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With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers just days away from reporting to training camp it is a good time to preview and predict what will be a very exciting training camp. It also is timely to get an idea of which established players are on the bubble for roster spots. Every year in training camp a few players show they deserve to see the field over players that are ahead of them on the depth chart.
A case in point from last year was in the return game where undrafted rookie Clifton Smith outplayed second-round pick Dexter Jackson. After watching all of the open practices and mini-camp workouts here are some predictions for training camp.
CAMP STANDOUT: linebacker Quincy Black
CAMP DISAPPOINTMENT: quarterback Byron Leftwich
NAME PLAYER ON THE BUBBLE DEFENSE: defensive end Stylez G. White
NAME PLAYER ON THE BUBBLE OFFENSE: wide receiver Dexter Jackson
BEST POSITION BATTLE OFFENSE: wide receiver
BEST POSITION BATTLE DEFENSE: linebacker
THIRD RECEIVER: wide receiver Brian Clark
THIRD CORNERBACK: cornerback Elbert Mack
THIS YEAR'S CLIFTON SMITH: running back Kareem Huggins
CANNOT REPEAT LAST YEAR: kicker Matt Bryant
FINAL PRE-CAMP ROSTER CUT: nobody, Arron Sears or Cadillac Williams will be moved
Linebacker will be a great battle in training camp. The Sam linebacker spot is up for grabs with Quincy Black entering camp as the frontrunner ahead of veteran free agent addition Angelo Crowell. Quick Hits has documented that the Bucs have made a conscious effort to keep Black on the field as a rush end in the team's pass rushing ‘Go' package and that Black has stayed in Tampa to continue to work and prepare for this training camp battle. With his unique combination of size and speed, increased production as a special teams demon in 2008, and his work ethic and drive, Black is the player that is the predicted to be the training camp standout.
Veteran free agent quarterback Byron Leftwich struggled at the conclusion of the offseason mini-camp with taking sacks and holding onto the ball too long. Leftwich makes up for some of those plays by completing passes for big gains downfield. During the OTAs and mini-camp Leftwich and fellow starting quarterback competitor Luke McCown both wanted more reps with the starting offensive line for the better pass protection. In training camp Leftwich will get plenty of snaps with both the starters and backups, and due to the backup offensive linemen struggling, Leftwich could be a disappointing performer in training camp by taking a lot of sacks and not moving the football.
The name player on the bubble for the defense is defensive end Stylez G. White. In 2008 White's sack total fell to five from eight in 2007. He was banged up with a shoulder injury and road rash from a motorcycle accident this offseason, and was mostly unable to practice. The team still does not feel that White defends the run very well, and sources within the Buccaneers have questioned White's commitment to football. Add to it that Tampa Bay has Gaines Adams as its every down right defensive end, which is White's natural position. White has his work cut out for him this training camp and will have to earn a roster a spot this year.
For the offensive side the biggest name player on the bubble for a roster spot is wide receiver Dexter Jackson. The disastrous rookie year is behind him, and Jackson has earned praise for working hard this offseason. However, sources have been unanimous that Jackson still has to improve greatly as a wide receiver. During OTAs and the mini-camp Jackson was not fighting defensive backs for jump balls and needs to play more aggressively. Even more so than White, it is make or break time for Jackson.
Two of the three starting linebacker spots are up for grabs. The only one that is not is the Mike (middle) linebacker. At the Mike there is a fierce battle to back up starter Barrett Ruud between veteran free agent signees Rod Wilson and Niko Koutouvides. Wilson seemed to be ahead in this battle for the majority of the organized team activities during the spring. Koutouvides came on towards the end of the OTAs and mini-camp. Both are good special teamers, and that will be a key aspect in who makes the team. At the Will linebacker position converted safety Jermaine Phillips enters camp as the front-runner to be the starter, but second-year pro Geno Hayes had a strong finish to the offseason program. It is conceivable that Hayes could beat out Phillips. However, whoever doesn't win the spot should still see the field regularly as part of an increased rotation at the position that used to be constantly filled by All-Pro Derrick Brooks.
The battle for the third wide receiver position is the most heated position battle on the offense outside of starting quarterback. The quarterbacks that will be on the roster are largely decided already with McCown, Leftwich, and Josh Freeman being the players kept and Josh Johnson likely to be released. Beyond starting wide receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton it is a wide open competition for three or four roster spots. Plus, there is an open competition for the third receiver spot. Brian Clark is the frontrunner right now, but Maurice Stovall and rookie Sammie Stroughter will figure into the battle as well. Clark has had a great offseason, but will have to lead the candidates in production in the preseason games to hold the spot. The good thing for Tampa Bay is that Clark, Stovall, and Stroughter are all assets on special teams and so the likely fourth and fifth receivers will still be solid contributors. Kelly Campbell, Cortez Hankton, Joel Filani, Pat Carter and Jackson are in the competition as well with the first two figuring more prominently during the offseason workouts.
The third cornerback position is up for grabs with second-year players Elbert Mack and Kyle Arrington leading the way. An outside contender is starting free safety Tanard Jackson. Tampa Bay feels it has three starting safeties in Jackson, Sabby Piscitelli, and Will Allen. The Bucs could feel more comfortable with three safeties in the game, and Jackson lining up as a cornerback over a receiver. Arrington was on the practice squad last year, and Mack did not log a big amount of snaps on defense although he played well when he did. Mack has looked good all offseason, and seems to be well suited to the Buccaneers new man coverage defense. He has the physicality and fight to be effective at bumping and re-routing receivers at the line of scrimmage, plus he has looked good at running with receivers downfield and not allowing them to gain separation. Right now Mack is the projected third cornerback.
This year's Clifton Smith-type performer is a fellow undrafted rookie running back in Hofstra's Kareem Huggins. In the spring practices Huggins performed well — he is extremely quick. His game is reminiscent to Smith because they are both versatile backs that are quick to hit the hole, are excellent pass receivers out of the backfield, and are dangerous when returning kicks and punts. The Bucs love the mismatches that Smith gives them out of the backfield, and Huggins can be used in the same manner. Tampa Bay has a crowded backfield, so Huggins could start out the season on the practice squad like Smith did a year ago. If the Bucs have injuries hit the position in 2009 like they did in 2008, a practice squad player like Huggins or running back Josh Vaughan could be on the roster at the end of the season.
The player that cannot have a repeat of their performance last preseason is kicker Matt Bryant. The Bucs stayed with their veteran kicker despite a very shaky preseason where Bryant missed five out of 12 field goal attempts. Tampa Bay tried out some veteran free agents before the season started, but kept Bryant, and he rewarded the team by making 84.2 percent of his field goals in the regular season. Because Bryant struggled with field goal attempts of 40-plus yards (5 out of 11 in 2008), Tampa Bay brought in free agent Mike Nugent to compete with Bryant. The strong-legged Nugent already yields better kickoffs than the 34-year old Bryant, and if Bryant has shaky field goal accuracy in the preseason it will be near impossible for him to hold off the newcomer. Bryant has to earn the job by winning the coaching staff's confidence in him to make the clutch kick, and prove to be more consistent.
When the Bucs sign Freeman they will have to open up a roster spot for him. Many assume it will be one more player being cut, but the Bucs could open up that spot by moving a player off the active roster. Running back Carnell ‘Cadillac' Williams could be placed on the physically-unable-to-perform list as he comes back from a second knee injury. Guard Arron Sears could be moved to the non-football injury list. Sears is believed to be suffering from a depression-related issue. Either move would open up a roster spot for Freeman, and Tampa Bay would not have to cut a healthy player. That announcement could come on the day that the team reports for training camp.