Pewter Report has been diligently watching the Buccaneers open OTA and mini-camp practices this spring and summer, in addition to gathering intel about the players from Tampa Bay coaches, scouts and within the locker room. After evaluating the on-field offseason at One Buccaneer Place, here is Pewter Report’s starting lineup heading into training camp based on what we’ve seen and what we’ve heard from our sources.
Keep in mind this analysis reflects what players have done in shorts, jerseys and helmets and should not be interpreted as a starting lineup for the season opener contest against Dallas. There will be some players who rise up and become starters and some starters from the OTAs who have their position on the depth chart derailed by performance or injury in the preseason.
Following up yesterday’s insight on the Bucs’ starters on offense is today’s analysis of Tampa Bay’s starting defense and special teams.
LE Jimmy Wilkerson
Wilkerson is entering a contract year and has nailed down not only the starting left defensive end position in the team’s base defense, but also a starting defensive tackle position in the team’s pass-rushing “Go” package. Wilkerson was a surprise free agent find last year, notching five sacks while playing both end and tackle. Wilkerson’s ascent to the starting ranks is fully justified and allowed the team to pass on re-signing veteran Kevin Carter, who was a shell of his former self in 2008. Wilkerson has displayed great sportsmanship and teamwork by helping rookie Kyle Moore along. Moore is challenging Wilkerson at left end and also starting along side him at tackle in the “Go” package. It took Wilkerson seven years to earn a starting defensive end job, and with free agency looming he has all the motivation in the world to be productive enough to keep that job and earn a lucrative contract extension.
DT Chris Hovan
Is the 31-year old Hovan still in his prime or slipping past it? That’s what we’ll find out this year as Hovan has put on an extra 10 pounds and is up to 305 this year to become a better fit in Jim Bates’ new defensive scheme. Hovan’s days as a pass-rushing force have come and gone, but the new defense will suit this power player’s skill set much better. Hovan can still stuff the run and occupy guards, and that will be his primary role in Tampa Bay this year. He also brings value in terms of being a veteran leader among the defensive linemen and the locker room.
DT Ryan Sims
Sims has been getting rave reviews from the coaching staff this offseason. At 6-foot-4, 315 pounds, he has the ideal size Bates is looking for at defensive tackle in the new scheme. Sims has the lateral agility and quickness necessary to shed guards and make tackles in the hole. What he has to do is anchor better against double teams and play with better pad level. Sims’ play was much more impressive as a reserve in 2007 than it was as a late-season starter in 2008, so he has something to prove to himself, the coaches, his teammates and the front office, who bestowed him with a lucrative contract extension during the offseason. If Sims can’t stand and deliver in a scheme that suits him perfectly, rookie Roy Miller or former practice squad player Dre Moore may be ready to step up and assume a starting role sometime this season.
RE Gaines Adams
Adams has gotten stronger thanks to a more dedicated approach to the weight room under strength coach Kurt Shultz’s watch. The Bucs plan on splitting Adams’ stance out wider when he’s in the seven-technique (outside shoulder of the tackle) or when he’s in the nine-technique (outside shoulder of the tight end). There would be less dropping of his hips and turning the corner involved. By having more of a straight line to run to at the quarterback, Adams can use his quick get-off and speed to his advantage. This is a big year for Adams and he’ll need a dominant season to prevent the team from looking at drafting another defensive end in the first round next year.
SLB Quincy Black
There has been a big buzz around Black all offseason and the results on the field have so far backed it up. Black is the current starter at strongside linebacker, fending off Geno Hayes and Angelo Crowell, who has a ways to go to catch up. Black has always had the size and speed to excel in the NFL, now he is honing his instincts and having a better understanding of the linebacker position. Black has been making more plays this offseason, including a great interception of Luke McCown across the middle of the field during the last mini-camp practice before training camp. The coaches think Black is so valuable that they have kept him on the field on third downs when the Sam linebacker traditionally heads towards the sideline in favor or a third cornerback by moving Black to left defensive end in the “Go” package.
MLB Barrett Ruud
Ruud missed all of the offseason OTAs in a contract dispute, but showed up for the team’s mandatory mini-camp where he didn’t seem lost or too far behind in the playbook. While backup Rod Wilson received praise from the coaching staff in Ruud’s absence, he can’t touch Ruud’s ability, experience and production, which combined to make him the defense’s best player. The interesting thing with Ruud’s contract situation is that no discussions towards an extension have begun, which Ruud labeled “disappointing.” Bucs general manager Mark Dominik, like most NFL GMs, is waiting to see if a new Collective Bargaining Agreement can be reached before proceeding with extension talks. Depending on if there is a new CBA or not, Ruud will either be an unrestricted free agent or a restricted free agent in 2010. The question around Ruud heading into training camp is not regarding his ability to learn the new defense, it’s whether his contract situation will beckon for him to hold out.
WLB Jermaine Phillips
The coaches feel so comfortable with Phillips’ transition to linebacker that he hasn’t taken a single snap at safety this offseason. The coaches also feel that Phillips has locked down the weakside linebacker spot and have tried to give Geno Hayes some reps at strongside linebacker as a result. Phillips has worked on his short-area quickness, a trait he’ll need to be better in to defend against running backs and tight ends in the underneath and intermediate passing game. The only question the coaches have about Phillips’ transition is shedding the blocks of guards play in and play out. If Phillips proves he can’t handle it in the preseason, the door will open again for Hayes.
