This year's Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp is as important as any they have ever had. The absence of preseason games means Tampa has to build their roster on camp performances alone, making the position battles all the more crucial.
Most of the starting positions in Tampa are set, so most of the key battles will be fought further down the depth chart. Nevertheless, these roles are vital for consistency and sustained success through the entire season.
Here are the three most important position battles in Bucs training camp this year:
The one "starting" spot that has yet to be settled is the Bucs' returner position. While it overlaps with other positions on the roster, kick and punt returners require a specific skill set that, when deployed properly, can later the course of a game.
Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, they may have already lost their best returner. Running back T.J. Logan drastically improved the return game when he joined Tampa last season, collecting 124 yards on 13 punt returns compared to just 48 yards on 20 returns by the rest of the team. Logan was carted off the practice field this week with an apparent knee injury and could miss significant time.
The Bucs now have to figure out who could fill Logan's shoes if he does not make it back before the season. Wide receiver Scotty Miller has gotten a chance to return punts during camp, and with Logan out, head coach Bruce Arians has started considering other players who might be able to fill his shoes (via Buccaneers.com's Scott Smith):
While Miller, Vaughn and Winfield are likely to make the final roster at their respective positions, but Calais would likely have to rely on winning the returner position to earn a spot. Unless one of them separates himself from the rest of the pack soon, it is possible if not likely that the returner position could be in flux well into the season
The Bucs have two quality starters in Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul, but the outside linebacker position is top-heavy. As pass rush depth is one of the keys to playoff success, Tampa needs to figure out who can back up their starting linebackers.
The primary backup appears to be 2019 fourth-round pick Anthony Nelson. Tampa's coaching staff seem to be satisfied moving forward with Nelson as the third linebacker and have praised his performance in training camp (via Smith):
The fourth outside linebacker spot is far less certain. Tampa is relying on a group of young players with little to no NFL experience to prove at least one of them has what it takes. Rookies Michael Singletary and Cam Gill join second-year OLB Quinton Bell and Kahzin Daniels to battle for the last spot.
Though Bell and Daniels have a year in the NFL over Singletary and Gill, their lack of in-game reps means their advantage is minimal. Whoever shows the most promise as a pass-rusher and the ability to contribute on special teams will win the spot.
The free safety position in Tampa has been neglected for years, but some recent investments in the draft have filled the group with potential. The question is, who will take ownership of the position?
Last year, the Bucs split the free safety snaps mostly between 2019 third-round pick Mike Edwards and free agent Andrew Adams. Edwards was on his way to taking the position for himself and is showing his progression in camp, picking off Tom Brady twice (via ESPN's Jenna Laine):
He would be the smart bet to earn the starting free safety spot if not for second-round pick Antoine Winfield Jr. The son of former Minnesota Vikings cornerback Antoine Winfield, the Bucs' second-round pick was a ballhawk for the Minnesota Gophers in college, collecting seven interceptions last season.
Edwards' versatility means he will likely move all around the defense, giving Winfield a chance to get in a significant number of reps at the position. However, if Winfield quickly translates his ball skills to the NFL, the Bucs may want him in the position full-time.