NFC South: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Lovie Smith aiming high

July, 24, 2014
Jul 24
2:01
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. – It’s the start of training camp around the NFL, and no team has lost a game yet. Hopes are high everywhere, even from teams that struggled last season.

That’s true in Tampa Bay, where coach Lovie Smith said Thursday the goal for the Buccaneers is to go to the Super Bowl in Glendale, Arizona, and win it.

Smith
“Goal wise, it’s the same goal we’re always going to have," Smith said after his players reported to camp. “From 4-12, the goal is to go to Phoenix. It’s destination Phoenix. We want to win the Super Bowl. That’s our plan. Goal-wise, we’re going to talk about winning all of our games at Raymond James (Stadium). We want to win the NFC South division and then see where we can go from there. What record it takes to do that, I don’t know."

It’s natural for any coach to aim high. But Smith knows there’s a lot of work to be done to come anywhere near his goals.

“We are a 4-12 team now," Smith said. “The first thing we have to acknowledge is this is where we’re starting, which we have. That should give us a little more motivation. The ceiling for the team, I don’t know. All I’m going to talk to them about is just daily improvement and let’s see how good we can become, how soon we can become a really good football team. It’s just about the daily effort to me."

Reaching any or all of those goals is not unfathomable despite Tampa Bay’s record last season. The Bucs were extremely aggressive in free agency and Smith and general manager Jason Licht both have said they believed it was unfair to ask their fans to be patient. They want to win now and they think they have the roster to accomplish that.

“You have to come in with high expectations," Smith said. “As I talk about what our ultimate goal is, winning the Super Bowl, it’s all a process. For our players, we have to set that ceiling high right away. We’re starting off as a 4-12 team. Judge us from there and see the improvement and let’s just kind of see where we go."
TAMPA, Fla. – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers reported to training camp Thursday, but guard Carl Nicks didn’t show.

Nicks was excused for personal reasons, according to coach Lovie Smith. Nicks was excused only for the day, Smith said. Apparently, the personal reasons have nothing to do with the toe injury Nicks is attempting to come back from.

“It doesn’t concern me,’’ Smith said. “It’s part of training camp. It’s part of life.’’

Whenever Nicks does report, his health still will be a question mark. Nicks has been cleared for football activities, but the Bucs have indicated they might bring him along slowly. Nicks missed all but two games last season due to the toe injury and a MRSA infection. Nicks also missed the entire offseason program.

Nicks was the only player not to report as the Bucs get ready for their first practice Friday. Safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson, who both missed the offseason program with injuries, have been cleared and are expected to take part in Friday’s practice.
Examining the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ roster:

McCown
QUARTERBACKS (2)

McCown is the present and Glennon the future. The third quarterback can be on the practice squad.

RUNNING BACKS (6)

Arguably the deepest position on the roster. James, Rainey and Sims will compete to be the top backup to Martin. Demps is a project, but he has value as a return man.

Jackson
RECEIVERS (5)

Owusu and Murphy likely will compete for the third receiver spot. But the team is hoping Herron can develop quickly and be the slot receiver.

TIGHT ENDS (4)

A position with lots of depth. Seferian-Jenkins is the future at this position, but Myers and Wright might be the present.

Collins
OFFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

There is concern about Nicks’ health. If he’s unable to return, this becomes a real problem area. The depth isn’t great, and the team may have to look to the outside for help.

DEFENSIVE LINEMEN (9)

The starting four of McCoy, McDonald, Johnson and Clayborn is solid. But spots in the rotation after them are very much up for grabs. Bowers needs a good training camp to secure a roster spot.

David
LINEBACKERS (6)

The last two spots are up for grabs and could end up being filled from the outside.

CORNERBACKS (5)

Banks and Jenkins will compete for the No. 2 job. The loser likely will end up as the nickelback.

Goldson
SAFETIES (4)

There’s good depth here because Wright was a former starter for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago.

SPECIALISTS (3)

This won’t change unless there’s an injury.
Let’s conclude our fact-or-fiction series with coaching and special teams.

1. The arrival of coach Lovie Smith makes the Buccaneers an instant playoff team.

Our take: Fiction.

Justify it: There's little doubt Smith will be better than predecessor Greg Schiano. Smith is a proven winner in the NFL. Players like working for him and he commands respect. All that being said, Smith still faces a tough job. This team was 4-12 last season. The Bucs were very aggressive in free agency and that will help. But turning this team completely around might be more than a one-year project.

