Buc Ball: Training camp battles

Conor Philpot (@cphilpott95) takes a look at the key battles facing players entering Tampa Bay Buccaneers camp this week.

The Buccaneers had a short camp for their rookies last weekend but the main action begins this Thursday as the Buccaneers enter their first season under new head coach Greg Schiano. On the back of some nice moves in the off-season, Vincent Jackson, the former San Diego Charger ,to paraphrase LeBron James, took his talents to St.Pete Beach. He was followed by Carl Nicks ,formerly of the New Orleans Saints, Nicks is a 2 time All-Pro and 2 time Pro Bowler. The Buccaneers offensive line has been pretty poor during my time following the team (since 2009) , Josh Freeman is one of the more pressured QBs in the NFL, 5th last season if you go by the stats. He can avoid some of that due to having reasonable speed and very good scrambling ability. Jeff Faine was released in the off-season and he will be replaced by Jeremy Zuttah, a former player of Schiano’s at Rutgers. Will Zuttah improve the line? Maybe a bit, our friends at Pro Football Focus also looked at how Quarterbacks fared when faced with pressure. Freeman was in 27th place. The man Nicks protected? First, now obviously it’s foolish to say Nicks will be that much of a game changer  but he will certainly help. If Donald Penn and Davin Joseph can develop greater consistency and Jeremy Trueblood (who has excelled in run blocking) can develop some good pass blocking skills, then perhaps the Bucs could have a successful offence going forward. On the defensive side of the ball, things have been a bit quieter but still some decent moves were made.

Mark Barron was drafted 7th overall in the 2012 Draft, he seems like a solid player, a hard hitter and a guy who can go up against Tight Ends. Crucial in a division with Tony Gonzalez and Jimmy Graham, as well as guys like Cam Newton. They need to be put down and put down early! In the draft, the Buccaneers also ended up with Lavonte David, who was deemed an undersized linebacker out of Nebraska but a guy who is quick, has great instincts and is a solid tackler. If he is half as good as the  last undersized linebacker the Buccaneers drafted they will be doing alright! Amobi Okoye was picked up in free agency on the defensive line as was Gary Gibson and Okoye is a very good backup for either Gerald McCoy or Brian Price. Both have had fitness issues in the past but Okoye is a capable backup to fill in for either of them. Eric Wright was picked up in Free Agency in the cornerback position and while he is horrendously overpriced, the Bucs needed to make a move in the position and Wright is an okay guy to have. The news that Aqib Talib won’t be going to jail and will more than likely avoid NFL suspension is also great news as it strengthens a cornerback group that looks suspect at best.

On to the battles, I previously talked about the battle between LeGarette Blount and Doug Martin for the starting running back position. See here: http://nfl-ireland.com/2012/05/buc-ball-muscle-hamster-and-blount-force-trauma-what-to-expect/   With news coming out recently about LeGarette Blount’s poor work ethic, Blount’s role as the starting running back seems to be under threat. It doesn’t really strike me as being part of “The Buccaneer Way”, Greg Schiano wants to establish. People say Blount can’t pass block, or catch passes but I wonder is this the case. A colleague of mine recently took me up on this . He was watching the Saints at Buccaneers game in Week 6 of the 2011 season. This was a game where Earnest Graham was the starting tailback in the absence of LeGarette Blount. What was interesting was when the Buccaneers were passing, they often subbed in Kregg Lumpkin, much like they did with Graham who subbed in for Blount. This would almost make me think it was former offensive co-ordinator Greg Olson’s philosophy as much as LeGarette Blount’s pass blocking deficiencies. Blount will hopefully be a key part of the Buccaneer offense in the coming year, maybe as a change of pace back who can pound the rock. Martin has the potential to be a starting tailback in this league. He seems to excel in pass blocking already when most running backs take time to pick it up, (another defence of Blount this is his first full off season, with the Lockout last year and not joining the Buccaneers until a week before the 2010 season ) we have seen from college that he is an electrifying runner, with good speed and incredible shiftiness and manoeuvrability. He is a strong runner too and has all the tools to be a top back in the National Football League. Michael Smith was a late round draft choice at the running back spot, a backup to Seattle’s Robert Turbin at Utah State, Smith seems to have sensational speed, and in his limited game time seemed to be a decent runner who can make guys miss. While he has stated, he isn’t there to twiddle his thumbs, I don’t see him getting the starting or backup spot. He should have a role on special teams as a returner hopefully. I am excited to see how he does though, he looks like a intriguing player.

