The Tampa Bay Buccaneers must shrink their roster from 75 players to 53 by Saturday, and they'll have one last chance to figure out how to do that on Thursday night.
The Buccaneers conclude their 2015 preseason slate with a visit to Miami, but that game also marks the end of a long evaluation process that began in July with the opening of training camp. It's true that the team has already decided how a majority of that 53-man regular-season roster will look; it's also true that there are still multiple spots up for grabs, with 48 hours to go until the final cuts.
The Dolphins' projected first team offense and defense for 2015 according to the team's depth chart (via MiamiDolphins.com).
"We've had a good training camp, good preseason games so far, we got a lot of good evaluation in," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "We know the direction we want to go to start the season, to prepare for Tennessee next week. But we don't have all of our roster set and this fourth preseason game is very important to get one final look at a group of players that we want to see. It is close at certain positions, so we're excited about playing the Dolphins tonight."
One position that is more crowded than usual in the 11th hour of the preseason is placekicker. The Buccaneers have three men vying for (presumably) one spot after trading for former Detroit kicker Kyle Brindza earlier in the week. Incumbent Patrick Murray is dealing with a minor injury and won't play and the team already has a good feel for Connor Barth, who handled its kicking job from 2009-12. That means Brindza is likely to see plenty of action against the Dolphins.
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"We've seen Kyle in practice and his leg is as advertised: strong," said Smith. "But we want to see him in a game situation tonight. So we're excited about that part, too. Whether it be punter or kicker, our kicking game as a whole, we know we need to improve it and that's what we're going to do."
The decision would appear to be made at punter, where another trio was trimmed earlier in the week to one man still standing: first-year man Jacob Schum. Of course, Schum needs to continue to impress in the job to hold onto it long-term, like Michael Koenen did from 2011-14. The Bucs are confident their new punter will be able to do so.
"You start training camp and you don't know for sure who will end up at certain positions, but you put everybody in a position to show you," said Smith. "That's what happened. Michael Koenen, one of our captains last year, has done a great job for the Buccaneers for a long time, but it was time for us to go in another direction and we're excited about Jacob Schum."
The kicking game will likely constitute only about 15% of the snaps on Thursday night, but it's still hard to overstate the importance of that phase of the game to the young hopefuls trying to survive Saturday's cuts. It's not just the kickers, as good work as a cover man on punts and kickoffs can solidify a role for a rookie linebacker or safety. In addition, the return game appears to still be up for grabs, with rookie receivers Kaelin Clay, Rannell Hall and Adam Humphries all in the mix.
Photos of the Buccaneers as they leave team facilities for Miami.
The Bucs' depth chart at receiver is still a little murky after Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans and Louis Murphy, particularly with Kenny Bell currently sidelined by a hamstring strain. Clay, Hall or Humphries could earn a spot on Thursday night, as could several other newcomers.
"When I talk about getting evaluations of some of those players at certain positions that we need to see, get one final look, yes, receiver is one of those positions," said Smith. All three of those players [above] have all had their moments where they've done something that we like. We have an idea of the direction we'd like to go but we want them to confirm it tonight."
Though it is likely that both teams will limit most of their starters or hold them out entirely, the Buccaneers did not release a pregame list of scratches. The Dolphins identified two players who will definitely not play: CB Jamar Taylor and T Jason Fox.
Smith did mention, however, that several starters or potential starters at safety would see a good amount of action. Bradley McDougald won't play thanks to a very minor knee ailment, but Chris Conte, D.J. Swearinger and Major Wright will continue to fight for starting jobs.
"[McDougald] has a little knee injury that he's nursing a little bit – he could play Sunday if he had to – so we'll hold him out," said Smith. "The rest of the guys we want to play. Chris Conte came off an injury last week and did some good things but he needs some playing time."
Smith, General Manager Jason Licht and their support staffs still have a number of decisions to make in the next two days, and they need Thursday's game to provide some of the final necessary evidence. They expect some of those decisions to be very difficult, indeed, and for a good reason.
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"I guess if you don't like anybody that's not a good thing," said Smith. "But we do like our players, we like quite a few of them, and it is close. That's why we want to keep the competition going right up to [the final cuts]."
The Buccaneers take on the Dolphins in the final week of the 2015 preseason on Thursday night, with kickoff scheduled for 7:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played Sun Life Stadium and will be broadcast in the Bay area on television by WFLA News Channel 8 and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.