By Tom Krasniqi (Twitter: @TKras)
Many of the important positions are locked up and accounted for on the 2013 Bucs team. I’m not buying the Josh Freeman-Mike Glennon quarterback competition. There is no competition there. Glennon only plays if Freeman gets injured. However, there are still some positions that are up for grabs when training camp begins on July 25. Let’s take a closer look at the top 5 position battles we’re expecting to see throughout camp:
5) Kick/punt returner- This expects to be a wide open competition. But there are some inside of One Buc Place that believe free agent addition Kevin Ogletree has the inside track on both positions. Ogletree signed a 2-year deal with Tampa Bay after spending four seasons with the Cowboys. Judging by the numbers, Ogletree was not a big play return man. He averaged 19.5 yards per kickoff return in Dallas with no touchdowns and a long return of 32 yards. He returned just three punts for the Cowboys with his being 25 yards. Hardly game-breaking numbers in the return game. Ogletree will have to compete with Tiquan Underwood and little used Michael Smith in the kick return game. Underwood had just two kick returns last season for 47 yards. Smith was active for the opener and never saw the field again. The return game was not a strength for this team last season and it doesn’t figure to improve much. A wildcard to keep an eye on: 1st year WR Eric Page from Toledo. He’s not the biggest guy in the world (5-10, 180lbs) but during the OTAs and minicamp, Page showed some ability in the return game. He will have to show a lot more if he wants to make this team.
Prediction: Ogletree is the favorite to return kicks & punts but don’t be surprised if the Bucs scan the league for options during camp.
4) Starting NT position- Roy Miller left in free agency and went to Jacksonville. Even though he registered just 24 tackles last season, the Bucs will miss his toughness in stopping the run from that tilted nose tackle spot. Miller also did a good job of occupying blockers in allowing Gerald McCoy to make plays. The team viewed Miller as a two-down player who didn’t offer much in the pass rush department so they let him walk. The Bucs used a 4th round pick on DT Akeem Spence from Illinois. Spence built like a tank (6-1, 307lbs) and is extremely strong. Can his weight room strength transfer over to the football field? The Bucs believe he can be every bit as good as Miller with Spence being more of a threat to push the pocket on passing plays. Holdover Gary Gibson will provide a challenge along with free agent additions Derek Landri and Andre Neblett also in the mix. The Bucs view Landri and Neblett as rotation players at best. This competition will come down to Gibson vs. Spence. Gibson was bothered by leg injuries and started one game last season. Because of his experience and familiarity with Greg Schiano, Gibson may open camp with the edge but he’s just a guy. The Bucs want Spence to play the bulk of the snaps when the season begins.
Prediction: Spence supplants Gibson as the starting NT to open the season.
3) Starting RT position- The incumbent, Demar Dotson, was thrusted into the starting position last season and didn’t disappoint. Dotson started 15 games after the team decided to move on from Jeremy Trueblood. Dotson is a huge man (6-9, 315lbs) with long arms and a wingspan the size of a Boeing 747. That made him a very good pass protector but he lacked some punch in the run game. He’s come a long way since he was a basketball project at Southern Mississippi. The Bucs rewarded Dotson in the offseason with a 4-year extension worth about $7.5-million. A very modest deal for a starting tackle. Last month, the Bucs acquired former first round pick Gabe Carimi in a trade from the Bears. Carimi has been a major disappointment, especially in pass protection. During minicamp, Carimi says a knee injury really slowed him down but claims he’s healthy now. Schiano is a big believer in competition so expect Carimi to give Dotson a run for his money at right tackle. Dotson is considered the favorite to win the job but he has to prove it during training camp.
Prediction: Dotson outplays Carimi to hold onto the starting spot. Carimi becomes a backup tackle and guard.
2) Starting SLB- Incumbent Quincy Black suffered a serious neck/shoulder injury last season against the Chargers and isn’t likely to play again. That means this position is wide open. Dekoda Watson is the leading candidate at the moment. Watson is considered one of the best special teams players in the league but he wants to be known as more than just that. During OTAs and minicamp, Watson lined up as the starting strongside linebacker. He shows some explosiveness as an edge rusher and he’s athletic enough to play in space. He will be challenged by holdover Adam Hayward and free agent acquisition Jonathan Casillas. Like Watson, Hayward is a terrific special teams player who has the versatility to play MLB as well as OLB. Casillas is not a big guy (6-1, 227lbs) but he does possess good cover skills and experience. Casillas spent 4 seasons in New Orleans and while he flashed some playmaking potential, he was slowed by injuries. Casillas started one game last season and recorded 31 tackles in 14 games overall. The Bucs view this position as a two-down position with the SLB coming off the field on passing downs. This competition will come down to Watson vs. Casillas.
Prediction: Watson has been patiently waiting for his chance to start. He prevails during camp and is the opening day starter.
1) Starting TE spot- This figures to be a hotly contested battle throughout camp and the preseason. Much like Josh Freeman, 2013 is a make-or-break year for Luke Stocker. The Bucs believe Stocker can be an every-down player but he hasn’t shown it since being drafted back in 2011. Injuries and inconsistent play have hampered his production. Through two years, Stocker has just 28 catches for 257 yards (9.2YPC) and just one score in 30 NFL games. That’s not good enough. Stocker has the size (6-5, 258lbs) and talent to become an NFL caliber starting tight end. Free agent acquisition Tom Crabtree will challenge Stocker for the starting job. Like Stocker, Crabtree (6-5, 244lbs) is more of a blocker than receiver. In three years in Green Bay with Aaron Rodgers as his quarterback, Crabtree had just 18 catches in 46 games. He did catch 3 touchdowns last season. Danny Noble and Nate Byham are also on the roster to provide some depth. Noble suffered a season-ending hamstring injury last October after showing some promise as a receiving threat during the preseason. Byham is a good blocker who came in during short yardage and goal line situations as an extra mauler. Noble and Byham likely won’t factor in. It’s Stocker vs. Crabtree.
Prediction: Stocker beats out Crabtree to gain the starting spot.