Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Early Predictions for Bucs' 2014 Training Camp Battles
Especially for a team that has undergone a severe overhaul during the offseason, the Bucs could experience even more shake-up than the average team, as the new regime comes in to assess the talent already present on the roster, as well as the new blood they've brought in to fit their particular schemes.
Here are my early predictions for some of the Bucs' biggest training camp position battles.
Left Defensive End
The defensive line will see plenty of rotation under new position coach Joe Cullen, but somebody has to be the first one out there. And while big-ticket free agent Michael Johnson will start on at right defensive end, the picture is not so clear on the left side.
Returning starter and former first-round pick Adrian Clayborn would seem like the favorite to win the job, or perhaps even the Bucs’ second-round pick the same year, Da’Quan Bowers. But offseason comments from new head coach Lovie Smith make it sound like the new sheriff in town isn’t particularly enamored with either player at the moment.
The new regime could look to a pair of younger pass-rushers to step up. William Gholston and Steven Means were also members of the same draft class, though much later picks than Clayborn and Bowers were.
Gholston showed steady improvement throughout his rookie season in 2013 and has the size and length to fit what Smith is looking for at the position. Means didn’t see the field much in 2013, but Smith is reportedly very excited about his potential.
Though conventional wisdom would say that Clayborn keeps his starting job, the team has already declined his fifth-year option for next season, which could be writing on the wall. Gholston may be a dark horse, but he’s my pick to run away with the spot.
Widely considered one of their biggest needs heading into the draft, the Bucs didn’t address the guard spot until the fifth round, taking Kadeem Edwards out of Tennessee State.
Jamon Meredith was re-signed in this offseason and will likely win the starting job on the right side. Things are not as settled on the left side, however, and won’t be until the status of Carl Nicks is known for certain. While Nicks expects to be ready for training camp, his nagging toe injury gives plenty of reason for concern.
Edwards will battle with free-agent acquisition Oniel Cousins for reserve snaps, but it could turn into a battle for a starting job if Nicks isn’t 100 percent by the start of the season. While Cousins has more experience, I have a feeling the Bucs knew they were drafting a potential starter when they took Edwards earlier this month, and I think he’ll be the next man up if Nicks can’t go.
The starters on the outside are set at wide receiver for the Bucs, with Vincent Jackson and first-round pick Mike Evans holding down those spots. However, the slot role looks to be up for grabs.
Tampa Bay brought in veterans Louis Murphy and Lavelle Hawkins in free agency, both of whom have decent speed and valuable NFL experience. Chris Owusu also returns from last year, and though he’s one of the faster receivers on the roster, I don’t expect him to wow from the slot in training camp.
If I’m putting my money on anyone to win the slot battle, it’s rookie sixth-round pick Robert Herron. The Wyoming product has the perfect skill set for the position, combining great top-end speed with solid route-running technique, quickness and the ability to consistently create separation.
Backup Running Back
The Bucs were expected to head into 2014 with an already full stable of running backs.
Doug Martin was cleared to play following a season-ending torn labrum, and Mike James was to be ready to go after losing the rest of his 2013 season to a broken ankle. Waiver-wire pickup Bobby Rainey stepped in and provided the Bucs with some solid production down the stretch, giving the Bucs three quality options in the backfield.
But that didn’t stop Tampa Bay from spending its third-round pick on Charles Sims, despite plenty of head-scratching reactions. Sims has stellar vision and quickness, but the Bucs coaching staff is especially impressed by his receiving ability.
Martin will return as the starter and get the majority of the carries, and even though James and Rainey were impressive during short stretches last year, I expect Sims to get involved early and often in the Bucs new offense. He should be the team’s first option after Martin in running situations, and should get top billing on third downs.
Strong Side Linebacker
Jonathan Casillas beat out Dekoda Watson for the "Sam" linebacker job in 2013, before his season ended with a torn ACL.
Watson is gone this year, but Casillas will have a new challenger to fend off in free-agent signing Dane Fletcher. Fletcher, a former New England Patriot, might benefit from Casillas having to return from such a huge injury.
However, should Casillas return healthy, the starting spot is his to lose. Fletcher should be a valuable asset on special teams, and though the Bucs will be in plenty of nickel formations without the strong side linebacker on the field, Casillas should be the starter there in base formations.