Observation Deck: Camp Battles 4.0

With one preseason game in the books, the view from the Observation Deck is getting a bit clearer. But in the fourth edition of "Camp Battles," there is still plenty of work up for grabs on the Buccaneers' roster. Plus, you can link to an article on the top position battles across the rest of the NFC South.

This is the fourth edition of "Camp Battles," Bucsblitz.com's official, in-depth update of the tightest battles in training camp. At the start of camp, I identified 10 key jobs — five starting jobs and five backup jobs — to keep an eye on. One of those jobs, strong side linebacker, is now a dead issue. Cato June is the unquestioned starter.

But, to varying degrees, the other nine jobs are still in play. So as training camp in Orlando breaks tomorrow, I thought it would be a good time to update those nine jobs and see how close they are to being settled.

Starting jobs

1. Left guard

Last year's starters: Dan Buenning, Sean Mahan.

The players: Anthony Davis, Arron Sears.

What I initially thought: That Davis and Sears would compete for the job, with Davis winning.

Bucs guard Arron Sears. (Getty)
How about now?: Sears played solidly against New England last week, and Jon Gruden said so himself. Sears made rookie mistakes, but overall played like he belonged in the starting lineup. His play validated the Bucs making him a first-teamer on their first depth chart of the season. The key now is for Sears' play to improve as he reduces his mistakes. If he does that, Davis becomes a non-factor in this competition and it can be put to bed.

My pre-camp winner: Davis.

Currently: Sears can lock up the job, in my opinion, with one more solid game against Jacksonville. I think the Bucs are eager to see what he can do against the Jaguars' top pass rushers.

2. Under tackle

Last year's starters: Anthony McFarland, Jon Bradley, Ellis Wyms.

The players: Wyms, Kevin Carter, Jovan Haye, Greg Peterson.

What I initially thought: That Carter would win the job.

How about now?: Haye led the Bucs in tackles in the preseason game last week with four, an encouraging sign. That means he's getting the desired penetration at the position against the run. His pass rush? That's still a work in progress. As Gruden said recently, Haye is on "lap 478" of the Daytona 500 (proving conclusively that Gruden is in full cocoon mode this football season. Daytona's only 200 laps, I think).

My pre-camp winner: Carter.

Currently: Haye did nothing to lose his starting spot last week. But let's seem some pass rush before we hand him the reins completely. Wyms isn't exactly pushing him, though.

3. No. 2 wide receiver

Last year's starter: Michael Clayton, Ike Hilliard, Maurice Stovall.

The players: Clayton, Stovall.

What I initially thought: That Stovall would win the job.

How about now?: Clayton did not play last Friday, thanks to an ill-timed hamstring injury. Oddly, though, David Boston started ahead of Stovall. Since they each had the same number of catches (1), I'm going let that slide, as the Bucs envision Boston as Joey Galloway's backup. Clayton is back at practice this week and expected to play on Saturday. Stovall, Clayton and Boston should all see more playing time.

My pre-camp winner: Stovall.

Currently: Stovall. Clayton gets his chance to make his case this weekend.

4. Safety

Last year's starters: Jermaine Phillips, Will Allen.

The players: Phillips, Allen, Sabby Piscitelli, Tanard Jackson, Kalvin Pearson.

What I initially thought: That Phillips and Allen would keep the job.

How about now?: It's difficult to evaluate this competition because one of the contenders — Sabby Piscitelli — didn't play due to injury. He's expected to play against Jacksonville. There was no real criticism or praise for this position after the game, so one must assume that Phillips and Allen are still ahead. After a little more digging, though, I've found out that Tanard Jackson played well against New England and could give Phillips a serious push in the coming weeks.

My pre-camp winners: Phillips and Allen.

Currently: Phillips and Allen are ahead. The Bucs are anxious to get Piscitelli out there to see what he can do. And I'm real interested to see Jackson on Saturday night.

The backup jobs

5. Backup quarterback

Last year's starters: Chris Simms, Bruce Gradkowski, Tim Rattay

The players: Simms, Gradkowski, Luke McCown.

What I initially thought: That Simms, once Jeff Garcia asserted himself in camp as the unquestioned No. 1, would win the job.

Bucs quarterback Luke McCown. (Getty)
How about now?: No position has been so turned upside down as this one. Before camp it was Garcia, Gradkowski, Simms and McCown. Now it's Garcia, McCown, Simms and Gradkowski. McCown is the unquestioned backup now. He acted like a starting quarterback on Friday night, completing all of his passes and performing like a player that has made more than just four NFL starts. He even did the leadership thing by taking the blame for the three sacks he absorbed against the Pats (even though Gruden said at least one was on rookie Kenneth Darby due to a protection gaffe). McCown must continue to play well, though. Gruden loves Gradkowski and would love nothing more than to move the Toledo product up the depth chart.

Simms needs to play this week against the Jaguars. If he doesn't, it's impossible to know what the Bucs will do with him. Keep four quarterbacks? Put him on injured reserve? Release him? Simms has to prove this week he can do something, or I believe he's at the mercy of the whims of Gruden (and that's never a good thing if you're hurt).

My pre-camp winner: Simms.

