Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A Full Deck

In 2000, the Bucs will deal from a deck of 53 that Tony Dungy hopes is an improved roster

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TE Todd Yoder caught the winning pass against Washington

With the possible exception of the annual draft, it is the day of most roster impact on the NFL calendar. The league-mandated cutdown to 53 players occurs right before each team launches into its first week of regular-season preparation, and it generally creates as many questions as it answers.

This year was no different for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As was first reported on Buccaneers.com just a short while ago, the Buccaneers have trimmed their roster by 19 players to get to that magic 53 number. In the process, they have put an end to some mysteries (when will Jason Odom return?) and opened some others (who will return kickoffs?).

Before we begin, we should make it clear that there are no such mysteries in the mind of Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy. For instance, while the Odom situation has swung back and forth and captivated the media and the team's fans, Dungy and has crew have forged on happily with Pete Pierson and George Hegamin at left tackle for over a month now.

Still, you are likely to be unfamiliar with some of the new Bucs, and with some of the depth chart maneuvers, so we'll bring you Dungy's thoughts as expressed to the media just after the cuts were announced on Sunday.

The biggest news of the day, of course, is the placing of T Jason Odom on injured reserve. Odom has been on a roller coaster for the past 11 months, and today's roster move was a mutual decision to smooth things out. Odom stopped playing after three games last season due to lower back pain and, as it didn't ease over the next seven or eight weeks, eventually opted for surgery.

With his rehabilitation from the surgery going well, Odom re-signed with the team on February 29 and continued to gain strength. Though he skipped contact drills throughout the spring and early summer, Odom was cleared for full participation as training camp began on July 24. However, he made it through only two days of camp two-a-days before the pain resurfaced. After another month of rest, roughly, Odom returned to practice with high hopes last Monday, but quickly succumbed to a return of the pain. He hasn't practiced or played since, and he and the team decided that there is no way of knowing when he would be able to return.

"With Jason, we had to look and see where we were," said Dungy. "I think all of us, including Jason, felt that I.R. was the way to go. We didn't really feel that good about the prospects of playing real soon, and that's kind of what we decided on.

"We know it's going to be awhile. When that is, we don't know. Basically, he was injured. With some guys, you can injury-settle. In Shevin (Smith)'s case, we felt like in six weeks he would be ready to play, so you can make a six-week settlement deal. With Jason, no one really knows, so our option really was to put him on I.R."

The optimism with which the club announced Odom's re-signing last February has dimmed for 2000, of course, but Dungy believes the team made the correct decision at that time.

"Well, we felt pretty good about it, especially with the value of the position," he said. "A left tackle…that makes it, I think, a worthwhile gamble. It didn't pan out this year, but I thought we did the right thing and it just didn't work out."

That doesn't mean the position isn't working out, according to Dungy. "We're sitting with four tackles and we feel good about it," he said. "We would have loved to have Jason, but it didn't work out that way. Paul (Gruber)'s situation is really no different. We're going to wait to get the signal from him when he's ready. At that time, we'll evaluate and see where we are roster-wise, see how the other guys are playing. But we feel good about the guys we have right now.

"It hasn't been uncertain for us. Pete Pierson lined up there the first the day, and George Hegamin. We had Jason for two days and then he was out. It's just like a guy being injured. Pete and George have been one and two for the most part of camp, and that's the way they are now, so it really hasn't been a big deal for the team, I don't think."

Dungy made the reference to Gruber, the team's starting left tackle for the past dozen years, because Gruber has returned to his Tampa home after a stint of personal rehab in Colorado. Gruber, a free agent, broke his leg in the Bucs' regular-season finale last year. The Bucs are letting the revered veteran make the call on when and if he is ready, but Dungy doesn't expect that to be soon. In the meantime, Odom's spot is filled by Pierson and Hegamin, with Jerry Wunsch and DeMarcus Curry on the other side. Hegamin may serve as a 'swing man' between left and right tackle, depending on how many tackles the team keeps active on game day.

The other position affected by injury on this cut day is safety, where Smith must deal with a difficult turf toe injury and Dexter Jackson is still coming back from an August 10 ankle sprain. First-year man Lemar Marshall was picked up off waivers last week and was included on the final roster, and expected starter Damien Robinson looked good last Friday after returning from his own hamstring ailment.

"Shevin's situation is a little bit different," said Dungy, comparing him to Odom. "We had a couple of different options there. We went with the injury settlement with the idea that we had the chance to get him back. If we put him on I.R., he'd be done for the year. The league rule is that 10 weeks from now he could come back with us. He could sign with anyone else during that time while he's rehabbing, but we could get him back after 10 weeks, so that's the option that we took there."

In the meantime, before Jackson returns, the newly-acquired Marshall will back up Robinson. The team will, of course, scan the waiver wire at all positions, but Dungy isn't expecting to go in search of an additional Safety net. "No," he said. "It's hard to say, but right now we feel pretty good. Lemar Marshall did a good job. I'm sure we'll see who's on the wire, but Lemar knows our system and has done a pretty good job for us."

One injury neither the team nor the player had time to come to grips with was fullback Kevin McLeod's sudden chest pains. McLeod spent a good part of the week in St. Joseph's Hospital after experiencing sudden discomfort on Wednesday. Though a full diagnosis will likely not be available until at least Monday, it seems clear that McLeod will be sidelined for some time.

Is McLeod done for the season? "For us, he is," said Dungy. "On the reserve list, he's not able to play. But if he gets the treatment, gets it taken care of, gets a satisfactory physical, he could play with someone else."

That means the Bucs' backup fullback situation is suddenly thrown into flux. That spot doesn't run with the ball or catch many passes, but it is often used as a lead blocker in front of Mike Alstott. How the Bucs deal with McLeod's sudden unavailability is still up in the air, according to Dungy.

"We're looking at that right now," he said. "If we had to line up and go today, Patrick Hape would have to swing in between tight end and fullback, which he's done in the past. That was a blow to us. Kevin was doing real well. The feeling again there was that he's going to have to get some more tests. We're still not exactly sure where it is, but the chances of him playing right away weren't real good."

McLeod's unfortunate development caused a last-week shift in strategy for the Bucs. "Our original plan would have been to keep Kevin (McLeod) and we would have had to make a decision at that tight end position," said Dungy. "But, because we're now going one short at fullback, we can keep one more at tight end."

If you consider incumbents Dave Moore and Patrick Hape likely roster locks, that meant an extra spot for Blake Spence or Todd Yoder, both of who made the team. Neither would have registered on the radar screen a few months ago – in fact, Spence was just claimed off waivers on Tuesday – but both are deserving of their spots. Dungy doesn't imagine there was shock in the Yoder household on Sunday after the cuts were announced and Todd wasn't among them.

"I don't think he's surprised," said Dungy. "That's what he came here to do and he did a good job for us, really learning the position of tight end and doing some good things on special teams."

The same can be said of Spence, even in his short audition. The former Jet caught one pass for five yards in the preseason finale on Friday, his first game with the Bucs, but he also made a tackle and forced fumble on a kickoff return, which S David Gibson returned for a touchdown. That kind of ability helped increase Spence's value when the numbers were being added up on Sunday.

"Again, when you look at the numbers getting to 53, do you keep five receivers or six receivers, or seven, as opposed to four tight ends or extra defensive backs?" asked Dungy. "It all came down to what guys can do, and putting that best 53 together. Like it always does, special teams played a lot into that."

The obvious odd man out at tight end was rookie James Whalen, the team's fifth-round draft choice. "It was tough on James," said Dungy of a preseason mostly lost to an early hamstring injury. "He didn't really get the opportunity, I don't think, to do everything in the passing game that we thought he could do. It was just more of a numbers game than anything else. Some of the other guys came along and did a little bit better."

Overall, Dungy is pleased with the shape of the roster, including the addition of a couple of newcomers.

"I think you always feel like you're stronger," he said. "You like to think that way. We had some young guys come on that we think if they develop, we could be pretty good. Aaron Stecker, for one. Andre Hastings now is our fifth receiver. He caught 70 balls one year and caught 10 balls in the Super Bowl. So, in some areas we feel like we have gotten better."

Despite offering up Stecker's name, Dungy was elusive about whether the first-year back had earned the kick-return job after a preseason in which he averaged 29.2 yards per runback and had several other long returns called back.

"Well, he's on the team," said Dungy of Stecker. "He has returned kicks for us, and has done it pretty well. I think we'll probably have to wait until one o'clock on Sunday to see who the kickoff returner is, but he's done a good job."

Dungy, for one, is happy that this annual NFL rite is now done with. "We kind of had to do our normal business of the day," he said. "It's not a lot of fun, but we got down to 53 players and we think we have an excellent 53-man team. We're excited to move on at this point."

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