Frazier
2. Leslie Frazier is the luckiest defensive coordinator in the NFL.

Our take: Fact.

Justify it: Frazier inherits defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. They're among the best in the league at their respective positions and they give Frazier a couple of solid building blocks. David and McCoy have been compared to Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp, who were the central figures of the defense in Tampa Bay's glory days. If Frazier can get solid production from some other role players, the Bucs could have an elite defense.

3. Jeff Tedford's offense is going to bring excitement to Tampa Bay.

Our take: Fact.

Justify it: For the most part, the Bucs have been very quiet about what Tedford's offense will look like. Several players have used the phrase "up tempo" to describe it. That would be a nice twist for an offense that's been boring in recent years. This offense has enough tools to be potent if Tedford can put things together the right way. Doug Martin gives the team a solid runner and Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans will be one of the league's biggest receiving tandems. But the real key will be quarterback Josh McCown. If he can thrive in Tedford's offense, this team suddenly can be good.

4. Smith had strong return games in Chicago, so he should bring the same thing to Tampa Bay.

Our take: Fiction.

Justify it: Smith had a strong return game in Chicago mostly because he had Devin Hester. At the moment, the Bucs don't have anyone to compare with Hester. Eric Page handled returns last season and he was ordinary. The Bucs will look at several other possible returners, including Jeff Demps and Charles Sims. Someone could emerge as a strong returner, but the Bucs don't have anyone that's proven yet.

Barth
5. Connor Barth is back, so the kicking game will be fine.

Our take: Fact.

Justify it: Barth missed all of last season with a torn Achilles tendon. He's healthy now and that's great news for the kicking game. Barth is one of the better young kickers in the NFL.
» NFC Preview: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

NFL Nation's Pat Yasinskas examines the three biggest issues facing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers heading into training camp.

Josh McCown needs to play like he did last season: McCown’s been a backup most of his career. But he played the best football of his life last season for Chicago after starter Jay Cutler went down with an injury. That was enough to convince the Bucs that McCown can be a productive starter. McCown has history with Lovie Smith, and he already has established himself as one of Tampa Bay’s leaders. The Bucs have made it clear that they view Mike Glennon as their quarterback of the future. But the best-case scenario is that Glennon never even gets on the field this season. If he doesn’t, that means McCown is playing well. At 35, McCown has a chance to firmly establish himself as a starter for the first time in his career. His chances of succeeding are good because he's surrounded by good skill-position players such as Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans.

Carl Nicks’ health is a key: The left guard played only two games last season while dealing with a toe injury and a MRSA infection. Nicks repeatedly has said he expects to be ready for training camp. But, as of the team’s June minicamp, Nicks hadn’t even started running or cutting. He’s admitted that there is permanent damage to his foot and said he’ll have to play through pain the rest of his career. It all sounds shaky, and you have to wonder if Nicks really can make it back and if he’ll be the same player. The Bucs need Nicks to be what he was earlier in his career. When he’s healthy, Nicks is one of the best guards in the league. He could be the anchor of what has the potential to be a very good offensive line. If Nicks isn’t fully recovered, there’s a sharp drop-off to rookie Kadeem Edwards and veterans Jamon Meredith and Oniel Cousins.

The pass rush needs to flourish: Smith prides himself on having teams that play strong defense. The Bucs seem to have some talent on defense. But to hit their full potential, they need the pass rush to be strong. The pass rush was a weakness last season, and that’s why the Bucs signed free agents Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald. The Bucs believe Johnson and Adrian Clayborn can bring a strong pass rush from the outside, and McDonald and Gerald McCoy can do the same from the inside. One of the requirements for the Tampa 2 defense is for there to be a strong pass rush from the front four. If the Bucs get that, they’ll be in good shape defensively. The Bucs are in good shape at linebacker and in the secondary. If the pass rush shows up, this defense has a chance to be special.
Over on Buccaneers.com, Scott Smith has an outstanding piece on coach Lovie Smith’s first 100 days on the job. The author was given unprecedented access and that led to a very in-depth piece.

