Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Depth Chart Decisions as the Season Approaches | S.S. Mailbag

This week, Bucs fans have questions about QBs Kyle Trask and Ryan Griffin, the waiver wire process, the running back hierarchy and more

trask ss mailbag

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made their roster cuts on Tuesday, along with the rest of the league, to get down to the regular-season limit of 53 active players. Soon, the Buccaneers will welcome back into the AdventHealth Training Center a good number of those players waived or released as they form the first iteration of their 2021 practice squad.

Last year, the NFL expanded practice squad limits to 16 players as part of an overall effort to increase roster flexibility during the pandemic. Since that remains an ongoing issue a year later, the league is sticking with that super-sized squad. That plus the rule in the new CBA that allows for game-day elevations of practice squad players to the active roster has made that unit even more important than ever. That particular rule was put in place before the pandemic, but it was later altered to allow for more elevations to replace players out due to COVID-19.

The Bucs definitely made use of that flexibility last year. Most notably, they carried only seven offensive linemen on the 53-man roster through part of the postseason after guard Alex Cappa got hurt in the Wild Card round. That would be unheard of before the new rules, but the Bucs could do it because they could simply bring up an eighth lineman (Ted Larsen) for each game.

So what can we expect from this year's opening-week practice squad, which the Buccaneers began forming by officially signing 10 players on Wednesday? Well, these were the first 16 players on the practice squad last year: G Zack Bailey, RB Kenjon Barner, S D'Cota Dixon, WR Cyril Grayson, S Javon Hagan, TE Tanner Hudson, K Greg Joseph, DL Jeremiah Ledbetter, G Nick Leverett, CB Herb Miller, WR Josh Pearson, DL Benning Potoa'e, QB Josh Rosen, ILB Chapelle Russell, C Zach Shackelford and CB Mazzi Wilkins.

Of those 16, six were later promoted to the active roster and played in games: Barner, Grayson, Hudson, Ledbetter, Russell and Wilkins. Another three never got promoted but did play in games after being elevated: Hagan, Miller and Potoa'e. Two more got elevated for a single game but did not play: Joseph and Pearson. That leaves just five of the original 16 who didn't play or at least get elevated as insurance for a position hit by injuries or COVID worries: Bailey, Dixon, Leverett, Rosen and Shackelford.

It would be an exaggeration to say those nine players above who played in games made enormous contributions. Barner was the team's return man for about a month after Jaydon Mickens went on the COVID list, but he ended the season on injured reserve after returning a total of 20 punts and kickoffs. Grayson appeared in three games but did not catch a pass. Hudson became the fourth tight end after the injury to O.J. Howard but had just three catches for 41 yards. Ledbetter played sparingly in three games, recording three tackles and one sack. Russell got into 11 games but almost exclusively on special teams, logging a total of three defensive snaps. Wilkins was on the practice squad for one week, was promoted for the second game and then was cut, later to return to the practice squad.

Probably the most impactful use of that roster flexibility for the Bucs last year came at the end of the season and in the postseason when the team was working around a number of injuries in the secondary. With cornerback Carlton Davis out for two games, Miller got elevated twice and even secured an interception in the Week 16 win at Detroit. Later, when safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. was unavailable for the NFC Championship Game, the Bucs elevated Hagan and were glad they did when safety Jordan Whitehead also left that game with an injury. Hagan didn't get in on defense in that game but he was the last line of defense if either Mike Edwards or Andrew Adams had gone down.

Of course, aside from offering the ability to patch temporary holes on the depth chart, the practice squad is and will always remain a useful way to develop players who may help in the future. Of those first 16 practice squadders from 2020, the player who has emerged as the best example of this is second-year guard Nick Leverett, who was originally an undrafted rookie out of Rice. Leverett spent almost the entire 2020 season on the Bucs' practice squad (more on that here), then came back to training camp this summer and opened a lot of eyes on the coaching staff. In fact, he performed so well at a variety of positions on the line that he made the opening-week 53-man roster on Tuesday.

Somewhere in this year's first 16 practice squad players is a similar story waiting to happen. And almost surely several of those players will be called on to help at some point during the 2021 season. Now we just wait to see how it all unfolds.

And now on to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Will Trask get any game time snaps this season?
@bucs_uk (via Instagram)

…and…

Could Ryan Griffin end up on the practice squad and what other teams could sign him?
- @griffin.greatness (via Instagram)

I grouped these two together because I figured that would allow me to just discuss the Bucs' quarterback situation as a whole.

