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Bucs' key position battles

Tiquan Underwood, pictured, has real competition this season from free-agent signee Kevin Ogletree at slot receiver.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Tiquan Underwood, pictured, has real competition this season from free-agent signee Kevin Ogletree at slot receiver.

TAMPA — If you've heard him say it once, you've heard Bucs coach Greg Schiano say it 1,000 times: Competition is priority No. 1.

No one is above it, he says, from the starting quarterback (that's Josh Freeman — we think) to this year's top draft pick.

"From the day we arrived, our whole program is (about) competition," Schiano said. "... It's the most competitive sports league in the world."

After the team traded with the Bears for guard Gabe Carimi last month, even general manager Mark Dominik parroted Schiano.

"I think it provides competition, which is our favorite word," he said.

The Bucs report for training camp today, but competition was on the coaches' minds even before the players arrived. Here's a look at some of this year's key position battles:

Backup running back

The backup running back job — critical given starter Doug Martin's major role in the offense — could potential go to someone who isn't yet on the roster. The team on Tuesday conducted a workout with former Browns star running back Peyton Hillis, an 1,100-yard rusher three years ago but rushed for 309 yards last season with the Chiefs, averaging a career-low 3.6 yards per carry. Hillis was in contract talks with the team Tuesday,

As for those already in-house, the Bucs will look primarily to rookie Mike James and second-year player Michael Smith. Veteran Brian Leonard is on the roster, too, but look for his role to be that of the third-down back with possible short-yardage duties.

There should be plenty of carries to split among these candidates during exhibition games. And that's exactly what preseason is for.

Slot receiver

It took several weeks of regular-season games for the Bucs to finally settle on Tiquan Underwood as their slot receiver last season. They'd like to not make things so hard this time around. It wasn't until Underwood was re-signed (after initially being cut at the start of the regular seasonz) that he seized his opportunity and become a fixture in the slot.

But he's got real competition this season from free-agent signing Kevin Ogletree. Like Underwood, Ogletree has speed, but might have a broader skill set. That's why it would not be surprising to see him ultimately win the job. But Underwood, after the best year of his career in 2012 (28 receptions, 425 yards), won't yield the job without a fight.

Strong-side linebacker

The third linebacker in a 4-3 defense is becoming a less-prominent role. But the Bucs have an opening at strong-side linebacker, a role that is critical on early downs, particularly against the run and short passing routes.

Fourth-year veteran Dekoda Watson is expected to get a chance to show he's ready to take the next step in his career, getting the first crack to replace injured Quincy Black. "It's early right now," said Watson, who has started three games in three seasons. "I'm not going to sit here and say that I've got the position or anything. All I'm saying is that I have the opportunity."

But Watson must hold off another young, hungry player, Jonathan Casillas. A free-agent pickup from the Saints, Casillas is a formidable foe. He feels he could be a fit.

"I like this defense," Casillas said. "It's made for people like me who like to run and hit."

Right tackle

There is no doubt Demar Dotson has value for the Bucs. The former college basketball player continues to develop and recently was re-signed to a long term contract. But none of that will guarantee him a place in the starting lineup.

Just like Dotson took Jeremy Trueblood's job last season, Carimi is lurking behind Dotson, making this a position to watch. But the Bucs aren't banking on Carimi.

Dotson was solid in 2012 and the Bucs expect nothing less. But he does have weaknesses as a run blocker, which makes him susceptible. But questions remain as to whether Carimi can rebound after his poor performance last season, something that wasn't unrelated to a prior knee injury.

"I was just trying to get my knee right, trying to be the best I could be," Carimi said of last season. "(Now) it feels good."

Right cornerback

We know who one starting cornerback is going to be: assuming he's healthy, Darrelle Revis will be locked in on one side.

It's the other cornerback that's the question. After releasing 2012 starter Eric Wright this week, the Bucs are showing some willingness to lean on some young and inexperienced players.

Chief among them is second-round pick Johnthan Banks, but the Bucs aren't sure about the wisdom of pressing him into a starting role so soon. That means Leonard Johnson, an afterthought who went on to start six games and play in all 16 last season, is very much in the picture.

This is a battle that will play out over the course of training camp and the preseason.

Bucs' key position battles 07/23/13 [Last modified: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 7:34pm]

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