It’s May and Organized Team Activities are getting under way. With the start of these voluntary workouts, camp battles officially begin to take shape.
For carry over players and free agents, who have been working out at the facility, OTAs are their first chance to get a glimpse of the fresh meat looking to earn or take a job.
Every year, the turnover from one year to the next and the installation of new philosophies are the main challenges rookie head coaches encounter when taking over a team.
This year is no different for Tampa Bay Buccaneer’s rookie Head Coach Raheem Morris. In taking the lead job Morris has changed the philosophy on both sides of the ball with the hires of Jim Bates and Jeff Jagodzinski.
With the expedition of key veterans and acquisitions of new talent, battles for key roles are being waged at every position outside the offensive line; which just might be the best offensive line this franchise has had in years, especially with the zone blocking scheme being implemented that fits their skill sets much better.
This competition throughout the roster is exactly what Morris and GM Mark Dominik wanted and will be looking for the new guys to grow and push the holdovers within the system.
Some of the key positional battles being waged are within the front seven along the defensive line and in the line-backing core.
That being said, both defensive tackle spots are up for grabs though one spot will likely be manned by Chris Hovan. The other spot will be a fiery battle between former Chiefs bust Ryan Sims and this year’s third round pick from Texas Roy Miller.
Miller and Sims fit the size and strength prototypes that Bates covets but because of Sims’ underachieving history, I feel that only Miller has the necessary work ethic and desire to occupy double teams and continue to battle as the game wears on.
Hovan provides good veteran leadership and will always give his max effort but I’m not quite sure he can handle the demands of this new defense on a full time basis. Kiffin’s system allowed his tackles to penetrate the backfield and chase plays, where as Bates will ask him to play more disciplined, to fill his gap, and to hold up centers and guards trying to make their way to the second level.
Needless to say the defensive tackle position is one that is not done receiving a face lift and the team will continue to scour the free agent market and waiver wire.
Meaning the addition of a veteran is quite likely after June first cuts, because counting on younger players such as Miller, Dre Moore, and Greg Peterson to develop rapidly over the course of one season might be asking too much.
Considering the lack of an elite tackle, Hovan’s age, Sims’ underachieving, and Miller’s inexperience; it’s safe to say the Bucs should take the approach of having a rotation that keeps their players fresh in an attempt to maximize the effectiveness of their limited play counts.
At defensive end, Bates is expected to impact right defensive end Gaines Adams’ career the same way he did for Jason Taylor’s when he got a hold of him his third year with the Dolphins. Competition at this position will take place on the left side, where the Bucs will be looking for someone to claim that spot as a run stuffer allowing them to use Stylez G. White as a pass rush specialist on third downs and back up to Adams.
The competition at left end for the chance to man the spot on first and second down, likely falls on the shoulders of Jimmy Wilkerson and USC rookie Kyle Moore. Wilkerson proved to be a valuable pickup last season in showing enough versatility to be swung inside on pass rushing downs.
Wilkerson should win this position based on experience but you have to keep in mind that this front office selected Moore with the idea of using him in the same capacity. And this regime views Moore as a more athletic, younger, and cheaper version of Wilkerson. So this should be one of the more interesting battles of camp that may carry over into the season as Moore continues to develop.
The line-backing core is an area that is established in the middle with rising star Barrett Ruud manning that spot. While the two outside linebacker spots flanking him are marred by a free agent, a transitioning player, and two young prospects where one is looking to rebound after season ending surgery.
At the weak side backer spot, former strong safety Jermaine Phillips is trying to make the transition to let Sabby Piscitelli assume the SS position. His main competition in the switch will come from Geno Hayes who is looking to bounce back from a knee injury and humiliating off season stabbing.
Hayes has all the physical tools but staying healthy and picking up the new scheme will be keys for him to beat out the veteran Phillips. For Phillips one of the keys in making his transition is adjusting to playing four yards off the L.O.S (line of scrimmage) instead of eight yards.
Getting used to reacting to plays faster and reading different keys will be the biggest challenges in his transition. Though his transition should be eased, because Phillips does possess the size and hitting ability to play in the front seven as most of his time at SS was spent in the box in an eight man front.
