As the dog days of training camp labor on amid position battles and fights for roster spots, the once-murky waters of competition begin to make themselves more and more clear.
Sure, we're just one game into the preseason, but, truth be told, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been at it for the better part of three weeks, grinding it out on the practice fields of One Buc Place in Tampa with the ultimate goal of dwindling their roster to 53 players by the 6 p.m. ET deadline on Aug. 31.
Having taken in several camp practices of late, it's clear that most of the starting spots are not up for grabs, but the same cannot be said for the rest of the depth chart.
With that in mind, here are the five things we've learned from Bucs training camp so far.
Tight end is still a major question mark
Up to this point in his young career, tight end Luke Stocker has largely failed to develop into an every-down player. This, despite the fact that Stocker, who stands 6'6" and weighs roughly 250 pounds, is entering his third season out of the University of Tennessee.
Through his first two seasons with the Bucs, which include 20 career starts, Stocker has managed to reel in just 28 receptions for 257 yards and one touchdown.
Last season, in spite of his checkered injury past, the Bucs signed veteran tight end Dallas Clark, who went on to haul in 47 catches for 435 yards and four TDs in 2012. This offseason, apparently still unsatisfied with Stocker's development, the Bucs signed four-year veteran Tom Crabtree as a free agent.
Crabtree, who comes to Tampa Bay from Green Bay, saw very little action through his first three seasons due in large part to playing behind Jermichael Finley, who started 30 of the last 32 games for the Packers.
Thus far, Crabtree appears to have an inside edge over Stocker for the starting role, but keep a very close eye on Danny Noble, the second-year tight end from the University of Toledo.
Noble (6'5", 248 lbs) has seen his fair share of first- and second-team reps during training camp, and if the Bucs decide they've lost their patience with Stocker, who just recently returned to camp following a calf injury, it would come as little surprise to see the former Toledo Rocket listed as part of the second string come the conclusion of camp.
Johnthan Banks is looking more and more like a second-round steal
With most of the offseason focus and attention directed at improving the NFL's worst pass defense from a season ago—including the high-profile additions of cornerback Darrelle Revis (via trade) and safety Dashon Goldson (via free agency)—it would be easy to overlook the significance of landing cornerback Johnthan Banks.
After all, Revis and Goldson combine for six Pro Bowl appearances, four All-Pro designations, 33 interceptions and one Defensive Player of the Year award (Revis, 2009).
However, thanks to a rather fortuitous draft in April, the Bucs were able to select the 2012 Jim Thorpe Award winner in the middle of the second round (No. 43 overall), further upgrading their porous secondary.
Although Revis has been largely excused from contact drills during camp while he continues to work his way back from an ACL injury suffered early last season, Banks, on the other hand, has been all over the field breaking up passes and being the disruptive force the Bucs sorely need at cornerback.
Dashon Goldson has taken on a major leadership role
Goldson, 28, signed a five-year deal worth $41.25 million in early March and has since taken on a leadership role within the secondary, helping along the likes of Banks, Leonard Johnson and Anthony Gaitor, among others.
Most days Goldson can often be seen during and after practice working with the above-mentioned on technique and footwork, which is something that certainly hasn't gone unnoticed.
In fact, during a post-practice press conference a few weeks back, head coach Greg Schiano said of Goldson, "(he) has taken the group over, for sure. He's the man back there running the show, which is what we anticipated and hoped for."
And while we're able to quantify Goldson's value by looking at his salary-cap figure, something that is invaluable is the wealth of knowledge he is passing along to the younger, impressionable members of this secondary.
Freeman is clearly the best quarterback on this team
On paper, in person and on tape, there is little to no doubt who the best, most capable quarterback is on the Buccaneers.
It's none other than everyone's favorite whipping boy, Josh Freeman.
Freeman, who is entering his fifth (and potentially final) year with the Bucs, is coming off one of the finest statistical seasons in franchise history, having thrown for 4,065 yards and 27 touchdowns in 2012.
However, for all of the accolades he receives because of his big arm and ability to launch the ball downfield with relative ease, he continues to be dogged by bouts of inaccuracy and erratic play—in particular, his inability to complete a higher percentage of short to intermediate passes.
Freeman led the NFL with 16 completions over 40 yards in 2012. His 55 completions of 20 or more yards were eighth-most in the league. Not only that, but his 95-yard hookup to receiver Vincent Jackson was the longest completion of the season.
Still, he completed less than 55 percent of his overall attempts and ended the season throwing nine of his 17 interceptions over the final three games, erasing an otherwise stellar all-around year.
That said, for all of his faults and flaws, and there are several, Freeman is hands down not only the best quarterback the Bucs have today and tomorrow, but I would argue at this point in his career he is the best they've ever had, period.
Other than maybe 2002 Brad Johnson, who went on to help lead the Bucs to a championship that season, I'm not sure they've ever had a quarterback I would choose over Freeman.
Not Doug Williams. Not Vinny Testaverde. Not Trent Dilfer or Jeff Garcia. And don't get me started on Craig Erickson, Bruce Gradkowski or Brian Griese.
Barring a colossal meltdown in 2013, Freeman and his flaws are here to stay, and I'm fine with that.
The loss of Connor Barth will haunt this team
Place-kickers, like long snappers, are oftentimes unappreciated and overlooked until something goes horribly awry.
Thanks to a nonfootball-related injury suffered by incumbent kicker Connor Barth, the Bucs suddenly find themselves in desperate need for a reliable replacement.
As it stands, veterans Lawrence Tynes and Derek Dimke have been battling to fill the void left by Barth, who converted on 84.3 percent of his attempts over his first three seasons with the Bucs.
Tynes, who has been hampered by a toe injury and missed Thursday's preseason opener, would appear to have an advantage over Dimke given his extensive experience, which includes being a two-time Super Bowl champion with the New York Giants, as well as having attempted 233 kicks during his nine-year career.
J.J. was granted credentials to cover Buccaneers training camp this year and, as such, all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. He can be reached via email at BRJJRodriguez@gmail.com
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