SS Sabby Piscitelli
Piscitelli has made some serious strides in learning the new defense and stepping into his role as a starter. You can tell that there is still a little too much thinking and not enough reacting out there on the field, but three weeks of training camp and four preseason games should advance his development in the right direction. Piscitelli has a unique blend of size, speed and athleticism and he has been stride-for-stride and toe-to-toe with tight end Kellen Winslow on several occasions and more than held his own. If he stays healthy, there is no reason to think Piscitelli will not thrive as a starting safety in Tampa Bay.
FS Tanard Jackson
Jackson should thrive in the role of free safety in Bates’ new defense, which calls for the safeties to be able to roam free and track the ball in the air while the corners are locked up with the receivers in man coverage. Jackson, a former cornerback, only has three interceptions in his two-year career after having one of his picks overturned due to a penalty last year, but that should change in 2009. Jackson is now comfortable in his role as a three-year starter and this new system is set up for him to become more of a ballhawk. Jackson has also been playing some nickel cornerback when defensive backs coach Joe Baker wants to get Will Allen on the field at safety.
CB Ronde Barber
The 34-year old Barber has his share of doubters out there after a year in which he gave up more passing plays than normal. But what shouldn’t be overlooked is the fact that Barber had four picks last year, which was the most he has produced since 2005, including one returned for a key touchdown at Detroit. Barber is ticked off at the media for doubting him, despite the fact that he is the only cornerback in NFL history to record over 20 sacks and 20 interceptions over a career. As Pewter Report has reported in its Insider stories, Barber has made a lot of plays, but he hasn’t given up a lot, either. The word from his teammates and coaches is that Barber is adapting to the man coverage scheme quite nicely.
CB Aqib Talib
Talib has been a ballhawking freak this offseason and could be in for a monster season. After tying Barber for the team in interceptions last year with four as the team’s nickel corner, Talib is poised to have a breakout year in his first season as a starter. The 6-foot-1, 205-pounder constantly makes plays on the ball in practice and is playing with a great deal of swagger right now. Talib rarely gets beat in practice, and most of the time he goes unchallenged by Tampa Bay’s quarterbacks because his coverage is so tight. So far, Talib has lived up to his first-round draft billing and seems to be a perfect fit for Bates’ bump-and-run man coverage scheme.
3rd CB Elbert Mack
The Bucs have so much confidence in Mack that they have decided against signing the likes of veterans Chris McAlister and Patrick Surtain. Despite his thin, wiry frame, Mack plays like a junkyard dog and isn’t afraid of physical play. Mack can hang with any of the Bucs receivers and has an extra gear to close on the ball that helps him break up passes in the flat or downfield. When Tampa Bay wants a bigger presence at corner, Jackson moves to nickel and is replaced by Allen at safety. But more often than not, Mack is the man holding down the nickel corner role and keeping Kyle Arrington and Torrie Cox in a competition for the fourth-string corner.
STARTING SPECIAL TEAMS
K Matt Bryant
Heading into camp, Bryant has done nothing to lose his starting job despite deeper kickoffs from newcomer Mike Nugent. What Tampa Bay doesn’t want to sacrifice for a longer kickoff is field goal accuracy. Bryant can consistently nail 83 percent of his kicks, and he is a reliable presence inside 43 yards. If the younger Nugent can prove to be more accurate than Bryant and out-kick him on kickoffs, then Bryant may be unseated. Until then, Bryant is the starter heading into training camp.
P Josh Bidwell
Bidwell’s play tailed off down the stretch last year and he was thoroughly out-kicked in the season finale against Oakland. But the team did not bring in any competition for Bidwell and he wins the job again this year by default. Not only does Bidwell, who still appears to be in his prime, handle punting duties, he also is the team’s holder for field goals and extra points.
LS Andrew Economos
If you were to judge the play of all Buccaneers based on assignment execution and importance to the team, Economos would be one of the team’s very best players. No fooling. The guy’s snapping is absolute money and he holds up well at the point of attack for punts and field goal and extra point placements. Long snapper is an often overlooked position on the team, but it is quite important considering that punts are the biggest field position-changing plays in the game and field goals and PATS put points on the board.
PR-KR Clifton Smith
Smith enters training camp as the incumbent kick and punt returner, and with good reason considering he was a Pro Bowl performer last year. Smith was the only NFL player to return both a kick and a punt for a touchdown in 2008 – and he only saw action in the last nine games of the season. Smith will have to contend with new NFL rules that prohibit blocking wedges on kick returns this year, but the Bucs have used a mix of wedges and man-blocking in the past so they won’t be crippled by the new approach.
With the conclusion of Buccaneers mini-camp, the Pewter Report staff is currently producing the eagerly awaited Training Camp Issue, which will be published and mailed in mid-July. Scott Reynolds’ SR’s Fab 5 column will return on Sunday, July 5 after a two-week hiatus.