The last weekend of 2015 that will not feature any NFL games is almost upon us. Even without any action on the field, however, it should prove to be one of the most important and formative weekends of the year.
That's doubly true in Tampa, where the Buccaneers have another opportunity to make use of the top spot in the waiver claim order. That advantage, which has already netted the team such key additions as safety D.J. Swearinger and tight end Tim Wright (later traded for kicker Kyle Brindza), is essentially an extension of the team's #1 position in the 2015 NFL Draft. And the upcoming weekend is essentially an extension of what the Bucs tried to accomplish in that draft.
In fact, Lovie Smith and Jason Licht refer to the imminent waiver-wire activity of the next 48 hours as a "second draft."
"That's exactly how we look at it," said Smith, one day after his team finished the preseason with a win in Miami and one day before the roster must be trimmed to 53 players. "We felt early on that we established that we had two drafts. We felt good about the first draft we had. We've been preparing since that first one for this second draft. Again, we are almost on the clock on it, which is a good thing. We are excited about some potential guys added to our team."
READ: BUCS REACH 75-MAN ROSTER
With each team in the league reducing its roster from 75 to 53 players by 6:00 p.m. ET on Saturday, there will soon be hundreds of new free agents available. Those who do not yet have four accrued NFL seasons will be subject to the waiver wire, and the Buccaneers will get the first choice to claim any and as many of those players as they wish. In recent seasons, Tampa Bay has made very good use of this "second draft," even without the advantage of the claiming order pole position.
Check out photos of the Buccaneers' current roster.
Just last year, for instance, claimed first-year defensive end Jacquies Smith off waivers from Buffalo during this same weekend. Smith proved to be the team's most notable breakout player, collecting 6.5 sacks and earning the starting right end job heading into 2015. Though the moves predate the current management duo of Smith and Licht, other second-draft acquisitions of recent years include wide receiver Russell Shepard, guard Ted Larsen and running back LeGarrette Blount. Those players ended up with major roles in Tampa, but the second draft can also bring role players who help shore up weak spots on the depth chart at the time, such as tight end Zack Pianalto, center Cody Wallace and guard Garrett Gilkey.
READ: BUCS WAIVE 10 PLAYERS
The Bucs didn't wait for this weekend to address some of their depth chart concerns, particularly on special teams. The team has a new punter and, potentially, a new placekicker, and neither Jacob Schum nor Kyle Brindza were on the roster 10 days ago. Smith knows his crew needs to be prepared to act just as decisively over the weekend, particularly when addressing positions that have recently been thinned by injuries, such as defensive end.
"For us, that is why this weekend is so important when you have injuries like that," he said. "We are first up. We are the first batter. We just have to be ready. I feel like we know the group. We added [Jacquies] Smith last year at this time. You look at what we are able to do sometimes at the end. We found our kicker, we found our punter the last week before the season. We are going to hope that that momentum continues."
Of course, the flip side of those gains is that the Buccaneers will be contributing to the flood on the waiver wire. Injured reserve could claim some of the roster spots the team needs to vacate, but there will be 20 or more players whose NFL hopes will be at least temporarily put on hold. If the wire-scouring work is called the second draft, the cuts each team has to make are usually referred to as a "necessary evil."
"You want decisions to become harder and harder each year," said Smith. "Saying that, it's good competition. You have people to choose from, but at the same time it's one of the saddest days of the year for me, every year. It's no fun stopping, postponing a guy's dream. I've been on the other side [of the conversation] when someone tells you they want to go a different direction. Normally you land on your feet. That would be the case for hopefully all of our guys that we choose to go a different direction from."
For those players who make it past the upcoming cuts – especially the young ones who are first realizing their NFL dreams – this weekend is important as a last opportunity to recharge before the games start to count.
"I think this weekend is important for guys," said Smith. "If you look at the guys that we are going to go to bat with next week, especially some of our younger players. They're pretty much put in a college season you could say right now with the amount of reps they've gotten. I think it's good to take a step back, refresh your mind and your body and get ready to go. You've made it to this point, now it's on."
And for Smith, and Licht and all those in the personnel department who have maintained the team's scouting reports since the last draft, it will be most definitely be on when the waiver wire hits on Saturday night.