Five position battles to watch in Bucs camp
TAMPA -- The Bucs have been so active this offseason that now exactly half the 88 players on roster -- 25 veterans and 19 rookies -- have signed with the team since the hiring of Lovie Smith in January. With half the locker room comprised by newcomers, the battles for the final spots on the 53-man roster will be wide-open in August, a sign of the improved depth at most positions from a year ago.
Here are five position battles to keep an eye on, with less than a month before the Bucs open preseason camp July 25.
BACKUP RB: Lovie Smith carried only four total running backs each of his last three years with the Bears, and the Bucs have strong depth here, with starter Doug Martin and rookie Charles Sims as perhaps the only locks to make the roster. Bobby Rainey and Mike James, who each topped 150 yards in games after Martin's injury last year, are battling with speedy Jeff Demps -- even without carrying a fullback, one of those three could miss the cut. Helping on special teams, especially on returns, could convince coaches to carry a fifth back on the 53.
STARTING GUARDS: Presuming Carl Nicks can't get healthy, the Bucs have to find two starters, with veteran Jamon Meredith and rookie Kadeem Edwards the early favorites. Former Browns guard Oniel Cousins has the most experience, and likely joins rookie tackle Kevin Pamphile as the top two backups entering camp. The rest, like Patrick Omameh, Jace Daniels and rookie Andrew Miller, have yet to take an NFL snap and must prove themselves to coaches in the preseason.
4TH/5TH WR: Let's say Vincent Jackson and rookies Mike Evans and Robert Herron are definitely on the team. That leaves only two, perhaps three spots for a deep group of 10 other receivers. Chris Owusu looks to be the best of last year's holdovers -- guys like Eric Page, Skye Dawson or Russell Shepard need to show special-teams value to make the team. Newcomers Louis Murphy and Lavelle Hawkins have experience, but there's a good chance someone cut from this group will make another team's 53-man roster.
FOURTH DE: The Bucs should dress seven defensive linemen on Sundays, with maybe nine making the team. Michael Johnson, Adrian Clayborn and William Gholston should take up most of the defensive-end rotation, which leaves one or two spots for the rest. Do the Bucs still see talent in Da'Quan Bowers, who had seven total tackles last year? Can second-year pro Steven Means or rookie Chaz Sutton beat him out? There's an opening for a fourth DT as well, with undrafted rookie Euclid Cummings having a shot to earn the last d-line spot on the 53.
FIFTH LB: Four linebackers -- Lavonte David, Mason Foster, Jonathan Casillas and Dane Fletcher -- are set, but the team needs one or two more, especially as special-teams standouts. It's a largely untested group -- Ka'Lial Glaud and Danny Lansanah had cameos late last year, Damaso Munoz is a former CFL player and rookie Nate Askew is an off-the-charts athlete still learning the linebacker position. If you need a reason to watch the second half of preseason games, it's here, where the depth is still uncertain.