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As we sit a mere 11 days away from the start of training camp, now seems as good a time as any to take a look at some of the battles and competitions that will be key in shaping the Buccaneers starting 22. We've seen a capricious influx of youth and potential at several key areas on the Buccaneer roster needing an obvious upgrade, and none more readily apparent than at the defensive tackle and wide receiver positions. However, with both Price and McCoy all but locks to start the position at the nose and 7-techniques, the wide receiver battle is certain to be one of the most hot and heavy battles to watch come August.
That's not to say there's not some players who have earned somewhat of a favorable status or reprieve in camp. Although everything is up for grabs, Sammie Stroughter flashed the consistent route-running skills and solid hands that should land him the starting slot receiver position this fall. As such, the X and Z outside receiver positions are up for grabs this fall, and it's anyone's guess who will fill those spots. Camp all-star/gameday bust Michael "Stone Hands" Clayton will likely again put his season's worth of work into the preseason and give the coaches reasons to think about starting him. Mo Stovall took a nice step forward last season and has the physical tools to be a factor in both the blocking and in a deep passing attack. Can he take another long-overdue step forward, starting in camp? There's the veteran Reggie Brown, who started strong in Philadelphia, but failed to outshine unspectacular players such as Kevin Curtis, Jason Avant, and Hank Baskett. Can he turn the page and reproduce his early-career production in pewter and red? And, finally, noobs Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams have the physical tools, athletical ability, and upside to not only upstage this collection of seemingly-average veterans, but also establish themselves as outstanding NFL wide receivers.
So who's the favorite going into camp? Who do you predict will win the starting jobs? Let's take a closer look at each guy below.
1. MICHAEL CLAYTON
I don't much care for his potential at camp anymore, but it's almost like a chicken-or-the-egg kind of thing. He performs well at camp and earns the job, but soils himself with the game on the line. Borrowing a NASCARreference for a second, Clayton reminds me of Front Row Joe Nemechek....a guy who always tore it up in qualifying and started near the front, but faltered consistently during the races.
Clayton's forte, as we all know, is in blocking, which jives with the plan of sticking with the run more consistently this fall. However, he's earned the moniker "Stone Hands" from me for a reason. As a West Coast offense thrives on receivers with great hands who can make tough catches on slants and short, hard passes, Clayton's effectiveness in the passing game is dubious at best. Now that he's got some legitimate competition this fall, he could finally find the sledding tough to crack the starting lineup. Put that check in the bank.
2. ARRELIOUS BENN
He might be the guy I'd give the edge to right now. He's a huge target with great quicks and the strength and ability to be a force in the running game. He showed in camp he can go down andmake a catch near the ground, he can go up and get the football, or he can just run by a defender for a TD. As long as he continues his confident play and doesn't get camp jitters, he's got a great chance to crack the starting lineup. Speaking of going up to get the football......
3. MIKE WILLIAMS
....This guy's been pretty good at going up and getting the football. Maybe you've heard a little bit about that by now. Williams is another guy with size, strength, and length to block effectively in the running game, go up and get the football on 3rd down, and (most notably for Williams) a guy that can burn an aggressive defensive back deep on a slant/stop and go....which could be a great neutralizer in a short passing game. Most importantly, he seems truly motivated to play to his full potential now that he's pulling a paycheck and he's saying and doing all the right things so far.
4. MAURICE STOVALL
Is Mo Sto finally ready to live up to the hopes he garnered after being selected as a 3rd rd pick by the Bucs 4 years ago? To date, he's done little to make you believe he can carry the freight as a starting NFL wide receiver, but he did take a step forward last season. After mired in total futility his first 2 season, he produced his best season in 2009 with 24 catches for 366 yards, but only one TD. That TD went for 33-yards against the Dolphins when the Buccaneers staged their furious comeback. It's the 33-yard-type of receptions that made him semi-dangerous last season. Stovall tallied 3 catches for 80 yards against Buffalo and 4 for 68 yards against Carolina. At the end of the season, he put up a healthy 15.3 YPR. However, it's the intermediate passing game where Stovall failed to register much of anything. He seemed incapable of helping out his quarterback and getting open on shorter patterns and underneath routes. He was far too quiet too often and rarely snagged more than 2 or 3 balls per game. How much of that was limited by health is tough to say, but he'll have as good a chance as ever to establish himself as a starter at camp. If he can't do it this season, it's probably not going to happen. That said, I think it happens this season off the bench as a fourth receiver.
5. REGGIE BROWN
Who is the real Reggie Brown? The guy who came out of the gate hot with 1500-yd+ receiving over his 2nd and 3rd seasons...or the guy who broke down and lost playing time to a collection of mediocre players? I have no idea, but Brown has shown he has the ability to make plays when given a chance. During his best season in 2006, he tallied 6 catches for 40+ yards and a TD. Would we take that kind of production out of anyone right now? Would we take 17.7 yards per catch? No question. Clearly, the Eagles liked what the saw, as they locked him up for a 5-year deal in November 2006. However, it's not 2006 and Brown isn't coming off a solid season. He's coming off a year where he caught 9 balls for 155 yards and was inactive for most of the year. That being said, as much as it's easy to point to the undisclosed reason why a player has dropped off as a warning sign, I don't think the guy's forgotten how to play football. He's a good route runner and has reliable hands. He's got a clean slate and a strong-armed quarterback to get him the ball down the field. Can he re-establish himself as starting material in camp?
So what do you think, Buccaneer fans? Who out of this crop will emerge from the group and establish themselves as game-changing players? Let's hear it, Buc'Em.