Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Work to Be Done (Part 1)

A look at the starting numbers entering training camp and the possible targets at each position, beginning with the offense

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In less than four weeks, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take 80 players to training camp. Roughly four weeks after that, following an intense set of two-a-days and four preseason games, the Buccaneers will pare that number down to 53.

That's the work to be done in August and the first few days of September.

There is a little bit of housekeeping that must still be done in July. Four 2010 draft picks and restricted free agent Donald Penn remain unsigned; they cannot report to training camp without new contracts. As each of the four rookies comes to terms, another player will have to be removed from the roster, as 80 men is now the strict NFL limit for camp.

For the purposes of examining what must be done in August, however, we'll assume those players will all be a part of training camp. It's a reasonable assumption, particularly in terms of the draft picks, as the Bucs have not had a rookie holdout of any significant length for the better part of two decades.

We may be assuming a few other things as well in following paragraphs; please note that this is not meant to reflect the opinions of the Buccaneers' coaching staff or player personnel department. Team management prefers to keep their roster evaluations to themselves during camp and the preseason, and for good strategic reason.

Still, we can break down what the Buccaneers have at each position entering camp, and where they likely need to get to before the start of the regular season. In this, Part 1, we'll cover the offensive positions, in which we'll also include the placekickers.

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Quarterback

Players currently on the roster: 4

Likely number carried on the 53-man roster: 3

Starting spots to fill: 1

Returning starters: 1

The most prominent camp battle of a year ago has been replaced by one of the roster's surest things. Second-year man Josh Freeman, who was only a fringe entrant in the competition for the starting quarterback job as a rookie last summer, comes into his second camp with the job securely in his grasp.

In 2009, the Bucs mainly sought to sort out which veteran, Byron Leftwich or Luke McCown, would hold down the fort while the heir apparent soaked up the game from the sideline. However, Freeman accelerated the schedule by performing extremely well in practice, and by the eighth game of the season he was under center. Leftwich and McCown are now at different NFL outposts and the Bucs are planning for this to be the first of many opening-day starts for their franchise quarterback.

Similarly, third-year player Josh Johnson can see a much clearer picture heading into this year's camp. While he seemed to be fighting an uphill battle for a playoff spot a year ago, Johnson is the best bet to back up Freeman in 2010, especially after he made three starts during the 2009 season.

That's true in part because the Bucs' remaining two quarterbacks have almost no NFL experience between them. Tampa Bay grabbed then-rookie Rudy Carpenter off Dallas' practice squad last November and then added 2010 rookie Jevan Snead after the draft this past April. Though Johnson proved last year that the depth chart doesn't always shake out as it might appear it will in pre-camp days, the most obvious scenario would have Carpenter and Snead battling it out for the third quarterback spot.

The Buccaneers, like a majority of NFL teams, generally carry three quarterbacks on the 53-man roster. However, they have headed into the regular season with four passers several times in the last few years, so there's no guarantee any of the Bucs' current passers will be released after the preseason. Also, though it's not a path Tampa Bay has chosen any time recently, some NFL teams have taken to carrying just two quarterbacks on the active roster, usually stashing a third on the practice squad in case of injury.

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Running Back

Players currently on the roster: 7

Likely number carried on the 53-man roster: 4 or 5

Starting spots to fill: 2

Returning starters: 2

Probably the most common number of running backs (tailbacks plus fullbacks) carried by any given NFL team during the regular season is five. However, the position's depth is almost always influenced by issues at other spots on the depth chart.

Most commonly, decisions at the other positions featuring eligible offensive targets - wide receiver and tight end - impact how many running backs are kept. If a team chooses to keep a sixth or seventh receiver or a fourth tight end, the backfield sometimes has to give up a spot.

On the other hand, a team's needs in the return game can occasionally add to the numbers at running back. That would certainly appear to be a factor for the Buccaneers, who have a Pro Bowl return man in Clifton Smith who also happens to play running back. Smith obviously stands an excellent chance of making the roster due to his special teams work, and the Bucs continue to discuss the possibility of him making an impact as a quick and shifty third-down back.

One other factor will likely affect the final number of players left in the running back meeting room come September: Versatility. Specifically, Earnest Graham's versatility. The Bucs entered 2009 with the idea of rotating carries between three proven tailbacks: Graham, Cadillac Williams and Derrick Ward. As it turned out, Williams took the lead role, Ward was his most common replacement and Graham eventually was pressed into duty at fullback due to a rash of injuries at the spot.

Now, entering 2010, the Bucs may choose to keep Graham at fullback primarily, though he will surely get some share of the carries. If so, the Bucs will have to decide how many fullbacks they want to keep, given that they currently have two other players at the position who are very intriguing but also somewhat green. Chris Pressley got some time at the position in the second half of last season, his rookie campaign, and impressed the coaches. Since, the team has added undrafted rookie Rendrick Taylor, who cuts an imposing figure on the practice field, even without pads.