Prediction: Buccaneer fans will be learning “the Dougie” by week 2 of the season. Martin wins out.

I’ve dealt with the Buccaneers wide receivers before too (http://nfl-ireland.com/2012/06/examining-the-tampa-bay-wide-receivers/), there are two standout candidates. Vincent Jackson will be the clear number one and Mike Williams will more than likely be the number 2. After that it is pretty much up for grabs. Arrelious Benn is probably the chief candidate, he was the number 2 last season. He showed some potential last year. He made an outstanding catch against the Panthers in the penultimate game of last season which resulted in a touchdown. His ability to stretch the field was also seen in the Week 6 Match up v New Orleans. Benn hauled in a 65 yard bomb that resulted in a touchdown. One candidate may not be in Coach Schiano’s good books. Dezmon Briscoe skipped OTAs early on in the year due to “romantic entanglements” and I think he may have angered Schiano as a result, he certainly was better than Benn last year and was one of the few bright spots in a struggling receiving core last season. Preston Parker was arguably the best receiver for the Buccaneers last year, he was a sure fire target (second best hands in the NFC South at one stage last season with 97%) and he always seemed to accumulate yards in the slot. I would probably have him there at the moment, he deserves to start given his performance last year and should certainly be the number one guy in camp and if someone ousts him in preseason then they deserve it.

Prediction: Benn takes the slot spot, but he will have to work for it. This is really a toss up.

Now onto a completely new issue. The Quincy Black conundrum. Black looks like a football player and has all the measurables, he is an example of why you don’t draft just on that basis (Kansas City Chiefs fans may learn about that with Dontari Poe) because on the field he is simply pretty rubbish. He is a poor tackler and his instincts are quite awful. He doesn’t have big playmaking ability and often has poor timing and gets taken out of the play. His backup Dekoda Watson looks to be a very solid player. He is adept at pass rushing, a decent hitter and showed a lot more than Black did last year. Black will start more than likely. 2 seasons ago, he was paid a contract that was quite frankly a joke. I think Dominick will almost demand Black starts as some form of justification for the pay. It will prove once and for all though that Black is simply not a starting linebacker in the NFL, a special teamer maybe but unless he improves dramatically there is no way he should start for the Buccaneers. Given that he has been there since 2008 I wouldn’t count on an improvement happening anytime soon.

Prediction: Black starts due to his fat contract

The Tight End battle: Most Buccaneer fans weren’t exactly crushed when Kellen Winslow Junior was traded to Seattle in the off-season. His attitude stunk last season, he berated Freeman far too often, gave away a high amount of personal foul penalties, struggled to get separation and as usual was poor blocking. Other than that he had a pretty great year! In comes Dallas Clark, a veteran free agent formerly of the Indianapolis Colts. Clark has struggled with injury the last 2 seasons, appearing in only 16 games and only grabbing 5 scores. He is a pretty solid run blocker though and he will be a good veteran red zone target for Freeman. In the other corner is Luke Stocker. Stocker was drafted in the 4th round of the 2011 draft but struggled last season, he had 12 catches all season and with Winslow in his way he didn’t see too much time on the field. The Bucs traded their 4th round 2012 selection to move up and get Stocker and he certainly could be a decent player for the Bucs. He just needs to show more in the passing department as he was reasonably solid in the running game last year.

Prediction: Clark’s experience wins out.