The Bucs have many O-line options with players like Anthony Davis, but would prefer stability over versatility
When you have 85 highly-motivated men galloping around your practice field, it's hard to feel too put out by the half-dozen or so who couldn't suit up. And, given that the NFL rules for offseason workouts prohibit any real contact or one-on-one work, it's not even terribly limiting to have those absences concentrated on the offensive and defensive lines.
Now, open a training camp practice five weeks from now without Simeon Rice, Luke Petitgout, Arron Sears, Dan Buenning, Darrell Campbell and Charles Bennett, and you might have an issue. Fortunately, most of those men will be just fine by July 27, when the Bucs hit the field at Disney for the first time, even if they weren't in action on the first day of this week's mandatory mini-camp.
On this hot and humid day behind One Buccaneer Place, the handful of shelved performers probably helped with the distribution of reps, allowing the coaching staff to try out some different permutations of the two lines.
"We want to see some other guys, honestly," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "This gives us an opportunity the last couple days to look at a couple different combinations and finalize a little bit of a depth chart before we go to camp. I wanted to see where some of the other guys were and today was a good indication."
Petitgout, the free agent acquisition who is slated to start at left tackle this year, was merely held out on Tuesday morning because the Bucs were doubling up the practice schedule on the first day of mini-camp. Petitgout did practice in the afternoon follow-up. Gruden indicated that Sears is dealing with some minor injury issues and will be full-go for the start of training camp. Buenning is in the latter stages of his recovery from a 2006 knee injury and is perfectly on target to be cleared for the start of camp, too.
Buenning, who started much of the last two seasons at left guard, is expected to compete with incumbent John Wade and newcomer Matt Lehr for the starting center job. He will also be in the mix with Sears and possibly Anthony Davis for the left guard spot and will get training camp reps at all three interior spots. While Gruden admitted to being a bit disappointed that Buenning and Sears weren't available for the team portions of practice this week, he considers their eventual presence in training camp to be a major plus for the line. The same is true for a few young men who did practice Tuesday, returning right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood.
"We missed [Buenning] last year," said Gruden. "He wasn't healthy the whole season. But I like what I see from the right side of the line. The right guard, the right tackle are good players, getting better. And Petitgout is going to help us. Petitgout will help us. We hope Sears will, or we'll change his name to Wal-Mart. And Dan Buenning, he's got to get well, he's got to come in here and he's got to compete with Matt Lehr and John Wade at center. If that all comes to reality, we'll be better."
With players like Davis and Lehr who are capable of playing several spots on the line, the Bucs can easily make it through a handful of practices a couple of men down. However, Gruden looks forward to opening camp with a full roster of candidates and some clearly defined roles.
"We've had versatility," he said. "We've played more linemen than any team in football. If you look at the opening-day line roster last year against Baltimore it wasn't anything like what it was later in the year. We've had too much versatility. I think that's an issue that we'd like to get away from. We'd like to just have five guys that line up and play wire to wire for about five years. That goes for a lot of other positions also, particularly on offense."
On the other side of the line, the Bucs were still without Rice, who was at practice Tuesday but did not participate. Like Buenning, the veteran pass-rusher is nearing the end of his rehabilitation process from a 2006 injury, in his case to his shoulder. The Bucs are simply being cautious with the third-leading sack-man in franchise history, targeting training camp as the better time to put him back into action.
"He'll be ready for training camp and that's the bottom line," said Gruden. "He's finishing up the final touches of his offseason rehab. If we needed him to go he could have gone, but we decided to keep him inside today."
Bennett, a second-year end who was drafted in the seventh round last year and saw a bit of action late last season, was on the practice field, too, but he had an ice bag on his left knee and wasn't involved in the workout.
"We're looking at it," said Gruden of Bennett's knee. "He's a guy that's under examination right now. I can only update you here in the next couple weeks when we get some closure on what's going on here."
Here and There
The Bucs opened their final week of offseason practice with a roster of 95 players. Though the NFL limits offseason rosters to 80 men, NFL Europa exemptions add a few spots and the drafted rookies can participate without counting against the limit until they sign their first contracts.
Two of the 85 players who were in action Tuesday were in their very first Buccaneer practices. Wide receivers Kyle Smith and Jovon Bouknight joined the team just days after finishing their respective NFLEL seasons this past weekend. Three other overseas Bucs have yet to make it back – center Jonathan Clinkscale, quarterback Bruce Eugene and cornerback Carlos Hendricks.
One of those 95 spots is currently devoted to quarterback Jake Plummer, whose rights the Bucs acquired in a trade with Denver in early March. Plummer has indicated his intention to retire but the Bucs invited him to mini-camp and remain hopeful that he will choose to report to training camp next month.
Plummer was not at One Buccaneer Place on Tuesday, but the Bucs don't mind holding a roster spot for him at the moment.
"We're talking about Jake Plummer here, so we'll reserve a roster spot for the Snake for a little while longer," said Gruden. "If it was Jake Jones or Jake Johnson or Jake Gruden we'd probably bypass the holding pattern that we're in right now. This is one hell of a football player that has accomplished a great deal. At this point he's retired and hopefully at some point he changes his mind or reconsiders. Until then, we'll coach the guys that are here and move on with it."
The Bucs tinkered with the edges of that packed roster on Tuesday, turning over two spots in order to provide depth at defensive end and a fresh leg among the kickers.
The two new players in uniform for the start of camp were Central Arkansas defensive end Jeremy Pittman and Washington punter Sean Douglas. Pittman participated in Tampa Bay's rookie mini-camp in early May on a tryout contract and Douglas was at One Buccaneer Place last week for a workout. To make room for those two on the roster, the team released a pair of rookies: Syracuse linebacker Jerry Mackey and Michigan kicker Garrett Rivas.
The 6-4, 250-pound Pittman also received a tryout with the Buffalo Bills in May. His return to the Buccaneers helps a defensive end unit that practiced most of Tuesday without Simeon Rice and Charles Bennett. At Central Arkansas, the fast and fluid Pittman had 24 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and one sack in 2006. In 2005, his first season at UCA after transferring from Southwest (MS) Community College, he recorded 50 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks.
Douglas (6-2, 218) finished his career at Washington with an excellent 42.8-yard gross punting average. He handled the Huskies' punting for each of the last three seasons, putting up consistent gross yardage averages of 42.6, 42.6 and 43.2 from 2004-06. In 2006, Douglas punted 72 times for 3,110 yards and dropped 22 kicks inside the 20.
Both Mackey and Rivas were signed as rookie free agents after the 2006 draft. Rivas hails from Tampa and played his prep football just up the road from One Buc Place at Jesuit High School.