Observation Deck: Camp Battles 6.0

The final preseason game is in just a few days. The final cuts are coming down on Saturday and then it's on to the regular season. The pressure is definitely on. The sixth and final edition of "Camp Battles" updates the top position battles on the team.

Who will win the camp battles we've highlighted since training camp began? Well, some of them have already been settled. Others, however, are still up for debate, and may well be even after Thursday's preseason finale.

For the last time this preseason, we highlight the top position battles in camp and where they stand. If they're settled, I'll say it. If they're not, I'll say that too. No punches can be pulled when full-time jobs are on the line.

Let's get started.

Starting jobs

1. Left guard

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

The players: Anthony Davis, Arron Sears.

Pre-camp pick: Davis.

Status?: Sears earned the starting job before his ankle injury last week. He'll start the opener, granted he's healthy. Davis will be a backup guard and tackle.

Is it settled?: Yes.

2. Under tackle

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

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

Pre-camp pick: Carter.

Status?: Haye will be No. 1 on the depth chart and start against Seattle. That's not at issue. But I thought Haye was capable of being a three-down tackle, and so far it's unclear if he will be. The position is starting to smell like it will take on a committee approach. Haye does not have a sack this preseason, and the Bucs must have a pass rush from that position. If he can't do it, then Haye will likely rotate out on passing downs for someone else, probably Wyms.

Is it settled?: Yes — at least the starting job. The rotation is yet to be determined.

3. No. 2 wide receiver

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

The players: David Boston, Stovall.

Pre-camp pick: Stovall.

Status?: I think it's clear after three games that head coach Jon Gruden is going to use his wide receivers liberally this year. He's using a lot of three- and four-wide receiver sets in preseason. So a No. 2 starter may not mean as much as it did at the start of camp. He all but confirmed that on Monday.

Tama Bay wide receiver David Boston. (AP)
"I don't think guys haven't stepped up," Gruden said. "They've done what we've asked them to do. They've worked their butts off; it's just close. With that being said, we might have a committee playing flanker for a couple of games. A lot of teams do that, and that's not a bad thing. We feel like we've got good players there, and there's nothing wrong with that."

Count Hilliard in the running. too. He's 31, but Gruden has fallen for the veteran receiver in a big way. Hilliard has always been a savvy player, but he seems to have a fire this year and maybe burned less in the past (he's had off the field issues few knew about, including the death of his mother). Hilliard started on Saturday night. He likely won't start Thursday, because Gruden will rest most of the vets. But Hilliard is a player in this race now.

But I have to pick one, of course. My gut tells me when the depth chart comes out next week that Maurice Stovall will be at the top. But, again, as Gruden has shown this preseason, the title means much less the way he's using his receivers.

Is it settled?: No.

4. Safety

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

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

Pre-camp picks: Phillips and Allen.

Status?: There's little to dissuade me from believing that Phillips and Allen will be the starters on opening day. While Jackson and Piscitelli have certainly had their moments, the vets have played well enough to keep their jobs. This one is settled — for now.

Raheem Morris, the defensive backs coach, said he likes to have three safeties ready and then play who's hot. Jackson's hotter than Piscitelli right now, so expect Jackson to see some meaningful playing time in the opener.

Is it settled?: Yes.

The backup jobs

5. Backup quarterback

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

The players: Simms, Gradkowski, Luke McCown.

Pre-camp pick: Simms.

Status?: McCown and Gradkowski will battle for the backup job on Thursday night. It's pretty much even at this point, and the better player on Thursday night, I think, is the backup. I'm putting my money down on McCown.

Simms, however, is the bigger drama. How much will he play? Will the Bucs keep him? That's the drama that will dominate the news wires for the 48 hours after Thursday's game. While I believe the Buccaneers should find a way to keep him, I think they'll cut him and just keep three quarterbacks.

Is it settled?: No.

6. Kick/punt returner

The players: Mark Jones, Chad Owens.

Pre-camp pick: Owens.

Status?: With the release of Owens on Monday, this battle is settled, unless the Bucs see a better option on the waiver wire this weekend.

Is it settled?: Yes.

7. No. 3 running back

The players: Earnest Graham, Kenneth Darby.

Pre-camp pick?: Graham.

Status: Graham has done enough to hold off Darby in preseason. The rookie had a hot start, but has tapered off since. What's difficult to determine is the depth chart. Michael Pittman is being used as a fullback. Does that mean he'll be named a fullback, or remain as Cadillac Williams' backup? If Pittman moves to FB on the depth chart, Graham will be Williams' immediate backup ¬— in name only. If Pittman is listed at RB, then Graham is No. 3 and Darby is No. 4.

Is it settled?: Yes.

8. The No. 9 offensive lineman

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

Pre-camp pick?: Denman.

Status?: The Bucs placed Terry on injured reserve on Tuesday, ending his season. That also, likely, ended the competition. Penn worked at both right and left tackle on Saturday. His inability to maintain position on that defensive end led to Jeff Garcia's interception, but he showed athletic ability blocking downfield on David Boston's reverse. It's been a solid camp for the second-year pro from Utah State. Denman simply hasn't shown me much this training camp and preseason. He smells like a practice squad candidate to me.

Is it settled?: Yes. Penn is on this team.

9. Nos. 4-5 cornerbacks

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

Pre-camp winners?: Hamilton and Davis.

Status?: I've struggled to find a clear winner here all training camp and preseason. I've really not been too impressed with any of them. For that reason, these two jobs are still in play. All three, I would suspect, will get plenty of playing time on Thursday so the coaching staff can settle this.

Also keep in mind that the Bucs have other options. Perhaps they could use Tanard Jackson there in nickel situations? They've used him there in the preseason. Plus, there could be some veterans available after the final roster cuts are made.

Is it settled?: No. But I'm leaning toward Davis and Hamilton, my pre-camp picks.


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. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.


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