The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will officially "break camp" after one more practice on Thursday, even if they've already transitioned to a regular-season weekly schedule. Two days later, the Buccaneers will play their final tune-up game before that regular season, and three days after that, the team will trim its roster from 80 men down to 53.
In other words, it's crunch time for any of those 80 players who might not yet be securely in the 53-man picture.
Head Coach Bruce Arians has said on multiple occasions that the first 30 to 35 spots on that regular-season roster are secure. There are likely another eight to 10 players who are unlikely to be cut but might still be battling for a certain role or share of the snaps. What will be decided over the next six days will be the outcome of five to 10 roster spots, plus the 16-man practice squad that will take shape after the cuts.
Some of the remaining battles are easy to pinpoint and Arians touched on a number of them Wednesday after practice. For instance, if the Buccaneers choose to keep a fifth inside linebacker – they ran with just four all of last season – that battle will come down to rookie seventh-rounder Grant Stuard and offseason veteran pickup Joe Jones. Fifth-round rookie K.J. Britt has separated himself from those two for the fourth spot behind Lavonte David, Devin White and Kevin Minter.
"Again, defense – you've got to play defense – and then special teams," said Arians of the Stuard-Jones battle. "Joe has a résumé, Grant doesn't. But Grant has one from college, so that's a huge battle."
This competition will take on an extra edge if the Buccaneers are leaning towards keeping just four inside linebackers again. One of Arians' comments after practice seemed to frame this as a possibility.
"[It's] really close," he said. "K.J. kind of separated himself a little bit as a linebacker. All of those guys are fighting for the same – three dogs, one bone."
Jones notably had a pick-six in the Bucs' preseason opener against Cincinnati but Stuard has helped himself on special teams this week, according to Arians. And special teams will be a determining factor in all of the battles for the last half-dozen roster spots.
"It's all about special teams," said Arians. "Who shines the best, who covers kicks, who can block on returns. There's a lot to it. You have just one coverage unit, but I can't block anybody in an open field it's not going to help us either. Those are the battles that are going down to the wire."
That's certainly going to be the case at the cornerback position, where the Bucs are trying to replace one of their few departed players from last year's Super Bowl-winning roster, special teams ace Ryan Smith. Similarly, one of the few veteran additions to that roster was former Kansas City cornerback Antonio Hamilton, who has extensive experience in the kick-and-coverage game. He's also shown the ability to play in the slot on defense though Arians would like his reserve corners to be more position flexible.
"[He's] pretty consistent – outside isn't his forte, inside is," said the coach. "He's a solid special teams player. He has a résumé on special teams. He's in one of those battles also."
The Buccaneers have a solid top three at cornerback in Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean, and Ross Cockrell returns as the team's valuable and versatile fourth corner. If the Bucs keep five corners that last spot comes down to Hamilton, first-year man Herb Miller, veteran addition Dee Delaney and seventh-round pick Chris Wilcox. Arians said that Miller missing time during OTAs probably contributed to him progressing less than expected in camp, but Delaney has had his moments this month.
"He's in that handful of seven guys," said Arians of Delaney. "He's done some really good things. He's done some nice things as a gunner. He had his flashes and just looking for some consistency on all of those guys."
Arians recently said the Buccaneers would be keeping either 10 linebackers or 10 cornerbacks; presumably the other group will have to roll with nine. The secondary could be split into five corners and five safeties and be particularly flexible given Cockrell's successful cross-training at safety in this year's camp.
"That's position flexibility, especially on gameday, to be able to play three positions." Said Arians. "If there is another special teams player either on offense or in another position that's really contributing then you can go with lesser DBs in a game."
On offense, one of the obvious battles is for the fourth tight end spot, assuming the Buccaneers choose to start the season with four of them. Tanner Hudson is the incumbent in that role and has led the team in receiving through the preseason so far but Arians has been critical of his blocking. He's battling with Codey McElroy and Jerell Adams, and McElroy might be showing better in that blocking category at the moment.
"He's gotten better and better – good effort, [he is] learning," said Arians of McElroy. "He's gotten much better in this camp."
The Bucs' sixth receiver spot could come down to the punt and kickoff return jobs, and rookie Jaelon Darden was very obviously featured in those roles in the second preseason game last weekend. That competition includes the incumbent, Jaydon Mickens, and possibly third-year wideout Scotty Miller, though Miller hasn't gotten his shot in a game yet. Despite Darden getting all three punt returns against Tennessee, Arians said the job is not currently his to lose.
"No, it's his job to win," said Arians. "I know what Mick can do. I've seen Mick for a while now. I want to see a little bit more out of Scotty to have a chance. It's probably [Darden's] job to win rather than his to lose."