Training camp for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers opens July 25, and as with each year, there are jobs to be won in the following weeks as they look to improve upon a 7-9 season.
The most intriguing scenarios could be on defense, where nose tackle and strongside linebacker spots may be up for grabs. Tight end could open as well. The upcoming work will provide some clarity.
Below are a few expected position battles as the Bucs prepare for their Sept. 8 season opener at the New York Jets.
Gary Gibson vs. Derek Landri vs. Akeem Spence
The Bucs lost Roy Miller when contract talks broke off and the fifth-year player entered the free-agent market, where he eventually signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars. Miller’s departure is a notable blow to the Bucs’ defensive line, along with the absence of end Michael Bennett, who signed with the Seattle Seahawks in the offseason.
Gibson, who had 18 tackles (14 solo) last season, could be an option to replace Miller. He started all 16 games for the St. Louis Rams in 2010, and he was consistent member of the Bucs’ rotation at this position last season.
Another candidate is Landri, who signed with the Bucs as a free agent in March. He started 16 games with the Carolina Panthers as 2010, and he was a seven-game starter with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2012.
Of course, the Bucs drafted Spence, an Illinois product, in the fourth round, 100th overall this spring. He would seem like a favorite to be lifted as the starter at this position. But it will be interesting to see how he adjusts to the professional game.
Adam Hayward vs. Jonathan Casillas vs. Dekoda Watson
This spot is Quincy Black’s former position. The Bucs released the six-year veteran in March after a failed physical, which followed his nerve graft surgery in January due to a scary helmet-to-helmet collision with San Diego Chargers running back Ryan Mathews on Nov. 11 at Raymond James Stadium.
Hayward saw time in Black’s place last season, starting five games and recording 24 tackles (18 solo). He would seem like a favorite to slide into the role. But competition could come from Casillas, who had 31 tackles in 14 games with the New Orleans Saints last season. Another contender could be Watson, whose speed is an asset that could add another dynamic to the position if he wins the job.
Black’s loss is unfortunate, especially with the way his injury occurred. Hayward would seem like a safe choice here, given his history as Black’s replacement. But other contenders cannot be ruled out.
Luke Stocker vs. Tom Crabtree
With Dallas Clark out of the equation, Stocker figures to be the favorite to become the Bucs’ “top” option at tight end. He has plenty of experience with 11 starts last season and 20 total throughout two campaigns with Tampa Bay. Stocker was targeted 27 times last season and recorded 16 catches for 165 yards with a touchdown. (In comparison, Clark had 47 catches for 435 yards with four touchdowns in 2012.)
Crabtree, signed by the Bucs in March, will be Stocker’s biggest competition after arriving from the Green Bay Packers. He had 16 starts in three seasons in Green Bay, recording 302 yards receiving with four touchdowns.
At 6-foot-6, 253 pounds, Stocker is the larger target of the two. (Crabtree is 6-4, 245.) Unless Stocker struggles significantly, or Crabtree comes on strong, this job figures to be Stocker’s to lose. Still, it will be curious to see how much Crabtree pushes Stocker throughout training camp and in the preseason.