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The following is a preview of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense entering training camp:
QUARTERBACKS: Starters -- Luke McCown. Backups -- Byron Leftwich, Josh Freeman, Josh Johnson.
Freeman is the QB of the future. The only question is how far in the future? The Bucs will let Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich battle it out for the starting job. McCown, who spent five years in Tampa Bay, was signed to a two-year, $7.5 million contract. He has a 1-6 career record and threw just one pass last season. But the Bucs believe he's ready to make the jump from backup to starter. Leftwich resurrected his career with the Steelers last season in a relief role to Ben Roethlisberger. Injuries have been his downfall but he jumped at the chance to compete for a starting spot. Second-year pro Josh Johnson could be the odd-man out after spending essentially a redshirt year as a rookie. Eventually, the huddle will belong to Freeman. The Bucs prefer to let him sit and learn as a rookie, but one week into training camp, they will re-evaluate and determine whether to accelerate Freeman's development.
RUNNING BACKS: Starters -- RB Earnest Graham. FB B.J. Askew. Backups -- Derrick Ward, Clifton Smith, Cadillac Williams, FB Jameel Cook.
The Bucs will be more committed to the running game under the zone blocking scheme of new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski. Graham produced three runs of 40 yards or more in the first five games of 2008. But he was forced to move to fullback due to injuries and a high ankle sprain ended his season. Ward will handle enough work to keep Graham fresh. Pro Bowl kick returner Clifton Smith could produce as a third-down back. Tampa Bay is hopeful Cadillac Williams will return to the field sometime in '09. Williams returned from a devastating torn patellar tendon in his right knee that he suffered in '07. Unbelievably, he suffered the same injury to his left knee in last season. But this time, the tendon did not rupture but tore from the bone, meaning the recovery and rehab has been much better.
TIGHT ENDS: Starter -- Kellen Winslow, Jr. Backups -- Jerramy Stevens, John Gilmore.
The biggest acquisition in the offseason was the trade of a second- and fifth-round pick to the Browns for Winslow, who was signed to a long-term deal. He's the joker in the deck for the Bucs, an extra receiver who can line up anywhere on the field and create mismatches. Stevens has been a very productive pass catcher the past two seasons. Gilmore is the blocking tight end.
WIDE RECEIVERS: Starters -- Antonio Bryant, Michael Clayton. Backups -- Brian Clark, Maurice Stovall, Dexter Jackson, Sammie Stroughter.
Bryant earned about a $9 million raise as the team's franchise player after leading the Bucs with 83 catches for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns. Not bad for a guy who spent 2007 on the couch. But Bryant wants more. He would've preferred the $20 million in guarantees the Bucs gave Winslow. The Bucs also re-signed Clayton. They like his physical style of play in the running game and believe he will be a more effective receiver now that Jon Gruden is no longer calling plays. The Bucs lost their slot receiver after cutting Joey Galloway, who signed with the Patriots. They're hoping Oregon State's Stroughter, the team's seventh-round pick, could step into that role.
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN: Starters -- LT Donald Penn, LG Arron Sears, C Jeff Faine, RG Davin Joseph, RT Jeremy Trueblood. Backups -- G Jeremy Zuttah, T Xavier Fulton, T James Lee, C/G Sean Mahan.
The Bucs consider the offensive line a strength and they plan to play to that strength. The unit is anchored by Pro Bowler Joseph, who has slimmed down to 305 pounds. Faine, at 28, is the oldest member of the group. The Bucs have done a good job investing high draft picks in this position, including Joseph (first-round) and Trueblood and Sears (second round). Penn is solid, but will become a free agent next season. Lee and Illinois rookie Fulton will compete to be the swing tackle. Sears, who missed all of mini-camp, may have some heat on him in the form of second-year guard Jeremy Zuttah, who practiced well this offseason.
Tomorrow: The defense.