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 trading for Bears guard Gabe Carimi last month, general manager Mark Dominik parrotted 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 key position battles:
Backup running back
This job, critical given starter Doug Martin's major role, could potentially go to someone who just joined the roster. On Tuesday the Bucs worked out then signed former Browns star running back Peyton Hillis, an 1,100-yard rusher three years ago. He rushed for 309 yards last season with the Chiefs, averaging a career-low 3.6 yards per carry.
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, with an expected role of the third-down back with possible short-yardage duties.
There should be plenty of carries to split among these candidates during preseason.
It took several weeks of regular-season games for the Bucs to 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 season) that he seized his opportunity and became a fixture in the slot.
He has real competition this season from free-agent signee Kevin Ogletree. Like Underwood, Ogletree has speed, but might have a broader skill set and could ultimately win the job even with Underwood coming off the best year of his career (28 receptions, 425 yards).
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 three starts 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."
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."
We know who one starting cornerback is going to be: assuming he's healthy, Darrelle Revis will be locked in on one side.
The other cornerback spot is 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.