It’s 22 chapters and could pass as a book. It’s a showcase of the behind-the-scenes logic that went into Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht aggressively overhauling the roster. There is all sorts of good stuff and I strongly recommend you read it all when you have time. We don’t have the space to touch on everything here, but there was one particular highlight that jumped out at me.

Smith
It was the coach saying the Buccaneers need to win now.

"We just decided that we couldn't ask our fans to be patient anymore," Lovie Smith said. "We needed to do whatever we could to win now, and we felt like we had a plan that would work. We weren't going to sit back and wait. We were going to attack this, and the fans were going to see that we were serious about making this team better right away.’’

Licht made a similar statement at the NFL owners meeting in March. The two statements should be music to the ears of a fan base that has been starving for a winner. And it’s not just lip service.

Tampa Bay was one of the league’s most active teams in free agency. The end result is that about half of the current 90-man roster was elsewhere last year. That’s a good thing because Tampa Bay needed change after a 4-12 season.

"We evaluated our roster and said, 'These are the positions we need to change,'’’ Lovie Smith said. ‘It's as simple as that, really. We felt we really needed more of an overhaul of the roster. The plan isn't for us to be in this situation ever again, but this is something that was definitely needed.’’

There’s no arguing the last part of that statement. Major changes were needed. The new regime definitely did its part, and the Bucs appear to be in line for a big turnaround this season.
Derrick BrooksUSA TODAY Sports 
Score: 48-21
Date: Jan. 26, 2003. Site: Qualcomm Stadium

We have a winner. The voters picked Derrick Brooks' 44-yard interception return in the Buccaneers' Super Bowl XXXVII victory against the Raiders as the most memorable play in Bucs history, and I respectfully question their selection.

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Brooks' pick-six was huge. There's no doubt about that. An icon made a memorable play at a big moment. As a symbol, it was as big as it gets, and I don't want to sell it short. But there's another moment that I think had a greater impact -- and Brooks' interception might never have happened without this play. That's why I'm giving my nod for the most memorable play in franchise history to Ronde Barber's interception return for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game.

Barber's play against the Philadelphia Eagles came late in the fourth quarter with the Eagles driving. He returned the ball 92 yards for a score, sealing a 27-10 victory that sent the Bucs to their only Super Bowl.

His play came in the last game ever at Veterans Stadium. That place was known for raucous crowds. But Barber silenced the stadium in the final minutes.

The Bucs endured more than their share of losing in their first two decades. But Barber's interception and return seemed to make all that go away. If you're a true Tampa Bay fan, you remember exactly where you were the moment Barber's play took place.

That's the mark of the most memorable play in franchise history.
Lovie Smith’s Chicago Bears were a consistent contender because they played strong defense. The coach will try to get the same result with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and the ingredients are there for that to happen.

David
McCoy
McCoy
Smith inherited some special talent in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David. Both are just reaching their prime. Smith has compared McCoy to Warren Sapp and David to Derrick Brooks. Sapp and Brooks were the keys to the defense during Tampa Bay’s glory days. The Bucs believe McCoy and David can fill the same roles in the new generation and that a strong defense will help make the franchise relevant again.

McCoy and David are going to be good for years to come and they form a strong foundation. But the Bucs will need some complementary players to come through for this defense to be really good. Defensive end Michael Johnson was brought in as a free agent because the Bucs believe he can bring pressure from the outside. If he does, that’s only going to help McCoy and Clinton McDonald in the middle.

A strong pass rush will only help a secondary that has good potential, but hasn’t hit it yet. Alterraun Verner was brought in to be the No. 1 cornerback, but the Bucs need Johnthan Banks and Mike Jenkins to step up as the other cornerback and nickelback. Safeties Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron have talent and can form a nice tandem.

Middle linebacker Mason Foster is going to get a chance to play a more significant role than he has in the past. Foster will call the defensive plays and be asked to drop into coverage more than he did in his first three seasons.

This defense will be the key factor in determining if Smith’s regime will succeed. The offense can be average, but the defense has to be special.
Joe JureviciusREUTERS/Jason Cohn 
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. In the next two days we’ll feature: Derrick Brooks’ interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVII, and Ronde Barber’s interception return for a touchdown in the 2002 NFC Championship Game. Please vote for your choice as the Buccaneers’ most memorable play.

