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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

53-Man Roster: Three Questions on Defense

The Bucs have answered the questions as to who they would keep on the initial regular season roster, but uncertainties still remain on defense, including how deep the edge rotation will be on game day


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers trimmed their roster to 53 men for the start of the regular season on Tuesday, and 26 of those who remain play defense. Training camp debates have given way to concrete answers about the depth chart. For instance, the Buccaneers chose to keep eight rookies on the defensive side of the ball, half of which were actually undrafted free agents.

In addition, the Bucs went a little deeper than usual at outside linebacker, keeping six of them simply because they had so much NFL-caliber talent at that spot to sort through. That plus six cornerbacks meant the team had to go lighter at safety and off-ball linebacker, rostering four of each. And the high-level snaps that first-year defensive lineman Mike Greene was getting in practice and in the preseason games was no smokescreen. After going undrafted in 2022 and spending all of last year on the Bucs' practice squad, Greene took a big step forward in 2023 and broke through to the active roster.

Forming the regular season roster did not answer every question about the Buccaneers' 2023 defense, however. Some uncertainties remain, and likely will remain until this unit has a couple games under its belt. Let's take a closer look at three of those questions about the Bucs' new-look defense.

1. How deep will the outside linebacker rotation be on game days?

As noted above, the Buccaneers chose to carry six outside linebackers through to the 53-man roster, and even then that required some difficult decisions. Among the three who were not retained was sixth-round draft pick Jose Ramirez, though the Bucs will likely try to bring him back on the practice squad.

The Bucs broke camp with only four edge rushers a year ago, and that included veteran Carl Nassib, who they had only signed two weeks earlier. They played most of that season with four active OLBs but injuries to Nassib and Shaq Barrett meant the team was essentially down to just Anthony Nelson and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka during the stretch run. This offseason, the Buccaneers restored depth at the position with the return of Barrett and Cam Gill from injuries, the drafting of Ramirez and Yaya Diaby and the nifty post-draft acquisition of rookie Markees Watts.

The Bucs' coaching staff obviously feels better about the overall strength of its edge rushing crew this season, but now it has to decide how to deploy some combination of those six players – Barrett, Tryon-Shoyinka, Nelson, Gill, Diaby and Watts – on game days. In the past, when the Bucs have had four OLBs on the roster they've kept all four active for games but usually found only a few defensive snaps for the fourth player in the rotation. Will they chose to use all four more equally this season, thereby keeping their top pass-rushers fresh later into games? Or could they even keep five OLBs active on game days and throw out an even deeper rotation? Could it be a matter of seeing who has a hot hand and giving him a larger piece of the action?

Part of the answer may depend on special teams contributions. The third and fourth outside linebackers, and any more that get a helmet on game day, will almost certainly have to make some sort of impact in the kick-and-return game. Gill and Nelson have experience doing so and the coaches believe Diaby has the tools to do so as well.

2. Is there sufficient depth at safety to weather any injury absences?

The starting duo of Antoine Winfield Jr. and Ryan Neal looks promising; both have received some All-Pro votes in the past two seasons. However, those are the only two safeties on the depth chart who have played a down in a regular-season NFL game.

The two reserve safeties the Buccaneers kept behind Winfield and Neal are both undrafted rookies – Christian Izien and Kaevon Merriweather. The coaches are quite high on both players but it's undeniable that they are lacking in experience and still have to prove on the field that they are capable starters. In addition, Izien is slated to be the starting slot corner, so the position is really a little more thin that it looks.

The Bucs may have signaled their intentions for how they would conjure up some depth at the position in the preseason finale against Baltimore when the starters got to play but Winfield was held out with a minor injury. Instead of putting Izien or Merriweather out there with the starting unit, the Bucs turned to Dee Delaney, who is listed with the cornerbacks on the depth chart but is capable of playing several positions in the secondary. In fact, he has done so for the Bucs over the past two seasons, getting meaningful doses of snaps at safety, slot corner and outside corner. The Bucs may also chose to cross-train rookie sixth-rounder at both cornerback and safety.

Every team scours the waiver wire after the league-wide roster cuts to see if they can find upgrades at any position or depth for where they may be a bit short. The Buccaneers certainly could take that approach to add some more experience to their safety position, but they do have some options in-house.

3. Will a healthy Calijah Kancey unlock the Bucs' interior pass rush?

The first question, of course, is whether Kancey will be ready to suit up for the season opener in Minnesota in a little over a week. The 19th-overall pick int his year's draft, Kancey was impressing with his quickness and pass-rush moves in OTAs and the early days of training camp before he suffered a calf injury. The prognosis for his return was approximately three weeks, which would have him back on the practice field as the Bucs get ready for the Vikings if it proves accurate.

Whether he misses a game or not to start the season, Kancey is slated for a big role in the Buccaneers' defense. After mostly rolling with larger interior linemen for the past four seasons under Todd Bowles – and they don't get much larger than Vita Vea – the Bucs deliberately sought out a different sort of inside presence this year. Kancey certainly fits the ball, as he's a smaller lineman (6-1, 281) with an elite get-off. That kind of quickness paired with Vea's brute strength and surprisingly nimble feet could make it difficult for opposing blockers to handle everything coming up at them up the middle. Throw in Logan Hall, the 33rd-overall pick in 2022 who the coaches believe is ready to take a big step forward, and the Bucs could have their best interior pass rush in years.

That's the plan, for certain. Kancey still has to prove against NFL blockers that his speed, quickness and well-developed moves are more important than his size and Hall will be looking to improve on his rookie total of 2.5 sacks. How quickly it all comes together, and how dominant that group will be remains to be seen.

Here is the full Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2023 Roster.

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