The Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned to the practice field on Sunday, two days after defeating the Miami Dolphins, 16-14, in a preseason contest at Raymond James Stadium. With training camp officially wrapped, the Buccaneers appear to be transitioning to a practice structure more like what they will do in the regular season, complete with scout-team work. That underscores that for several dozen players, time is starting to run short.
The Buccaneers are halfway through their preseason schedule and the league-wide cut-down to 53-man rosters is only 13 days away. Late last week, Head Coach Bruce Arians suggested that he had a good idea how to trim down to about 60 players, but that still leaves some hard decisions in the next two weeks. Arians also noted that some young players still had an opportunity to shake up the picture in his head during the final three (and now two) preseason outings.
For some roster hopefuls who might currently be on the bubble, their path to the land of 53 may hinge not on beating out men in front of them on the depth chart but on convincing the team to expand the depth chart at their specific positions. And that's a zero-sum game: If the Bucs go heavier than anticipated at one position, they have to go lighter at another one.
As an example, the Buccaneers leading pass-catcher through two games is first-year tight end Tanner Hudson, who has caught 13 passes for 177 yards. In fact, Hudson leads all NFL players in catches and receiving yards in this preseason, and his two touchdown grabs are tied for the top spot. On Friday, Hudson scored the Bucs' only touchdown of the game, briefly giving them a 13-6 lead in the fourth quarter.
But Hudson is trying to join one of the most talented tight end groups in the NFL. The Bucs are set with their starting duo of O.J. Howard and Cam Brate, and third-year player Antony Auclair has been entrenched for a season-and-a-half as the third tight end with a knack for blocking. If the new coaching staff is as pleased with that trio as the previous one was, then the opportunity for Hudson (or Jordan Leggett or Scott Orndoff) will need to come in the form of a fourth tight end spot among the final 53. That could mean one fewer wide receiver or linebacker makes the team.
Arians noted that his previous teams have kept four tight ends in the regular season before.
"We have a bunch of times, because we're a two-tight end offense," he said. "The blocking and the special teams has to pick up to beat out that other guy, whether it's the fifth linebacker or fifth corner – whoever it is – on special teams," said Arians of Hudson's battle for a roster spot.
Like many, many young players on the roster, Hudson can't be sure of his fate regarding the 53-man roster with two weeks left until decision day. He can however, be sure that he's giving it his best shot, and that he truly is getting a shot.
"This preseason I feel like [I have] an honest shot to go through and show what I'm capable of doing," said Hudson after Friday's game. "Just trying to put my talent out there. I like to think that I go out there every snap and give it my all for these guys, because I think they're doing the exact same thing for me."
If the Buccaneers do keep a fourth tight end (or more), might they try to keep the overall skill-position numbers the same by going one lighter in the backfield? The problem there is that another first-year player, Dare Ogunbowale, is making a good case for inclusion, as well. The Bucs seem certain to retain Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones, so the question is whether Ogunbowale, veteran Andre Ellington and rookie Bruce Anderson are competing for one spot or two.
Ogunbowale had 88 yards from scrimmage against the Dolphins, including a 41-yard catch-and-run in the fourth quarter that set up a game-tying field goal, and he has both of the Bucs' rushing touchdowns so far. He also had a special teams tackle in the opener at Pittsburgh and he has apparently pleased the coaches in a category that does not show up on the stat page.
"Oh, [his case] is really strong," said Arians. "He's probably our second-best pass protector. I think he did miss one blitz tonight. Sometimes, he gets a little itchy to get out [of the backfield]. Obviously, he had the wrong shoes or he scores on the screen. Then, he also [would have] scored on the one run where he falls down there on the four [yard line]. But, he has made a real strong case."
(On how tight end Tanner Hudson helping his chances of making the team)
"[By] coming up with catches. He hurts himself when he gets beat on third-and-1 and we don't make the first down. But, if he learned to block, he could be an asset, because can really run and catch."
If the Buccaneers go four-deep at both running back and tight end, they may be constricted to just five receivers, rather than six. And after the apparent top three of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Brett Perriman, the rest of the battle seems to be wide open. The wideouts in that part of the competition would obviously like to convince the decision-makers that they have at least six worth keeping, but the fourth and fifth spots may not even be set in stone yet.
"Yeah, Scotty [Miller] needs to get back out there – he's missing valuable time, but we don't want him before he's ready," said Arians. "[DaMarkus] Lodge is getting back out there. We claimed Emmanuel Hall, who I liked coming out of the draft. Snelly [Spencer Schnell] has done a good job, A.J. (Anthony Johnson) has done a good job – those guys are battling for that fifth spot. Bobo [Wilson] is having a heck of a camp. We've kind of limited him – he's was playing three positions, now he's playing one and he's excelling at it."
Of course, while the positional numbers must add up to 53 by 4:00 p.m. on August 31, that doesn't mean it has be a zero-sum game on offense or defense. Rather than taking, say, a running back spot to deepen the tight end position, the Bucs could instead rob from a unit on defense. They could, for example, pare their eight inside linebackers down to five or six. Again, though, the players at that position aren't exactly making things easy. Arians specifically singled out Kevin Minter and Jack Cichy as two defenders who had strong outings against the Dolphins. The most important thing for any player in this fight for the last five or six places among the 53 is to show they bring added value on special teams, regardless of where else they are on the depth chart.
"The fourth tight end or fifth corner – all those guys that come in from 48 [players] to 53 [players], one's got to beat out the other one," said Arians, "and special teams usually decides."
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