Ten position battles ahead for Bucs' final roster
With Bucs rookie minicamp wrapped up and another round of roster tweaking done, it would seem like the dust has settled enough to ponder the position battles that should be storylines in training camp in August.
Then again, keep this in mind -- this time last year, the Bucs didn't have Connor Barth or Jacob Schum, who would end up as their kicker and punter, and didn't have Gosder Cherilus or Tony McDaniel, who would add depth at offensive and defensive tackle. And for all the rookies the Bucs signed last year, they didn't add Jude Adjei-Barimah until late July, and he wound up playing a major role in the second half of 2015.
So with that caveat, we can start looking at the battles that will decide that final 53-man roster as the Bucs open the 2016 season:
1. BACKUP OLs: Nowhere is the Veteran vs. Rookie storyline more in play than here -- you have veterans like Gosder Cherilus and Evan Smith, still paid like starting linemen, likely battling for backup jobs against untested (and often undrafted) rookies. Kevin Pamphile and five starters are locks, and fifth-round Caleb Benenoch should be the seventh lineman, which would leave two spots, at most one of which would probably dress on Sundays. So do the Bucs stick with proven if expensive commodities like Cherilus and Smith, or do they look at prospects like Leonard Wester and Dominique Robertson? Or, given that Smith's best asset is his experience at center, can Josh Allen show enough there in his third Bucs camp to stick this time around? Last year's injuries will remind the Bucs of the value of proven backups on the line, but it's reasonable to think they could keep one of the two veteran backups and not the other.
2. BACKUP WRs: This is the bar-room brawl of position battles, wide-open with injuries and special teams complicating the decision. Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson are anchors, but who's a sure thing behind them? You have Kenny Bell and Louis Murphy coming off major injuries. You have Bell and Russell Shepard and Evan Spencer competing for special-teams roles on coverage units. You have Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye -- who missed the cut last year but played a ton of snaps as rookies after injuries -- trying to get return jobs to help their chances as well. At most, six of those eight names will make the cut, with young locals like Andre Davis and Bernard Reedy trying just to get into the conversation. Seems reasonable that a receiver cut by the Bucs will be able to play elsewhere in the NFL this fall.
3. FOURTH DT: The Bucs let Henry Melton and Tony McDaniel go unsigned, but really haven't replaced them at all. Expect some of that to be filled by ends moonlighting as tackles -- Robert Ayers and Will Gholston can do that, especially in a nickel defense -- but if there were a Bucs position most glaringly waiting for a late signing, it might be here. Gerald McCoy, Akeem Spence and Clinton McDonald all missed significant time (or were limited) by injuries last year, so there needs to be a fourth proven DT who can step up if there are more injuries this fall. As it stands, there is 25-year-old Davon Coleman, who has three career tackles in four games with the Cowboys, and undrafted rookie DTs: Auburn's DaVonte Lambert and Kansas State's Travis Britz. Again, expect a signing or a more full-time position switch among the Bucs' nine ends ...
4. THIRD RB: Bobby Rainey barely played on offense last season as the Bucs' third back behind Doug Martin and Charles Sims -- 33 total plays and eight total touches in 16 games. So that third back really needs to bring special-teams value (as Rainey did on returns) to get full use of the roster spot. The Bucs let Rainey sign with the Giants, so Mike James, who was on the practice squad most of last year and didn't play a snap, would be the No. 3 right now, with ex-Jaguars RB Storm Johnson as the only other option with NFL experience. But keep an eye out on undrafted rookie Peyton Barber from Auburn, who could use a developmental year with only one full season as a starter in college. Missouri's Russell Hansbrough is also on roster, but it's another position where Bucs could add a player between now and August.
5. RETURN JOBS: Again, wide-open with Rainey gone. This will impact roster decision at multiple positions -- Dirk Koetter mentioned Humphries as an option on punt returns (we thought he had won that job at start of last season) and several on kickoff returns -- receivers Donteea Dye and Kenny Bell, running back Charles Sims, rookie safety Ryan Smith. If the returners are already making the roster at another position, that might give the Bucs the flexibility to again keep a third QB or extra depth at another position.
6. BACKUP LBs: The Bucs' linebacker depth is very young and unproven -- the most experienced returning options are Clearwater's Jeremiah George and Lake Gibson's Adarius Glanton, but both have nearly all their game action on special teams. Sixth-round pick Devante Bond seems a safe bet for the fourth LB spot, but after that, it's wide-open, and they'll keep five or six. Three undrafted rookies -- Cassanova McKinzy, Luke Rhodes and Micah Awe -- will go up against returning backups like George, Glanton and Josh Keyes. Those backup linebackers are often the busiest tacklers on special teams, so they can win the job there as much as on defense.
7. BACKUP TEs: Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Cameron Brate seem like locks, but with fullbacks and tight ends lumped together for eight spots on the current roster, that leaves six players competing for likely two remaining spots. Luke Stocker brought flexibility as a blocking tight end who can cameo at fullback, but rookie Danny Vitale now brings a lot of versatility as well. Brandon Myers, inactive for the last five games last year, would seem to be on the outside looking in. Can an outside shot like Tevin Westbrook be more than a practice-squad player?
8. FIFTH SAFETY: Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald are locks, as fourth-round rookie Ryan Smith should be. But that leaves veterans Keith Tandy and Major Wright competing with a bunch of undrafted rookies for one or maybe two spots -- Notre Dame's Elijah Shumate and South Carolina's Isaiah Johnson had interceptions in minicamp, but can they bring the special-teams contributions that Tandy and Wright have? Given how much trouble the Bucs secondary had last season, can they bring back four safeties from the same group and hope better coaching does the trick?
9. FIFTH DE: The Bucs added rookie Noah Spence and veteran Robert Ayers, and both will get significant snaps. That leaves Will Gholston, perhaps their best run-stopping end, and Jacquies Smith, arguably their best third-down pass-rush specialist. After those four, the Bucs will keep one, maybe two -- do they continue developing Howard Jones, who had five sacks in limited action, or hope for better production from George Johnson, who had zero sacks while playing more than Jones last year? Both can't likely make the final cut.
10. PUNTER: The money given to free-agent signee Bryan Anger ($1-million salary and $750,000 roster bonus) makes him a strong favorite over returning starter Jake Schum. Anger had good averages in four years with the Jaguars, but they opted to move on -- Schum would have to truly outperform the new arrival in training camp to keep his job for 2016.