Predicting the Winner of the Buccaneers' Biggest Training Camp Battles
With the influx of new blood the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have experienced this offseason, the potential for compelling position battles is extremely high.
Though there are plenty of returning starters whose jobs are safe, others will be pushed by the presence of fresh young faces at multiple positions.
The Bucs have at least eight new additions who look to be locked into a starting role, and there are even more positions where free agents and draft picks will challenge to unseat holdovers from a previous regime that limped through a 4-12 season in 2013.
With training camp just a few days away, here's my take on who will win out in the Bucs' toughest position battles.
Left Defensive End
Free-agent acquisition Michael Johnson will be a plug-and-play starter at right defensive end, but Bucs fans should expect an intense competition at the opposite end position.
Adrian Clayborn will be the starter heading into camp, but he'll have to have a strong showing to hold off young up-and-comers behind him. The former first-rounder missed all but three games in 2012 with a torn ACL and has just 13 sacks in 36 career starts for the Bucs.
I'd be shocked if Da'Quan Bowers provides much of a challenge for the starting job, but flying up fast in Clayborn's rear-view mirror is William Gholston. A fourth-round pick last year, Gholston showed flashes of his natural ability as a rookie, particularly in the second half of the season.
New defensive line coach Joe Cullen says there's plenty to like about Gholston, according to Scott Smith of Buccaneers.com:
Will was a guy that on tape last year did some good things at the end of the year. He's getting it and he's getting better every day. Will's the type of guy that a lot of times it's hard to tell [how good he is] without the pads on – he's big, he's rangy, he's long. But he's working hard and he's improving every day.
If he continues to develop and get closer to reaching his full potential, I wouldn't be surprised to see Gholston starting opposite Johnson in Week 1.
No. 2 Cornerback
Depth at cornerback hasn't exactly been the calling card of the Bucs secondary over the past few seasons.
But heading into 2014, a young Pro Bowler in Alterraun Verner has one spot locked down, and there looks to be a tight race on the opposite side of the secondary between youngster Johnthan Banks and veteran free-agent acquisition Mike Jenkins.
After trading their first-rounder in 2013 for Darrelle Revis, the Bucs spent their second-round pick on Banks, who started all 16 games as a rookie. The Mississippi State product grabbed three interceptions, preserving a win late against the Detroit Lions in Week 12 and showing off his athleticism and ball skills with a one-handed gem versus the Arizona Cardinals in Week 4.
Banks will be pushed in his second season by Jenkins, who was brought in on a one-year deal. A former first-round pick by the Cowboys, Jenkins spent his first five seasons in Dallas before playing in 2013 with the Oakland Raiders. Jenkins is no stranger to Raymond James Stadium, having played his home games there for the University of South Florida.
Banks might lack the NFL experience and schematic comfort level of Jenkins, but he's got a much higher ceiling than the 29-year-old veteran and showed solid progression as a rookie. I expect Banks to keep trending upward and win the starting spot.
The starting spots on the outside are set at receiver, with Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans giving the Bucs massive targets at the top two spots. But the training camp battle to watch on offense will be in the slot, where it's a wide-open race.
Gone is Tiquan Underwood to free agency, who handled most of the slot duties last season, but returning players such as Eric Page and Skye Dawson will be in the mix. Free-agent acquisition Lavelle Hawkins could fit the role, while undrafted free agent Solomon Patton could also have his name in the hat.
But it's sixth-round pick Robert Herron that Bucs fans should keep an eye on when training camp kicks off.
Projected by many as a mid-round selection, the Bucs snagged Herron with the 185th overall pick. The rookie from Wyoming turned plenty of heads with a stellar performance during Senior Bowl week, showing off his speed, technique and ability to consistently create separation. Such a skill set should make Herron a perfect fit in the slot.
A new regime means that incumbents like Page and Dawson don't have the rapport they might have had with the old guard, and while Hawkins played for offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford at Cal, he simply can't match up with Herron's natural ability.
With towering teammates surrounding him in Jackson, Evans and rookie second-rounder Austin Seferian Jenkins at tight end, expect Herron to find plenty of space to make plays from the slot.
The Bucs saw a similar battle at strong-side linebacker in 2013, when Dekoda Watson and free-agent addition Jonathan Casillas fought for the job.
Watson has since departed, and it's now Casillas who will be attempting to fight off a new acquisition in the form of Dane Fletcher for the starting role.
Casillas signed a one-year deal after spending his first three seasons with the New Orlains, tallying 35 tackles and a forced fumble in 12 games last year. The Wisconsin product made four starts in 2013 but ended his season on injured reserve because of a torn ACL.
Fletcher joins the Bucs after three seasons with the New England Patriots, agreeing to terms with the Bucs while waiting for a connecting flight to visit with the Raiders. The former undrafted free agent has just 81 tackles in 38 career games but was a valuable contributor on special teams in New England.
Fletcher only has six career starts under his belt, but Lovie Smith and company clearly saw something they liked in the Montana State alum. With Casillas returning from knee surgery, don't be surprised if Fletcher ends up being one of many new faces in the starting lineup for Tampa Bay come Week 1.
The nickel corner position has become so important in today's NFL that the Bucs have dedicated a specialized coach just for that spot.
It will be Larry Marmie's job to teach the nuances of such a vital position in Lovie Smith's Tampa 2 scheme, and he's got multiple hopefuls who want the first crack at those snaps against three- and four-receiver sets.
The likes of Danny Gorrer and Deveron Carr will push for playing time, but free-agent pickup D.J. Moore looks to be the front-runner.
Entering his sixth NFL season, Moore spent his first five years in Chicago under Smith. Despite starting only three games over that span, Moore made the most of his opportunities, grabbing 10 interceptions and returning two of them for touchdowns.
Moore is not only the most tenured of the players fighting for the starting role over the slot, but most of his experience has been in Smith's Tampa 2 scheme. He's already set himself apart during offseason workouts, so expect him to stay ahead of the competition and hang on to the starting job.