Observation Deck: Camp Battles 5.0

With two preseason game in the books, the view from the Observation Deck is getting clearer. And, with the Bucs back in Tampa, the pressure to perform is mounting. The fifth edition of "Camp Battles" updates the top position battles on the team. Plus, you can link to an article on the top position battles across the rest of the NFC South.

Tanard Jackson and Jermaine Phillips. David Boston and Maurice Stovall. Mark Jones and Chad Owens.

These are some of the hottest competitions in preseason right now. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers going to Miami on Saturday for their third preseason game, the time is now to settle them, because many of these battles will be settled by the time the Bucs face Houston at home on Aug. 30.

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.

How about now?: I'd say put it to bed, but Sears' ankle injury adds a new wrinkle. Head coach Jon Gruden says it's not serious, which is good news for the Bucs. But does that mean Sears will be ready for the season opener in Seattle? And will the Bucs want to play him if he's unable to play in the final two preseason games.

My pre-camp winner: Davis.

Now: Sears. Even if the Bucs remain cautious with him due to the injury, Sears is going to be the guy in the regular season.

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.

Defensive tackle Jovan Haye. (Getty)
How about now?: Here's something I found interesting. A former Bucs defensive linemen, Steve White, said on the radio the other day that he didn't feel either Jovan Haye or Gaines Adams were using their hands enough against offensive linemen. He said offensive linemen were engulfing them at the line because of it. That's something I'll be watching for on Saturday night in Miami. In the meantime, because Carter is now clearly at left end in this defense and Wyms and Peterson have shown me little in two games, Haye is clearly the starter until further notice.

My pre-camp winner: Carter.

Currently: Haye.

3. No. 2 wide receiver

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

The players: David Boston, Stovall.

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

How about now?: Note that I've removed Clayton from this job. He's no longer a starter in anyone's opinion around this team. In fact, Clayton may find himself in a roster squeeze next week. His drop has been that precipitous in this preseason. Boston is outplaying everyone in preseason, including Stovall. In the first formation of the game, the Bucs were in a three-wide set with Joey Galloway, Boston and Stovall. Boston is catching everything, physically holding up against the pounding and being moved around to various points on the line in an effort to see what he's capable of. Gruden is clearly enamored with him. And he made this interesting comment about Stovall on Wednesday.

Wide receiver David Boston. (Getty)
"He's a magician," Gruden said. "He disappeared on me for about 10 days, Stovall. I haven't seen him around here for about two weeks. He's showing up again. I think his legs are coming back. He really showed up at training camp and was dominant. He had a great opening week or eight days of training camp. He did disappear, in my opinion, from what I wanted to see in the next 10 days."

Does that mean Boston's the starter opposite Galloway now? Not yet. Stovall still has time to make his play for the job. But last week's fumble certainly didn't help. I spoke to him on Wednesday and he doesn't seem shook up over it. He needs to take care of the ball and prove the big-play ability the Bucs think he has. Stovall made great catches almost every day in camp. He needs to flash that Saturday.

My pre-camp winner: Stovall.

Currently: It's become dead even.

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?: This is getting fun. Tanard Jackson stuck out last week as one of the few bright spots among the backups. He had a hand in all three defensive plays after that Stovall fumble, when the defense held the Jags to a field goal. He's a play-the-ball-first safety, and that's not something you come across every day. He's pushing the heck out of Phillips, which is a good thing.

Pistcitelli made a great hustle tackle and nearly had an interception (should have had an interception) behind Allen. Piscitelli's play was certainly good enough to warrant a closer look on Saturday.

Watch Jackson's availability for the game on Saturday. I talked to Jackson on Monday and he said his leg issue was just cramps, but Gruden said it was a slight hamstring pull. Jackson did light work on Monday and Tuesday in practice.

My pre-camp winners: Phillips and Allen.

Currently: I'd say the vets are still ahead. But these rookies are clearly good enough, right now, to give the vets a break during regular-season games.

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.

Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. (Getty)
How about now?: Gruden was mum about the position early in the week, saying the competition was still open. I think McCown played well enough on Saturday to keep him as the backup right now. I really don't see Gradkowski outplaying McCown on Saturday to make a play for the second-string job. McCown is close to locking it up, and with one more solid outing I think he wins the job.

I don't believe Simms will play on Saturday, and I think that will lead to his trade or release. The Bucs cannot afford to keep four quarterbacks, and his situation makes him the odd man out. The Bucs can't IR him unless a new injury crops up, because he passed his camp physical.

My pre-camp winner: Simms.

Currently: McCown is in control.

6. Kick/punt returner

The players: Mark Jones, Chad Owens.

Jones scored a touchdown on Saturday. Owens had two solid kickoff returns with a 21-yard average.

Who's ahead? Probably Jones, based on his receiving ability.

I think the Bucs would love to just give these guys 10 returns each, mano a mano, and decide the job that way. A sort-of "pistols at dawn" scenario.

In lieu of that, Owens can make a case with a big play of his own on Saturday. The job is still open, but Jones' experience with the team and his TD catch give him the inside track.

My pre-camp winner: Owens.

Currently: Jones has the lead.

3. No. 3 running back

The players: Earnest Graham, Kenneth Darby.

Graham had the better game last Saturday. Graham gave the Bucs a reminder of the reliable runner he can be.

Darby's fumble was a reminder that he's a rookie and he still has things to learn (like protecting the football). But he gives the offense a real boost of energy when he's on the field. I enjoyed watching him play on Saturday, and usually when you enjoy watching someone play, they're pretty good.

I said last week the fullback situation gives both the opportunity to make this team. Well, they did nothing to hurt their chances.

My pre-camp winner: Graham.

Currently: Graham has the edge.

4. The No. 9 offensive lineman

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

Tackle Donald Penn. (Getty)
The decision on Terry may have been made last Saturday when he sprained his ankle. He won't play on Saturday. He'll probably make it through the first round of cuts. But, Terry lost his chance at a starting job in 2005 when he got hurt. It seems this guy ends up with an injury every year that robs him of the chance for playing time.

This injury, however, may rob him of a job.

Penn is clearly ahead here. He replaced Luke Petitgout on the fourth possession of the game and put in a solid night. I honestly didn't notice Denman, which is a good and a bad thing. I didn't notice a mistake, but I didn't notice a big play, either.

My only qualm with Penn is whether he can play right tackle, too, in case Jeremy Trueblood is hurt. A lack of versatility may keep Denman in the race.

My pre-camp winner: Denman.

Currently: Penn.

5. Nos. 4-5 cornerbacks

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

I'm no closer to making a decision.

Davis made one great play in coverage in the second quarter, and then later was burned. Zemaitis and Hamilton played with the second- and third-teamers that failed to stop Jacksonville for most of the second and third quarters. No one came out looking well on that unit.

I expect Davis and Zemaitis to get a lot of playing time on Saturday, especially in the second and third quarters. I think all three may make it through the first round of cuts. But someone needs to step forward here and take hold of the job. It's there for the taking.

My pre-camp winner: Hamilton and Davis.

Currently: Waiting for someone to step up.

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.


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