COMMENTARY | With Greg Schiano expected to put his team into the bruising fight for the NFC South, battles at several positions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will attract close scrutiny from the second-year coach.
Permitted to enter training camp with 90 players, the greatest drama of the preseason inevitably becomes such difficult roster choices. The team will be gradually trimmed throughout August, until a final 53-man roster is selected for the Bucs' regular season. While the majority of surrendered jobs are longshots who prove unable to make an impression, well-regarded veterans often face the same unsentimental chopping block.
Here is a close look at five familiar Tampa Bay players on offense with much to prove during the preseason. With each fighting for a job, these veterans must overcome competition and doubt to secure a spot on the 2013 roster:
Peyton Hillis, RB
Although the first-string running back position is firmly occupied by Doug Martin, coach Schiano displayed his commitment to the ground attack by overhauling his stable of rushers. With the trade of the soft LeGarrette Blount to the New England Patriots, the backup job is clearly up for grabs. Schiano would likely approve of his secondary option providing the Bucs with a change-of-pace and power rusher for short-yardage situations. Hillis is capable of impressing in those areas, as the 250-pound back once scrambled for 1,177 yards and 11 touchdowns in a memorable 2010 campaign for the Cleveland Browns.
The 27 year-old gained only 309 yards for the Kansas City Chiefs last year, but did rack up 101 yards during a strong Week 15 performance. Signed to a one-year contract for the veteran minimum just before training camp, Hillis faces much competition in a crowded backfield, but the big guy could prove a tempting option off the bench, if healthy.
Brian Leonard, RB
Though their capabilities are different, Leonard's primary challenge in keeping a roster spot could be the previously described Hillis, simply due to numbers. Leonard was inked to a free-agent deal by Tampa Bay earlier in the offseason and likely holds an edge by posting four stellar seasons under Schiano at Rutgers from 2003-2006.
Nevertheless, the veteran's disadvantage is that he lacks actual experience running the ball. The 29-year-old possesses just 646 rushing yards in 6 pro seasons and still seeks his first career touchdown on the ground. Leonard is a capable receiver out of the backfield and was Rutgers' all-time reception leader with 207 total catches by graduation. The New York native additionally can line up in diverse spots, including fullback, tight end, and special teams. Even if Hillis shines during preseason, Schiano could justify carrying Leonard due to his versatility, but the reserve must first demonstrate his capabilities carrying the ball.
Demar Dotson, OT
One of the better surprises of 2012, Dotson started 15 games in seizing the right tackle position from veteran Jeremy Trueblood. The 27-year-old's performance was generally solid, and Trueblood was even allowed to depart via free agency. Rewarded with a four-year, $7.5 million contract, the Bucs initially appeared content with the 6-foot-9-inch former basketball player at right tackle, following four seasons on the bench.
Yet, when Gabe Carimi, a 2011 first-round selection of the Chicago Bears, became available for a sixth-round pick in 2014, Tampa Bay traded for the 2010 Outland Trophy winner. The deal reunites Carimi with college position coach Bob Bostad, who now guides the Bucs' offensive line. Carimi has underachieved for two seasons and encountered an array of injuries. Though Dotson made strides last year, his new salary is a bit steep to serve as a backup. If Carimi captures the starting job at right tackle, the club may decide the fift-year player is too costly.
Tiquan Underwood, WR
Despite a stellar preseason last summer, and preferred status as a Schiano alum by previously playing for Rutgers, Underwood failed to secure a roster spot with the Bucs last August. Though this track record must increase fears of retaining a roster spot, the New Jersey native actually enjoyed a commendable performance as Tampa Bay's third wide receiver in 2012.
Underwood was re-signed two weeks into the season and accumulated 28 receptions for 425 yards and 2 touchdowns. The 27-year-old possesses good speed, and a world-class flat-top haircut, but Underwood is not an ideal fit for the slot position occupied by many third wideouts. Hoping to locate such a weapon, the Bucs signed free-agent Kevin Ogletree to a two-year deal. The team also added veteran Derek Hagan to the receiver corps and speedster Chris Owusu is hoping to find a role, after spending last season on the practice squad.
Quite frankly, only Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are assured spots at receiver. Underwood must impress his longtime boss over the next month, but history suggests even that could prove insufficient.
Luke Stocker, TE
Many were surprised the Bucs showed no interest in retaining veteran Dallas Clark, who topped efforts at tight end in 2012 with 47 catches for 435 yards. Perhaps age and injuries have taken a toll, as Clark remains unsigned with exhibition games approaching. The decision to pass was certainly not based on superior performance from this 2011 fourth-round pick.
After a notable college career at Tennessee, where the 25-year-old demonstrated catching and blocking skills, Stocker was expected gradually to seize Tampa Bay's tight-end duties. Instead, his production of 16 receptions and 165 yards in 2012 barely exceeded results as a rookie a year earlier. The Bucs imported 28-year-old Tom Crabtree with a reasonable two-year, $1.6 million contract. The former Green Bay Packer could be a bargain, if able to distinguish upon seeing increased playing time.
Tampa Bay additionally brings back a healthy Danny Noble, who impressed as an undrafted rookie last summer. Roster-filling tight ends Nate Byham, (the other) Zach Miller, and rookie Tim Wright (Rutgers) are also in camp. With thin talent at the position, it may be premature to give up on Stocker. But if another end pleasantly surprises, Schiano's patience may become exhausted.
With highly touted third-round draft choice Mike Glennon expected to compete with Josh Freeman, the Bucs may elect not to exhaust a roster spot on a veteran third quarterback, like Orlovsky. Fourth-year guard Ted Larsen faces an uphill battle for a job every summer and health on the offensive line could put him in trouble.
Along with sixth-round pick Mike James, second-year players Smith and Demps will battle for positions in a filled backfield. The ability to contribute to special teams will likely most influence Schiano's final decision. Interestingly, the newly-acquired Demps was allowed to continue his track and field career and has not reported to Bucs training camp. With Connor Barth sidelined by a torn Achilles, Dimke is an unproven second-year kicker out of Illinois who will compete with veteran Lawrence Tynes. The winner will become place kicker, and with punter Michael Koenen expected to handle kickoffs, the Bucs are unlikely to carry a kickoff specialist.
More by Jeff Briscoe from Yahoo! Contributor Network:
Jeff Briscoe is a writer who covers sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. A loyal Tampa Bay Bucs fan, he co-hosts the Florida-based radio show, The Sports Train.
- Sports & Recreation
- American Football
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Greg Schiano
- Peyton Hillis
- Tiquan Underwood