The next step of season preparation for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers begins this Friday as they head to Kansas City to take on the Chiefs in the first preseason tuneup of 2011 for both squads.
Kansas City and Tampa Bay both finished last season with identical 10-6 records and a renewed optimism surrounding the clubs. The Chiefs surprised experts as they won the AFC West, driven on the strength of a 7-1 record at Arrowhead Stadium, while Tampa Bay missed the playoffs by one game despite a breakout season.
After being limited to mostly walk-throughs in the new CBA era training camp, Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris will be eager to see what his team is capable of in live action. Having recently described his team as "youngry", a combination of youth and desire, Morris will be paying close attention to how his budding players handle real football for the first time in eight months.
Morris has told the media he expects the starters to play more than the traditional pre-season one series, aiming for closer to 20 plays for Josh Freeman and company in an effort to get the team used to the speed of the game, a necessary change brought on by the lockout shortened off-season.
While most of the skill position starters on offense are ironed out already, there are still battles at many positions, most notably the right tackle position where incumbent starter Jeremy Trueblood is listed ahead of James Lee despite losing playing time to Lee in the latter half of last season. The Buccaneers are also still trying to find their third down running back, a job they hope that LeGarrette Blount can seize hold of. Blount must prove that he can handle pass protection if he wants to stay on the field for third downs. If he cannot, the job could go to Kregg Lumpkin, rookie Allen Bradford, or fullback Earnest Graham.
On the other side of the ball, the defensive line and linebacking corps will be under a particularly watchful eye. Two rookies, defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, will make their pro debuts on the end, surrounding last years top picks Gerald McCoy and Brian Price up the middle. Clayborn, the Bucs' top pick in this years draft, has been turning heads in training camp as he has consistently been working left tackle Donald Penn ragged with his tenacious pass rushing. Bowers, however is still dealing with a leg injury and will have to prove he can surpass incumbent Michael Bennett and earn a starting spot.
Another player to watch is rookie Mason Foster, whom appears to have the inside track to the starting middle linebacker job, a position recently vacated by the departure of Barrett Ruud. Foster is battling second-year USF alumni Tyrone McKenzie at the position that many refer to as the quarterback of the defense. Foster brings some thump but he will have to learn to control his natural aggression to avoid mistakes on the playing field.
Ultimately, the preseason is about finding out who can play. While not the most exciting brand of football for the fans, there is immeasurable amounts of importance in what the front office can learn from seeing the rookies and undrafted free-agents in live action against a real opponent. The real battles begin after the starters have left the game as many young players will be playing for their careers.
If nothing else, its football and after the tumultuous summer lockout, that's a relief in itself, and preseason football is infinitely better than no football at all.