Score: Buccaneers 27, Eagles 10
Date: Jan. 19, 2003 Site: Veteran’s Stadium

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In the days leading up to the NFC Championship Game it looked like Tampa Bay receiver Joe Jurevicius might not play. His son had been born prematurely and was critically ill (he died two months later). Jurevicius did not practice that week. But at the last minute, he decided to make the trip.

This was the last game ever played by the Eagles at Veteran’s Stadium, and Philadelphia held a four-game winning streak, including a pair of playoff victories, against the Buccaneers. Jurevicius would make only one catch that day, but it ended up being one of the most emotional and memorable in franchise history.

Late in the first quarter, Jurevicius ran a crossing route and got ahead of linebacker Barry Gardner. He caught Brad Johnson’s pass in stride. Jurevicius was never known for his speed and he seemed to be running forever. He was finally stopped just short of the goal line, but he set up a short touchdown run by Mike Alstott.

“When you put ... a 96-yard touchdown drive together against this defense in Veterans Stadium," Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said at the time, "you're kind of like the Lone Ranger, like you're the only person that's done it."

The catch by Jurevicius gave the Bucs an emotional lift and helped them get on a path that led to their first Super Bowl.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted safety Mark Barron specifically to help them defend New Orleans Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, according to testimony from former Buccaneers assistant coach Butch Davis.

ProFootballTalk unearthed that interesting nugget after obtaining a portion of the testimony from Graham’s recent franchise-tag grievance hearing.

“We took Mark Barron in the first round simply because of Jimmy Graham,” said Davis, who served as a special assistant to the head coach.

Davis was testifying on behalf of the position that Graham was a wide receiver. But as PFT pointed out, the testimony was actually turned against Davis on cross examination by the NFL, when Davis admitted that the Buccaneers didn’t draft a cornerback to cover Graham and that they would never have drafted a safety to cover Detroit Lions receiver Calvin Johnson.
Ronde BarberAP Photo/Chris Gardner 
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in team history. In the next two days we’ll feature: Derrick Brooks’ interception return for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVII, and the 71-yard touchdown catch by Joe Jurevicius in the 2003 NFC Championship Game. Please vote for your choice as the Buccaneers’ most memorable play.

Score: Buccaneers 27, Eagles 10
Date: Jan. 19, 2003 Site: Veterans Stadium

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In the last football game ever played at Veterans Stadium, Ronde Barber came up with one of the biggest plays in franchise history. His 92-yard interception return for a touchdown sealed a victory that put the Buccaneers into the first Super Bowl in franchise history.

The play came with the Bucs holding a 20-10 lead, but Philadelphia was driving. The Eagles had a first-and-goal at the Tampa Bay 10-yard line. That’s when Barber crowded the line of scrimmage to fake a blitz. He then dropped into coverage against the slot receiver and came up with the interception.

"[Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb] fell for it," Barber told the Tampa Bay Times in 2011. “I don't know why. Maybe it was because he just had a great play and thought I was going to blitz. But either way, he believed I was coming and threw it right to me."

The play came with 3 minutes and 12 seconds remaining and put an end to a string of dominance by Philadelphia. The Eagles had won the previous four meetings between the two teams, including playoff losses in 2001 and 2002, the second one prompting the firing of coach Tony Dungy.

But Barber’s play ended all that and it left Veterans Stadium, one of the NFL’s most raucous venues, silent in its final moments.
 
Derrick BrooksUSA TODAY Sports 
» VOTE HERE » NFC Plays: East | West | North | South » AFC: East | West | North | South

This is one of three nominations for the most memorable play in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history. In the next two days, we’ll feature Ronde Barber’s interception return for a touchdown in the NFC Championship Game and the 71-yard touchdown catch by Joe Jurevicius in the same game. Please vote for your choice as the Buccaneers’ most memorable play.

Score: Buccaneers 48, Raiders 21
Date: Jan. 26, 2003 Site: Qualcomm Stadium

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Which is the most memorable play in Buccaneers' history?

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Description: The Bucs were already in good shape, holding a 34-21 fourth-quarter lead. But that’s when the signature play of this game came. Derrick Brooks picked off a Rich Gannon pass and returned it 44 yards for a touchdown that sealed the victory.

This play was about more than a simple interception return. It symbolized what the Bucs were all about. Brooks was the best player on a great defense, and that automatically made this play one of the most memorable in franchise history. Brooks had many other great plays in a Hall of Fame career, but this is the one most fans remember best because it came on the biggest of stages.

