The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have four practices left before they shift into regular-season mode next week. Between those two modes is one of the biggest NFL days of the year – all teams must trim their rosters to 53 active players by this Saturday at 4:00 p.m. ET.
Obviously, that adds some extra weight to these last four field sessions, including a Friday workout at Raymond James Stadium. There are jobs and roster spots still at stake, and not just one or two, according to Head Coach Bruce Arians. The loss of the offseason program and preseason games has greatly reduced the evaluation opportunities, making every remaining practice crucial.
"Probably six or eight spots [are open for contention]," said Arians on Monday. "They missed 400 reps, so we're still going in pads like it was the first week of training camp because of that missed time and guys have missed all those reps. There's still guys fighting [for] spots every day."
When Arians says his players missed 400 reps without offseason practices, he means each player missed 400 reps. The Buccaneers are doing what they can to make up for that lost time, but it simply isn't possible to get each roster candidate as much time in the spotlight as he would normally get. Last offseason, for instance, with 90-man rosters and no pandemic, Arians frequently split his squad into two separate practices running concurrently, which gave younger players and those farther down the depth chart many more reps.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Running back Raymond Calais is a rookie and a seventh-round draft pick, the type of player who could really use a preseason game or two to show he can help out on Sundays. He's not complaining about the current situation, but he knows it's not ideal.
"No, I don't feel like I've got enough opportunities to show what I'm capable of doing," said Calais. "And that's just the nature of the beast right now, dealing with COVID and not having preseason games. Most of the work has to be done in practice and there are only a certain amount of reps that we can do at practice. So it's kind of difficult just trying to get my opportunities and reps."
What many young players in Calais' position are trying to do in a compressed camp is show to Arians and Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong that they have immediate value in the third phase of the game. Those reps were considered especially important in last Friday's live-tackling scrimmage, and the kick-and-return drills will be closely scrutinized all week. There was some consideration on draft weekend that Calais could quickly win a return job with his speed and experience in that role, but as it turns out he might get his foot in the door with a different special teams talent.
"I got a few looks at returns, but mostly right now they've got me being the gunner on the punt team," said Calais. "I think Coach Armstrong is really excited about that. I did gunner two years in college, my junior and senior year. I'm pretty much good at it, so this ain't nothing new to me."
As it turns out, the Buccaneers are not yet completely set at placekicker, either. With four practices to go before cuts, the team is still carrying two of them, with incumbent Matt Gay trying to hold off a challenge from first-year kicker Elliott Fry…as well as any other kicker that is currently available and might warrant a look. Gay is confident he can provide the consistency Arians wants, but the decision is still yet to be made. For him and a number of other players who are striving for one of the last spots on the roster, Saturday's waiver wire could bring new competition.
"Both these guys have been really, really good," said Arians of Gay and Fry. "They both had a bad day or two. We'll look at some other people and see if they're any better, just like we do [with] every single position, just like the waiver wire when everybody makes their cuts. Those last five guys are never safe. I don't look at it as any different than those situations."
The competition at kicker is very binary for the Bucs right now – pick one or the other. At some other positions, it's less clear how many spots will be available in the end and how the depth chart stacks up behind the obvious front-runners. A good example is the defensive line, which boasts a starting trio of Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and Will Gholston plus a veteran camp standout in Rakeem Nunez-Roches. After those four, there are five more candidates of various backgrounds and strengths. That group includes 2019 holdovers Patrick O'Connor and Jeremiah Ledbetter, sixth-round draft pick Khalil Davis, mid-camp veteran addition Kyle Love and undrafted rookie Benning Potoa'e.
That position may be one where the Bucs have a difficult time picking one or two winners from a group in which all have done well in camp.
"All those guys have been excellent," said Arians. "Pat gives us great versatility, so he right now is also a good special teams player. Love – he's a vet, he knows how to play the game, he's a good run-stuffer. The other young guys, they're solid. I think [Khalil] Davis has really picked his stuff up and is playing the run really, really well and is rushing the passer well. I think Pat is the guy who has separated himself."
There is a little bit bigger of a cushion this year between making the team and looking for work elsewhere. What the quarantine taketh away in lost practices it also giveth back, to a smaller degree, in a practice squad that has been expanded to 16 spots. In addition, six of those spots can be used on players with any amount of accrued NFL experience. The additional spots and flexibility means that the practice squad may come in handy in different ways than it has in the past, and that could inform the outcomes of the aforementioned position battles.
"You would never anticipate having a backup punter, kicker or snapper on the practice squad with the limited numbers," said Arians. "But this is a unique year to where you could possibly have those types of players on your practice squad – preferably a guy who can punt and kick would be an eligible practice squad guy, and a player who can snap, but can also play just in case of the virus."
The Bucs and the other 31 NFL teams will begin forming those more-important-than-usual practice squads on Sunday, after the players who were released on Saturday clear waivers. That's this Saturday and Sunday. The very welcome return of NFL is right around the corner, but that corner is one that is never easy to navigate.