Lots of unknowns on both sides of ball
Competition abounds at quarterback and running back, especially
Imagine if Michael Bush hadn't gone crazy.
In Week 17 last year, Jon Gruden had his Bucs one seemingly easy win -- at home against the hapless Raiders -- from making the playoffs. But Bush rushed for 177 yards and two touchdowns, Oakland shocked the Buccaneers 31-24 with 17 straight fourth-quarter points, and the demolition in West Florida began. Gruden was canned, and new, inexperienced head coach Raheem Morris detonated the roster.
What to look for in camp
Key position battles: What's the old saying, when you have two starting quarterbacks, you actually have none? Well, what happens when you have no starting quarterbacks? Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich and rookie Josh Freeman will stage a camp competition, and you'll be forgiven if you just threw up in your mouth a little. McCown has a good arm and athletic ability, but is jumpy in the pocket and doesn't take enough chances downfield. Leftwich has a ponderous throwing motion ill-suited for the West Coast offense. And not only is Freeman a rookie, but he left Kansas State after his junior year, so it's awfully hard to imagine him being ready. It seems a fait accompli that Tampa will use musical quarterbacks this year.
Behind receivers Antonio Bryant and Clayton, there's so little proven talent that a seventh-round rookie from April's draft, Sammie Stroughter, is currently considered the favorite to win Tampa's No. 3 wideout gig. Stroughter was reportedly a starter at May minicamp, but has been battling hamstring injuries since. His competition for the gig is Maurice Stovall, Dexter Jackson and Brian Clark. Yeah, bleh.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Can massive roster turnover like this lead to success?
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Oh, yeah, and the Bucs also plan on waging a kicker battle in camp. Matt Bryant really didn't do anything wrong last year, and in fact set a career high with 131 total points. But he's never had a big leg and struggles on kickoffs, so Tampa signed former Jets second-round pick Mike Nugent, he of the big-but-scattershot leg. One assumes that if Nugent can prove he's accurate enough, the team would prefer he win the job, considering he can be a longer-range weapon. But accuracy has been Nugent's problem throughout his career.
Fitting in: Fantasy owners will be most interested in the running back situation. Earnest Graham is coming off of surgery to repair torn ligaments in his ankle, but is expected to make a full recovery. Derrick Ward signed for starter-level money coming from the Giants, so he'll definitely be a big part of the Tampa offense, too. How these guys wind up sharing carries could determine a heck of a lot of fantasy fates this season. Heading into training camp, the buzz is that Ward will be given every chance to prove he deserves to be the featured player in this offense. But Graham's skills are awfully similar to Ward's, and it seems likely to me that whichever guy doesn't wind up carrying the load between the 20s is likely to be the goal-line back. So, to me, it seems that at worst, Graham winds up being a touchdown vulture.
Then there's also the question of mercurial Kellen Winslow, who finally wore out his welcome in Cleveland. New offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski promises to use Winslow a ton, and considering how thin the wide receiving depth chart is, that could come to pass. But K2 has also undergone at least one knee surgery every year of his pro career, and has a master's degree in alienating nearly everyone around him. The Bucs ditched Alex Smith this winter, but they made sure to keep Jerramy Stevens around, just in case Winslow gets hurt or talks his way off the roster or something.
On the line: It's a shame the rest of the roster is in flux and light on talent, because the offensive line isn't. Up the middle, this group is as solid as it gets in the NFL. Jeff Faine is still one of the league's best centers, Davin Joseph is an animal at right guard, and even if Arron Sears can't go to begin the season because of a serious concussion he suffered partway through last year, Jeremy Zuttah proved he's a capable replacement at left guard. And while the team jettisoned tackle Luke Petitgout after he failed a drug test this spring, they're still left with an above-average pair of starters on the outside: Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood. If the Bucs can get anything at all out of their passing game to distract opposing defenses, this unit could make big holes for Ward and Graham.
The bottom lineOh, boy. It's already not a good idea to change this much of an NFL lineup and hope to be competitive right away. Add the fact that we're dealing with a rookie head coach and what has suddenly become one of the league's most talent-starved rosters, especially on defense, and this could be a truly ugly season. As in I'm not going to be shocked if Tampa's in line for the No. 1 pick in next April's draft. The quarterback situation will be resolved in camp, but there's really no good answer there, meaning that Antonio Bryant and Kellen Winslow, who will be drafted as fantasy starters, are almost sure to post inconsistent seasons. The most interesting thing to watch here will be the Ward/Graham split, because I really do like this O-line. But given the messy situations nearly everywhere else, it might be best to just stand back and let someone else invest in this carnage.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writers Association award winner. You can e-mail him here.
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