This game had a unique backstory. Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden had previously coached the Raiders and knew Oakland’s playbook and tendencies well. He spent the week leading into the Super Bowl playing the scout-team quarterback. That helped prepare the Bucs for everything Oakland threw at them.

The Bucs finished the game with five interceptions, but none was more symbolic than Brooks'.
 
Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker Jonathan Casillas has obviously liked what he’s seen so far from new quarterback Josh McCown. While praising McCown on a recent radio interview, Casillas compared him to former New Orleans Saints teammate Drew Brees.

[+] EnlargeJosh McCown
AP Photo/Chris O'MearaJosh McCown is turning heads in Tampa, as the offseason signee has already earned praise.
Casillas, who began his career with the Saints from 2009-2012, said repeatedly that he didn’t want to take anything away from second-year quarterback Mike Glennon. But he said on ESPN New York’s Dave Rothenberg Show that McCown is just “on another level right now, I believe.”

“McCown looks like he’s played a couple of years in this game,” Casillas said of the 12th-year veteran, who shined with the Chicago Bears last season as a replacement for injured starter Jay Cutler before signing with the Buccaneers as a free agent. “It’s a strong comparison, but he reminds me of Drew (Brees), not just the way he throws the ball, but his approach to the game. The first one in, the last one out, he’s always around. He’s very communicable, very personable. And you can tell he’s a born leader.

“You know, he’s not even trying to do much now, but people are following him, just his approach to the game. And like I said, Glennon is learning a lot from him. So, if Glennon can beat him out this year, that will be great. Because at the end of the day, if Glennon can beat McCown out, then we’re going to get a good quarterback.”

Arizona Cardinals receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who played with McCown early in their careers, also praised McCown while participating in the Drew Brees Passing Academy, according to the Tampa Tribune.

NFL Nation: 4 Downs -- NFC South

June, 26, 2014
Jun 26
10:00
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video
The NFC South too shall pass.

Three of the division's first-round picks in May were wide receivers: Mike Evans of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (at No. 7), Brandin Cooks of the New Orleans Saints (No. 20) and Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers (No. 28). And offensive tackle Jake Matthews, drafted sixth overall by the Atlanta Falcons, should give quarterback Matt Ryan more time to throw to his star wideouts.

 The Bucs had a void opposite Pro Bowl veteran Vincent Jackson and filled it with Evans, giving the team a pair of 6-foot-5 receivers. The Saints parted with Lance Moore and Darren Sproles, two key components in their pass-happy offense. In steps versatile Cooks, who hauled in 128 receptions for 1,730 yards last season at Oregon State. The Panthers released their No. 1 receiver -- diminutive, 35-year-old Steve Smith -- and replaced him with 6-5 Benjamin.

First-round picks aren't the only NFC South rookies with a chance to make some noise. Keep an eye on Bucs tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Falcons running back Devonta Freeman and Saints cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

The four writers who cover the division -- Vaughn McClure in Atlanta, David Newton for Carolina, Mike Triplett in New Orleans and Pat Yasinskas for Tampa Bay -- offered their insights on the division's rookies, among other topics. They also polled their Twitter followers to find out whether they saw the issues differently.

First Down

Which NFC South rookie will make the biggest impact this season?



Vaughn McClure: Tampa Bay receiver Mike Evans should get plenty of chances to show he was worthy of a top-10 selection. His size (6-5, 230 pounds) is enough to give opponents fits. Having a proven big receiver such as Vincent Jackson on the other side should help Evans make a smooth transition. Josh McCown is a smart quarterback who won't put Evans in bad situations. And Lovie Smith is the right head coach in terms of helping a rookie adjust to new surroundings. Evans has to overcome some of the knocks on him, including that he's too stiff and doesn't have great speed. It still will be hard to match up against him one-on-one, though, because the former basketball player will win the jump balls. And he has already impressed coaches with his range.

David Newton: This is a tough one because I really like the first-round picks for all four division teams. Each will make his team significantly better. But for me, it comes down to New Orleans' Brandin Cooks and Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin because both receivers will get plenty of opportunities. I'm going with Cooks because he has quarterback Drew Brees and a veteran unit around him. Rookie receivers often struggle. Cooks will break that trend with 60-plus catches.

