Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Roundtable: Top Training Camp Battles

Buccaneers.com contributors Joe Kania, Andrew Norton and Scott Smith gather once again to debate which depth-chart competition will be most interesting in this year's training camp.

Photos of the Buccaneers' complete roster.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't have an official 2017 depth chart yet, but there's at least a loose framework in place, to be sure. Jameis Winston will run the first team offense and Mike Evans will be his top target, while Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David will remain at the center of the defense. There are, in fact, quite a few starting spots that seem secure, which is what one would expect from a team that is widely considered a prime playoff contender.

Now, Winston and company still have to (and surely will) work as hard as the rest of the roster when training camp begins in late July. Their play, and most importantly Winston's continued development, will be critical in meeting those postseason aspirations. They just won't be the source of the best drama in this year's camp.

That will come from the undecided position battles, where jobs and roster spots are at stake. These head-to-head or three-way competitions have huge stakes for the players involved and may also have a big impact on the shape of the upcoming season. And they will play out in front of a live crowd of Buccaneer fans as well as the national Hard Knocks audience.

As "Roundtable Week" continues here on Buccaneers.com, that's the topic du jour for me, Andrew Norton and Joe Kania. There are always some spots up on the depth chart up for grabs when training camp begins; which ones will offer us the juiciest competition this summer? Since Joe went first last time, let's start with Andrew on this topic.

Andrew Norton: Safety

Pictures of the Buccaneers' safeties.

I think that the starting safety combo is the top of everyone's list, so I'm glad to be picking first in this particular category.

Let's take a look at the major players in what is shaping up to be a four-way battle for two open spots.

  • Keith Tandy – Returning player who tied for the team-lead with four interceptions last season. He played in all 16 games last year, starting five of them.
  • Chris Conte – Has four interceptions, two forced fumbles, one recovery and a touchdown in his two seasons with the Bucs. He has started 24 games for the team.
  • J.J. Wilcox – Free agent pickup from the Cowboys with 38 career starts, five interceptions, two forced fumbles and three recoveries.
  • Justin Evans – Second-round draft pick out of Texas A&M with 25 college games played, 165 total tackles, 5 interceptions and 11 passes defensed

So you have three players with NFL starting experience and a fourth who was a high draft pick and who we'll potentially see getting his first on-field action in training camp after missing OTAs and mini-camp with injury. Any combination of the four could be starting on September 10. That's pretty exciting, and even more so that we'll likely get to see it all play out on Hard Knocks.

Scott Smith: Slot Corner

Pictures of the Buccaneers' cornerbacks.

You're right about the four-men-for-two-spots safety battle being a good one, Andrew, but I think the competition to be the primary slot corner is even more dramatic. For one thing, it's (probably) three players angling for a single position. For another, I'm not sure a roster spot is guaranteed for the players who do not win the battle. In contrast, I fully expect all four of the safeties you noted above to be on the 53-man roster. I even think all four will get a decent amount of playing time on defense before it's all said and done.

But here's why I really think the nickel back competition is the most intriguing: I honestly don't think there's a favorite right now from among Jude Adjei-Barimah, Javien Elliott and Robert McClain. Adjei-Barimah and Elliott both occupied that spot for decent portions of the 2016 season, and did so at least reasonably well. McClain is the newcomer to the Buccaneers, but not to the slot or to Mike Smith's defense. In fact, McClain has more experience playing in Smith's nickel package, from his Atlanta days, than either Adjei-Barimah or Elliott.

Elliott is the incumbent, technically, since he was in the spot for approximately the last third of the 2016 season. Adjei-Barimah, however, only lost his spot to Elliott due to suspension and injury. McClain is a known commodity to the coaches. I fully expect those three to enter training camp on a level playing field, and I suspect we'll see all of them get their turns running with the first team at some point before a final decision is made.

Joe Kania: Kicker

The top shots from the Buccaneers' OTAs.

Throughout OTAs and mini-camp, there was a significant amount of attention being paid to Nick Folk and Roberto Aguayo as they lined up to take their kicks for the day. Aguayo, a second-round draft pick in 2016, struggled at times during his rookie season, prompting the Bucs to bring in Folk, a proven veteran, to compete for the starting job.

Unlike many position battles during training camp, there are two – and only two – players competing for this job. And unlike many other positions, the sheer numbers behind each players' performance will likely be the determining factor behind who is wearing a Buccaneers jersey for Week One. If one player hits 85 percent of their kicks and the other hits 75 percent, it won't be a difficult decision as to which player will remain in Tampa Bay.