To recap, for anyone who missed Tuesday's news, the Buccaneers cut their roster down to the regular-season limit of 53 players and kept three quarterbacks in that group: Tom Brady, Blaine Gabbert and rookie Kyle Trask. None of this was particularly surprising; Brady is the undisputed starter (duh), Gabbert was always ahead in the battle to be his primary backup and Trask is a potential successor to Brady somewhere down the line. There was no way that the team was going to cut a promising quarterback it just drafted in the second round, nor was it going to keep four quarterbacks on the active roster. So it was always between Gabbert and Griffin to get the other QB spot, and when Griffin didn't play in the preseason finale it was pretty obvious what would happen on Tuesday.

I take it from the Instagram handle of the second questioner that he or she would have preferred Griffin make the cut instead. He didn't, but it has been an impressive run for him as a Buccaneer in a way, and it may not be over yet. A waiver claim from the Saints early in 2015, Griffin stuck with the Bucs for six straight years, which believe it or not matches Trent Dilfer as the most consecutive seasons any quarterback has been with the team.

By the way, the Browns also put in a claim on Griffin when the Saints cut him but the Buccaneers had the top spot in the claim order after going 2-14 the year before. That record also got Tampa Bay the first pick in the 2015 draft, which they used on Jameis Winston. So Winston and Griffin came in the same year, and Griffin actually outlasted the number-one pick in Tampa!

Other than half of 2017 spent on injured reserve, Griffin spent those entire six seasons on the active roster, signing three new contracts along the way. However, his tenure could possibly continue in Tampa in another way, as our questioner brings up. If both the team and the player are willing, Griffin could be signed to the practice squad, giving the Bucs a fourth passer for practices and potential availability if disaster strikes the quarterback position. The Buccaneers did carry a fourth quarterback on the practice squad all last year – first Josh Rosen then Drew Stanton – and both the pandemic and the expanded practice squad rules are still with us this year, so logic suggests they will do so again in 2021. What obviously makes Griffin attractive to fill that role is that he has had two years of work in Bruce Arians' offense. Griffin said earlier in the offseason that he would consider anything, including the practice squad, depending upon how things shook out.

(EDITOR'S NOTE: This mailbag was written before the Buccaneers announced their first 10 practice squad signings but posted later. Ryan Griffin was one of those 10 player signed on Wednesday afternoon.)

The flip side of Griffin's tenure with the team and knowledge of the offense is that he has gotten almost no regular-season playing time during those six years (plus two on the Saints' practice squad). He threw four passes in one short stint in a game late in 2019, completing two for 18 yards. That's what makes predicting other possible landing spots for him difficult. The familiarity that makes him attractive in Tampa doesn't really apply anywhere else – maaaaybe New Orleans – so it would all just be based on his talents as a quarterback. Obviously he has those or he wouldn't have stayed on Tampa Bay's roster for six years and across three different coaching staffs. But he also doesn't have much film for other teams to look at, apart from preseason work, the value of which can be hard to judge.

Every team has made its cutdown to 53 at this point, and while rosters are always fluid you have to think most teams have decided how many quarterbacks they want to keep on their active roster. Some teams, like the Bucs, will carry three passers on the 53 but others, like the Panthers, are rolling with just two. Those latter teams will almost certainly carry at least one other quarterback on the practice squad, if for nothing else than to run the scout team in practice. I doubt many teams would want to add to their QB numbers on the active roster, so we'd be talking about Griffin replacing some team's second or third-team passer. And, again, that's where this exercise gets difficult because it's very possible that Griffin is better than some of the current backup quarterbacks out there, but it's just hard to prove with any game tape.

One thing you should look at when trying to guess a potential landing spot for a suddenly-available quarterback is where his former coaches are now working. If Dirk Koetter was still in Atlanta that would have been a logical thought but there's a whole new staff there in 2021. Lovie Smith is back in the NFL with the Houston Texans but I'm not sure how much pull the defensive coordinator would have on deciding the team's third-string quarterback. Griffin's quarterbacks coach before Clyde Christensen was Mike Bajakian, who is currently the offensive coordinator at Northwestern. As a Northwestern grad and a Bajakian fan, I find that interesting but it's not much help to Griff.

Would another team be interested in Griffin starting out on their practice squad? That certainly seems possible. Stanton was just sitting out there for the Buccaneers last year after not throwing a pass in three seasons. Stanton had a bit more experience on his resume than Griffin, including 17 starts, but not a ton overall. Crucially, he had previously played for Arians in Arizona. The only connection Griffin has that resembles that is with Sean Payton in New Orleans. However, just like the Buccaneers the Saints are keeping a player they just drafted, Ian Book, as their third quarterback, choosing him over veteran Trevor Siemian. Logically, if the Saints wanted to keep a fourth QB on their practice squad, they would just turn to Siemian (assuming he claims waivers) over Griffin.

Beyond that, there's really no way of me knowing what other teams might be interested. Except for one, that is: The Buccaneers. Personally, I'm hoping that's the outcome.

