Projecting Tampa Bay's Most Heated Roster Battles This Offseason
Let the games begin.
With the draft out of the way, every NFL team is shaping its roster in preparation for training camp and the 2014 season. The Buccaneers wrapped up their rookie minicamp over the weekend and moved right into organized team activities (OTAs).
These post-draft practices are the only way to discern which players are most likely to make the final roster. For Bucs on the bubble, they will have to prove they bring just a little bit more than the guys standing next to them.
The rookie minicamp revealed little, as the Bucs announced no additional undrafted free-agent signings after the weekend. OTAs may shed more light on how head coach Lovie Smith and his staff have thus far evaluated the roster.
The best roster battles can be found in positions boasting comparable talent and the addition of new players.
This year's hottest competitions will likely come from the Bucs offense, where the Bucs focused their entire draft. Most of the position battles on defense will be fought by backups, as the starting roster is mostly set.
Here are five position battles that should keep Bucs on the edge of their seats through OTAs and into training camp.
Mike James vs. Bobby Rainey
The Buccaneers are suddenly very deep at running back. Drafting former West Virginia running back Charles Sims gave the Bucs a versatile pass-catching back.
It also rendered either Mike James or Bobby Rainey expendable.
Both flashed toughness and elusiveness when called into action last year following Doug Martin's shoulder injury. James likely would have finished the season as the starter had he not suffered his own season-ending ankle injury.
Though they surprised many with their grit, James and Rainey are actually only average running backs. Neither is particularly fast or strong, though they possess decent vision in finding run lanes.
James may have the upper hand, as he has a little bit more experience as a third-down back and can catch the ball out of the backfield. Rainey is no pushover, so expect these two to give the Bucs a very difficult decision to make in August.
Robert Herron vs. Lavelle Hawkins vs. Solomon Patton vs. Jeff Demps
Over the course of the offseason, the Bucs devoted considerable time and resources to overhauling their passing attack. After signing quarterback Josh McCown, the Bucs added a number of new receivers in free agency and the draft.
The Bucs have not had a viable slot receiver in years. Bucs general manager Jason Licht made multiple acquisitions to remedy the long-festering malady.
Spending a sixth-round pick on former Wyoming wide receiver Robert Herron was a shift in the Bucs' draft strategy up to that point. The Bucs had focused on taking big-bodied receivers like WR Mike Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins until taking the small but speedy Herron.
The Bucs already had former Tennessee Titan WR Lavelle Hawkins and former Olympian Jeff Demps on the roster heading into the draft. Hawkins is easily the most experienced of the bunch, though his NFL career to this point has been without distinction.
Demps is focusing on football this year after an injury-shortened 2013 season. Lovie Smith can't contain his excitement having him on the roster. Smith has already praised Demps following the first day of OTAs, per Sander Philipse of Bucs Nation.
Former Gator Solomon Patton made the team as an undrafted free agent. He faces an uphill battle to make the roster against guys like Herron and Demps in whom the Bucs have vested interest.
Three of these players have never played a snap at wide receiver in the NFL, though Hawkins' lack of quality snaps doesn't give him much of an advantage. More than one of these receivers could make the final roster, but watch for how the Bucs' depth chart fluctuates during the offseason as they jockey for position.
Brandon Myers vs. Tim Wright
The Bucs' tight end battle suffered its first casualty on Saturday when Tom Crabtree announced his release on Twitter:
I've been released. Thank you to Lovie and the rest of the new staff for giving me a shot. That's a great group of guys. Expect big things.— Tom Crabtree (@itsCrab) May 17, 2014
Crabtree's dismissal leaves only rookie TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, free-agent acquisition Brandon Myers, second-year Buc Tim Wright and former fourth-round pick Luke Stocker at the tight end position.
Seferian-Jenkins is almost sure to begin the season as the Bucs' starting tight end. His athletic ability and versatility surpasses every other Bucs tight end on the roster.
Stocker is not long for his Bucs uniform. He has struggled to stay healthy and make an impact since being drafted in 2011.
The real battle will be between Myers and Wright. Both are best employed as receiving tight ends, as neither is an impressive blocker.
Wright is likely to end up on top of this battle for a few reasons. First, he shares a strong rapport with the Bucs' "quarterback of the future" Mike Glennon. He is also athletically superior to Myers and still has upside as a player.
The former New York Giant is a bigger target, but considering he failed to consistently produce on a team known for maximizing the output of its tight ends, Myers may not have what it takes to beat out Wright.
Jamon Meredith vs. Oniel Cousins
This battle has trouble written all over it.
The trouble isn't due to any animosity between guards Jamon Meredith and Oniel Cousins, of which there is no indication whatsoever. The problem stems from the fact that there is a competition between the two players at all.
The Bucs are dangerously thin on the offensive line. They cut veteran G Davin Joseph and his reconstructed knees. Carl Nicks still isn't ready to play on his chronically injured foot and it isn't clear whether he ever will be.
While Jamon Meredith started a significant number of games last season, he struggled in pass protection and was even benched at one point by former Bucs head coach Greg Schiano.
Oniel Cousins was signed as a free agent earlier in the offseason. The notion of the former Cleveland Brown starting at guard should keep Josh McCown and the Bucs running backs awake at night.
Meredith and Oniel started OTAs as the Bucs' starting guards, according to Pewter Report. While this would change contingent to Nicks' return, this could also be what steps out on the field at the start of every first quarter this season.
If Nicks can return and plays most of the season, if not a full season, Meredith and Cousins' situation becomes more interesting, if less precarious.
With a new offense, it won't be immediately clear which guard will acclimate to offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford's schemes quicker. The Bucs can only hope that they have to actually choose one over the other.
D.J. Moore vs. Mike Jenkins
The Bucs have been trying to get away with stocking their cornerback depth with rookies and otherwise inexperienced players for the past several years. Lovie Smith and Jason Licht put an end to that by signing veterans Mike Jenkins and D.J. Moore this offseason.
Neither Jenkins nor Moore are good enough to challenge for a starting position. The Bucs brought in former Tennessee Titan CB Alterraun Verner to take Darrelle Revis' spot, and Johnthan Banks still has considerable upside despite his dismal 2013 campaign.
The veteran cornerbacks will instead compete to back up Verner and Banks, either sliding inside to nickel back or subbing for them on the perimeter. In a division with quarterbacks Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, effective nickel sub-packages will be vital to slowing down the NFC South's vaunted pass offenses.
Jenkins, for all his athletic talent, has been a disappointment since the Cowboys took him in the first round of the 2008 draft. He was selected to the 2009 Pro Bowl but has been ineffective since, missing considerable time due to injury.
The Bucs may have reason for concern over Jenkins' propensity for injury, as he missed the rest of the first day of OTAs after suffering an injury defending first-round pick Mike Evans, per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times.
Moore has a bit of an edge on Jenkins for the Bucs' third cornerback spot. Drafted by Lovie Smith's Chicago Bears in 2009, Moore was Smith's nickel corner for several years.
Amassing 10 interceptions over three years in a limited role, Moore definitely has a nose for the ball and familiarity with how Smith runs his defense.
Jenkins will have to stay healthy if he is to have any chance at beating out Moore. The Bucs will need both cornerbacks if they hope to compete in the pass-heavy NFC South.