Mike Triplett: I'll go with Saints receiver Brandin Cooks because I think he'll have the flashiest season. You could make a great case for all four first-round picks, and Jake Matthews will probably play the most vital role because of the Falcons' need at offensive tackle. But I think Cooks will make the biggest splash -- and even be a strong contender for NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. Even though New Orleans spreads the ball around so much, I expect Cooks to catch a high volume of passes and hit some home runs with deep balls and a punt return or two.

Pat Yasinskas: That's an easy one. I'm going with Tampa Bay wide receiver Mike Evans. He's going to be an instant starter, and he's going to be active in the passing game. Vincent Jackson remains the top receiver, but Evans will be a nice No. 2 to start his career. Evans someday will be a No. 1 receiver, but for now he'll be a complement to Jackson. Evans and Jackson, both 6-5, will form one of the league's largest starting receiver tandems, and that's going to cause problems for opposing defenses.


Second Down

What is your team's top position battle to monitor in training camp?



McClure: Although there will be plenty of competition among Falcons linebackers, I'm turning my attention to the running backs. Steven Jackson is the starter. He turns 31 next month and probably has one good season left in him -- but if he is slowed by nagging injuries, the Falcons will turn to someone else. They drafted Devonta Freeman in the fourth round with thoughts of grooming him as the three-down back of the future. If he looks as good in pads as he did in shorts, Jackson might have a battle on his hands. Even the battle for the third running back will be interesting with Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith in the mix. The running backs, as a whole, have an improved offensive line to run behind. Let's see whether that helps them.

Newton: Most might say the left tackle battle between Byron Bell and Nate Chandler. And although finding a replacement for retired Jordan Gross is key, the Carolina competition that intrigues me the most will be between Charles Godfrey and Melvin White at cornerback. Godfrey is making the transition from safety to corner after missing most of last season with an Achilles injury. It's a homecoming of sorts, since Godfrey played cornerback for most of his college career at Iowa before the former Panthers coaching staff moved him to safety in 2008. Although White was adequate last season, Godfrey is a more physical player with the potential to be a shutdown corner. If he can win that battle, it's a huge upgrade for the league's No. 2 defense.

Triplett: The battle at cornerback is by far the most compelling on the Saints' roster. For one thing, it's a vital position in today's NFL. For another thing, the Saints are loaded with fascinating candidates behind No. 1 cornerback Keenan Lewis. Does surefire Hall of Famer Champ Bailey have enough left in the tank? Can former first-round pick Patrick Robinson bounce back from injury? Can third-year pro Corey White take that next step? Can rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste make an instant impact? Can second-year pro Rod Sweeting or someone else emerge as a dark horse? And did I mention this is an important position?

Yasinskas: The best competition will be at tight end. The fact Austin Seferian-Jenkins was drafted in the second round probably means he'll get the first shot at the starting position, but don't overlook his competition -- theoretically, the Bucs have four guys who could end up as the starter. Free-agent pickup Brandon Myers can catch and block. Tim Wright had 54 catches last season and has worked to improve his blocking. Veteran Luke Stocker is returning from injury; he isn't a huge threat as a receiver, but he could play a big role as a blocker.


Third Down

Which veteran on your team is poised for a breakout season?




McClure: I like safety William Moore taking on more of a leadership role and sparking the Falcons' defense, and I like receiver Roddy White rebounding from last year's injury-plagued campaign. But the guy I'm going to single out is return man Devin Hester. After his role diminished in Chicago, people forgot he was the greatest return man of all time. All Hester needed was a change of scenery: In watching him during organized team activities, it was evident he still has his quickness. With special-teams mastermind Keith Armstrong drawing up the blocking scheme, Hester could be the X factor in the Falcons' quest to return to playoff contention. Whatever Hester accomplishes on offense would be a bonus.

Newton: It feels strange calling wide receiver Tiquan Underwood a veteran since this is his first season with the Panthers, but the sixth-year player out of Rutgers was the first to come to mind with this question. Underwood was brought in to replace Ted Ginn Jr. as the speed receiver. Ginn went from two catches with San Francisco in 2012 to 36 for five touchdowns with the Panthers last season before moving on to Arizona. Underwood had 24 catches for four touchdowns in Tampa Bay last season. Offensive coordinator Mike Shula was high on him when they worked together in Jacksonville. Throw in what wide receivers coach Ricky Proehl will teach Underwood, I could see him doubling his production in 2014.

