Alan Cross's NFL journey began with him signing with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent and included trips back and forth from the practice squad in each of his first two seasons. One might look at that ledger and conclude that Cross has spent his first few professional years on some sort of perpetual roster bubble.
If that was true, it apparently is not anymore. That comes from no more solid of a source than Dirk Koetter, the Buccaneers' head coach.
"I would say he's not on the bubble," said Koetter on Friday, one day after Cross made a dazzling touchdown catch to help Tampa Bay beat Miami in the Bucs' preseason opener.
Cross is part of a Tampa Bay tight end group that is not only deep but loaded with a variety of talent. O.J. Howard, the 2017 first-round draft pick, is the rare young player with the skills to be a true two-way "Y" tight end. Cameron Brate is an outstanding pass-catcher with a nose for the end zone. Former undrafted signee Antony Auclair is still developing but is already a good blocker and has a similar size-speed combination to Howard.
Those three seem like locks to make the roster, but Cross seems to have joined that set group, as well. The third-year player out of Memphis has largely played an H-back type of role where he can lead block or leave the backfield for passes, but Koetter says he's actually a perfectly fine fit as a more traditional tight end. That's what he was playing in the second half of Thursday's preseason opener when he ran a sharp route into the end zone on third-and-five and made a leaping, twisting catch of a 10-yard pass from Ryan Griffin. That put the Buccaneers up by 10 at the time, and they would go on to win, 26-24.
"Alan Cross is a pretty good football player and [he] does a lot of things behind the scenes that people don't always see," said Koetter. "He's a guy that is in the shadows sometimes but then all of a sudden when you need him, if a guy's hurt, he knows all the positions. I mean, he plays fullback, he plays tight end, he can play in the slot, he plays on all the special teams. Heck, he could probably coach the special teams."
Given the tone of Koetter's comment about his "non-bubble" status, Cross might not have needed that touchdown catch, or his other 14-yard grab, to solidify his spot among the top 53 players on a roster currently stretched to 91. But it certainly didn't hurt. There are still three more preseason games to be played before the roster has to be trimmed down for the regular season, but Cross is among a handful players who helped their causes in the team's first live outing.
Young offensive linemen Mike Liedtke and Brad Seaton may have a bit farther to go to feel secure in a regular-season roster spot, but they both impressed Koetter on Thursday night. The Buccaneers were a bit depleted up front and the second-team offensive line had to play a lot more than is normal in a preseason opener. That group as a whole fared very well in a tough circumstance, but Liedtke and Seaton did so while dealing with an added level of difficulty.
View exclusive photos of the Buccaneers' Preseason Week 1 matchup against the Miami Dolphins from Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker.
Specifically, Seaton was pressed into the starting lineup at right tackle due to the unavailability of Demar Dotson, Leonard Wester and Cole Gardner. Meanwhile, Liedtke played most of the second half at left tackle, a position he had rarely lined up at during the first two weeks of training camp. A 2017 seventh-round pick in Tennessee, Seaton has not yet played a regular-season NFL snap. Liedtke got into one game late last season for the Buccaneers but did not log a snap on offense.
"I thought Brad Seaton at right tackle and Mike Liedtke at left tackle, those two guys really stepped up and competed," said Koetter. "You can talk about mental mistakes and bad technique all you want, but there's something to be said for guys who will just go out there and lay it on the line and those two guys did."
Cameron Lynch is one of seven linebackers battling for maybe three reserve spots behind the presumed starting trio of Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David and Kendell Beckwith. He played well for the Buccaneers on special teams last year and was re-signed in the offseason after actually finishing the 2017 season with the Los Angeles Rams. He's facing stiff competition for those backup spots from the likes of Adarius Taylor, Devante Bond, Riley Bullough and Jack Cichy. Taylor is clearly at the top of that list because he's currently in the starting lineup with Beckwith out. How the rest of those candidates line up is less clear, but Lynch's experience showed on Thursday and could help him in the long run.
"We rolled a lot of guys in there," said Koetter. "Cameron Lynch is a guy that has been primarily known as a special teams player and maybe because he has played in so many NFL games, I thought Cameron Lynch showed up a little bit bigger last night."
Rookie safety Jordan Whitehead is probably not at huge risk of being left off the 53-man roster, as it is a rare fourth-rounder who doesn't at least break the preseason with the club. But the next step for Jordan is to try to carve out a role on defense, and he's currently blocked by the incumbent starting duo of Chris Conte and Justin Evans. Whitehead helped himself in his NFL debut by making it clear that the toughness the Buccaneers' evaluators saw in his college tape at Pitt can translate to the NFL despite his somewhat small frame for a safety.
"When you're practicing against your own guys, we don't let the safeties come down and blow up the running back, so that was really his first chance to do that and I was impressed," said Koetter. "He was out of position a couple times but you can definitely see his speed and straight line coming down there and being in position to make some big hits. The officials made him leave after that first play and he had to go in, go through the protocol, and they cleared him to come back out and he stilled played, I think, 40 plays after that. So yeah, I was impressed with him."
Koetter talked at length about Thursday's opener on Friday afternoon and one of his messages was to point out that a single preseason game was a small sample size on which to base any final judgments. That's an admonition worth remembering; nevertheless, Alan Cross and several other young Buccaneers improved their outlook with their efforts in Miami.