TAMPA — Sometimes, the only difference between a great player and a backup is opportunity. Barrett Ruud had to wait for two seasons behind Pro Bowl linebacker Shelton Quarles. Warren Sapp spent the second half of his rookie year stuck behind Santana Dotson. And so on. Opportunity will knock loudly this season for several Bucs. Who will have a breakout year?
Aqib Talib, CB
Talib might emerge as the Bucs' best and most valuable defender. His skill set is perfect for the new scheme, which calls for a physical, bump-and-run cornerback.
Last season, Talib, who will start opposite veteran Ronde Barber, led NFL rookies and was tied for the club lead with four interceptions. At 6 feet 1, 205 pounds, he is long and possesses more closing speed than quarterbacks anticipate.
The only question is how the grind of a 16-game season will wear on Talib as an every-down player. But all indications are the 2008 first-round pick will spend quite a few winters at the Pro Bowl.
Jimmy Wilkerson, DE
The Bucs made a very nice discovery last season after signing Wilkerson from the Chiefs. At 6 feet 2, 270 pounds, Wilkerson made his mark with versatility.
He could play inside or outside and tied for second on the team with a career-high five sacks.
This year, Wilkerson, who has only six career starts, likely will take over for Kevin Carter at left end. The Bucs plan to continue rotating linemen. But in his seventh season, Wilkerson has his best chance to become a breakout player.
Sabby Piscitelli, S
Can we dispense, please, with the John Lynch comparisons?
Perhaps a better one might be Jermaine Phillips, the man Piscitelli replaces at strong safety as Phillips moves to linebacker.
Piscitelli started five games last season and showed flashes of brilliance. He had two interceptions, eight passes defensed and, at times, was strong in run support.
It essentially was Piscitelli's rookie season because a foot injury ended 2007 after three games. Piscitelli has some big cleats to fill.
He is a rangy player who can cover a lot of grass but sometimes takes bad angles and gets caught between making a play on the football and knocking out the receiver. A new scheme will allow him to roam more. This is Piscitelli's year to uphold the tradition of solid safety play in Tampa.
Mike Nugent, PK
A big caveat: Nugent, signed from the Jets, must beat out incumbent Matt Bryant.
A year ago, Bryant, 34, missed 5 of 12 field goals during the preseason, which might have left him without a job had the Bucs invited a better alternative to training camp.
Bryant rewarded the team's patience with the best year of his career, converting 84.2 percent of his attempts, including all 27 from 39 yards and shorter. But Bryant's leg strength was called into question after making only 5 of 11 from beyond 40.
A second-round pick in 2005, Nugent, 27, has a stronger leg, particularly on kickoffs. Special teams coach Richard Bisaccia really liked him coming out of Ohio State.
Jeremy Zuttah, G
Next man up. That's the nature of the NFL. If Arron Sears, who is dealing with a "private matter," can't begin the season as expected, Zuttah takes his place.
The second-year pro from Rutgers already has made his mark. As a rookie, Zuttah started four games at right guard then another at left guard.
The offense never missed a beat. At 6 feet 4, 308 pounds, Zuttah has great feet and appears to be a very good fit for the new zone blocking scheme of coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski.
Zuttah spent the offseason working with the first-team offense. No reason to believe he won't begin the regular season there as well.