OTAs are just around the corner for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, as they get under way later this week. That means we can look at some of the most intriguing position battles on the roster.
Players: Doug Martin, Charles Sims, Bobby Rainey, Mike James, Dominique Brown.
This is the one position where we don't really know who will start. Doug Martin is the incumbent, but he lost a lot of carries to then-rookie Charles Sims at the end of the season. It's notable that Sims is a draft pick of this regime, which means they have more investment in Sims than they do in Martin. Moreover, Sims runs similarly to Lovie Smith's guy, Matt Forte -- albeit much less efficiently, going down at first contact far too easily.
To make matters worse, the Bucs declined to pick up Martin's fifth-year option.
But then Lovie Smith has also said that they haven't seen the "real" Doug Martin yet. There's an expectation that Martin, who produced nearly 2,000 yards from scrimmage as a rookie, will be more productive behind a better offensive line. Even that is a bit of an indictment of Martin, though: the very best running backs make offensive lines look better, not the other way around.
And then there's Bobby Rainey, the wild card. Rainey's been the team's most productive running back over the past two years, but was consistently placed on the back burner by the current regime. When Martin and Sims were both healthy, he was relegated to the position of kick returner. But the Bucs do have a new offensive coordinator, and at some point his consistent production has to count for something.
Players: Chris Conte, Major Wright, D.J. Swearinger, Keith Tandy, Derrick Wells, Chris Hackett.
The Bucs have made it clear, repeatedly, that Bradley McDougald will be the starting strong safety this season -- barring injury or a collapse in training camp, of course. But free safety is much less clear. The team re-signed Major Wright, who can play both positions, and added Chris Conte, who was awful the past two years but was fairly reliable under Lovie Smith.
Making things even more confusing, the team claimed third-year safety D.J. Swearinger off waivers, while Keith Tandy is still on the roster as well. Swearinger probably fits best at strong safety, but the reports that he refused to play special teams in Houston will not help him make the Bucs' roster, nor will his inconsistent play. Meanwhile, priority undrafted free agent Chris Hackett was a ballhawk in college and has the potential to develop into the kind of free safety Lovie Smith loves.
Which means we don't really know where this is going. I'd put my money on Conte starting this year, if only because he's familiar with the system and more of a free safety than Major Wright. It usually takes new players quite some time to adjust to and learn the Tampa 2 system, which will likely prevent Swearinger and Hackett from making an impact early.
The wild card is Keith Tandy. I don't really like him as a player, because I think he's too slow and too small to be consistently effective, and his angles to the ball as a tackler are not very good, but he does have a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Those four interceptions in just five starts over the past two years may be more than just coincidence.
Players: Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks, Sterling Moore, Mike Jenkins, Brandon Dixon, Deshazor Everett, Isaiah Frey, C.J. Wilson.
Alterraun Verner will start on one side, but the other side as well as the nickel/slot cornerback position have yet to be decided. Sterling Moore will likely start in the slot, although he's also competing on the outside with Johnthan Banks -- as is Mike Jenkins, who probably can't slide inside. Making matters more complicated for Moore is the presence of Leonard Johnson, who somehow managed to hang on to his roster spot every single year despite not beig very good.
Moore's an ideal and experienced fit at slot cornerback, and his size makes him less than ideal on the outside -- although we know of other 5'10" cornerbacks who did just fine on the outside in a Tampa 2 system. But Johnthan Banks played well over the second half of last season, once he grasped the system, and I would expect him to win out. It is clear that the Bucs have a pretty deep and talented group of cornerbacks, despite paying bargain prices for almost all of them.
Players: Danny Lansanah, Kwon Alexander, Khaseem Greene, Orie Lemon, Jason Williams, Quinton Alston, Larry Dean, Josh Keyes, Jared Koster.
Lavonte David will start on the weak side, while the Bucs have made it clear that they see Bruce Carter as their starter in the middle by paying him $4 million, and noting that Lansanah will not compete at that spot. That leaves just one starting linebacker spot for nine players to compete over, five of whom have a realistic chance of actually starting there.
Let's start with Danny Lansanah, who played very well last season after having played just a single game since 2008, although he wasn't always overly consistent. His athleticism was obvious, though, and his three interceptions, eight passes defensed and two defensive touchdowns can't really be ignored. All of that gives him an obvious leg up, as does the familiarity with the system.
His biggest competition will be rookie Kwon Alexander. The Bucs have been raving about the fourth-round pick's athleticism and football intelligence, as well as his work ethic, but it's very hard for rookie defenders to get on the field under Lovie Smith. Still, strongside linebacker is doable for a rookie, in part because they're on the field for less than 50% of the snaps, reducing their coverage responsibilities.
But we can't count out Khaseem Greene, picked up off waivers last week, Orie Lemon and Jason Williams, either. Williams is a special teams star who the team stole off the Panthers after they floated him on waivers last year, and he's both big and athletic -- a combination the Bucs don't really have. Orie Lemon, meanwhile, played well in limited snaps last year -- or at least didn't play poorly enough to stand out.
While it won't be the most important position battle, this spot will be fascinating to watch this offseason.
Players: Kevin Pamphile, Donovan Smith
I'm only including this position because the Bucs hinted that Pamphile could hold on to his spot here, but I would expect the second-round pick to win in the end -- unless his motivation/work ethic concerns are much, much worse than we were led to believe. Pamphile showed some potential in limited time last year, but he wasn't consistent enough to trust with protecting the franchise quarterback's blind side. Smith may go through some rookie growing pains, but he's more talented than Pamphile and his size alone should help, there.