SR's Fab Five

August 9 - We'll take a look at the starting and reserve kickoff coverage teams and kick returners heading into the Miami game, tell you why NT/DE Ellis Wyms and SLB Al Singleton are turning heads at training camp, and explain why the Bucs could have a new starting left defensive end and a new starting quarterback if Greg Spires and Rob Johnson keep progressing as they have during the first two weeks of camp. Don't miss this installment of SR's Fab Five!

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Here's five things that caught my interest this week:

FAB 1. He's not a big name, nor is he in real contention for a starting spot, but second-year defensive lineman Ellis Wyms is quietly putting together a strong training camp. Wyms, who was drafted out of Mississippi State last year in the sixth round to replace the versatile Tyoka Jackson, who played defensive tackle and end, has made serious strides over the last 10 days and is currently the Bucs' backup nose tackle behind Anthony "Booger" McFarland.

Wyms saw some reps at left defensive end during the spring and summer mini-camps lining up behind Greg Spires when starter Marcus Jones was out with a shoulder injury. He had some standout performances, but with the addition of Spires in free agency to replace Steve White, there wasn't going to be room for Wyms in the Bucs' traditional three-man rotation at end, which will make Spires the possible backup to both Jones and right end Simeon Rice.

So Wyms was moved inside to nose tackle to help shore up the glaring need for a backup now that James Cannida, McFarland's primary backup for four years, has moved on to Indianapolis. Chuck Darby can also play nose tackle, but is the primary backup for Warren Sapp at the under tackle spot.

The team has been happy with Wyms' efforts at nose tackle, and right now he is fending off newcomer Buck Gurley as well as keeping Darby at the under tackle spot. Wyms is in better shape than he was in during the mini-camps and appears eager to earn more playing time by seizing upon this opportunity to become Cannida's backup.

FAB 2. Don't be surprised if Spires is the opening day starter at left end for Tampa Bay instead of Jones. Spires has impressed coaches with his hustle and tenacity during practice, as well as his versatility to play both end positions. But as Jones misses some practice time with his ailing shoulder, which apparently wasn't fully corrected during offseason surgery, Spires keeps taking advantage of the extra playing time.

Spires was actually blessed by Jones' injury during the spring, which forced him to miss all three mini-camp sessions. Spires was the starting left end and got plenty of reps with the starting defense to feel comfortable with that group.

If his shoulder can't get healthy, it would be yet another disappointment for the Buccaneers regarding Jones, who has fought to shed the first-round bust label that he was tagged with for over three years after being one of the team's top draft picks in 1996 out of North Carolina. Jones has had two relatively good seasons in his six years in Tampa Bay, recording seven sacks in 1999 and a career-high 13 in 2000, which prompted Tampa Bay to reward him with a lucrative, seven-year deal during the 2000 season.

But after being placed on the expansion draft list for Cleveland prior to his 1999 breakthrough season, Jones was again placed on an expansion draft list -- this time for Houston -- after a disappointing 2001 campaign that saw him rack up only three sacks during an injury-filled campaign at left end for the first time.

If Jones can't stay healthy, the team will regret signing him to such a long-term deal and jettison him after the 2002 season if he doesn't make an impact this year. Jones carries a $3.75 million cap value this season and in 2003, but the team would likely want to carry him for one more year to try to see if he comes around and regains his 2000 form.

But keeping his staring job has to be his first goal this season.

FAB 3. If you are looking for a breakthrough player this season, look no further than strongside linebacker Al Singleton. Singleton has been very impressive in the Bucs' base 4-3 defense, especially against the run. Singleton is no stranger to the defense, although he may be a stranger to some fans, except on fourth downs when his kick covering prowess has been on display since joining the team way back in 1997.

Singleton has had the opportunity to win the starting strongside linebacker position over the last couple of years, but always lost a close battle with teammate Shelton Quarles, who now moves to the middle of the Bucs' defense. Still, Singleton has platooned with Quarles over the years, recording 32 tackles in each of the last two seasons, and recorded his first NFL sack last year.

