The Buccaneers report for training camp Friday, and what a camp it is expected to be. In recent seasons, there hasn't been a great deal of debate about key positions because those jobs had had limited turnover. Nothing could be further from the truth this year. The coaching staff is new. So, too, are the offensive and defensive schemes. Many players central to the team's hopes also are new. So this will be a camp full of story lines, and they will include position battles in key areas.
Get ready for endless debate about this position. It's wide open, even though the conventional wisdom is the job is Luke McCown's to lose. Even so, McCown's grip on it isn't secure given that the Bucs have options. Whether those options — veteran Byron Leftwich and rookie Josh Freeman — are better can be argued. Coaches will be fair about the opportunities afforded each player during training camp and preseason games, the idea being that they'll get a wealth of information upon which to base a decision. But it's possible there won't be a consensus starter if no one is clearly superior.
One thing is clear: The candidates are vastly different. McCown, 28, is a veteran but a career backup who hasn't established a reputation in the league. Leftwich, 29, is trying to live down his reputation for being immobile and prone to interceptions even though he has a big arm. Freeman is an unknown but a gifted athlete.
It should be an interesting ride.
The Bucs have gotten plenty of miles (and points) out of Matt Bryant. The 34-year-old has an average 83.1 percent success rate on field goals the past four seasons. But the one thing coach Raheem Morris and GM Mark Dominik have vowed to do is increase the level of competition among all players. That means no job is safe, even for a player who owns a franchise record 62-yard field goal.
To that end, Mike Nugent, 27, was signed during the offseason and will be given every opportunity to win the job. His 81.5 career success rate on field goals is slightly lower than Bryant's 82.1, but Nugent's tendency for longer kickoffs at least evens the competition.
It would appear the Bucs can rest easy about at least one member of this group. Antonio Bryant is motivated to match his performance of 2008, when he stormed back onto the scene after a year away from football with 83 catches for 1,248 yards and a team-high seven touchdown receptions. But where else will the contributions come from?
Veteran Michael Clayton returns with a new contract and, with a new offense coming, a new lease on life after falling short the past four seasons of the promise he showed in his 2004 rookie year. He is expected to play a more noticeable role if new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski makes good on his promise to spread the ball around more.
But depth remains an issue. Who will be the third receiver, assuming Clayton is the starter opposite Bryant? Just two other receivers have started a game (Maurice Stovall and Kelly Campbell, whose last start came in 2004). Rookie seventh-round draft pick Sammie Stroughter is an intriguing prospect who surprised coaches in summer workouts. He will vie for his share of playing time, too, along with former Chamberlain High standout Brian Clark, who got extensive playing time in big games last season.
Eventual Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks is gone, and the Bucs can't truly say they've replaced him. They're in the middle of an experiment they hope will accomplish that, however, with former safety Jermaine Phillips, top left, entering camp as the starter. Here's why this is not a done deal: Phillips and his coaches say the moment that will indicate whether this is a wise decision will come when the pads come on. That will happen a couple of days into camp. Until then, the Bucs continue to believe the move will pay off. If using Phillips at linebacker proves less than ideal, Geno Hayes, above bottom, could be a factor.
This isn't as much a battle as a friendly competition. That's because Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward both will play plenty. The Bucs will look a lot like some other teams have in recent years in using a platoon system for perhaps the most punishing position. Ward formed a formidable tandem with Brandon Jacobs with his former team, the Giants. And the approach worked well in Carolina for DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart, who combined for more than 2,300 yards last season. But in Tampa, how Graham and Ward are used, and who starts, hasn't been decided. Also a factor is how and when to use Clifton Smith, who offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski said will be included in game plans after being used almost exclusively on special teams last season.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.