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Countdown to Kickoff: Bucs-Dolphins

The 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take the field for the first time on Thursday night when the preseason kicks off in Miami. Here are five issues to consider while waiting for the game to begin:

1. How will the quarterback snaps be distributed?

Dirk Koetter has a plan for how he will deploy the four quarterbacks on the roster on Thursday night. In fact, Koetter and his coaching staff have mapped out how they would like to distribute the QB reps for the entire preseason, but they know that injuries and other developments could alter those plans in the weeks to come. Thursday's game is the only one for which all the variables are currently known and the QB rotation is a sure thing.

So, yes, Koetter has a plan. He is not, however, explicitly spelling that plan out for the media, so this remains a wait-and-see situation for Thursday night. The only thing that seems certain is that Ryan Fitzpatrick will get the start and, as is usually the case in the preseason opener, will probably be done by the end of the first quarter.

"We have a plan for how we’re going to do the reps for all three preseason games if nothing changes," said Koetter, choosing not to include the preseason finale since it usually played exclusively by young reserves. "We have the quarterbacks to consider, but then we also have the logical progression that most teams do with their ones, twos and threes as you move closer to the season opener."

The complicating factor, of course, is the three-game suspension that Jameis Winston will serve to begin the regular season. That's forcing the Buccaneers to find a way to prepare Fitzpatrick to start the regular season but also to give Winston enough work since he won't be able to practice with the team during his suspension. In addition, Ryan Griffin will be one mishap away from starting during those first three weeks, so he too might need more prep time than one might normally give to the third man on the depth chart.

The situation is uncharted territory but the Bucs are going to get through it the best they can.

"There’s not written rule," said Koetter. "That’s what we’re trying to figure out. We have to communicate with those guys, and we have a play for it. We just have to see how it goes."

2. Who will man the right side of the offensive line?

The answer for the first handful of snaps might actually be exactly what it says on the just-released depth chart: Caleb Benenoch at right guard and Demar Dotson at right tackle. Benenoch returned to practice on Thursday after missing several days due to injury and Dotson has recently been taking more 11-on-11 snaps as he eases back from his offseason knee surgery.

Or it might not. After the last practice of the week on Tuesday, Koetter said that there were still "a lot of guys up in the air" for Thursday's game, and that list could include Benenoch and Dotson. Coaches will almost always err on the side of caution when it comes to exposing injured players to action in the preseason. In addition, even if Dotson and Benenoch do start, they'll likely be on the sideline by the second quarter.

When Dotson has been held out of drills, his first-team reps have gone to Leonard Wester…or at least they did until Wester suffered a leg injury in a pileup. After he went down, second-year man Cole Gardner, who spent his rookie season on injured reserve, stepped in with the starting five until he too was sidelined. First-year player Brad Seaton appears to be the next option after those two. The Buccaneers also have Jerry Ugokwe on the depth chart at right tackle, and he surely will see some playing time Thursday.

Even before he was hurt, Benenoch was ceding some first-team reps to rookie third-rounder Alex Cappa, who appears to have turned the right guard job into a real competition. Cappa could start Thursday, and he could also see a lot of playing time.

3. Will any of the running backs stand out when they encounter live tackling for the first time?

Peyton Barber has dropped some weight and feels as if he is even quicker than he was at the end of last season, when he assumed the starting job for the last five games and did well. Ronald Jones came aboard as a high second-round draft pick and is an explosive playmaker who would like to prove he is also an every-down back.

It's difficult for either back to make that argument convincingly in practice, when there is rarely any live tackling. The first real opportunity for either Barber or Jones – or, ideally, both – to demonstrate that they should be first in line for carries is when the live action starts on Thursday night.

In reality, the results from Thursday's game and the three that follow will only be a piece of the puzzle, and probably not a critical corner piece. Jon Gruden gave first-round back Cadillac Williams all of 12 carries in the 2005 preseason, and then Williams immediately set an NFL record for most rushing yards in a player's first three (regular-season) games. Doug Martin didn't crack 100 rushing yards in the 2012 preseason but he had 1,454 by the end of that rookie campaign. Koetter says he is already confident that Jones will be able to produce as a rookie in 2018.

"I can see how he works and I can see his explosiveness, so I already have faith in him," said the coach. "I’d just say that preseason games are part of it. He didn’t play all those plays at USC and not be a good running back. Preseason is part of it, but I’m not going to weigh that any more than what I’ve already seen."

4. Can rookie camp sensations Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart carry their hot start from practices into games?

The Buccaneers used two second-round picks just 10 slots apart to punch up their talent level at one of the game's most difficult positions to master, drafting cornerback M.J. Stewart at #53 and cornerback Carlton Davis at #63. Both rookies have taken training camp by storm, making cornerback look like it could be the most improved positions on the team after the defensive line.

Stewart has made splash plays in nearly every practice and Davis has given the Bucs exactly the sort of big and physical presence on the outside that they thought they were getting. Both could see extensive playing time in their rookie campaigns, and both will have an opportunity to play a bit more on Thursday with Brent Grimes sitting out.

Are Stewart and Davis getting too much hype in their shared rookie camp? They certainly seem to deserve the praise they're getting, but of course neither one has played in an NFL game yet. If those two can make the same sort of impact in Thursday's game as they have on the practice field, that hype train is only going to pick up speed.

5. Who will get the first quarterback sack?

The Buccaneers finished last in the NFL in 2017 with 22 sacks despite employing a six-time Pro Bowler in Gerald McCoy who is capable of wreaking havoc on the middle. That prompted the team to pursue multiple avenues of pass-rushing talent acquisition, with free agency bringing in Beau Allen, Mitch Unrein and Vinny Curry, the trade market landing Jason Pierre-Paul and the draft yielding Vita Vea. Koetter, who stands behind the offense during 11-on-11 drills and has to make the call on whether a play should be stopped due to a "sack," says he can tell from that vantage point that the Bucs' new pass rush is "real."

The Bucs would like to double their sack total from a year ago and they might get there if their much deeper defensive line comes together and gets contributions from multiple sources. So who is going to break the seal on Thursday night against mobile Miami quarterback Ryan Tannehill, if anyone? Will it be the incumbent McCoy, the promising young Noah Spence or one of the newcomers. It won't be Vea, as he is still recovering from a calf injury, but a sack from any of the highly-touted newcomers would be very welcome.

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