The 6-foot-2, 228-pound Singleton is a good pass defender and will be called upon to cover tight ends on first and second downs. Quarles and Derrick Brooks will still be asked to play in the nickel defense, but either Singleton or Nate Webster would be the first backup on third downs should an injury befall either Brooks or Quarles.

Singleton is still slated for full duty on special teams this year, and showed why when he knifed through the line to block a David Leaverton punt in the team's first exclusive special teams practice last week.

But Singleton really wants to make his mark on defense this season because he, like Quarles, is in a contract year. Singleton knows he has a lot of fans around the league in Indianapolis' Tony Dungy, Chicago's Jerry Angelo, New York's Herman Edwards and St. Louis' Lovie Smith, but would like to stay in Tampa if things can get worked out contractually.

FAB 4. In news you might only get here with the Insider, here's the Buccaneers' starting kickoff returners and kick coverage units as well as the reserve units heading into the first preseason game:

Starting kickoff returners: WR Frank Murphy and RB Aaron Stecker
Starting kickoff coverage team: Murphy, Stecker, CB Ronde Barber, LB Jack Golden, SS David Gibson, TE Todd Yoder, LB Nate Webster, LB Al Singleton, FS Dexter Jackson, CB Dwight Smith and K Martin Gramatica.

Reserve kickoff returners: WR Aaron Lockett and CB Dwight Smith

Reserve kickoff coverage team: CB Corey Chamblin, CB Terrell Buckley, FB Jameel Cook, LB Joe Todd, FS Jermaine Stephens, LB Chris Jones, CB Brian Kelly, RB Travis Stephens, TE Tracey Wistrom, WR Marquise Walker and K Rob Hart.

FAB 5. I know that Brad Johnson is the starting quarterback right now, and I know that I picked him to win a training camp battle versus newcomer Rob Johnson in the Training Camp issue of Pewter Report, but I might have to waffle on that prediction. Both Johnsons have looked sharp at times, but there is just a flair for the dramatic that I see out of Rob Johnson that leads me to believe that he'll win the starting job if he has success in the preseason games. I think if both Johnsons end up in a tie, the tiebreaker will go to Rob -- not Brad.

Rob Johnson has the physical tools to do everything that Gruden wants him to do in a game. He is a great scrambler with very good speed, a rocket arm and accuracy to go along with it. His biggest faults have been in the decision-making area, and he'll have to prove he can take care of the ball in addition to making plays in the preseason games.

You could see Gruden smile when the offense was running some bootleg plays against the defense a few days ago. Rob Johnson was looking downfield, finding all his receivers covered and taking off for gains of 6 and 15 yards. Brad Johnson lumbered during his rollout and had to throw the ball away during his attempts because he wasn't fast enough to elude defenders to the sideline. The difference was that Rob Johnson got positive yards on those plays while Brad Johnson's rollouts went for no gain.

I think deep down Gruden wants Rob Johnson to do something during the preseason games to win the job. Gruden just can't anoint him the new starting quarterback without evidence. He has to be able to walk into the offensive meeting room and look at the offensive players, turn on the game film and say this is why Rob Johnson is our starting quarterback.

This is just my hunch. This isn't coming from any particular inside information, and I don't know Gruden well enough to be able to truly read him between the lines. But his body language at practice and the amount of time he has spent praising Rob Johnson appear to be clues.

Personally, I think Rob Johnson has looked more spectacular than Brad has in the first two weeks of training camp. It wouldn't surprise me in the least if he rises up and claims the starting QB job from Brad. All he has to do is go out in the preseason and dare to be great. He has to be willing to take chances and make big plays while staying away from turnovers. That's a tough thing to do -- a tough balancing act.

But he can't just play conservative and steady, because that's the approach Brad will take. All Brad has to do is avoid turnovers and be consistent and the starting job is his. He won't make many big plays in the preseason. Rob needs to.

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All photos are courtesy of Pewter Report director of photography Cliff Welch unless noted otherwise. Click here to visit Welch's web site.

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