TAMPA — For some, a roster spot is at stake. For others, taking their games to a higher level is the expectation. For various reasons, at least a handful of Buccaneers players this fall find themselves under significant pressure to perform. Whether they step up or not will determine their roles or, in some cases, whether they make the team at all. When camp begins on Saturday, pay particular attention to these players as they try to make their cases.
QB Luke McCown
McCown often says he is his own worst critic. That may or may not be true these days because coaches are going to be scrutinizing McCown, expecting him to take ownership of the quarterback position this fall.
If he does, it'll be the first time in his career he has managed to score a permanent starting role. McCown has started just seven games in four seasons, four of those coming as a rookie in 2004 with the Browns.
The stakes are high for McCown. He's already 28, and if he does not achieve some semblance of permanency as a starter this season, it remains to be seen whether he ever gets the chance again — here or elsewhere. And remember, the long-term starter in Tampa is presumably Josh Freeman, this year's first-round pick.
LB Jermaine Phillips
Phillips has established himself as a fierce strong safety who is among the league's most physical at the position. He balances that with a knack for finding the football. And therein lies the problem. Phillips is now being asked to leave behind that role and assume another: as the starting weakside linebacker.
There isn't a question about Phillips' ability. What's in doubt is whether he can make a seamless transition, one that is rarely attempted. It's one thing to ask an incoming rookie to change positions. It's quite another to ask the same of a 30-year-old entering his eighth season.
The idea was suggested by coach Raheem Morris, and if the attempt fails, the Bucs have a major problem.
WR Dexter Jackson
For the purposes of this exercise, we'll avoid the debate as to whether Jackson was a good pick in the second round last season.
The fact is Jackson was the team's second-rounder, and the Bucs have gotten practically no contributions from him. He lost his kick- and punt-return jobs to undrafted prospect Clifton Smith in Week 8 (he was fortunate coaches didn't pull the plug sooner) and was deactivated the rest of the season.
On the surface, he seems like a long shot to make the final roster when you judge him on last year's performance. What he needs is an incredible training camp and preseason to give coaches reason to pause. They don't have a great deal of depth at receiver, but the fourth or fifth receivers must be big special-teams contributors to justify their roster spots (i.e. Brian Clark and Maurice Stovall). That area does not appear to be a strength of Jackson's.
DE Stylez White
White once was a wonderful story, a former Arena Football League player who came out of oblivion to lead the Bucs in sacks in 2007. But reality has hit home for White. He signed a new, incentive-laden contract last year, but his production slipped (from eight sacks to five).
It didn't help his case that he proved incapable of filling a hole at left defensive end in 2008, only adding to his reputation as a player whose weakness is defending the run.
And to compound his problems, White was involved in a motorcycle accident in June that sidelined him during the tail end of offseason workouts and the team's mandatory minicamp. That didn't exactly ingratiate him to Morris, who made an example of White in a team meeting over the summer. The drafting of Kyle Moore and the rise of Jimmy Wilkerson mean White could be looking at a very limited role unless he demands more snaps with his play.
DE Gaines Adams
Adams is a humble, good-natured kid who, perhaps unfairly, is judged by his status as the No. 4 overall pick in 2007. But the NFL is nothing if not unforgiving, and Adams can attest to this.
Coaches admitted Adams was placing too much pressure on himself last season in trying to live up to the standards of the man he essentially replaced, sackmaster Simeon Rice. His numbers remained virtually flat, with six sacks in 2007 and 6.5 last season.
But there's a belief defensive coordinator Jim Bates' new scheme will benefit Adams, who hasn't gotten much help from the team's average interior defensive line play the past two years.
But if the Bucs are going to increase their pass rush — and it's clear they must — then Adams will have to lead the charge.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org