Bucs' position battles will heat up during offseason practices
The Bucs have been ramping up their offseason workouts in recent weeks, with players now permitted to work on the field with coaches and their position groups.
But a week from today, things move to the most important stage when offseason team activities, or OTAs, begin.
The Bucs and all NFL teams are permitted 10 such practices plus a three-day minicamp. These practices aren’t going to make the difference between a losing season and winning the Super Bowl, but they’re important nonetheless. They give coaches opportunities to experiment with personnel combinations and to assess where things stand in position battles.
It’s that latter issue we want to take a look at today. A majority of the Bucs’ starting jobs are practically locked in. But there are a handful of starting spots and key backup jobs that will be open for competition.
And that competition starts this month, not in late July when players report for camp. Here are the positions to watch when OTAs begin:
No. 3/slot receiver: We know Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are going to be the Nos. 1 and 2 receivers. Who can quibble with that?
What’s less clear is which receiver will become the No. 3/slot receiver. This player is going play extensively, particularly with tight end Dallas Clark – one of quarterback Josh Freeman’s favorite targets in 2012 – no longer on the roster.
The candidates are Tiquan Underwood, Kevin Ogletree and, perhaps, Steve Smith. Underwood is the incumbent, but that won’t mean much because he had little competition last season. Ogletree, a free agent signing from the Cowboys, needs to show more consistency. But if he has command of the offense, he’ll get a very fair shot. Smith has a lot to prove, but it’s not too late for him to revive his one-promising career.
No. 2 running back: Here’s an unequivocal fact: Doug Martin is going to get the overwhelming majority of carries for the Bucs this season.
What few remain will fall to an as-yet undetermined backup. The decision to trade LeGarrette Blount to the Patriots last month leaves a void behind Martin, and the Bucs will have to decide who is most capable of handling that role if Martin needs rest or suffers an injury.
While veteran free-agent signing Brian Leonard is a solid addition, he is best suited for the role the Bucs are projecting for him: a third-down back expected to be active in the passing game. That leaves sixth-round draft choice Mike James and second-year man Michael Smith as the primary candidates.
Some in the organization have indicated James has the edge here, but it’s much too early to tell. That’s, perhaps, something that can be clarified a bit in the coming weeks.
Nose tackle: We’ve wondered about this position since the Bucs let Roy Miller walk during free agency. Turns out his replacement might well be fourth-rounder Akeem Spence – not Derek Landri or Gary Gibson.
The rookie from Illinois clearly is highly thought of by the Bucs given their decision to trade up 12 spots to select him. Spence had a strong rookie minicamp, but that’s not a good indicator of anything given the low level of competition. When he lines up against the vets – including the best pair of guards in the NFL, Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks – we’ll get a better sense of whether he’s ready for prime time.
Strong-side linebacker: This was a position we addressed in recent days. To sum up the situation here, the Bucs have a lot of choices, but should come out of OTAs with Jonathan Casillas, Dekoda Watson, Adam Hayward and Najee Goode in some kind of pecking order.
No. 2 cornerback: Darrelle Revis won’t be on the field for OTAs, but there is no doubt he’ll be the Bucs’ No. 1 cornerback unless his knee rehab is a colossal failure. That leaves the identity of the No. 2 cornerback as the only real mystery.
If the season began today, that job would belong to veteran Eric Wright. And it likely will remain his on opening day. But there’s one thing that could bring about an unexpected change here: A fast start by second-round pick Johnthan Banks.
The Bucs don’t see any need to fast-track Banks, potentially putting him in position to fail. But if he shows he’s ready for a bigger role, don’t be surprised if he is promoted from his expected status as nickel cornerback. OTAs will give Banks his first real chance to make an argument for himself.