The advantages to having Phillips at linebacker is that Bates can disguise his coverages using him as a rover and can utilize him as the nickel backer covering the tight end.
At the strong side position, free agent Angelo Crowell comes over from Buffalo with good experience but is coming off of season ending surgery. He looks to bounce back with a fresh start in a new city.
And it wasn’t too long ago when he made Takeo Spikes expendable in Buffalo with his stellar play. If he proves healthy he could be a significant addition to the defense this season.
Competing with Crowell is Quincy Black who will be looking to turn some heads this off-season and will have a lot to prove in seizing this opportunity for a starting job after two seasons of learning his trade behind former Bucs veterans Derrick Brooks and Cato June.
He has shown flashes of being a playmaker; especially his rookie year when he forced 2 fumbles in limited time, so now is the time to show consistency instead of flashes.
The cornerback position is settled with starters Aquib Talib and Ronde Barber but the depth behind them is questionable at best with the lot of inexperienced players consisting of E.J. Biggers, Elbert Mack, and Kyle Arrington.
Supposedly Morris is very high on Elbert Mack, having coached him last year, and feels he is ready to make a jump in contribution this season.
Biggers is someone who brings to the position a prototypical frame and top flight speed but this athlete still has a lot to learn about his position as his technique is raw at best.
Finding someone to contribute at nickel back, as well as Talib did in that role last year, might be hard to find with what is currently on the roster. So don’t be surprised to see some castoff defensive backs from other teams brought in for looks throughout the course of the off-season.
Most of the competitions for roles on this team are on defense, but there are some battles on the offensive side of the ball that warrant monitoring.
At the running back position, free agent newcomer Derrick Ward comes over as the high priced catch of the off-season. He ran for a thousand yards last year as the complementary back for the Giants and will compete with holdover Earnest Graham for carries.
But by the size of Ward’s price tag, it’s safe to say he’ll be the lead horse while Graham relieves the burden of carrying the full load.
Franchising Antonio Bryant and resigning Michael Clayton solidifies the starters at flanker and split end, but the slot receiver role is up for grabs. That competition will come down to John Gruden’s second round flop Dexter Jackson and this year’s seventh round pick Sammie Stoughter.
Dexter Jackson flopped last season because he lacked the strength and polish to play receiver at the pro level and was timid as a kick returner.
Sammie Stroughter is a player that former college and current teammate Sabby Piscitelli can’t stop raving about. Stroughter possesses the quicks in tight spaces and toughness to succeed at making a living in the slot.
Stoughter, as this year’s seventh round pick is more NFL ready than Jacksonwas as last years second round pick. And Stroughter will not display that timidness to play the game that Jackson did last year.
I truly believe that once the pads come on and the heat of two a days wear on, that this competition will be a run away in favor of Stroughter. So Jackson will have to bring his “A” game to camp if he wants to have a career or he’ll become an after thought in the draft almanacs.
The most highly publicized competition in camp of course is taking place at the helm. The most important position on field, which is quarterback, is going to have the heaviest and most scrutinized competition.
Luke McCown was resigned in the off-season and told he would have first dibs on the vacant starting gig. But already halfway through the off-season, the Bucs have brought in two players to make that feat nearly impossible for McCown.
The signing of Byron Leftwich makes Brian Griese expendable and the drafting of Josh Freeman ends Josh Johnson’s run as the developmental quarterback of the future.
Ideally, most fans want to see immediate dividends to spending a first round pick on Freeman; but realistically he needs at least a year to learn the nuances of the position.
I don’t care that he says he’ll be ready to start in interviews but you like to hear it because you want your quarterback of the future to have that competitive drive.
In the end of it all, the competition for the starting quarterback spot starts with McCown and ends with Leftwich.
I say this because what will start as an open competition will quickly begin to close in on Leftwich as he proves that he is more capable and that his cannon arm will fit Jagodzinski’s play action vertical passing game more than McCown.
With a strong offensive line, power running game, and collection of outside weapons this offense will be the unit to carry this team to victories; as the offense is further along than the defense at this moment in the rebuilding process.
With a team built to outscore opponents instead of stopping them, this should make for an interesting season that may include exciting shootouts as well as last minute losses.