As for Trask, the second half of the Houston preseason game is probably the last significant playing time (or any playing time) he will get until next summer. Believe me, no matter how much you love the rookie's potential or how big of a Gator rooter you are, you do not want Trask throwing passes during the 2021 regular season if you are a Buccaneers fan (which I'm assuming you are, given your Instagram handle).

That's no knock on Trask, of course. I thought he showed some promise in the preseason, and definitely showed poise. I'm excited that the Buccaneers are at least trying to develop a young quarterback for the future. But if he is in a regular season game this fall it will mean some very bad things have befallen the Buccaneers.

This is a team that is all-in on pursuing a repeat Super Bowl championship. Jason Licht re-signed every notable player from last year's team that even thought about walking out the door. After the roster cuts on Tuesday, the team kept 15 players who are already 30 years or older, plus one more (Giovani Bernard) who will soon hit his 30s. Tom Brady may only play two more seasons in a Buccaneers uniform, or at all, though it's very important to have that "may" qualifier in there when it comes to Brady.

So Brady is the starter barring anything extremely unfortunate and it seems clear that Gabbert would be the next man in. As long as those two are healthy, Trask is almost certain to be inactive for every game, which means he couldn't even get into a blowout in garbage time. I'm not going to put into writing what it would take for Trask to get playing time in that scenario because I don't want to mess with the football gods, but you know what I'm getting at. Let's just put that thought out of our mind and move on, and continue to think about Trask being on the field in the long term.

Who is going to be the starting RB this year?

- @daithimccloskey93 (via Instagram)

…and…

Scott,

Are the Buccaneers better offensively with Gio Bernard in the lineup? He is reported to be an excellent blocker, great receiver both running routes and catching the football, and an underrated runner. He is slated to be the third down back, but is there any thinking with the coaching staff that his role could grow?

-- James P. Taylor (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Man, I'm bundling things together in this mailbag like I'm Flo from Progressive!

These two are about a similar topic, though I get the first one all the time and I don't think I've seen the second suggestion before. For the first one, if you've read my mailbags before or watched Casey Phillips and me on Bucs Insider Live you can probably predict my answer. If so, you can just skip ahead a bit because I'm going to say the same thing I've said multiple times before on the Bucs' starting running back.

And that is: It doesn't really matter.

Arians has already said that he considers both Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette to be starters. No starters played in the middle preseason game but Fournette started the first one and Jones started the third one. They both showed last year that they were capable of carrying the load as a feature back but I am convinced that Arians and his staff want to split that load between them in 2021. Jones had something like a two-to-one advantage in carries during the 2020 regular season, but after Fournette's incredible offseason explosion I would expect that to be closer to 50-50 this year. Sure, Arians will ride the hot hand at times but he said last week that when one of those two starts you might see the other one in on the second series.

Sure, somebody has to be on the field for the first offensive snap and thus be the official 'starter,' but that not might be the same guy every week. When the Bucs put out their first depth chart in August, Jones was in the first spot at running back, so I'll go with him as my official answer. But again, I don't think it matters much, though I'll concede that it probably matters to some degree to Jones and Fournette.

Now, James P. Taylor here isn't necessarily advocating that the Buccaneers start newcomer Giovani Bernard over both Jones and Fournette but it seems like he'd like to see the former Bengal be more than a third-down back. Everybody here has definitely fallen in love with Bernard, but I don't think I'm on board with your premise, James. It seems to me that third-down (and hurry-up) back is the perfect role for the ninth-year veteran, and exactly what he was brought in to do.

The first three Bernard strengths you mention – blocking, route-running and pass-catching – are exactly why he's the team's best third-down option. So his role growing and him taking snaps away from Jones and Fournette depend on the last one, his – as you say – underrated running skills. I'm not sure I've heard Bernard described as an underrated runner, and I don't mean that as an insult. I feel like he's properly rated as a capable and good runner between the tackles who is also a very good receiving back. Maybe that career-long description as a great pass-catching back has caused people to overlook his talents as a runner, but I don't think the Buccaneers consider him a better option for the bulk of the carries than Jones and Fournette.

Over his first eight seasons, Bernard averaged 462.1 rushing yards per season and 4.0 yards per carry. Over the last three of those years, he has averaged 265.7 per season and 3.4 yards per carry. Sure, those seasonal rushing totals are dictated by how his coaches have chosen to use him, but I don't think the outlook in Tampa in 2021 is different than it was during those Cincinnati seasons. For years he complemented running backs like Jeremy Hill and Joe Mixon; now it's Jones and Fournette.

Bernard got one carry during the preseason, and it came on a third-and-one. I don't care that he was stuffed for no gain on the play; the Buccaneers were barely able to run the ball at all no matter who was in the backfield during the preseason, apart from one drive in Houston. What I do care about, in terms of this suggestion, is what it means about Bernard's likely role. He was on the field for a third-down play and the Bucs decided to run it. He did not get a carry on any first or second down.

