The Tampa Bay Buccaneers haven't had much to celebrate on offense through the first two games of the 2021 preseason, having produced a total of 366 yards and 10 points so far. Of course, the Buccaneers' starting offense has only been on the field for six plays, so there is little cause for alarm. That group, led by Tom Brady, will get its first (and only) extended stint of preseason playing time this coming Saturday in Houston.
While the reserves have not come together to put much on the scoreboard, they have gotten a lot of playing time. And that has produced one positive thing of note for the Buccaneers: a good amount of trusted depth on the offensive line.
Tampa Bay returns all five of its O-Line starters from last year's Super Bowl run, plus top reserves Josh Wells and Aaron Stinnie. One 2020 reserve, Joe Haeg, left in free agency for Pittsburgh but the Buccaneers seem to have several capable candidates to replace him as the eighth offensive lineman. In fact, there are enough of those candidates that it's worth wondering if the team might keep nine linemen on the 53-man roster to start the season.
That's exactly what Bruce Arians' Buccaneers did a year ago, with veteran center A.Q. Shipley, signed late in training camp, making it as the ninth lineman. The team stayed at that number until December, then rolled with eight after Shipley landed on injured reserve. That number actually was down to seven by the Super Bowl after Alex Cappa was lost to an ankle injury in the Wild Card Week, but the Bucs used practice squad elevations to keep it at on postseason game days.
Arians chose to rest all but two of his 22 listed starters – more on that in a minute – in Saturday's game against Tennessee, which bumped Stinnie, Wells and first-year men Nick Leverett and Brad Seaton into the starting lineup. Arians was pleased with their performance.
"Well, I think the top three guys – Stinnie, Josh Wells and Nick – all showed what they could do," he said. "Brad Seaton played better. He played better and played right and left [tackle]. [I'd] like to get [John] Molchon back out there; he was doing really well before he got injured. We know what Earl [Watford] is. So everybody else, they're still fighting. Those guys showed me last night that we have good solid depth there."
Few players on the Bucs' camp roster have received more consistent praise this month than Leverett, a 2020 undrafted free agent who has increased the value of his stock by playing multiple positions, and playing them well. Leverett, a former standout at Rice, arrived in Tampa as a guard but spent a lot of time on the practice last season playing tackle. The Buccaneers still have him listed on their depth chart as the primary reserve to left guard Ali Marpet but he has been working at left tackle in camp and saw extensive action on the edge in the preseason opener.
When rookies Robert Hainsey and Sadarius Hutcherson were sidelined by injury (with Hutcherson landing on IR), Leverett and Molchon started working at center. Molchon subsequently got hurt in last week's joint practices with Tennessee, leaving Leverett to start at center in Saturday's game. He played every snap.
"It's a great thing to be that position-flexible, especially if you want to dress on Sunday," said Arians. "One thing about Nick, he's a tremendous effort player, a very smart player. Yeah, if you can play five positions you've got a great chance to dress on Sundays."
Leverett first has to make the active roster, of course, but he's certainly trending in the right direction. If the Buccaneers do end up keeping Wells, Stinnie and Leverett, that would force them to expand to nine O-Line men if they want to keep Hainsey, whom they drafted out of the third round in the spring. Not only are third-round picks almost never cut before their rookie season, but Hainsey was also showing impressive positional flexibility before he was sidelined. Hainsey returned to practice last week but was not quite ready to play in Saturday's game.
Even that potential group of nine leaves no room for Molchon, Seaton or the stalwart veteran, Watford. However, that doesn't mean any or all of them will necessarily be leaving Tampa in September. Practice squads are again expanded to 16 spots this season and the game-day elevation rule makes those players even more valuable. Those options turn extensive offensive line depth from "a good problem to have" into simply a good thing.
As for Stinnie, his current competition is less about securing a roster spot and more about potentially forcing his way into the starting lineup. On Sunday, Arians conceded that Cappa and Stinnie are still locked in a pretty tight competition for that spot, perhaps the only starting job that is up for grabs this summer. Cappa started the first 17 games of 2020 before his injury and Stinnie impressed in his three starts, culminating in a strong Super Bowl performance.
Cappa and tight end O.J. Howard were the two starters who suited up on Saturday night, and in both cases it was because they finished last season on injured reserve and missed a lot of offseason work. Cappa only stayed in the game for 13 snaps, leaving when starting quarterback Blaine Gabbert did, but it was useful work and he should get more on Saturday in Houston. Then again, so will Stinnie.
"Yeah, I mean it's closer than you might think," said Arians of the right guard competition. "[Aaron] Stinnie played really well in the playoffs. And [Alex] Cappa, he needs to play some because he missed all that time. It's a nice thing to have. It's a good situation. It's a great competition. Yeah, there's a little bit of a battle but it's Cap's job to lose."
While there are no other real battles along the starting lineup, Saturday's game did shine a spotlight on a couple of positions that are still taking shape on the depth chart. Those included safety and tight end.
The Bucs' top three safeties – Jordan Whitehead, Antoine Winfield, Jr. and Mike Edwards – all sat out Saturday's game and in fact Whitehead has been sidelined for a while due to injury. Arians said Whitehead is 'really, really close' to returning and should be good to go for the regular season. Over the last week, the Bucs have trimmed the safety position significantly, first waiving veteran Raven Greene with an injury designation and then including rookie Lawrence White among its five cuts on Sunday.
That leaves only Javon Hagan and Chris Cooper behind the aforementioned three safeties, though cornerback Ross Cockrell has been cross-training at the position in training camp. Hagan made an acrobatic interception in the preseason opener but it was Cooper, a mid-camp addition, who helped himself in the second game. And it was actually Cockrell who started the game next to Hagan at the back of the secondary.
"Chris Cooper showed up a little bit on special teams and that was a nice thing to see," said Arians. "The rest of the guys, we're always looking. That's where Chris Cooper kind of stepped up a little bit last night and Ross gives us that extra guy playing three positions. That's really been a blessing in this camp."
The Buccaneers top three tight ends also seem set with Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cam Brate. Tanner Hudson, Codey McElroy and Jerell Adams are fighting to fill a fourth spot on the depth chart, if the Bucs choose to create one. For the second game in a row, Hudson led the team in receiving on Saturday against the Titans, with six catches for 74 yards. However, he is still fighting to justify that fourth spot.
"We're still evaluating him, and there's a little more than just catching the football," said Arians. "He's been around for a while. He's been here since we've been here and he just needs to improve in some areas. But, yeah, he's in a battle."