Patrick Chukwurah should start at right end, and what he has to prove his that he's comfortable with his hand in the grass as a defensive end. He's done it before, but only in spurts. This will be his position this season, and he has to show the ability to use speed and strength to get by blockers. The Patriots have some pretty good linemen on the left, so he'll get a nice test.
|First round pick Gaines Adams should see ample playing time on Friday night. (AP)|
Jovan Haye should start at under tackle, and the key for him is to show he can get a pass rush from that position. It's something the Bucs have sorely lacked there the past few years, and Haye gets the first crack at proving he can make it happen. He'll probably play more than a quarter.
Keep an eye on third-string end Julian Jenkins, third-string end Greg White and third-string tackle Greg Peterson. Jenkins is fighting for a job and has had a non-descript camp. White, who was just signed, has to show he can translate his Arena Football talent to the NFL. And I'm most curious to see Peterson's progress at under tackle, a position the Bucs believe the Division II star is suited for long term.
I'll be surprised if Barrett Ruud starts. He has a nagging injury and the Bucs will be cautious because of his long-term worth to the defense. If he plays, it's one possession, two at the most.
Don't expect much from Derrick Brooks or Cato June, either. Brooks will be gone two possessions into the game, and June after the first quarter. They're known quantities and all three are having very good camps.
The fun begins when they leave.
Can Ryan Nece make a smooth transition from the strong side to Ruud's backup in the middle? Can Quincy Black's speed and "Lobo" tendencies translate to the strong side? Is Adam Hayward a linebacker or a safety masquerading as one? Can Antoine Cash hang on to a job? There are plenty of questions, and all four will get plenty of time to work on those answers.
I'm most interested in Black because he's had the most to transition from. His "Lobo" position at New Mexico — where he played in the middle and about 8 yards off the line of scrimmage — runs counter to everything he's doing in Tampa Bay. Has he made the proper adjustments? So far, Jon Gruden says he's been impressed by Black. But we'll see Friday how good a student he's been.
|Don't expect to see more than a quarter's worth of action from Ronde Barber. (AP)|
That's because both rookie Marcus Hamilton and first-year player Carlos Hendricks are candidates to overtake him. Hamilton came from a Cover-2 defense at Virginia and knows the ropes. Hendricks is a dark horse candidate who had a great season in NFL Europa. They're third- and fourth-string, respectively, but if either can outplay Zemaitis, the Bucs might be compelled to move one from the right side to the left, because second-string left cornerback Phillip Buchanon isn't going anywhere — unless it's to offense.
At safety, I expect the playing time for the top four safeties to be divided equally. I really think the Bucs believe this is an open competition. Both Gruden and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris have been impressed with draft picks Sabby Piscitelli and Tanard Jackson. Their progress in camp has made headlines. But does it translate into the game? That's the big question. They'll come in after both Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen have played more than a quarter. They'll play longer than any first-string defender on the field, because their jobs are the most in jeopardy. I want to see Phillips and Allen show they've made progress from last year's woeful play and have taken the hint that Piscitelli and Jackson are here to play, and not sit. We'll see.
The major battle is at kick and punt returner, where Mark Jones and Chad Owens are the top two players at both positions. They'll each take their turns at wide receiver, but what they do in the return game is key.
Jones is probably more reliable, but he's not proven to be a big-play threat and has little experience running back kickoffs. Owens has had history with his handling of kicks, but has plenty of kickoff experience.
Gruden wants one of them to make the decision easy by breaking a couple of long runs in preseason. My money is on Owens. Jones has had plenty of chances to entrench himself in the job and hasn't done it. Owens has fresh blood, a reputation to debunk and great overall speed and built, despite his 5-foot-7 frame. I think he comes to play on Friday and starts his charge to overtake Jones.
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 and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors.