Bucs Camp Battles to Watch in Orlando

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will report to training camp on Friday at Disney's Wide World of Sports. Every position is important, but some warrant a closer look. Bucsblitz.com ranks the five position battles to watch in Training Camp. Matthew Postins explains why in this article.

LEFT TACKLE: Luke Petitgout vs. Donald Penn.

The Bucs heaped plenty of praise on Petitgout after his first three games as a starter last season, saying he stabilized the left side of the offensive line. It looked that way from the press box, too. Then Petitgout tore up his knee, his second straight season-ending injury, making way for Penn.

He struggled at first, but by the end of the season the Bucs heaped praise on Penn's yeoman effort. He showed plenty of improvement, especially in pass protection.

Now Petitgout is healthy and Penn is considered a real threat to the veteran's stake on his starting job.

Petitgout will likely start camp at the top of the depth chart because he's a veteran and has two years left on his deal. But he has a history of injuries (don't forget he missed a week of camp last year with back spasms) and if he has more of the same at the start of this camp then the door will be wide open for Penn.

I'm not sure the Bucs see Penn as their tackle of the future, but they may see him as more athletic — and less injury prone — than Petitgout.

I'm with Petitgout on this one, but it's going to be a close race.

KICK RETURNER: Dexter Jackson vs. Micheal Spurlock.

This may not end up being a competition, as Jackson is slated to return punts and Spurlock is slated to return kickoffs. But head coach Jon Gruden likes to have roster flexibility, and using just one returner affords him that. Plus, both will take up a roster spot at wide receiver. So the pair should be locked in competition.

Spurlock, naturally, has a place in Bucs history after last year's kickoff return for a touchdown, the first in franchise history. He averaged 27.8 yards per return in 16 opportunities. But he had a key fumble in the playoff game and Gruden has a very long memory.

Jackson handled punts throughout his college career and produced nearly 10 yards per return, much better than what the Bucs produced after Mark Jones went down to injury. Jackson can flat out fly and can challenge Michael Bennett and Joey Galloway as the team's fastest player.

Both will get plenty of chances to return both kickoffs and punts. From this perspective, Jackson has the edge because the Bucs have more invested in him than Spurlock. Jackson is seen as a potential successor to Galloway, which makes it necessary to keep him on the roster. The Bucs won't have room for both. They'll have to make a choice.

NO. 2 WIDE RECEIVER: Ike Hilliard vs. everyone else.

Hilliard led the team in receptions last year with 62. Gruden loved the stability Hilliard provided to the offense.

But Gruden knows Hilliard is 32 years old, can't stretch defense like he used to and only caught one touchdown last year. He'll allow players like Michael Clayton, Maurice Stovall, Antonio Bryant and Paris Warren to challenge Hilliard's position.

Bucs fans have been through this song and dance the past few years. The media trumpets either Clayton, Stovall or Warren as the player that finally steps up and none of them does.

So, until one of them actually does it, I expect Hilliard to be in the starting lineup against New Orleans.

STRONG SAFETY: Sabby Piscitelli vs. Jermaine Phillips

I expect Phillips to win the job, but Piscitelli's play bears watching.

He's a hitter in the John Lynch mold who has the ability to play the football in the air effectively. He's going to make a big impact on special teams this year, but he'll get plenty of reps in training camp and preseason as the Bucs gauge his ability to step in as a starter in 2009.

The Bucs have to do so because Phillips will cost them millions in a new contract next year. If Piscitelli shows he can do the job, he'll put Phillips out of a job.

Piscitelli probably won't win the job this year. But the competition bears watching, if for no other reason than the hits Piscitelli will dole out as he tries to impress his coaches.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE: Ryan Sims vs. Greg Peterson.

Jovan Haye and Chris Hovan are locks to make the team. Fourth-round pick Dre Moore should make the team. That leaves one spot left for a pure tackle.

The Bucs traded for Sims last year for depth and he didn't do much at all. He always seemed a bit out of shape. Peterson made some waves early in the year, but his production fell off as the season wore on. It's hard to tell if the Bucs lost trust in him or if he simply hit a rookie wall sooner than expected.

At this point, Peterson has more upside. As long as he improves during camp and preseason, I expect him to put Sims out of a job.

Matthew Postins is the publisher of bucsblitz.com.

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