TAMPA — The Bucs have been so active this offseason, exactly half of the 88 players on the roster -— 25 veterans and 19 rookies — have signed since the hiring of Lovie Smith as coach in January.
With half of the locker room made up of newcomers, the competition for the final spots on the 53-man roster will be wide open in August, a sign of the improved depth at most positions from a year ago.
With less than a month before the Bucs open preseason camp (July 25), here are five position battles to keep an eye on.
BACKUP Running back: Smith carried only four running backs each of his last three years as coach of the Bears (2010-12). And the Bucs have strong depth, with starter Doug Martin and rookie Charles Sims as perhaps the only locks to make the roster. Bobby Rainey and Mike James, who each topped 150 yards in games after Martin's shoulder injury last year, are competing with speedy Jeff Demps. Even without the Bucs carrying a fullback, one of those three could miss the cut. Helping on special teams, especially on returns, could convince coaches to carry a fifth back.
STARTING GUARDS: Presuming Carl Nicks can't get healthy, the Bucs have to find two starters, with veteran Jamon Meredith and rookie Kadeem Edwards the early favorites. Former Browns guard Oniel Cousins has the most experience of the candidates, but the rest — Patrick Omameh, Jace Daniels and rookie Andrew Miller — have yet to take an NFL snap and must prove themselves to coaches in the preseason.
Fourth/fifth receiver: Let's say Vincent Jackson and rookies Mike Evans and Robert Herron are definitely on the team. That leaves two, perhaps three, spots for a group of 10 other receivers. Chris Owusu looks to be the best of last year's holdovers. Eric Page, Skye Dawson and Russell Shepard need to show special-teams value. Newcomers Louis Murphy and Lavelle Hawkins have experience. There's a good chance someone cut from this group will make another team's 53-man roster.
FOURTH defensive end: The Bucs should dress seven defensive linemen for games, with maybe nine making the team. Michael Johnson, Adrian Clayborn and William Gholston should take up most of the rotation, which would leave one or two spots for the rest. Do the Bucs still see talent in Da'Quan Bowers, who had seven tackles last year? Can second-year pro Steven Means or rookie Chaz Sutton beat him out? There's an opening for a fourth defensive tackle as well, with undrafted rookie Euclid Cummings having a shot to earn the last line spot.
FIFTH linebacker: Four linebackers — Lavonte David, Mason Foster, Jonathan Casillas and Dane Fletcher — are set, but the team needs one or two more, especially as special teams standouts. It's a largely untested group. Ka'Lial Glaud and Danny Lansanah had cameo appearances late last year. Damaso Munoz is a former CFL player, and rookie Nate Askew is an off-the-charts athlete learning the position. If you need a reason to watch the second half of preseason games, it's here, where the depth is uncertain.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] or (813) 226-3346. Follow @gregauman.