When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers convene on Thursday before training camp begins Friday, many players will be worried about surviving cut days and making the 53-man roster. Others, however, toward the top of the depth chart will be fighting for starting spots and valuable playing time.
The results of a few key position battles during camp could go a long way in determining if the Bucs will be able to improve on last season’s 4-12 record and move out of the NFC South cellar.
1 - RB: LeGarrette Blount vs. Doug Martin. Both players figure to split the bulk of the carries, but one will have to earn the mantle of “go-to guy”. Greg Schiano said he plans to take a bit of the pressure off quarterback Josh Freeman by committing to a strong rushing attack.
Blount is the known quantity, a runner with a nice mix of power and elusiveness who fell out of favor late last season at least in part due to his fumble-prone nature. Martin is the prized rookie, one of Tampa’s two first-round draft picks, and perhaps a better receiver out of the backfield than Blount.
It’s hard to imagine these two completely forcing the other to the sidelines. But it’s still anyone’s guess as to who will be behind Freeman in the backfield for the first snap of the season.
2. “Z” Receiver - Mike Williams vs. Arrelious Benn.
These two Bucs receivers have been tied at the hip since entering the NFL as part of the draft class of 2010. Together, they were the leaders of Tampa Bay’s receiving corps -- but that changed with the franchise’s offseason acquisition of Vincent Jackson.
Jackson figures to start at the “X” spot that once belonged to Williams. So while Williams has historically had a leg up on Benn, both players are now fighting for playing time at the “Z” position, where Benn knows his role.
That role may have changed a bit in the new offense Schiano has installed, so perhaps Benn doesn’t have a tremendous advantage. And in three-receiver sets, Williams and Benn figure to join Jackson on the field. But whenever the squad goes to a power look at times -- perhaps using new tight end Dallas Clark with a loaded backfield -- either Williams or Benn may be forced to the sidelines.
3. NT - Roy Miller vs. Frank Okam vs. Amobi Okoye vs. Brian Price. The defense allowed 30 or more points in eight of the team’s last nine games. Winning the battle at the line of scrimmage would certainly help, and the nose tackle position is clearly up for grabs. This may be one of the most crowded position battles in the entire NFL heading into training camp.
Price was limited in offseason work due to injuries, which may slow his progress in the team’s new defense. Miller started three times a season ago and all 16 games in 2010. Okam also started three games. Okoye likely has some learning to do after coming to Tampa from Chicago this offseason. That process will be slowed a bit, as Okoye will start camp on the Physically Unable to Perform list while he recovers from arthroscopic knee surgery in June according to Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times.
Solving the question of who should play at nose tackle won’t immediately fix a defense in need of some major repairs, but it would be a strong first step for Schiano and company.