The Buccaneers' depth chart for their preseason match-up against the Browns.
There are 18 rookies on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp roster and most, if not all, of them will get their first taste of live NFL action on Friday night in Cincinnati.
That's an unforgettable moment in any football player's professional career, and likely one that causes equal amounts of anticipation and jangly nerves. It's a much-anticipated event for the team, too, it's first chance to showcase the young prospects it believes will help build a brighter future. That's particularly true of the Buccaneers' newest draft picks: tight end O.J. Howard, safety Justin Evans, wide receiver Chris Godwin, linebacker Kendell Beckwith, running back Jeremy McNichols and defensive tackle Stevie Tu'ikolovatu.
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"All the [rookies] are progressing at a rapid rate," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "They're doing well. I'm sure there will be some nerves for those rookies, their first NFL game, in a pro stadium. Even though those guys have played in big games in front of big crowds, there are nerves there. If you ask any of those rookies, their first NFL game is something that they've been looking forward to. A great story there is Kendell Beckwith's, just eight months – a little bit more than that now – off ACL surgery and the fact that he's playing at the level he is is really remarkable."
Less obvious but equally important are some non-rookies who will be making debuts of sort on Friday night. Guard J.R. Sweezy, for instance, will play in his first game as a Buccaneer after leaving Seattle as an unrestricted free agent in 2016 and missing his first season in Tampa with a back ailment. Sweezy has nearly 50 NFL starts under his belt but the return to action after more than a year away from real contact is not a simple process. Second-year man Ryan Smith did play last year and was an impact player on special teams, but he's converting from safety back to his college position of cornerback and will get his first live NFL exposure at that spot against the Bengals.
"It's going to be fun tonight to see some guys that we don't know how they are, some guys that haven't been on our team before, to see how they do," said Koetter. "We haven't had live hitting or live tackling, live blocking, for a guy like J.R. Sweezy, a guy like Ryan Smith, there are some guys that tonight is big for. It will be fun to watch them."
With cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Jude Adjei-Barimah sidelined by injuries at the moment, Smith should see quite a bit of action against the Bengals, as will such undrafted corners as Maurice Fleming and Jonathan Moxey. Starters are only expected to remain in the game for about one quarter – some perhaps less than that – so this will be an opportunity for those on the back end of the depth chart to make an impression. There are 91 players on the Bucs' current roster, and most of them are healthy and ready to go on Friday. They'll take precedent over established performers like wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
"DeSean's exactly as advertised, one of the fastest players in the NFL and it shows up in practice," said Koetter. "I would just caution the fans: We're not going to use DeSean too much tonight. Don't mistake this for a regular-season game as far as DeSean goes. We know what he can do. Guys like DeSean Jackson, Demar Dotson, Gerald McCoy, Robert Ayers – you don't need to play those kinds of guys a lot in this game. They're not going to be the difference-makers in a game like this."
One primary goal of training camp and the preseason for any team is to get through it with as few injuries as possible. That's one reason to limit the exposure of such players as Jackson and McCoy. That strategy is also in keeping with one of the main purposes of preseason games, particularly the first and last ones: Figure out how to reduce a roster from 91 to the best 53-man combination.
"Where we're at right now, preseason [game] one, right now you're just trying to find your 53 best players," said Koetter. [General Manager] Jason Licht, myself, the coaches, Jason's lieutenants, that's our main job right now: Find the 53 guys that are going to give us the best chance to reach our potential as a team. Tonight is just part of the process. I like to say and remind our players, no one has higher expectations than we have for ourselves and tonight is just one small step in that process."
Pictures of the Buccaneers leaving on Thursday for their game against the Bengals.
There are no official inactives during the preseason, but the Bucs have a half-dozen players who will definitely not see action tonight. In addition to Grimes and Adjei-Barimah, the team will rest wide receiver Donteea Dye, linebacker Adarius Glanton, center Ali Marpet and defensive end George Johnson.
The Buccaneers take on the Bengals in Week One of the 2017 preseason on Friday night, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET. The game, to be played at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati, Ohio, will be broadcast in the Bay area on television by WFLA News Channel 8 and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.