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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs training camp: Five position battles to watch

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 23, 2013 at 04:13 AM

Bucs coach Raheem Morris, right, wanted competition at every position heading into this year's training camp, and for the most part, his wish will be granted.

Nobody is going to unseat Antonio Bryant, Jeff Faine, Gaines Adams, Barrett Ruud, Aqib Talib or Ronde Barber this year. Those players are locks to be starters when Tampa Bay opens its season Sept. 13 against Dallas.

However, there are plenty of players trying to climb up the depth chart with hopes of having an impact in 2009. Morris hopes somebody on this year's roster is the next Clifton Smith, Donald Penn or Earnest Graham.

As players report for training camp Friday, hitting the field Saturday, we look at five position battles to watch.

QUARTERBACK

This is one battle everybody has their eyes on and a position that may not be determined until after the preseason. Even after the starter is named, there are no guarantees that quarterback will not be yanked if he struggles.

Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich are Tampa Bay's leading contenders to start on Opening Day. McCown is an athletic quarterback with a good arm and lots of potential, while Leftwich also has a strong arm and is a former starter. How they perform in practice is important, but both need to showcase their skills during preseason games.

That said, Coach Raheem Morris has not ruled out the possibility of starting rookie Josh Freeman, but with Tampa Bay's many offensive weapons, it is unlikely the Bucs will simplify their playbook for him. With one very young quarterback (Freeman) already on the roster, that leaves Josh Johnson fighting to make the team.

THIRD RECEIVER

It is safe to say Michael Clayton and Antonio Bryant are starting this year, but there will be a heated competition for the third receiver spot.

Tampa native Brian Clark seems to have the early grasp on that position, but he will have to fight off Maurice Stovall, a former third-round pick who has battled injuries throughout his career. Both have played well on special teams and potentially could become key members of Tampa Bay's offense.

Bucs coaches have also praised Kelly Campbell and Patrick Carter, which should make who catches the ball as interesting a battle as who throws to them.

KICKER

Tampa Bay's offense could be in scoring position often this year and Morris wants to make sure his team can at least get three points. Hence, Tampa Bay signed kicker Mike Nugent to push, and possibly surpass, Matt Bryant.

Although he has been Tampa Bay's starting kicker since 2005, Bryant struggled with long-distance kicks last season. Bryant was 27-for-27 on field goals of 39 yards or less, but only 5-for-11 on kicks from 40 yards or more. He was also 0-for-3 on attempts from 50 yards or more.

Nugent is 20 of 31 on field goals of 40 yards or more in his career. This battle might last until final cuts.

STRONGSIDE LINEBACKER

It is arguably the most thankless job on defense, but one somebody will be grateful to have.

Free-agent acquisition Angelo Crowell is the most notable name in contention, but he missed last season due to a knee injury. If he is unable to perform the duty of shutting down tight ends, or is not at 100 percent, look for Geno Hayes or Quincy Black to step up and grab that spot. Tampa Bay felt comfortable enough to release Cato June with the expectation that Hayes or Black could fill that role, and both have equal opportunity to prove themselves.

THIRD CORNERBACK

After Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber, Bucs fans might scratch their heads if asked to figure out who might be the third cornerback. The safe guess is Elbert Mack, but after him, there appears to be a lot of uncertainty.

The third cornerback will receive a lot of playing time because many NFL teams put three receivers on the field at once. And if Barber continues to slide inside to cover the slot receiver, as he did in the Tampa Two scheme, that means Mack (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) would take over as the right corner against taller and bigger receivers. It also means he is one injury away from being a starter.

Oft-injured Torrie Cox has been a special-teams standout, but he showcased his cover ability during voluntary workouts and Tampa Bay's mandatory minicamp. Cox could be in the mix to play third corner, along with Western Michigan rookie E.J. Biggers.

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