Long before those opportunities to add players, however, Tampa Bay's 2014 roster is getting a serious boost, this one from within. The names are familiar to Buccaneer fans, even if they were pushed to the back burner this past fall. It's the injured reserve list, and this time around it's loaded with players who should provide significant help in the coming season.
All players on reserve lists revert to the regular roster when a season ends. This doesn't technically take place until the new league year begins – this year on March 11 – but for practical purposes the Buccaneers' roster got a 18-player boost after the team's December 29 season finale in New Orleans. Check out the updated roster here on Buccaneers.com; it's currently 83 players deep after the re-assimilation of the men who finished the 2013 season on injured reserve (IR) or reserve/non-football injury (NFI). The roster also got a bump from 12 reserve/future signings on January 6, including the eight players who finished the season on the Bucs' practice squad.
There are some players on that list of 18 who are scheduled to become free agents on March 11, and a couple others who have yet to actually play a game as a Buccaneer. However, it is still a deep and potentially impactful group for 2014. Let's take a look at each player on those lists and what they could offer the team this coming season. They are presented alphabetically.
Adams is one of those aforementioned free agents-to-be, so he would first have to re-sign in order to have a shot. Still, he certainly could provide quality depth if he does return. The Buccaneers signed Adams late in the 2013 offseason, in June when the offseason program was almost over. Still, the diminutive (5-8) defensive back was impressive enough in training camp to earn a spot on the regular-season roster, and he was significantly involved in defensive sub packages before going to injured reserve after Week 11. Adams actually had to overcome a knee injury he suffered in the season opener that kept him out for a month, but he came back to contribute 11 tackles, a tackle for a loss, a sack and a pass defensed in the six games he got to play. A long-time reserve/nickel-back with the Arizona Cardinals before coming to Tampa, Adams would probably not be a strong competitor for a starting job with
Don't beat yourself up if you fail to recognize this name. Booker, an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers who signed about a week into training camp (Aug. 5), was hurt early in his very first practice as a pro and quickly landed on injured reserve. He is obviously a completely unknown commodity and not a player one would expect to have a huge impact on the 2014 squad.
Bowers doesn't quite fit into the rest of this analysis because he only went on injured reserve before the final game of the season. The Buccaneers had his services for most of the season and likely wouldn't have sent him to I.R. if there was a larger part of the season still remaining. Technically, Bowers' return is a boost for the defensive line depth, but since he played most of the 2013 season the effect isn't significant.
The Bucs' plan going into training camp last summer was to lead off the tight end corps with a one-two combination of
Casillas came to Tampa as a free agent last spring after four seasons in New Orleans and gave the Buccaneers exactly what they expected: outstanding special teams play and a starting option at the strongside linebacker spot. Casillas, in fact, had taken that spot from season-opening starter
TE Tom Crabtree (IR)
Crabtree was one of the more interesting free agents the Buccaneers picked up last spring. A former Packer who had been squeezed out by some serious depth at his position, he was not given a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent and was thus free to move on. The Buccaneers 25.4-yard average and three touchdowns on eight catches for Green Bay in 2012 and thought he might be a valuable weapon with some more opportunities. That notion was further advanced when Crabtree gained 61 yards on his first preseason catch, against the Baltimore Ravens in the preseason opener. However, Crabtree came out of the preseason with an ankle injury, didn't play for the first month and then subsequently tore a biceps to end his season. He finished the season with just four catches for 21 yards, but he's still just 28, and his earlier work in Green Bay is still intriguing enough to wonder if he could have a bigger impact in 2014 if blessed with better injury luck.
Cutrera didn't get to do much in 2013, going on injured reserve in late August after playing in just two preseason contests. Still, the Buccaneers know that he is a strong special teams player from his work over the previous two seasons. They also know that he is set to become a free agent in March, so they would have to bring him back to see if he could once again bounce back from injury and make a contribution in the kicking game.
Demps, the former Olympic track star, came to the Buccaneers from New England in a draft-weekend trade, joining a team that had clearly been interested in his game-breaking speed since he left the University of Florida in 2013. Demps took a while to join the team, as he was finishing up some track commitments, but as soon as he arrived in September the team began to work him into their plans. He was given several chances to return kicks and also was getting more and more involved in the offense before he was felled by a groin injury. Obviously, there's a new regime in town in 2014, and they'll have their own opinions on what Demps can bring to the football field, but it's hard not to think about the possibilities his world-class speed provide.
Gaitor is an interesting player who has had trouble staying healthy over three seasons in Tampa. A seventh-round draft pick out of Florida International in 2011, he has been limited to 12 regular-season games by a variety of ailments. In 2012, the Bucs thought enough of Gaitor to use their one "designated for return" spot on injured reserve on him, and he came back to play in four games with two starts at the end of the season. Gaitor didn't play at all this past season after tearing an ACL in late August, but a team can never have enough quality cornerbacks around – a lesson the Bucs have learned several times over the last few seasons – so a healthy Gaitor should have every chance to compete for a role of some substances in 2014.