Currently: McCown has the lead.

6. Kick/punt returner

The players: Mark Jones, Chad Owens.

Jones has never been an explosive returner, but he's in the lead in this category for two reasons — experience and his receiving ability. It's no secret that's why Jones is listed well ahead of Owens on the receiving depth chart.

Neither got much of a chance on Friday, since it was such a low scoring game. Most of the kicks turned into fair catches or touchbacks, anyway, so there were few chances to impress.

I'm still an Owens fan, though. I think he's more explosive than Jones. Also, playing the Jags on Saturday might give Owens a little incentive. The Jags are the team that released him last year (though for good reason — he kept fumbling punts). I think Owens will get some chances on Saturday to make this race tighter.

If he doesn't, then Jones' lead is going to get wider.

My pre-camp winner: Owens.

Currently: Jones has the lead, if for no other reason than that he is No. 3 on the receiving chart behind Joey Galloway and David Boston, and Owens is No. 5.

3. No. 3 running back

The players: Earnest Graham, Kenneth Darby.

The complexion of this race has changed quite a bit since I first wrote this three weeks ago.

Bucs running back Kenneth Darby. (Getty)
This was supposed to be a two-horse race between Graham and Darby, because the Bucs usually don't keep more than three running backs. But, now with fullback Mike Alstott's move to the injured reserve, there's a chance they could keep four backs.

How? B.J. Askew will be the starting fullback, but someone will need to pick up Alstott's offense. That will be redistributed to Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman. Pittman may see some time at fullback in specialized packages, meaning he'll need a rest now and again (it should be noted that Gruden is quite impressed with Pittman's work at fullback in practice this week, so this is a developing situation). While Graham is a solid runner and great special teams performer, he's not the best pass catcher. Darby is not the special teams performer Graham is, but he a solid runner and considered an above-average receiver, especially after the catch.

There's a 50/50 chance both Graham and Darby will make the roster for those reasons. Gruden will want to be as versatile as possible in the backfield, and if Darby is ready to contribute offensively now, why not keep him on the roster?

My pre-camp winner: Graham.

Currently: Graham has the lead because he's a special teams stalwart. He plays on every unit, and Darby is well behind him in that regard. Still, I'm now leaning toward both players making the active roster.

4. The No. 9 offensive lineman

The players: Jeb Terry, Chris Denman, Donald Penn.

Very little has changed in my opinion about how this position group will settle by the end of the preseason. I think the Bucs will keep nine linemen, and eight jobs are already spoken for — Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood, John Wade, Anthony Davis, Arron Sears, Luke Petitgout, Matt Lehr and Dan Buenning.

This race is now interesting because it appears that a player I didn't have on my radar at the start of camp has joined the competition — tackle Donald Penn. I must admit, I didn't think much of the backup left tackle as the Bucs entered training camp. I figured as a third-teamer he would be lost in the shuffle.

Buccaneers tackle Donald Penn. (AP)
But the injury problems of Petitgout — he missed more than a week of team workouts — opened a door for Penn and he's taken full advantage. Gruden spoke about Penn for several days in a row before last week's preseason game. He earned extra playing time by Petitgout's absence, but also by his own play. The 6-foot-5, 305-pound tackle spent all of 2006 on the practice squad, and has apparently taken advantage of the opportunity to learn the ropes on the pro level. He's now the second-string left tackle, thanks to Davis' move to left guard. Plus, on Tuesday, Penn whipped first-round pick Gaines Adams in a one-on-one drill.

Terry, as I've mentioned before, has had more than enough time to prove himself as a NFL linemen, and either by injuries or poor play, he's missed that chance. The numbers game could hurt him, too. Three linemen I think will make the team — Davis, Buenning and Lehr — can play two positions, including guard. Terry can't make that claim.

Denman has had a solid, but unspectacular camp. Still, he's the top backup to right tackle Jeremy Trueblood right now. If the Bucs don't believe that either Davis or Penn can play right tackle if Trueblood gets hurt, the Bucs have to consider keeping Denman because right tackle is his natural position. This is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing battles in camp.

My pre-camp winner: Denman.

Currently: I'm going to keep Denman in the lead for now. But I'll be watching both Denman and Penn on Saturday night with a lot of interest.

5. Nos. 4-5 cornerbacks

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

This race is probably the most difficult to gauge right now.

Zemaitis is second on the depth chart behind Ronde Barber on the right side. Davis is third on the right side. Hamilton is third on the left side, behind Brian Kelly and Phillip Buchanon.

I'll have a lot more to work with in evaluating this position after Saturday's game. The knock on Zemaitis is that he didn't pick up the system as quickly as the Bucs had hoped. Plus he was hurt part of the year. Hamilton is well-versed in the Cover 2, and Davis has never lived up to the potential of being a first-round pick.

My pre-camp winner: Hamilton and Davis.

Currently: Zemaitis has a slight edge on the depth chart, so I'll keep him there. Hamilton and Davis appear to be in a dead heat.

Want to catch up on the other position battles in the NFC South? Click here for the latest update on position battles in Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina.


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 awards are national awards from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors.


Bucs Blitz Top Stories