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 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.
First up is the analysis of Tampa Bay’s starting offense, followed tomorrow by the Bucs’ starters on defense and special teams.
BUCS STARTING OFFENSE
QB Luke McCown
McCown has a slight edge over Byron Leftwich heading into training camp because he has made quicker decisions with the football, avoided sacks with his mobility and been a more efficient passer in the practices that Pewter Report has been able to see. Leftwich does have more charisma, experience and leadership skills than McCown does, but some of those qualities don’t always put touchdowns on the board and win football games, as Chris Simms found out. Leftwich had a terrible day during the final mini-camp practice, taking several unnecessary sacks and not being accurate with the football. That could not have left a good impression on the coaching staff heading into training camp. McCown’s problem is that he has not been able to take full advantage of a bad practice by Leftwich with a command performance or create a good deal of separation. We’ll see if that happens in training camp or if Leftwich – or Josh Freeman, who is making some strides – can catch up to him.
RB Earnest Graham
New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski has shown the willingness to use multiple backs in his zone-blocking scheme, but Graham figures to get the first shot at defenses this fall. At the end of the day, Graham and newcomer Derrick Ward may be splitting carries, but the plan is to have the bigger and more physical Graham pound away and then have Ward come in as a quicker back and attack defenses with his speed as a change of pace. Clifton Smith figures to have a prominent role on third downs this year and will be used on screens and in the passing game in the flat and downfield in the same way San Diego uses Darren Sproles. Cadillac Williams is expected to come back from his torn patellar tendon injury by training camp, bolstering the strongest Bucs’ backfield since the glory days of Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn.
FB B.J. Askew
The fullback doesn’t figure to be featured as much in Jagodzinski’s offense as it was in Jon Gruden’s, but there is still a need for a lead blocker, and right now it’s Askew. Askew has the versatility to be a weapon in the passing game and even as a runner, but with the halfback position so loaded this year, it’s doubtful he will get to do much more than block. Because Askew has been injury-prone due to his physical playing style, it’s worth mentioning that Jameel Cook has looked good and is capable of still starting in the NFL.
TE Kellen Winslow
If he stays healthy and plays in all 16 games, you can pencil in Winslow among the team’s top three pass-catchers in 2009. He is a superb receiving tight end with his hands and playmaking ability only rivaled by Antonio Bryant. Winslow has been split out as a wide receiver at times and has also been a big factor in the red zone. The Bucs will use a heavy does of two-tight end sets in Jagodzinski’s offense, meaning Winslow likely won’t leave the field. At the same time, John Gilmore and Jerramy Stevens are splitting time as the number two tight end, so all three will be receiving quite a bit of action on the field in 2009.
WR Antonio Bryant
With the addition of Winslow and the emphasis on the running game, Bryant may not catch 83 passes in 2009, but he figures on being just as big a factor this season. With the offense featuring more downfield passes, Bryant may actually do more with less catches this year and improve on his 15-yard average in 2008. With Jagodzinski more willing to incorporate the passing game into the red zone offense, Bryant should get his hands on more touchdown passes, too. After franchising Bryant this offseason, the Bucs will be motivated to get him the ball and keep him happy, and Bryant will be motivated to have a big season so he could possibly cash in on the free agent market next March or prompt Tampa Bay to franchise him again at over $10 million in 2010. That sounds like a win-win situation for the team and the player.
WR Michael Clayton
With Bryant and Winslow figuring to haul in the most receptions in the passing game, Clayton stands to benefit from a lot of single coverage. Clayton may not have the speed or quickness to become a primary receiver in the NFL and separate from elite cornerbacks, but he did show he could take advantage of being an over-looked, secondary option in the passing game last year, especially in games against Kansas City and Oakland. The best news for Clayton this offseason – aside from his lucrative, long-term contract – is that Jagodzinski will emphasize quarterbacks putting the ball up and allowing the team’s bigger receivers like the 6-foot-3, 212-pound LSU product to win jump balls and make plays in the passing game. Clayton is a big, physical wide receiver whose size will be used more in the red zone on fades and slants.
3rd WR Brian Clark
When the Bucs go with three-wide receiver sets, who will join Bryant and Clayton? Clark has come out of nowhere to really have an outstanding offseason and put himself in position to see some time in the third receiver position on offense this year. Clark, who has starred on special teams in the past, is not a spectacular receiver, but he is steady and consistent in the vein of Ike Hilliard and Karl “The Truth” Williams. Clark is intelligent, doesn’t make many mistakes, has reliable hands, enough speed, and runs precise routes. He may not be flashy, but he is dependable and has the coaching staff raving because they can count on him. Maurice Stovall is coming on after a good mini-camp and will challenge Clark for the number three receiver role in training camp. Rookie Sammie Stroughter has missed time with a hamstring strain and has lost some momentum. The same could be said for Kelly Campbell, whose concentration needs to improve in terms of catching the football.
LT Donald Penn
With the exception of right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who has been asked to put on some weight, the entire Buccaneers offensive line has been asked to drop some pounds to increase their stamina, endurance and quickness for the new zone-blocking scheme. Everybody has fulfilled that request from offensive line coach Pete Mangurian except for Penn, who missed a little more than half of the OTAs due to his displeasure over his contract situation. Penn needs to shed 10 pounds and has yet to do it, but still plays with quickness and power – even with the extra weight. The Bucs were high on James Lee at the start of the offseason program, but there is a clear difference between Penn and Lee, who is not yet ready for primetime. Despite missing the time and the target weight, he’s entrenched as the starting left tackle. Heading into a possible contract year depending on how the Collective Bargaining Agreement plays out, Penn has all the motivation to have a big season.
LG Jeremy Zuttah
Zuttah inherits the left guard duties due to Arron Sears’ absence. But team sources tell Pewter Report that a healthy and fit Sears would have had his hands full with Zuttah, a promising young lineman, this summer in training camp. Zuttah is the best athlete along the line and has ideal quickness for the lateral movement necessary in the Bucs’ zone-blocking scheme. Zuttah got five starts last year as a rookie and the Bucs offense didn’t miss a beat in terms of production. The problem with Zuttah’s promotion and Sears’ absence is that it leaves the team’s depth at guard pretty vulnerable.
C Jeff Faine
The zone-blocking scheme is a perfect fit for an agile, undersized center like Faine, who plays a physical brand of football. Faine’s greatest asset is his quick feet and his ability to hit a moving target. The new scheme will play to those strengths, especially in the running game, and Faine will be asked to pull and lead block downfield on screen passes, which are prevalent in Jagodzinski’s offense. The unquestioned leader of Tampa Bay’s offensive line has quickly picked up the offense and will take on more a leadership role for the entire team in his second year with the Buccaneers. If Faine’s tweaked back behaves, he could be in for a Pro Bowl season in 2009.
RG Davin Joseph
Joseph became a Pro Bowler last year and is looking to establish himself as one of the NFC’s best guards. While some had concerns that a 320-pound power guard may not be a great fit for the new zone-blocking scheme, Joseph had adjusted quite well, dropping 15 pounds and getting down to 305. Even when he was bulkier, Joseph was quicker than most gave him credit for. His specialty is running 10-15 yards downfield and picking defenders off the pile. Joseph did incur some 15-yard personal foul penalties and must curb that approach this year. He also needs to work on getting into his pass sets quicker this year, and shedding 15 pounds just may help him do that.
RT Jeremy Trueblood
Trueblood took his diet and exercise regimen too seriously last year and got down to 288 pounds by the end of the season. He has made the commitment to add muscle and get up to 305 by the start of the season and looks to be in fantastic shape – a lot better than he did as an overweight rookie that weighed 320 pounds. Trueblood needs to clean up the unnecessary penalties from his game, otherwise he will face the wrath of Mangurian and Jagodzinski, who have been preaching that penalties are drive-killers and absolutely must be abolished. If Trueblood can maintain his aggressive, hard-nosed edge and play a smarter, more disciplined brand of football in 2009, his game could reach a Pro Bowl level because he has that type of talent.
Visit PewterReport.com on Tuesday, June 23 for analysis on Pewter Report’s starting defense and special teams, and follow Pewter Report on Twitter at http://twitter.com/pewterreport
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.