There is one other dark horse in the race: First-year man Kareem Huggins. Huggins, the former Hofstra standout, rose from undrafted player to a spot on the 53-man roster by the end of last season and impressed with both his play and his hustle. The Bucs want to establish a powerful and consistent running game in 2010; first they'll have to sort through a deep and very interesting field of backs.

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Wide Receiver

Players currently on the roster: 11

Likely number carried on the 53-man roster: 5, 6 or 7

Starting spots to fill: 2

Returning starters: 1

With the quarterback position apparently so well-defined, the most interesting competition to watch in training camp this year will likely be at wide receiver.

Two players tied for the most starts at the position for the Buccaneers last year, with 11: Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton. Bryant is now with the Cincinnati Bengals. Clayton returns but will face more competition for a starting spot than the team has seen in years.

Fifth-year man Maurice Stovall drew the other seven starts last year (three times, the team opened a game with only one receiver on the field) and he has drawn raves from both Freeman and the coaching staff for his work during the 2010 offseason. Stovall, obviously, is aiming to replace Bryant and get his first extended chance to prove he can be productive on a weekly basis.

The Buccaneers also added an experienced NFL starter during the spring when they traded for former Philadelphia Eagle Reggie Brown. Brown gradually lost playing time in a crowded and talented receiving corps in Philly, but the Bucs are banking on a fresh start returning him to the form that led to an average of 50 catches in his first three NFL seasons (2005-07).

Creating the most buzz, though, are the Bucs' two 2010 draft picks, second-rounder Arrelious Benn and potential fourth-round steal Mike Williams. Both players were extremely impressive during offseason workouts - Williams essentially from Day One and Benn more and more as the program progressed - and neither will be eliminated from the race for starting spots simply because they are rookies. While it is true that a relatively small percentage of first-year receivers make huge impacts as rookies, there are annual exceptions and it would surprise no one to find them in Tampa this year.

It would also surprise no one to see second-year wideout Sammie Stroughter reprise his impressive role from his rookie campaign or even build on it. Stroughter was a seventh-round pick in 2009 but he still caught more passes than any other Buc wideout than Bryant last fall, contributing 31 grabs before missing the last two games due to injury. Stroughter is fully recovered and is perfectly suited for the slot, making him one of the surer bets to contribute in the Bucs' passing game in 2010.

The rest of the receiving corps, as is true every summer in Tampa and almost every NFL camp, is comprised of young and unproven players who are interesting prospects in a variety of ways. For the Bucs, that group includes rookies Chris Brooks and Preston Parker and inexperienced hopefuls Micheal Spurlock, Terrence Nunn and Mario Urrutia.

Spurlock has been in more NFL camps than the rest of those receivers combined, but he's still in the process of converting from college quarterback to his new position. Potentially helping him in his quest for a roster spot is his obvious return skills; he was famously the first Buccaneer ever to return a kickoff for a touchdown (in 2007) and he turned in a huge punt return score last December in the team's upset of New Orleans.

The hopes for young receivers across the NFL can often hinge on how many players a team chooses to keep at the position. As with the running backs, this number can be affected by return-game issues and the need for additional players at other spots on offense. Six receivers is a common number for a 53-man roster, but the Bucs started the regular season with just five last year and eventually went as high as eight for the last two weeks of the campaign. Often, the number is affected by injuries; the Bucs may have held anywhere from five to eight wideouts at a time last year, but they commonly kept just four of them active on game days.

If one guesses at a receiving corps of six to start the 2010 season, then the Buccaneers will have an intense battle among the 11 pass-catchers they take to training camp, and potentially some very difficult decisions to make in early September.

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Tight End

Players currently on the roster: 5

Likely number carried on the 53-man roster: 3

Starting spots to fill: 1

Returning starters: 1

Only four tight ends appeared on the Bucs' regular-season roster in 2009, and all four are back for the team's 2010 training camp. Three of those - Kellen Winslow, Jerramy Stevens and John Gilmore - played regularly on Sundays; the fourth, then-rookie Ryan Purvis, was only on the 53-man roster for one game and was inactive for that contest.

That's a common pattern in the NFL - carry three tight ends on the roster and keep all of them active on game day. One reason for that pattern is that only an elite subsection of the league's tight ends are either strong pass-catchers and blockers or so good at the former task that they need to be on the field at all times. Many other tight ends across the league are standouts in one of those two tasks or the other, and that certainly holds true for the Bucs' group.

