Super Bowl teams sometimes find their rosters picked apart in free agency—the Ravens a few years ago for instance. Fortunately for the Pewter faithful, the Buccaneers had most of their players under contract—at least through 2003—and escaped the offseason without losing a lot of key personnel. Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson was their biggest loss, but it was a hit their stalwart defensive unit could afford to take.
Backup quarterbacks Rob Johnson and Shane Matthews left via free agency, but replacing them was easier than replacing a roll of toilet paper. Jim Miller was brought in from Chicago, Shaun King was re-signed, and Chris Simms was drafted.
The most significant offseason acquisition may be Thomas Jones, who was brought aboard in a trade with the Cardinals shortly after starting halfback Michael Pittman was arrested on May 31. Terry Kirby was signed too, but it's Jones who will be given every opportunity to win the starting job, assuming Pittman is imprisoned, suspended, or cut. More on the running back competition in the "Position Battles" portion of our preview.
As for Pittman, his situation is still very much up in the air, but fantasy players should not have any plans for a guy whose own team is already making alternate plans. Pittman was charged with two counts of felony assault for his alleged domestic altercation, and as a second time offender there is a good chance he won't play a single down in 2003.
Up front, the Buccaneers subtracted veteran center Jeff Christy from their already iffy offensive line, and the offseason reinforcements are a little shaky. John Wade was brought in via free agency and is the leading candidate to be hiking the ball to Brad Johnson in week one. The Bucs also signed former Giants lineman Jason Whittle, who can play guard and center, however he broke his leg during May minicamp and will be out until sometime in August. He won't even take part in practice until after their first preseason game.
And of course we'd be remiss if we didn't mention the return of Jacquez Green to Tampa. Will he be a factor at wide receiver? Nah, but we have a soft spot in our hearts for the little guy.
Position Battles: With Pittman on quickly thinning ice, one of the Buccaneers' primary objectives this preseason will be to determine who will be carrying the ball for them. It could be a committee if all else fails, but they will give several candidates a shot at the gig before resorting to such a desperate measure. As previously mentioned, Jones is reportedly first in line to get a crack at carrying the rock, but fantasy players have seen what he's capable of (or should we say incapable of?) in Arizona the past two years.
"There's no question he's got to prove himself,'' Gruden recently told the Tampa Tribune in reference to Jones. "There are a lot things he has to show us." Jones ran behind (or often into) a better offensive line in Arizona than the one he has in Tampa, but if the Bucs try running sweeps or short passes with him he could have some success. He'll probably enter the season atop the depth chart.
Aaron Stecker will provide stiff competition. He's never been asked to carry the load before, but has usually looked very good when given the chance. Stecker averaged 6.2 yards per carry last year and also has soft hands. Ideally he'd be a third down back, but the Bucs may need him to be much more.
What about Mike Alstott? Tampa's A-Train will be considered for the job, but again he's not the ideal workhorse back. Alstott lacks speed and has shown that he will wear down late in games and over the second half of the season if he's over-used because he's such a physical runner. Others that will be given a chance to show their wares in the running back competition include the aforementioned Kirby, Earnest Graham, and Travis Stephens. Keep an eye on Stephens this preseason in particular. If there's a sleeper in this group, it's him.
There's going to be some competition at backup quarterback during training camp too…at least we think there will be. After drafting Simms everyone thought the Bucs would be keeping four signal callers, but now the talk is that there will only be three on the roster when they break camp. Johnson is obviously the starter and Simms obviously fills the third or "quarterback of the future" role in that scenario. That leaves Miller and King to battle for the backup to BJ.
However, Miller (shockingly) still isn't healthy. He had shoulder and ankle surgeries after last season and still might not be ready to practice. Miller could very well be placed on one of the physically unable to perform lists, which would ensure King of the backup job.
Keep an Eye On: The Pittman saga isn't the only potential problem to watch out for this summer. Both starting defensive tackles—Warren Sapp and Booger McFarland—are entering the final years of their contracts, and while neither is expected to hold out it could become a sizeable distraction for the best defense in fantasy football.
Of course, that's assuming Sapp would ever open his mouth and become a distraction…that never happens, right?
It's also worth noting that Gruden is always on the lookout to add pieces to the roster. They are currently considering signing free agent Wesley Walls, which would give Johnson another great target if the veteran tight end can stay healthy. This also implies Gruden isn't completely content with his current tight ends, Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley.