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Hot spots to watch this offseason on Tampa Bay Buccaneers depth chart

The Bucs are about to embark on a three-week stretch of crucial voluntary workouts followed by their annual mandatory minicamp in late June.

It's not exactly training camp, but the events of the next four weeks will set the tone for what happens come August. That means the position battles we'll be buzzing about in the preseason really get under way now.

A look at what to look for:

Receiver

Until the Bucs acquired Reggie Brown in a trade and drafted a pair of touted receivers last month, the word "competition" barely applied. But considering the additions, there's some sorting out to be done.

The Bucs don't have to decide on their opening-day starters yet, but they do have to come out of this next month with some sort of hierarchy. They need to know if fourth-rounder Mike Williams actually has a chance to be the second-best receiver in this year's draft, an opinion held by some at One Buc Place. Second-rounder Arrelious Benn needs to reinforce to his coaches that drops aren't an issue with him, especially seeing as how we've seen that before with a highly drafted receiver (Michael Clayton).

Another thing that will be addressed is Sammie Stroughter's role. He looks to have bulked up a bit during the offseason, and you shouldn't be surprised if he sees more than the requisite third-down action he got last season.

Clearly, one of the busiest members of the coaching staff during the next few weeks will be new receivers coach Eric Yarber.

Safety

The strong safety position seems to be shaping up as an old-fashioned battle. That's where returner Sabby Piscitelli is being challenged by free agent newcomer Sean Jones.

The smart money is on Jones in this battle. He has comparable size but is a more sure-handed tackler and can give the Bucs some of what they'll miss after parting ways with Jermaine Phillips, a vicious hitter who always was a playmaking threat against the run.

What remains to be seen is how proficient Jones is in coverage. The Bucs, for example, sometimes employ Cover 4, a coverage that often requires safeties to match up man-to-man. Jones has to prove he can do this adequately while showing he can provide the sort of support to the cornerbacks that Piscitelli often did not. Many of the deep balls completed against the Bucs last season might have been prevented with smarter safety play.

Right now this pair is splitting reps with the first team, but things should start heating up soon.

Defensive end

As much as the Bucs solidified the defensive tackle position by drafting Gerald McCoy and Brian Price in the first and second rounds, respectively, the defensive end position has been practically ignored this offseason. And don't forget, former starter Jimmy Wilkerson is now a member of the Saints. Whether those were ill-advised moves won't be known for a while, but the Bucs are taking a leap of faith.

What they need is for someone among this largely anonymous crop of prospects to step up. Stylez White will continue to man right end after leading the club with 61/2 sacks last year, but he still won't be confused with Simeon Rice any time soon. Kyle Moore enters his second season after an injury-plagued rookie season, so we'll reserve judgment for a little while still. Tim Crowder, Michael Bennett and rookie seventh-round pick Erik Lorig are all in the mix, too.

The Bucs are banking on the additions at tackle benefiting their ends, which isn't a bad theory. But the Bucs need more out of this group collectively. No one has earned the right to be handed anything, so the effort from this group needs to be consistent during the next few weeks.

Cornerback

No, I am not declaring Ronde Barber dead. He's far from it. But there could be some battling at cornerback nonetheless.

Aqib Talib is a keeper at left cornerback, provided he stays out of trouble. But at the very least, you should probably expect a shakeup at nickel back. Elbert Mack served that role last season, but he has a couple of things working against him. For one, he isn't considered to have the pedigree, being an undrafted prospect two years ago. Secondly, he is grossly undersized, listed at a generous 5-10 and 175 pounds. He will have to fend off third-round pick Myron Lewis, whom the Bucs project as a possible successor to Barber.

Speaking of which, we could be nearing the day when Barber becomes a full-time nickel back. He's just an injury away from losing his job and, possibly, not regaining it. That's a big projection seeing as how Lewis hasn't played a down of pro football, but Barber is 35, and Father Time is rarely late.

All of this will be in the backs of coaches' minds as a key portion of the offseason gets under way this week. And let this long list of issues serve as further proof that there really is no offseason in the NFL.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3377.

Hot spots to watch this offseason on Tampa Bay Buccaneers depth chart 05/29/10 [Last modified: Sunday, May 30, 2010 12:16pm]
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