Winslow is the returning starter, and he is also the team's reigning receptions leader. With 77 catches for 884 yards in 2009, he set the Buccaneer franchise marks for tight ends in both categories. He also led the team in touchdown receptions with five. Behind him, the Bucs have another tight end known for his receiving abilities in Stevens and another who is among the league's best blockers at the position in Gilmore. It's a formidable and well-formed trio, which is why the Bucs used two tight-end sets frequently in 2009, even starting almost half of their games that way.

Purvis, a strong pass-catcher at Boston College, returns for another crack at working his way into that group, potentially prompting the team to keep four players at the position. When he wasn't on the active roster in 2009, Purvis was on the practice squad and he has a definite comfort level in the Buccaneers' offense.

The fifth tight end on the roster, rookie Jeron Mastrud, hopes to follow in Purvis' footsteps in making a strong impression as a rookie. A former teammate of Freeman's at Kansas State, the sizeable Mastrud (6-6, 253) has looked like a factor on the practice field during the spring and summer.

The numbers at the tight end position are usually less volatile than at running back or receiver, usually holding steady at three. However, undeniable talent at the position can sometimes lead to teams keeping four tight ends, and the Bucs definitely have a surplus of talent at the spot heading into this year's camp.

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Offensive Line

Players currently on the roster: 15

Likely number carried on the 53-man roster: 9 or 10

Starting spots to fill: 5

Returning starters: 5

With five starters and a backup at each position, the obvious number of offensive linemen on a 53-man NFL roster is 10. However, teams often seek versatile linemen - or, alternately, try to coax versatility out of their existing blockers - in order to get some roster flexibility. That is most important for the purpose of choosing 45 active players on game day, as a recent trend has seen the Buccaneers keep up just two OL reserves, one that can play the three interior spots and one that can handle either tackle position. However, it can also affect the number of linemen a team keeps overall.

For instance, the Buccaneers finished the 2009 season with nine linemen - starters Donald Penn, Jeremy Zuttah, Jeff Faine, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood and reserves Demar Dotson, Jonathan Compas, Shawn Murphy and James Lee. A few other reserves came and went during the season (Marc Dile, Marcus Johnson, Sean Mahan) but for 11 of the 16 weeks the team carried exactly nine linemen.

Whether the final number is nine or 10, the Bucs have some significant paring to do by the regular season. And even though six of the nine competitors are rookies or first-year players (and a seventh, Xavier Fulton, spent his only NFL season on injured reserve), none can be discounted in the competition. After all, Tampa Bay kept three undrafted rookies - Compas, Dotson and Dile - on the 53-man roster with which it opened the 2009 season. Compas and Dotson, as a matter of fact, kept their spots for the entire season and Dotson has been starting at left tackle this offseason in the absence of the unsigned Penn.

Assuming Penn's return, the front line is intact...and promising. Joseph is a Pro Bowler and the Bucs consider Faine to be one of the NFL's best centers. The five starters have an average age of 26.6 and all of them are in or just entering the primes of their professional careers.

The O-line reserves, as mentioned, have less seasoning (another common find in any NFL camp), though Compas, Dile, Dotson and Lee all have a strong familiarity with the Bucs' offense. Dotson is probably the most intriguing prospect of the bunch, as his entire college gridiron career consisted of a half-dozen games at defensive tackle. A former basketball player at Southern Miss, Dotson has the size and nimble feet to succeed in the NFL.

New to the competition this year are four undrafted rookies - Sergio Render, Derek Hardman, James Williams and Lee Grimes - as well as recent first-year pickup Donovan Raiola. Since the offseason program was conducted without pads or any real contact between the players, there is not much evidence yet as to which of those five might emerge as this year's Dotson or Compas. If several of the linemen prove intriguing, the Bucs might be prompted to keep more than nine to start the season this year.

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Kicker

Players currently on the roster: 2

Likely number carried on the 53-man roster: 1

Starting spots to fill: 1

Returning starters: 1

Kickers are not technically "starters," but obviously there is a first man on the depth chart...and he's usually the only one on the depth chart.

The competition here is pretty straightforward: Incumbent Connor Barth versus rookie signee Hunter Lawrence. Barth doesn't have quite the tenure that a lot of incumbent kickers around the league enjoy, having just joined the team last November, but he put together a nice body of work in half a season. Most rookie kickers face an uphill battle in their first training camp - not many NFL head coaches feel comfortable going into the season with an NFL newcomer at the spot, unless he is a relatively high draft choice - but it's a battle that can be won.

That's because few positions are judged as simply and obviously on the practice field as kicker. Make more of your field goal attempts than your competitor and your team will be forced to at least consider giving you the job. Barth would be well-served to build on his nine-game run with the Buccaneers, in which he made 14 of 19 field goal tries and seven times hit from 45 yards out or farther.

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Buccaneers.com will review the defensive positions as well as punter and kick returner in the The Work to Be Done (Part 2) next week.

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