With roughly half of training camp in the rearview mirror and the beginning of the regular season less than a month away, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are fast-approaching some very important roster deadlines that loom on the horizon.
They have to decide who'll replace injured place-kicker Connor Barth, who was lost for the season after tearing his Achilles tendon at a charity basketball game last month. As it currently stands, their choices are either 10-year veteran Lawrence Tynes or Derek Dimke, entering his second year in the league.
Another interesting contest is at running back, where there are a bevy of capable backs vying to serve as the primary backup to Doug Martin. Then, there is the battle for the third receiver position between newcomer Kevin Ogletree and Tiquan Underwood.
Other pending decisions include who will win the starting spot at tight end between Tom Crabtree, Luke Stocker and Danny Noble, among others, as well as at outside linebacker where free-agent signee Jonathan Casillas and Dekoda Watson are locked in a heated competition.
With all of this in mind, here are the winners and losers from training camp, thus far.
When the Buccaneers released veteran cornerback Eric Wright just before the start of camp, all eyes immediately moved to rookie cornerback and 2012 Jim Thorpe Award-winner Johnthan Banks as his likely replacement.
After all, Banks was drafted, in part, due to his athleticism and coverage abilities, which are two things the Bucs sorely lacked in 2012.
Selected with the 43rd overall pick in April's draft, Banks has not disappointed in his first professional training camp, flashing his ability on countless occasions and giving the team and their fans reasons to believe there will be a much more capable secondary that takes the field come Week 1.
Listed at 6'2", Banks has used his height and length to bat down and break up multiple pass attempts during camp, and, barring any sort of setback, he should find himself taking the field with the starters once the season begins in September.
CB Deveron Carr (No. 33) has been lost in the shuffle.
Amidst all of the post-draft hype of landing cornerback Johnthan Banks, the Bucs signed undrafted free-agent cornerback Deveron Carr and gave him a relatively lucrative signing bonus of $15,000.
ESPN.com's NFC South blogger Pat Yasinskas pointed out how unusual it is to see such a large bonus given to an undrafted rookie because, as Yasinskas mentions, "many undrafted free agents don’t even get signing bonuses and those who do often top out at $5,000."
Aside from the unusually large bonus, Carr's signing was also noteworthy because it signaled to some that the Bucs were clearly not content with trotting out the same handful of defensive backs that nearly allowed more passing yards in a single season than any other unit in NFL history.
With increased expectations and a large bonus in hand, Carr entered training camp with a legitimate shot of seeing significant playing time this season.
However, he has been lost in the shuffle, thanks to the unexpected emergence of veteran cornerback Michael Adams and fellow undrafted free agent Rashaan Melvin, both of whom have made a handful of splash plays and, as such, appear to have an edge over Carr.
In fact, at this point, I'm not even sure Carr makes the final roster, which tells you how precipitous of a fall he's endured in just under a month.
RB Brian Leonard (No. 30) has turned heads thus far.
While most of the offseason attention was centered around the additions of Dashon Goldson and Darrelle Revis in the secondary, the signing of free-agent running back Brian Leonard garnered relatively little buzz compared to the others.
Leonard, who played for head coach Greg Schiano at Rutgers, was brought on to compete for carries behind starter Doug Martin, who combined for more than 1,900 total yards from scrimmage as a rookie in 2012.
Conventional wisdom would suggest the Bucs may lighten Martin's load this season after feeding him 368 times on the ground and through the air last season, which is what makes the addition of Leonard and rookie Mike James, drafted in the sixth round, all the more important.
In his first preseason game with the team last week, against the Baltimore Ravens, Leonard showed his potential by scoring the lone touchdown of the game for the Bucs and finishing with 23 rushing yards and a touchdown on six carries.
He also showed off his versatility by picking up a blitz from a Ravens defensive back, allowing quarterback Josh Freeman to connect with receiver Kevin Ogletree for a 22-yard completion.
Yeah, it's been a good camp for Leonard.
Much like Deveron Carr, running back Peyton Hillis has largely failed to establish himself during camp. This, despite appearing on the cover of Madden NFL, the popular football video game, just two years ago.
Nevertheless, Hillis, who was brought on to compete for the backup role behind Doug Martin, hasn't gained any ground on Brian Leonard in the battle for the No. 2 role.
Getting back to the original point, Hillis, a sixth-year veteran out of the University of Arkansas, has struggled since arriving in Tampa near the end of July.
The team has been slowly feeding him the playbook, which certainly isn't helping his progression, but as someone who is with his fourth team in six seasons, you would figure Hillis would have a better understanding of how to quickly assimilate himself to an offense.
So far, that is not the case.
Not only has Josh Freeman cemented his status as the best quarterback on the team during camp, but thanks to shaky performances by fellow signal-callers Mike Glennon and Adam Weber, he's made it that much easier to negotiate a contract with the Bucs next offseason.
Speaking of which, in a way, it was fitting that Freeman and the Bucs started their preseason off against the Baltimore Ravens led by their Super Bowl-winning quarterback Joe Flacco.
After all, Flacco parlayed a very successful 2012 season, his last under his rookie contract, into a six-year, $120.6 million mega-deal signed in March. Freeman, who is entering the final year of his rookie contract this season, is looking to similarly capitalize after he and the Bucs failed to reach an agreement this offseason.
That's not to say I'm suggesting a Super Bowl run is in the cards for Tampa Bay this season, only that Flacco's new deal should serve as a cautionary tale for general manager Mark Dominik, who despite all of the news of the record deals being doled out to other quarterbacks around the league, decided to allow 2013 to play out before working on an extension with Freeman.
By delaying an extension, the Bucs have, in effect, handed over all of the leverage to Freeman and his representative(s), barring a complete disaster in 2013, of course. Next year, the Bucs will be faced with the harsh reality of either caving to Freeman's demands, placing an expensive franchise tag on him or losing him as an unrestricted free agent next March.
By rule, a player who is designated with a franchise tag earns the average of the five highest-paid players at that particular position, and, as I mentioned earlier, the price of quarterbacks has increased exponentially this year, thanks to record deals given to Flacco, Matt Ryan, Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers.
For the record, the 2013 value of a franchise tag for quarterbacks is $14.6 million.
In other words, it's not bad being Josh Freeman—especially with Glennon, Weber and Dan Orlovsky as your only competition.
The Bucs made no bones about their expectations for defensive end Da'Quan Bowers in 2013. Simply put, they expect him to become an every down lineman who can contribute for an entire season.
This became clearly evident after they decided to let defensive end Michael Bennett walk during free agency, despite the fact that Bennett led the team with nine sacks in 2012.
Bowers has battled injuries since being drafted by the Bucs in the second round of the 2011 draft, most recently working his way back from a torn Achilles tendon suffered last offseason. However, the Bucs have lofty goals for the third-year lineman nonetheless.
With that in mind, Bowers recently admitted that he is still out of shape and in need of conditioning to fully reach his potential, telling Stephen Holder of the Tampa Bay Times, "I think I’m still a little winded at times. I’m still not in the best shape. I’m still getting used to the speed of practice."
Which doesn't exactly breed confidence that the one-time top prospect of the 2011 draft is quite ready to contribute on a full-time basis.
J.J. can be reached via email at BRJJRodriguez@gmail.com