The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wrap up their 2018 preseason slate on Thursday night when they take on the Jacksonville Jaguars at Raymond James Stadium. Here are five issues to consider while waiting for Thursday's 7:30 p.m. kickoff:
1. Who will start at the three linebacker positions?
As is now customary across the league, the Buccaneers are expected to rest most of the players who have locked down starting jobs or significant roles in the regular season. That will lead to a starting 22 filled with names from the back half of the depth chart, for both the Bucs and the Jaguars.
Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David are two proven veterans in that first category, which means they should expect to have the night off. The same could be true for Adarius Taylor, who is currently starting in place of the injured Beckwith. So just who will be in the starting lineup at a position that, according to Head Coach Dirk Koetter, is still sporting a tight competition for two or three reserve spots?
The candidates include Devante Bond, Riley Bullough, Jack Cichy, Nigel Harris and Cameron Lynch (and possibly Taylor if the Bucs need him to soak up some snaps). Eric Nzeocha could also factor into the rotation, but as a participant in the league's international practice squad program he is not eligible for a spot on the 53-man roster.
Some of the decisions could be made for the Buccaneers. Neither Bond nor Bullough practiced on Monday or Tuesday due to foot injuries. That generally makes a player unlikely to play in that week's game, but the circumstances are a little different for this one, given that it's the players' last bit of action before the weekend roster cut-down.
Bond and Lynch are known commodities as good special teams contributors, and both have some regular-season experience on defense. Bullough has been one of the Bucs' most productive defenders this preseason with 10 tackles, a tackle for loss and a pass defensed. Cichy, a sixth-round draft pick who is coming off a final college season lost to a knee injury, is an intriguing prospect as a versatile backup and possible pass-rusher.
The opening lineups on Thursday night may not have much bearing on the players who will be starting for the Bucs or Jaguars on September 9, but they could offer some clues as to the state of Tampa Bay's linebacker competition.
2. How much playing time will rookie QB Austin Allen get, and how will he fare?
Again, given the usual way the fourth preseason game is handled, it's unlikely that either Ryan Fitzpatrick or Jameis Winston will play on Thursday. Neither has anything left to prove and it would be unwise to expose either to potential injury.
Fourth-year man Ryan Griffin doesn't have much left to prove, either, after three strong preseason outings against Miami, Tennessee and Detroit. He is the probable starter against Jacksonville, but that doesn't necessarily mean he'll play deep into the game. A year ago, Fitzpatrick started the Bucs' fourth preseason game but only threw seven passes before giving way to Sefo Liufau, an undrafted rookie out of Colorado. A similar pattern this year would see Griffin quickly ceding the quarterback duties to undrafted rookie Austin Allen, an Arkansas product.
While the trio of Fitzpatrick, Winston and Griffin have combined for a 110 passer rating through three games, Allen has been left with two short mop-up duties that were not conducive to putting up big numbers. He threw just two passes in Tennessee as the Bucs finished off an easy 30-14 win, and most of his seven throws last Friday against Detroit were in desperation time after the Lions had taken a very late 33-30 lead.
If Allen gets a much bigger chunk of playing time Thursday, as expected, he will be sharing the field with the team's deeper reserves and going against Jacksonville's least experienced defenders. That will obviously affect and be factored into his performance. Still, staying in the game for more than just a cameo would give the rookie passer a better chance to get comfortable and hopefully put up some tape that will be of interesting either to the Buccaneers or one of the NFL's other 31 teams.
View exclusive photos of the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp from Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker
3. Will the battle for the last running back spot be settled?
A year ago, Peyton Barber, Jeremy McNichols and Russell Hansbrough split the 18 handoffs that Buccaneer quarterbacks made in the final preseason. That weekend, McNichols and Hansbrough were waived while Barber stuck around. Barber would later take over as the starting tailback for the last five games of the season, replacing the since-departed Doug Martin, and he's at the top of the depth chart heading into 2018.
That same opportunity may not be at stake this Thursday night, as the Buccaneers are likely to give the majority of their carries in 2018 to Barber and second-round draft pick Ronald Jones. In addition, the team also has a trusted backup in Jacquizz Rodgers who can fill in on any of the three downs. However, the Buccaneers usually keep at least four tailbacks on the 53-man roster, and Head Coach Dirk Koetter said on Tuesday that the "last" running back spot is still up for grabs.
That would seem like a two-way battle between undrafted rookie Shaun Wilson and first-year man Dare Ogunbowale, although Devine Redding was added to the roster this past week and is likely to get some action as well. Wilson has impressed in the return game and Ogunbowale has a kick-coverage tackle, so both players have the capability of contributing on special teams. That's essential for a fourth running back. Out of the backfield, Ogunbowale has 26 yards on 18 carries and Wilson has 27 yards on eight carries, though the Bucs' rushing attack overall has been slow after Barber has left the games.
Wilson was known for his explosive plays at Duke, both in the return game and on offense, and he profiles as a third-down, pass-catching back. Ogunbowale is bigger but has already shown he can catch the ball out of the backfield, with 66 yards on five grabs this summer. Those two, and Redding, are going to get plenty of chances on Thursday night; can one emerge as the clear leader for the last spot?
4. Will any young members of the secondary make big plays?
The Buccaneers have been pleased with their trio of draft-pick defensive backs since the very beginning of training camp, and all three have seen some time with the first team both in practice and in games. Cornerback M.J. Stewart is not likely to play on Thursday night due to a foot injury that has kept him out of practice since the Tennessee game, but there could be some time for cornerback Carlton Davis and safety Jordan Whitehead.
Both Davis and Whitehead have a pair of passes defensed, which is fairly impressive through just three preseason games. As a whole, however, Tampa Bay's secondary has picked off just one pass this summer, that belonging to third-year man Ryan Smith. The Buccaneers would like to see more big plays from their secondary this season, and that could come from their infusion of young talent out of the 2018 draft.
Of course, it's quite possible that Davis and Whitehead see limited playing time on Thursday night, as well, as their roster spots seem relatively secure. That would still leave a lot of other young defensive backs with opportunities to make eye-catching plays…perhaps even ones that could lead to a spot on the roster or a look at the practice squad. That includes cornerbacks Amari Coleman and De'Vante Harris and safeties Isaiah Johnson and Godwin Igwebuike.
5. Will a sixth receiver force his way onto the 53-man roster?
Will the Buccaneers keep five receivers to start the season, or six? Given how much talent they have at that position, they may be prompted to go a little deeper there at the expense of another position. One possible combination would be to retain six wideouts plus four each at the running back and tight end positions.
Then again, the team might have a fifth back or tight end it doesn't want to expose to the waiver wire. The Bucs might be headed into this last game still undecided as to how it will split up the spots between those three positions. In that case, a big performance by one of the receivers who will see additional playing time in the likely absence of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries and Chris Godwin could become a deciding factor when the cuts are made.
If those four noted above do indeed sit on Thursday night, the reaming wideouts would be Justin Watson, Freddie Martino, Bobo Wilson, Bernard Reedy, Ervin Philips and Donteea Dye. Watson is a fifth-round draft pick who has a team-leading 10 catches for 119 yards and a touchdown this preseason. Martino, Wilson, Reedy and Dye have all been on the Bucs' regular-season roster before and all can help on special teams. Philips is an undrafted rookie out of Syracuse who has also had some nice preseason moments, including four catches for 42 yards.
At least one and potentially two of those players will still be on the roster after Saturday's cuts. Thursday's game could either seal what Jason Licht and his crew are already thinking about that receiving corps or make them rethink exactly how many they want to keep on the 53-man roster.