Triplett: I've been touting Saints defensive end/tackle Akiem Hicks all offseason. He's a third-year guy who's big and really powerful at 6-5, 324 pounds, but athletic for his size. A former third-round pick out of the University of Regina in Canada, he had 4.5 sacks last year in his first stint as a full-time starter. I'm not sure Hicks will post 10-plus sacks as an interior guy, which means he might not crack the Pro Bowl. But that's the level of impact he can have as someone who can both push the pocket and stuff the run. Opposing offensive linemen in the NFC South certainly know who he is.

Yasinskas: Middle linebacker Mason Foster is set up for a big season. Foster has had a decent career to this point, but he's about to get a lot better. Hardy Nickerson and Brian Urlacher excelled as middle linebackers in coach Lovie Smith's defense, and now it might be Foster's turn. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David is the star of this unit, but Foster has a chance to be a nice complementary player. Smith likes to have his middle linebackers call the defensive plays, and that means Foster will be putting on the radio helmet this year.


Fourth Down

What is your predicted order of finish in the NFC South standings?



McClure: That's a tough one. I see a lot of parity within the division, and the Buccaneers really have a chance to close the gap based on their offseason moves, including the hiring of Smith as coach. But I'm going to go with New Orleans, Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina. As long as the Saints have Drew Brees in the lineup, they have a chance to be contenders. The Falcons bulked up on both sides of the line, which should bode well for them in terms of putting up points on offense and preventing big plays on defense. The Bucs' defense could be devastating. Carolina will sorely miss Jordan Gross and Steve Smith -- and it will show.

Newton: Since nobody has repeated as NFC South champion since the division was formed in 2002, it would seem a bit crazy to pick the Panthers, who edged New Orleans for the title last season. The Saints are considered the favorites by most, and it's hard to argue otherwise with Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham on offense. But I'm a believer that defense wins, and even with changes to the secondary, there's not a better defense in the division than Carolina's. I like what Atlanta has done in free agency and the draft, so I look for the Falcons to finish second with the Saints third and Tampa Bay fourth. Having said that, I could see the division winner going 9-7 or 10-6. It's going to be tight.

Triplett: I'm confident the Saints will finish first with at least 11 wins. Although their offense lost some key pieces, it's still one of the NFL's elite, and their defense is legit. After that it's a virtual three-way tie. I wouldn't be surprised to see any of the others flirt with a playoff run or finish last. I'll go with the Buccaneers second because they're on the rise. They have a great defense and run game and now seem to have a solid coach and quarterback. I'll pick Carolina third because it lost so much in the receiving corps and secondary. As much as I like the Falcons' passing attack, there are questions everywhere else.

Yasinskas: Saints, Falcons, Buccaneers and Panthers. This was a tough call because all four teams have a chance to be good. I gave the nod to the Saints because they have Brees, the best quarterback in the division. I think Atlanta will have a dramatic turnaround after last season's debacle. Tampa Bay is going to be much more competitive than last year. Carolina might have taken a step back with some of its offseason moves, but I still wouldn't count the Panthers out.

 

Best Bucs camp competitions

June, 20, 2014
Jun 20
8:11
AM ET
With the start of training camp a little more than a month away, it’s time to look ahead to the best battles.

Tight end. Rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins might be the long-term answer. But he might not get a lot of playing time in the short term. Seferian-Jenkins wasn’t allowed to take part in the offseason program and that could put him behind the competition. Brandon Myers, Tim Wright and Luke Stocker all have more experience.

Right guard. Patrick Omameh worked with the first team through most of the offseason program. But he still needs a good camp to win the starting job. Oniel Cousins and Jamon Meredith also could be candidates to start.

Third wide receiver. This one is far from settled. Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans will be the starters, but the Bucs need production out of some more receivers. Veterans Chris Owusu and Louis Murphy looked good in the offseason program and the team has high hopes for rookie Robert Herron.

Cornerback. Alterraun Verner is set as one starter. But the other spot figures to be a strong competition between Johnthan Banks and Mike Jenkins.

Backup running back. Doug Martin is the starter, but the Bucs want to use a rotation. Bobby Rainey, Mike James, Charles Sims and Jeff Demps will all be vying for carries.

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