Tampa Bay's mandatory mini-camp begins Tuesday, June 19, at One Buc Place. It's the last time the players and coaches actually HAVE to come to practice (though you can be sure that many players will filter in and out of the facility until training camp starts in late July).
It's been a decidedly uncontroversial offseason, with the exception of the quarterback maelstrom percolating all offseason. From the signing of Jeff Garcia to the ill-fated trade for Jake Plummer. From Chris Simms' admission of faulty mechanics after his spleen surgery to Bruce Gradkowski's supposed ascension to the backup role, that's been the big drama all offseason (well, Shelton Quarles being released rather unceremoniously also qualifies in the drama category).
In fact, that's the No. 1 thing I plan to keep my eye on all week during mini-camp (practices, thankfully, are all open to the media). Since head coach Jon Gruden has now anointed Garcia the starter, the real story is to keep an eye on how the second-team reps are divided this week. Will Simms or Gradkowski get the majority? Will Luke McCown even get a snap? The last OTA practice I witnessed had McCown watching with Zac Taylor, which is a real shame because I believe McCown to be a better quarterback than Gradkowski.
When this week shakes out, I believe Simms and Gradkowski will see equal second-team reps, giving QB watchers more to chew on as training camp approaches.
By the way, I don't think there's a chance Plummer will "come down from the mountain" this week, as Gruden recently said. But what if he did? Then this percolating maelstrom will boil over.
Nine other things I'll be keeping my eye on this week:
Left guard: I think the Buccaneers really want Arron Sears, their second-round pick, to start the season at this position. But Anthony Davis, now out of his starting job thanks to veteran left tackle Luke Petitgout, won't give it up without a fight. Ultimately, they'll both make the team because Davis can be a valuable swing tackle-guard. What I want to see this week is how much time each gets with the first-team line and how Sears is progressing with handling the playbook.
Center: Staying with the offensive line, I'm interested to see how much Dan Buenning practices this week. Gruden said after the draft that he wasn't sure if Buenning would be ready for training camp. He's learning a new position, has a veteran in front of him in John Wade and a former starting center in Matt Lehr to compete with. If Buenning doesn't practice this week, I don't see how he'll be able to make up the ground on a healthy Lehr in training camp.
Under tackle: The offseason the Bucs have auditioned players here like they're casting a Broadway musical. No surprise, since the position is one of the most important in the Cover 2. It's so important that they've worked veteran end Kevin Carter there in the offseason. He's a candidate to start the season there, but not the only one. Ellis Wyms (last year's starter), Jovan Haye and fifth-round pick Greg Peterson are also candidates for the job. Note that Greg Spires, the starting left end, can also play there, too. The Bucs will rotate players in and out of there looking for one that works well with the present nose tackle, Chris Hovan.
Simeon Rice: He may not practice at all this week, but believe me everyone in the media wants to talk to him. How's the shoulder rehab coming, Sim? Is there any contract extension talk, Sim? Oh, yeah, how do you like your replacement, Sim? Sim? Sim — Why are you walking away? Was it something we said?
Middle linebacker: With Shelton Quarles gone, Barrett Ruud is now the unquestioned starter. How will he react? Can he handle all that responsibility with no one looking over his shoulder?
Safety: New secondary coach Raheem Morris has seen the same game tape everyone else saw last season and has probably concluded that both Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen need to be pushed this offseason. Question is, who will push them? Aside from third-year safety Kalvin Pearson, the candidates are fresh out of college. This is one of the defensive positions that really faltered last season, but the Bucs did the worst job possible of creating legitimate competition, which means Morris will have to whip Phillips and Allen back into shape, beginning with the fundamentals.
No. 2 wide receiver: Michael Clayton is on the verge of becoming a first-round bust. He's rededicated himself to conditioning and offseason work (didn't he do that last offseason, too?) and wants to be the No. 2 guy. But the Bucs will give second-year Notre Dame product Maurice Stovall every opportunity to push, and even overtake, Clayton. What Clayton has that Stovall doesn't is a bulldog mentality, especially on downfield blocking. What Stovall has that Clayton doesn't is height, which comes in handy in the red zone and is a skill the Bucs would like to utilize.
Cato June: We know he's fast. We know he can tackle. We know he can cover. What we don't know is if he can do all that effectively on the strong side instead of the weak side, where he played in Indianapolis. He's practically been given the starting job over Ryan Nece. Now he has to prove he can be effective.
Kick returner Gruden wants one player to handle both punts and kickoffs this season (that's one way to save money in the salary cap age). He doesn't want that person to be Michael Pittman or Ike Hilliard. The candidates are Mark Jones, who has experience returning punts for Tampa Bay, and Chad Owens. Owens is an intriguing player who put up great numbers as a receiver in June Jones' offense at Hawaii (he left as their all-time reception leader and all-purpose yardage leader). But his height (5-foot-7) puts him at a real disadvantage at wide receiver. After two years with Jacksonville, the Bucs signed him, admitting afterward that Owens was a player they wanted when he came out of college. He has blazing speed and should push Jones for the job.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. Included among his more than two dozen writing and editing awards are national awards from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors, and state awards from the Florida Press Club and the Florida Sports Writers Association, for his coverage of the Buccaneers since 2004.