RB Mike James (IR)
James' rookie season was ultimately a frustrating one, even as it proved quite promising. As a rookie reserve behind Doug Martin and
RB Doug Martin (IR)
Martin is the "first-round pick" out of this I.R. list, the player lost for most of 2013 who is most likely to provide a huge boost in 2014 (along with wide receiver Mike Williams). Martin had an incredible 1,926 yards from scrimmage as a rookie in 2013 – the third-highest debut mark ever in the NFL – and there were obviously high hopes for his follow-up in 2014. The Bucs' offense struggled out of the gate, however, and before the running game could really hit its stride Martin was lost to a hip injury suffered in Atlanta in Week Seven. As mentioned, that unfortunate injury did allow the Buccaneers to discover some very serious depth at the position heading into 2014, but getting back Martin is very much like adding another high draft pick to an offense that definitely needs help.
Melvin was one of the darlings of training camp, an undrafted rookie out of Northern Illinois who played with a veteran poise and looked to be the team's post-draft steal of the year. Unfortunately, Melvin never got to deliver on that promise because he sustained a hamstring injury near the end of the preseason. The Buccaneers devoted one of their 53 spots to him and kept him on the active roster for five weeks anyway, but Melvin never got into a game before he was moved to injured reserve. It would be irresponsible to predict too much from a second-year player who has yet to see regular-season NFL action, but it's safe to say that he'll be a prominent part of the competition at cornerback in training camp next summer.
Shepard played a hybrid role in LSU's offense in college, and is thus still learning at wide receiver in the NFL. Nevertheless, the rookie came to the Bucs as a waiver claim on September 1, was in action in the season opener seven days later and played in every game until an injury took him down in September. That's because Shepard proved to be an immediate help on special teams, primarily as a gunner on special teams. It remains to be seen if Shepard can develop into an NFL-caliber pass-catcher – the last coaching staff was high on his future possibilities – but any young receiver who can stand out on special teams is always going to get a chance to stick.
Speaking of that running back depth, here's another player you may have forgotten about. A seventh-round pick in 2012 out of Utah State, Smith returned kickoffs in the opening game of his rookie season…and hasn't seen the field since. Smith was healthy but squeezed out on game days for most of his rookie season by needs at other positions, and last year he suffered a foot injury in the preseason and went to I.R. before getting another shot. Given all the injuries at the position, Smith likely would have had a chance at a few carries had he stayed healthy and made the roster. Now he's going to be facing that aforementioned crowded backfield in 2014 but he still is one of the faster backs on the roster and could get another crack in the return game.
TE Luke Stocker (IR)
Stocker is undoubtedly the biggest enigma on this list. The Buccaneers picked Stocker in the fourth round in 2011, trading away an additional fourth-round pick in order to move up on the third day of the draft and make sure they didn't miss the former Tennessee standout. Tampa Bay employed Kellen Winslow at the time but envisioned Stocker becoming the sort of two-way blocking/pass-catching tight end who could eventually supplant the veteran. The Bucs let Winslow go during the 2012 offseason, and Stocker has had two seasons to try to establish himself as the starter. Unfortunately, he hasn't been able to stay healthy, and he missed all but two games this past season with a hip injury. Because that position is so unclear for the Buccaneers heading into 2014 – even if Tim Wright is the real deal, a team needs more than one competent tight end – Stocker can't be ruled out. However, he'll obviously have to prove he can stay healthy for an extended period of time.
It's hard to imagine Tynes being around in 2014 given his MRSA infection and subsequent unhappiness with the team.
WR Mike Williams (IR)
Along with Martin, Williams offers the Buccaneers the most reliable boost in 2014. In his first three NFL seasons, Williams played in every game and was a steady and sometimes spectacular producer of yards and touchdowns. He recorded a team-record 11 receiving touchdowns as a rookie in 2010 and got another nine into the end zone in 2012. Williams caught between 63 and 65 passes in each of his first three seasons and just missed 1,000 yards in both 2010 and 2012. Last year, however, he struggled through a hamstring injury that limited him to a 22-216-2 line through six games and eventually proved impossible to overcome. The Bucs put Williams on I.R. after six games and from that day forward had difficulty establishing a secondary receiving threat to keep attention off of Vincent Jackson. Near the end of the season, Williams revealed that he had just started running again, and there's no reason to believe he should be limited during the offseason. The Buccaneers badly need a #2 receiving threat to help Jackson, but they can get one without even diving into free agency or using a draft pick, as Williams' return should be a serious jolt for the offense in 2014.