If it's close, like the Bucs' punter competition was a year ago, then the coaching staff may have to make a judgement call, but that strategy has proved viable. Last year, the Bucs opted to go with Bryan Anger over Jake Schum, who was the team's returning starter, and Anger went on to be one of the NFL's top punters in 2016.

Andrew Norton: Wide Receiver

Pictures of the Buccaneers' wide receivers.

As an offensive skill position, wide receiver is always one of the most interesting positions to watch during training camp, even more so now that the Hard Knocks crew will be on hand to document all the action. Add to that the fact that the Bucs currently have 11 wide receivers on the roster, which will likely be trimmed to a half-dozen at the most. Fun position and a lot of guys looking for just a handful of spots.

Last season, the Buccaneers went into the season with five wide receivers on the roster. They ended the year with six WRs, thanks to a number of injuries at the position. So who makes the cut?

We know that Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson get the nod. Adam Humphries is coming off a 622-yard season working out of the slot and is the incumbent punt returner, so he is also a likely candidate. Chris Godwin was the team's third-round pick and has had a stellar offseason so far, so you imagine that he'll make the list as well. That leaves one, maybe two, wide receiver positions open for the 53-man roster. Josh Huff, Freddie Martino, Bernard Reedy and Donteea Dye (IR) ended the season on the Buccaneers' roster, so they all have experience playing in the offense. First-year players Thomas Sperbeck, Derel Walker and Jesus Wilson round out the list of wide receivers going into camp and each has had their moments so far this offseason.

Bottom line: The Buccaneers have impressive depth at wide receiver and not many spots to go around. That's going to make this a must-watch battle for fans at One Buc this summer.

Scott Smith: #2 Quarterback

Pictures of the Buccaneers' quarterbacks.

Joe's description of the placekicker competition above applies here as well, in two ways. First, this is a simple two-players-for-one-spot battle, and there's no guarantee the runner-up will remain in Tampa. The Buccaneers may keep two or three passers on the eventual 53-man roster – they would prefer to only use two spots for the position – but either way the man who is one injury away from starting at quarterback will be either Ryan Griffin or Ryan Fitzpatrick.

Second, this is a competition that will be fairly easy to gauge with the naked eye. It would take a pretty sophisticated football fan to parse out which cornerbacks or linebackers are truly doing the best in training camp practices. However, just like any fan can see which kicker is putting the ball through the uprights more frequently, any observer can also tell which quarterback is more consistently on target. This is true of both camp practices and preseason games.

The Buccaneers added Fitzpatrick a few weeks after the 2017 draft, and since then he and Griffin have taken turns running the second-team offense. Head Coach Dirk Koetter has consistently declined to rank one of the two ahead of the other, instead repeating their contrasting strengths: Fitzpatrick, with 116 NFL starts, has more playing experience while Griffin, who first joined the Buccaneers in September of 2015, has more experience in Koetter's offense.

The signing of Fitzgerald suggests that the Buccaneers believe they are a strong playoff contender and want to make sure that an absence of any length by Winston doesn't torpedo those hopes. The team still might decide that Griffin is the best player to have in waiting for that scenario, but Fitzgerald's proven NFL readiness could sway the competition in his favor. As with the kicker battle, this one will surely go to the best performer during the preseason.

Joe Kania: Tight End

Pictures of the Buccaneers' tight ends.

There is an interesting dynamic at the tight end position, with a handful of players on the roster that are all expected to contribute in one way or another. The battle for the "starting job" will be between first-round pick O.J. Howard and the incumbent starter, Cam Brate. Brate has been one of the Bucs' go-to targets in the red zone, catching eight touchdowns a year ago and continuing that momentum during offseason workouts. But when a player is selected in the first round the expectation is usually that they'll play right away. It's safe to assume that both players will see a significant number of reps, but it will be worth following who is getting more snaps and targets.

Alan Cross probably won't be competing for the starting job at tight end, but he could still find his way at the top of the depth chart, albeit at a different position. The Buccaneers have lined Cross up in several different spots, and he will head into training camp battling for the starting fullback position. Long-time Buccaneer Luke Stocker has been utilized as a fullback at times, and the Buccaneers have Quayvon Hicks, a true fullback, on the roster as well.

I kind of doubled-down here, but I think there are two noteworthy battles at tight end.

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