The biggest story of their training camp was who wasn't practicing rather than who was on the field. Quarterback Jeff Garcia, who survived
the Favre talk, missed most of camp with a groin injury. Top receiver
Joey Galloway didn't practice at all in camp. Neither did left tackle
Luke Petitgout or running back Carnell Williams.
Garcia and Galloway are expected to be fine by the start of the regular
season. The outlook isn't as optimistic for Petitgout and Williams, who
could start the season on the physically unable to perform list.
All the injuries have left the Bucs without a lot of sizzle, and the New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers have become the trendy picks to win
the NFC South. The fact is that division title still belongs to the Bucs, though, and they're not about to let it go without a fight.
"We're not a team that needs to be talked about at this point in the
season," veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "We're under the radar
right now, but we'll be in the thick of things before you know it."
No, the Bucs didn't get Favre and didn't do anything fancy in the
offseason. Their biggest move was the signing of center Jeff Faine, and a
lot of fans griped because the Bucs didn't get a big-name wide receiver
in free agency.
In a lot of ways, Tampa Bay stayed with what it had. What the Bucs had
last year was a team solid enough to get to the playoffs, which no one
else in the NFC South can say.
"Those teams that are being talked about, it's because they had to do a
lot to bolster their team and they're getting the splash talk," Brooks
said. "We were good with what we had. We didn't have to go out and make
a whole lot of changes. To me, that's a compliment."
1. The Bucs didn't have a lot of playmakers on offense last year. Where
will the big plays come from this year?
Galloway will turn 37 in
November, but he hasn't shown many signs of slowing down. He's coming
off a season in which he caught 57 passes for 1,014 yards and six
touchdowns, and he's likely to remain the main target in the passing
game. But the Bucs need contributions from elsewhere if they're going to
make a return trip to the playoffs.
Ike Hilliard, the other starting wideout in 2007, is a dependable veteran, but
coach Jon Gruden has been critical of the rest of the receiving corps
during camp. Gruden wants Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton -- a pair of
reclamation projects -- to play big roles. Bryant, who was out of the NFL
last season, had some flashes in training camp and could challenge
Hilliard for a starting job as the season goes on.
2. With Williams likely out for at least part of the season, who's going
to run the ball?
The Bucs are stronger in the backfield than they have been since Williams tore his patellar tendon early last season.
Earnest Graham ended up as the feature back as last season went on, and he rushed for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns. Graham likely will be the
starter, but the Bucs have plenty of depth and Gruden is likely to
spread the workload among Graham, Warrick Dunn and Michael Bennett.
Dunn, who started his career in Tampa Bay before a stint in Atlanta, is
back with a coach who never wanted him to leave. Dunn's ability as a
pass-catcher fits perfectly into Gruden's offense, and he still has
enough speed to get some carries.
defense is definitely in transition, but the Bucs have a nice mix of old
Defensive end Gaines Adams, free safety Tanard Jackson and
cornerback Aqib Talib are players the Bucs have drafted in recent years
to keep this defense stocked for the long term. Adams started slowly
last season but finished with six sacks, and the Bucs believe he could
be on the verge of a breakout year. Guys such as linebackers Cato June and
Barrett Ruud and defensive tackle Chris Hovan still are in their primes
and will be counted on to help bridge the generation gap.
The Bucs might have gotten lucky when they brought in tight end John Gilmore. He had only 21 career catches in four seasons with Chicago. But
the Bucs have been pleasantly surprised by Gilmore's speed and
pass-catching ability. He moves almost as well as starter Alex Smith.
Gilmore was brought in to be a blocking specialist, but he could end up
pushing Smith for playing time.
Newcomer to watch
The Bucs paid big money to center Faine in free agency, and they
expect a big return on their investment. They view Faine as a bigger,
more physical version of Jeff Christy, who was with the team for its
Super Bowl run. The position has been a problem spot since Christy left,
but Faine should fix that. He's very solid technically and has the
ability to move, which will allow Gruden's offense to use
trap plays and screen passes better.
The Bucs paid defensive end Marques Douglas decent money, but he was
outplayed in camp by Jimmy Wilkerson. Carter and Adams are the starters,
but Wilkerson and Greg White have a chance at significant playing time. Third-round pick Jeremy Zuttah, a center from Rutgers, had the best
camp of any Tampa Bay rookie. The Bucs believe Zuttah is ready to be
Faine's backup, and that will allow Dan Buenning to focus on playing
guard and give the middle of the line plenty of depth. The Bucs saw
second-round pick Dexter Jackson as being very similar to Carolina's
Steve Smith, who was drafted as a return man and, despite a lack of
size, turned into an elite wide receiver. But there haven't been many
signs that Jackson is going to turn out like Smith. He doesn't look
ready to contribute on offense, which wasn't totally unexpected. But
Jackson also hasn't looked sharp on returns. Rookie return man Clifton Smith has outperformed Jackson so far.
Pat Yasinskas covers the NFL for ESPN.com.