Sterling Moore moved inside, Isaiah Frey moved outside and Leonard Johnson, regrettably, moved to the sideline on crutches.
With just over two weeks to go until their regular-season opener, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are still in the process of arranging their depth chart at the cornerback position. That's a process complicated by the internal classification of the nickel back as a third quasi-starter, and by the ankle injury suffered by Johnson in Monday's win over the Cincinnati Bengals. Also regrettable, but necessary: Several of the corners on the 90-man roster will have to move on from the team when that group is trimmed down to 53.
Incumbent starters Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks seem to be secure in those spots, but it is not yet decided who will get the nickel job and who will provide the very critical depth at the two outside cornerback positions. With Johnson out for an as-yet-unspecified length of time, the favorite to answer that first question is Moore, while the second question will hinge on the health of certain veterans and the development of certain youngsters.
"I think it's still up in the air to a degree," said Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier about the arrangement of the depth chart. "We had two preseason games. I think this third game hopefully will help to find a little bit. Unfortunately losing Leonard means that Sterling has to play more at the nickel. He was a guy we were kind of pegging for a guy to compete for that third or fourth spot. Now that means Mike Jenkins has to stay healthy for us and keep improving. We have some other young guys that we are working with. We want to see Brandon Dixon continue to improve as well. It's still in flux in a lot of ways. There is nothing definitive when it comes to our third or fourth corner at this point."
Moore already spent a great deal of time working at the outside corner spots in the offseason and at the start of camp, and that was essentially the role he played with the Dallas Cowboys last year. If he is the primary nickel, however, the Bucs will want to make sure they have backups for Verner and Banks with which they feel comfortable. Improving the depth at those positions was a stated goal for the Buccaneers' coaching staff during the offseason.
Jenkins, the most experienced corner on the roster, is the most obvious figure who could give the Bucs that depth, but he missed almost all of last season after suffering a knee injury in the season opener. The Buccaneers will hope that was a fluke and that Jenkins will be there to fill in when needed. The team was also trying Frey on the outside after using him in the slot for most of the offseason, but Johnson's absence will probably force the third-year vet to focus on his original role for now.
"That's what we're going to end up having to do," said Frazier. "We had [Frey] at corner for this last ball game and we wanted to take a look at him there, but with Leonard being down we have to move him back to nickel. He will get his reps at nickel this ball game."
- As the starting middle linebacker on Monday night, Kwon Alexander wore the receiver in his helmet that allowed the coaches to send in defensive play calls. Alexander was responsible for getting his 11 into position every snap, a job that usually falls to the "MIKE," and he had the ups and downs in that role one might expect from a rookie making his first start.
Whether Alexander will continue to assume that role in the regular season, as Lavonte David did in 2012 even though he was playing his usual weakside linebacker position, remains to be seen. The Bucs obviously hope to see steady improvement from Alexander but they also could go back to David as the play-caller if necessary.
"As he plays, he'll get better at what we are asking him to do," said Frazier. "We think he is going to turn into a good middle linebacker for us. I don't know if you can completely say at this point when we line up on September 13th that he's going to be the one that's relaying all the calls and making all the checks. You still have Lavonte out there on the field. He did that for us at times a season ago. I could easily see that still being the case, at least early on, but we'll see. We'll see how Kwon progresses."
- Wide receiver Mike Evans has been shut down for the remainder of the preseason due to a hamstring injury, and that's alright with him. Evans said on Thursday that he felt he could be ready to roll in the regular season even with no more in-game work in between. In reality, Evans will be missing just one game (plus practices) because starters generally see little to no playing time in the preseason finale.
"I'm just trying to get back for Week One," said Evans. "If I necessarily had to [play now], yes, but it's not necessary so I won't be playing."
Evans obviously doesn't need to prove he can handle starting in the NFL after his 1,051-yard, 12-touchdown performance as a rookie last fall. However, he is trying to establish a connection with a new quarterback, and a rookie one at that.
A look back at Mike Evans' rookie season in Tampa Bay.
"I think we'll be great for Week One," said Evans. "We're both professionals."
The second-year pass-catcher is also learning a new offense under Dirk Koetter, along with the rest of his teammates, but that's a plus rather than a minus in Evans' opinion. Koetter's attack will be putting Evans into a position – specifically, the X receiver – that has the potential to make him even more of a focal point.
"I just feel more comfortable with this offense," he said. "There are a lot of plays to be made in this offense. It's hard to stop this offense, and I'm playing 'X' this year. That's why I like it more, playing the X, you get more opportunities and things like that. We've made strides this preseason and we're looking to make strides this weekend, even though I won't be playing. But I feel more comfortable this year."
The X, also often referred to as the split end, is usually lined up farthest from the tight end and doesn't go in motion. This tends to put him in man-to-man coverage with a specific cornerback, and often that cornerback tries to jam him at the line. Evans' size, strength and speed make him a good candidate to beat the press and potentially get downfield behind his man.
"[It's] just finding mismatches," said Evans. "The X is on an island mostly and defenses base their coverages around the X most of the time. I'm ready to take that responsibility on and just help the team."
- The Buccaneers agreed on a contract with veteran kicker Connor Barth on Wednesday night, bringing Barth back to the place he called his NFL home from the midpoint of the 2009 season through the end of last year's training camp. Barth had been released earlier in the day by the Denver Broncos, who will apparently go with second-year man Brandon McManus, a big-legged kicker who was shunted to kickoff duties when Barth arrived late last year.
Barth's travels from Colorado to Florida didn't allow him officially to sign a contract before practice Thursday, but Head Coach Lovie Smith still discussed the reasoning behind adding him to a roster that already included incumbent kicker Patrick Murray. After Barth missed the 2013 season with an Achilles tendon injury, he and Murray competed for the Bucs' job last year. Murray eventually won out and went on to make 20 of his 24 field goal attempts. Barth and Murray are the two most accurate kickers in franchise history, though it's obviously a larger sample size for the former (91 of 108, 84.3%) than the latter (20 of 24, 83.3%).
"As we've said plenty of times, if we feel like there is someone available that we think could possibly make us better – I'm talking about our 90-man roster better right now – we bring them in," said Smith. "Of course, Connor has kicked a lot of balls for us around here and lost a close battle last year. We felt like we improved our kicking position. Patrick is still our guy, but we want competition at every position and that is what we have. It's good to see Connor come back."
Buccaneers K Connor Barth likes to spend his time away from One Buc Place working out on his paddle board.
The Bucs made three other roster moves on Thursday, waiving kicker Brandon Bogotay and linebacker Orie Lemon (technically waived/injured) and signing long-snapper Brandon Hartson. Barth obviously takes Bogotay's spot in the kicker competition but Hartson creates a new battle with his arrival. The Bucs started camp with two long-snappers but waived rookie Courtland Clavette on August 5. Hartson (6-2, 238) will try to take the job away from the Bucs' returning player at that position, Andrew DePaola.
"We just want competition at every position and that is what we are doing," said Smith. "We felt it was important to bring in another snapper also."
Hartson, who hails from Houston and played collegiately at the University of Houston, first entered the NFL in 2013 as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears. He was waived at the end of the preseason but then re-signed after the season by the Bears, going to his second training camp in Chicago. Hartson didn't win the job that summer, either, but has already seen time this offseason in both Kansas City and Pittsburgh. At Houston, he snapped for four seasons and didn't have a single errant snap on 291 tries in his last two years.