The Tampa Bay Buccaneers held a somewhat-abbreviated practice on Thursday morning, essentially wrapping up what can be considered the 'training camp' portion of their calendar. Next week, with a streamlined roster and a game that counts on the horizon, the Buccaneers will be in regular-season mode.
There is, however, one more competitive situation – about three hours worth on Saturday night – before the roster must be trimmed to its regular-season shape of 53 men. The Buccaneers travel to Indianapolis over the weekend to take on the Colts in their final preseason contest and the most important result from that game will not be found on the scoreboard but in the coaches' meetings the following day.
Specifically, there are still some corners of the depth chart where final decisions have yet to be made, and Head Coach Todd Bowles listed several of them after practice on Thursday.
"Left guard," Bowles began. "There's a ton of guys at the receiver spot, obviously. The corner spot has yet to be determined, starting and backing up, and backup inside 'backers and a few more special teams players. So we're looking at a lot of that this weekend."
Taking those in order, the most obvious remaining battle is at left guard, where the Buccaneers will be moving on from retired Pro Bowler Ali Marpet. The knee injury suffered by Aaron Stinnie has taken him out of that competition and left it up to mostly unproven, if promising, candidates. Rookie Luke Goedeke, the 57th-overall pick in this year's draft, could be considered the frontrunner based on the fact that he started the second preseason game there and, as revealed by Bowles on Thursday, will do so again in Indianapolis.
Still, Bowles is clearly indicating that the job is not fully won yet, which means second-year player Nick Leverett and perhaps first-year blocker Brandon Walton can still make their case for the job on Saturday. A former undrafted free agent, Walton has yet to take a regular-season snap in the NFL but he's gotten some time with the first-team line in camp and has impressed with his versatility.
"Brandon's been steady all camp," said Bowles. "He's a 'Steady Eddie' guy, he understands what he's doing, he has proper technique, he's tough and he fits the need. He can play left guard or right guard, so he's been doing well."
Walton's versatility – he can also play tackle, his college position – could help him quite a bit if he fails to win the left guard job but is still trying to stick as a reserve. The Buccaneers are likely to keep nine or 10 offensive linemen (including an injured Ryan Jensen) on the first iteration of the 53-man roster, which means there are still some cuts to make in that group.
The competition at wide receiver is less about who will start and have the most prominent roles, given a pretty obvious top four of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage and Julio Jones, and more about how many of the other talented wideouts make it through and who that will be. Cyril Grayson is out of the running after being waived/injured on Thursday but the coaches and personnel pros must still sort through the likes of Scotty Miller, Jaelon Darden, Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman and even some impressive undrafted rookies.
One of those young newcomers is Utah State's Deven Thompkins, who has been impressing the coaching staff since OTAs and continues to shine on the practice field, as do Jerreth Sterns of Western Kentucky and Kaylon Geiger of Texas Tech.
"He's been very good," said Bowles of Thompkins. "We've got a lot of talented guys over there. I'm not taking anything away from any of them. Deven has shown us toughness, he can catch the ball, he can run routes and he returns punts. He's quick. All of them have a special skillset and it just comes down to the end and how we see it and how they play. We'll see on Saturday."
Bowles' reference to the front and back ends of the cornerback depth chart indicate that Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean continue to battle for the outside corner job opposite Carlton Davis, and that the reserves are not fully set. Though he is currently out with a hamstring injury, supremely athletic fifth-round pick Zyon McCollum is very likely to earn a fourth spot in that group. Will the Bucs keep five; if so, it comes down to veteran holdovers Dee Delaney and Rashard Robinson and undrafted rookies Don Gardner and Kyler McMichael. Gardner has the Buccaneers' only interception of the preseason so far.
Meanwhile the starting duo at inside linebacker is set with Lavonte David and Devin White but four other contenders continue to battle for either two or three backup spots. That includes 2021 fifth-rounder K.J. Britt, who is considered the frontrunner for the primary backup spot to the 'MO' and 'MIKE' spots, as well as 2021 seventh-rounder Grant Stuard, who has been limited lately by a hamstring injury. Behind them are two undrafted rookies in Olakunle Fatukasi of Rutgers and J.J. Russell of Memphis.
Fatukasi, whose older brother Folorunso currently plays for the Jaguars and was originally drafted by Bowles' New York Jets, is the team's leading tackler in the preseason and he had 1.5 sacks last Saturday in Nashville. His teammates and coaches call him by his nickname, 'OThreee.'
"'OThreee' has made a name for himself out of his brother's shadow," said Bowles. "I knew the person because I met him at Rutgers one time when I went to see my son. But he's made a name for himself despite his brother and he's put himself in the mix and in a good position."
As Bowles noted, there are special teams spots to be sewn up as well, such as punt gunner and other coverage spots on kicking plays, and those decisions will factor heavily into positional battles, particularly for young players. Injuries are necessarily part of the decision-making process, too, and they can be a complicating factor. For instance, Stuard's injury and how long his absence is expected to be could push the Bucs to go one deeper at that position.
"It's very tricky," said Bowles. "There's a lot of guys that had a lot of time. 'OThreee' – Fatukasi – and J.J. have played well. Grant's a good [special] teams player, K.J. [Britt] is in there, too, so this game will tell a lot."
Indeed, Saturday's game could tell the Bucs what to do with their last five or six roster spots and the remaining starting jobs that are up for grabs. All eyes will turn to the regular season and the Dallas Cowboys next week, but before that there is one more brightly-lit stage for those roster hopefuls.