There are quite a few people around here who are excited about a new dimension that Bernard can bring to an already lethal offense. That's great. I don't think the plan is to have him expand that role and significantly eat into the carries for Jones and Fournette.

How is AB looking from a fantasy perspective?
- @aidanwmatter (via Instagram)

Like an interesting mid-round sleeper, I would say. Or at least, that's what I would have said before I just looked up Brown's fantasy ranking on three sites: Yahoo!, ESPN and NFL.com. I think I might have to drop that sleeper notion; he now looks a solid pick somewhere around the seventh or eighth round that you might have to move on a little earlier if you really want him.

NFL.com is by far the most bullish of those three sources on Brown, ranking him 29th among receivers and 76th overall. (I'm using PPR rankings for all of these because that's what you should be playing; that or half-PPR.) The 76th pick puts you early in the seventh round in a 12-team league. In this ranking, Brown is right between Minnesota's Adam Thielen and Baltimore's Marquise Brown. Personally, I would take Antonio over Marquise but Thielen would be a close call.

Yahoo! likes Antonio Brown, too, putting him 34th in their receiver rankings and 87th overall. That's in the early-eighth round range. He's bracketed on their receiver list by Denver's Courtland Sutton and San Francisco's Deebo Samuel. I'd be fine landing any of those guys in the eighth round.

ESPN ranks Brown 48th among receivers and 93rd overall, which still puts you in the eighth round, but now at the back end. On this list he is right in between Mike Williams and Jaylen Waddle. So what do you want, the Charger who has averaged about 630 yards and four touchdowns per season, the Miami rookie who could end up with a very wide range of results, or Brown, who is in a loaded offense but has an incredible fantasy pedigree? In that group, I'm going Brown. I fear in a draft held in Tampa, with more than a few Bucs fans involved, I'd have to strike a little earlier than the late eighth.

Case in point, I had two drafts on back-to-back nights last week, with about three or four overlapping managers in the two leagues. Brown went with the sixth pick of the eighth round in the first draft, then went with the first pick of the seventh round the following night. Did somebody wise up in the second draft and move on him a little earlier?

Maybe more important than these site rankings is ADP, or average draft position. In other words, on average where is your guy getting taken in actual drafts. I found a site that aggregated six different fantasy drafting platforms and averaged their ADPs. Brown's ADP is 40th among receivers and 93rd overall. So late eighth round.

True story, when I turned to another screen to look up those rankings as I started this answer, I went to the ESPN fantasy page first and, staring me right in the face was a picture of Antonio Brown (and Tom Brady) over a headline that read, "Predicting one potential surprise for all 32 NFL teams: Bucs' Top WR, RB rotations to know and more." It's behind the ESPN+ paywall so I won't bother linking it here, but the author, Dan Graziano, states, "Don't be surprised if … Antonio Brown is the Bucs' most productive receiver." Graziano goes on to say that he's not forgetting about Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but that "Tom Brady loves Antonio Brown."

Alright, interesting. I'm a tiny bit skeptical because I actually think Godwin is going to be Brady's favorite target this year. But if Graziano ends up being right then Brown will return something like third-round value, and if you can get that in the seventh or eighth round that's a big win.

Scott,

Could you please explain the difference between a player being waived and a player being released?

Thank you,

Joel (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com*)*

I would be delighted, Joel.

Basically what it comes down to is that you get released (the actual word used when teams report transactions is "terminated") if you're a vested veteran and waived if you're not. You have to have four seasons of accrued free agency credit to be a vested veteran. So when the Bucs made their moves on Tuesday, a player like Ryan Griffin was released while a player like Travis Jonsen was waived.

There is a significant functional difference between those two ways of being cut from the roster. When a vested veteran is released he immediately becomes a free agent and can sign with any team. When a non-vested player is waived, he has to pass through the waiver process, with every other team getting the option to "claim" him. If multiple teams put in a claim, the team highest in the claim order (based on the standings, or at this point of the year, last year's standings) gets the player.

A team that successfully claims a player off waivers also inherits whatever contract he had with the team that cut him. If no teams put in a claim, that player then becomes a free agent and can sign with any team.

So on Tuesday, hundreds of players around the league were waived leading up to the 4:00 p.m. ET deadline. The league compiled all the moves and then sent back the waiver wire to all the teams at 7:00 p.m. Every team then had until noon on Wednesday to put in claims on players. This year, the Buccaneers did not claim any players off that wire, but they did have one of their waived players, cornerback Chris Wilcox, claimed by the Indianapolis Colts.

There is an exception to this process for vested veterans. After the in-season trade deadline and until the end of that season, vested veterans also have to go through the waiver process. I assume this is to keep teams from circumventing that deadline with a de facto trade in which one team cuts a veteran and he immediately signs with the team that wanted to get him.

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