical procedure. Will Clarke provided good depth last season and is back in 2018. There are a lot of young hopefuls beyond that, including Lambert and Ward but also numbering the likes of Patrick O'Connor, Demone Harris and Evan Perrizo. The biggest question mark here is probably how the rotation will go among the top four or five players, but those young players will be battling for spots and could shake things up a bit.
8. Offensive Line
The Buccaneers are very optimistic that this unit will have a stronger season in 2018 than it did a year ago, but one has to acknowledge there are a couple question marks. One is the health of Demar Dotson, who had knee surgery in the spring. The team is hopeful that Dotson won't miss any game time and will be able to reprise what was a very good 2017 campaign. There's also an opening at right guard after the release of J.R. Sweezy. Rising young player Caleb Benenoch, versatile vet Evan Smith and rookie third-rounder Alex Cappa would be among the top options for that job. Ryan Jensen arrives to take over center, which moves Ali Marpet to left guard. Those positions appear solid, as does left tackle with Donovan Smith. Still, the right side has to come together and the team has to decide which players provide the best depth behind the starting five.
Jameis Winston will miss the first three games of the regular season, which obviously complicates the picture at this position. Ryan Fitzpatrick started three games in place of an injured Winston last year and performed well, and he could do so again to start 2018 after re-signing in the offseason. That's a fair amount of certainty, but we must acknowledge that Ryan Griffin also remains and will be fighting to pass Fitzpatrick on the depth chart. Will the team keep just two quarterbacks during Winston's absence? When he returns, will they keep three, as they did for the second half of last year and all of 2016? If the Bucs go with just two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster for any part of the regular season, does that give rookie Austin Allen a chance to stick on the practice squad?
The Buccaneers return both of their starters from the end of last season in Justin Evans and Chris Conte, so perhaps the safety position deserves to be higher on this list. However, there is a possibility for some shakeup here, whether it's in the starting lineup or on the next few lines of the depth chart. There's also room for editing the number of safeties the team keeps, which will probably tie in with how the competition goes at cornerback and how many of those players need to be retained on the 53-man roster. Is rookie fourth-rounder Jordan Whitehead advanced enough to push for starting snaps? Isaiah Johnson got a late promotion to the active roster last season after nearly two years on the practice squad; can he stick to start this season? The Bucs also went hard after undrafted rookie Godwin Igwebuike, so he could push for a spot as well. Even Keith Tandy, who is the embodiment of steady certainty, could shake things up. He started at the end of 2016 and was very productive in that stretch.
There's exactly one thing that could reasonably be called certain at the cornerback position heading into camp, and that's Brent Grimes in one of the starting spots. He has been the team's best and most productive corner the past two years and isn't likely to see a significant decline despite the fact that he's about to turn 34. If Grimes does hold down one outside spot, who is his counterpart on the other side? Ryan Smith is the incumbent, but Vernon Hargreaves played that role for all of 2016 and the first part of 2017. Rookie Carlton Davis got a lot of first-team action on the outside in OTAs and mini-camp and was impressive early. David Rivers got some of those snaps, too, this spring and that could help him heading into camp. How about the slot? Hargreaves has drawn good reviews for his work there in a brief stint last year as well as what he has done this offseason. M.J. Stewart was drafted in the second round in part because the team thought he could operate well in the slot. Javien Elliott has had that role in the past. Hargreaves could end up playing a little bit of both. Of all the positions on the depth chart, this is the one that seems like a true, open, multi-faceted competition, with many possible final combinations.