Postscripts — Jobs under the radar

Starting jobs aren't the only ones up for grabs at Buccaneers training camp. The back end of the roster will see plenty of turnover, too. Buccaneers expert Matthew Postins profiles five position battles that aren't on the front burner, but are no less important.

Anyone that works knows the joy of a paycheck.

Even the final player on a 53-man NFL roster loves payday. Imagine making about $300,000 for a year of playing football. That's the rookie minimum base salary for 2007.

But to make the money, you have to get the job. Sometimes the best competition is at the back end of the roster, the area former Dallas Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson used to turn over at his whim to make a point (and make his team better).

Today I've identified five roster jobs that are up for competition. These aren't starting jobs. These are backup jobs and special teams roles that will provide some fireworks during training camp and the preseason.

1. Kick/punt returner

The players: Mark Jones, Chad Owens.

Jon Gruden wants one person to occupy both jobs. I eliminated Michael Pittman because I think the Bucs want him in a larger role in the running game, and Torrie Cox because of his four-game suspension (currently under appeal).

Jones has been the Bucs' punt returner the past two years, though he's never been a game breaker. His career average is 8.3 yards per punt, and he's never scored a touchdowns. He only has eight career kickoff returns for a 20.1-yard average.

Owens doesn't have much of a track record in the NFL. His three fumbles in one game soured Jacksonville on him in 2005 and they released him a year later. But he holds two NCAA return records from his days in Hawaii, and he's probably a bit quicker than Jones.

Both guys are going to get plenty of chances in training camp and in preseason. Gruden wants someone to dominate the position, and there may be more potential in Owens than Jones.

The winner: Owens.

2. Backup quarterback

The players: Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski, Luke McCown.

Simms' fundamental issues notwithstanding, he's my favorite to win the No. 2 job because he has more experience in Gruden's offense than the other players. Plus, once he gets himself straight, he's the only player of the three that can make all the throws. I think he'll benefit from playing behind Jeff Garcia, too.

Gradkowski's confidence may be the big issue. If last year's problems didn't stamp it out of him, he'll give Simms a good run. Remember that Gradkowski outplayed Tim Rattay to be the No. 2 quarterback last summer. Still, I believe Gradkowski will be nothing more than a career NFL backup. He has problems hitting receivers deep on a consistent basis, and I don't think he has the arm strength for some of the intermediate throws, specifically the deep out.

Don't discount McCown. He's the most athletic quarterback on the roster, has an arm that can make most of the NFL throws a quarterback must make and has a grasp of Gruden's offense. Gruden likes McCown, probably because the fourth-year pro's mobility and build remind him of his prized pupil, Rich Gannon. Still, McCown has an uphill battle because his knee injury last year robbed him of a spot in the rotation for most of 2006.

The winner: Simms.

3. No. 3 running back

The players: Earnest Graham, Kenneth Darby.

You have to love Graham. He's "Mr. August" for crying out loud. He's led the Bucs in rushing yardage in preseason the past two seasons. He's been a valuable special teams performer and he's a good guy to talk to.

Still, there's a case to be made for Darby. He flew under the radar after last season, in which his production dropped to about 850 yards for good reason — the death of his father. He had two 1,000-yard seasons at Alabama, and he's a solid pass receiver out of the backfield. Gruden must look to the future because Pittman's contract is up in a couple of years and it probably won't be renewed. Pittman has been a productive receiver for Gruden since his arrival in 2002. In fact, he's been the most productive receiver the past five years. That's one area where Graham doesn't excel.

Gruden likes both players. When you get a nickname from Gruden, as Graham has, that cinches it. Graham has enough other skills on special teams to keep him employed, but Darby's going to push him.

The winner: Graham.

4. The No. 9 offensive lineman

The players: Jeb Terry, Chris Denman.

The Bucs will find a way to keep nine offensive linemen for the opening-day roster, even though the long snapping role is now filled by Andrew Economos, who doesn't play another position like Dave Moore had the past several years. Still, the injury woes of the past several years necessitate nine linemen.

Pencil in these eight — Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood, John Wade, Anthony Davis, Arron Sears, Luke Petitgout, Matt Lehr and Dan Buenning. They're in. It will come down to Terry and Denman.

Terry has had plenty of time to develop, but missed his big chance the past two seasons. An injury took him out of the running at left guard in 2005 (eventually taken by Buenning), and he made just one start at right guard in 2006 before the Bucs determined he was overmatched and replaced him with Sean Mahan.

Denman is a big tackle the Bucs are high on. Gruden also respects Fresno State coach Pat Hill's ability to produce NFL-quality linemen.

Terry's had enough time to prove himself, and his time has passed him by.

The winner: Denman.

5. Nos. 4-5 cornerbacks

The players: Sammy Davis, Marcus Hamilton, Alan Zemaitis.

Hamilton learned the Cover 2 at Virginia, which bodes well for his transition. He told me in June that the transition hasn't been difficult. It's mainly been terminology and certain nuances that the Bucs like that the Cavs didn't.

That was the logic behind the drafting of Zemaitis last year — he had Cover 2 experience. But he didn't see a single down last year. He finished the season injured, but spent most of the season healthy and was never active. It led to questions that he hadn't grasped the system. Cornerbacks coach Raheem Morris paid special attention to Zemaitis during mini-camp.

Davis came to Tampa Bay as a free agent. He started in San Diego as a rookie, but his playing time decreased each season. In San Francisco last year he had just 30 tackles and no interceptions. They released him. Davis' numbers suggest that he's either not an aggressive corner in coverage, or not good enough to be a full-time starter.

This competition will come down to Zemaitis and Davis, and which player shows they have the nuances of their position down the best will win.

The winners: Hamilton and Davis.


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.


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