There aren't many things that get a player's blood going like training camp. Especially when there's a job on the line.
One would expect that, after a 4-12 2006, that every job would be up for competition at Tampa Bay's training camp, which begins Friday at Disney's Wide World of Sports in Orlando (players report Thursday). In reality, though, there aren't that many starting jobs up for debate.
I thought quarterback would be one, but Jon Gruden has rendered that competition meaningless after all but naming Jeff Garcia the starter. Shelton Quarles' released was softened by the presence of his heir, Barrett Ruud. Continuity is the catch phrase at a great many starting positions on the roster.
But at certain positions, the job is most certainly up for grabs. I've identified five starting jobs that are up for competition, and ranked them by volatility — that is, the likelihood that there will be a change at the position from last year's starter. On Friday, I'll identify the key backup and special teams competition for training camp.
1. Left guard
The starter is already out of the job. Buenning is moving to center. Davis, displaced at left tackle by the signing of Luke Petitgout, is the favorite to win the job. Davis is a solid lineman who's a better run blocker than pass blocker. He and Buenning helped pave the way for Cadillac Williams' big 2005 rookie season. The Bucs like to run to the left side, and Davis' experience as a road grader will come in handy next to Petitgout. Plus, the debits against him as a tackle will be less of an issue as a guard. The position plays well into Davis' strengths — power, leverage and leg drive.
Sears is the position's future, though. He was voted the SEC's best interior lineman last year at Tennessee. He's considered a technically sound guard with superior run-blocking skills and solid pass protection skills. But he missed the entire mandatory mini-camp in June for reasons that have never been made clear, leading to questions about whether Sears is picking up his role in the offense or not.
The winner: Davis.
2. Under tackle
It's my opinion that Wyms has already lost the starting job. He didn't produce as expected when he inherited the job from McFarland. He didn't get the pass rush the Bucs wanted (he had three sacks as a starter), nor did he stay healthy (he missed three games to injury). Bucs GM Bruce Allen has made it clear that they'll pressure the quarterback from every angle, and Wyms has never shown clearly that he has the ability.
Carter is the favorite, even though he's a better fit at end. Still, at 6-foot-6, 305 pounds, Carter has played inside before and proven he can get a rush at the passer from that position. Former Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli called this position the "trigger" for the Cover 2, and Warren Sapp was the ideal player for the role — big enough to stop the run, and quick enough to rush the passer. Carter is lankier than Sapp, but he can do both.
Haye is intriguing because he's built more like Wyms, but quicker. He backed up Bradley and Wyms last year and he's become a Larry Coyer favorite in the offseason. He took a lot of first-team reps in mini-camp to further learn the position. I don't think he'll start, but he'll push Wyms for playing time. He might even push Wyms off the roster, though the seven-year vet has value as a swing tackle-end.
Peterson is a practice squad guy. He needs time to develop, but the Bucs see him as a possible UT of the future, a player in the style of Carter.
The winner: Carter.
3. No. 2 wide receiver
The players: Clayton, Stovall.
My problem with Clayton is not that he seems to be injury-prone (though that's an issue when injuries have ended your last two seasons). My real problem is that Clayton doesn't appear to be forceful enough on the field. Yes, he's a great blocker for a receiver. No question. But there's a spirit that Clayton had in his play his rookie season that seems to have disappeared. That's subjective, of course. It's not a work ethic thing. Perhaps he just defers too much to Joey Galloway, but a receiver like Clayton should be making 50-60 catches a year as a complementary receiver to someone like Galloway, who demands extra attention.
Stovall, to me, seems like more of a Gruden-type receiver. He's taller (though only by an inch over Clayton) and seems to use his body better in the air, especially on those corner routes in the end zone where a tall receiver can use his body effectively on a smaller cornerback. He's also the same build as Clayton, though he carries a shade more weight. The only thing that Clayton has on Stovall at the moment is a NFL track record.
I think Stovall will eventually win the job, simply because I think the Bucs are a bit weary of being burned by Clayton's injury problems. That might not be such a bad thing for Clayton, who might excel as the No. 3, where expectations are lower and he'll find himself mostly in the slot, where he can use his physical ability to match up with safeties.
The winner: Stovall.
4. Strong side linebacker
Last year's starter: Ryan Nece (in camp)
The players: Nece, Cato June.
Nece is a classic "solid" pro football player. He does most things right, doesn't make too many mistakes and plays consistently each Sunday. Last year was his second full season as a starter and his production was similar. If you want to punch holes in Nece, you can say he didn't make any big plays last year (not many Bucs did). Also, some scouts say he's not physical at the point of attack.
June is a weak side player without a position with Derrick Brooks already at the stop. So the Bucs are out to justify June's signing in the offseason by putting him on the strong side. He's athletic and quick and plays aggressively, all traits the Bucs like. One scout actually says he has problems in coverage (I thought his coverage skills was a reason the Bucs wanted him, but we'll see) and he's no bigger than Nece.
Tampa Bay wants to get its aggressiveness back on defense this season, and that may be what puts one player over the top of the other. June is perceived as an aggressive player. Nece less so.
The winner: June.
Phillips and Allen bore a good portion of the criticism for last year's defensive failings. Some of it was deserved (I saw some poor tackling by both last season, though they weren't the only ones). Some of it wasn't. But the Buccaneers did not pursue a free-agent safety this offseason, ensuring that only rookies or special teamers would contend for the starting jobs.
Piscitelli has a reputation for big hits at big moments and is speedy enough to patrol the strong side. Jackson can play corner and safety, and cornerbacks coach Raheem Morris told me earlier this offseason that Jackson has very good coverage skills at either position. Pearson is a career backup who is valuable on special teams but I don't think has the ability to be a full-time starter.
The rookies and Pearson will get lots of reps, but the vets have the upper hand.
The winner: Phillips and Allen.
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.