Final roster cuts in the NFL are never fun. Neither are they, strictly speaking, final.
Of course, NFL rosters are always in flex; teams sign and release players virtually every month of the year, in season and out. This weekend, however, is specifically fluid, as each team trims its roster and subsequently scours the waiver wire for interesting names released by their competitors. Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik calls that process the "Second Draft," and it's how he added such key players as LeGarrette Blount, Ted Larsen and Dezmon Briscoe a year ago.
Still, the first step in that process took place on Saturday, as each of the NFL's 32 teams trimmed reduced their rosters from 80 players down to the regular-season limit of 53. The Buccaneers met the limit with the 27 moves listed below.
RB Armando Allen
C Matt Allen
T Will Barker
S Ahmad Black
T Cory Brandon
QB Rudy Carpenter
G Thomas Claiborne
QB Jonathan Crompton
G Marc Dile (injury settlement)
WR Ed Gant
TE Daniel Hardy
S Dominique Harris
LB Brandon Heath
LB Simoni Lawrence
RB Mossis Madu
DE Alex Magee
LB Tyrone McKenzie
DE Kyle Moore
TE Nathan Overbay
WR Maurice Price (injury settlement)
TE Ryan Purvis
LB/FB Nick Reveiz
K Jacob Rogers
LB Derrell Smith
DT Al Woods
DT John McCargo
Placed on Reserve/Physically Unable to Perform List:
LS Andrew Economos
The first 25 players listed have all accrued fewer than four years of free agency credit and are thus subject to the waiver wire, where they can be claimed by any team. If a player clears waivers, he is then free to sign with any team he chooses. McCargo, as a vested veteran, skips the waiver process and is immediately available to sign with any team.
Economos continues to recover from the Achilles' heel injury he suffered during the offseason, and going on the P.U.P. list makes him ineligible to play during the first six weeks of the season. After that period, the Buccaneers would have several weeks, if needed, to determine whether to activate him to the 53-man roster, place him on injured reserve for the rest of the season or release him. The Buccaneers believe Economos will be fully recovered by the end of those six weeks, if not sooner, and ready to return immediately. Rookie Christian Yount made the Bucs' active roster as the long-snapper after a pleasantly uneventful preseason.
After two seasons of seeing virtually all of their draft picks survive the cuts into the regular season, the Buccaneers have fashioned a deeper roster that is becoming harder for young players to crack. Thus, two members of the 2011 draft class were included in Saturday's cuts: fifth-round safety Ahmad Black and seventh-round tight end Daniel Hardy. Black played only briefly in the preseason opener before sustaining an ankle injury that sidelined him for the rest of August.
Those were only two of the very difficult decisions the Buccaneers made on Saturday. That is a bittersweet situation for a coach or a personnel man because it indicates that the roster, overall, is getting stronger.
"This year was particularly tougher than the first two," said Raheem Morris, who is in his third year as the Buccaneers' head coach. "It's probably rougher as a position coach because you are probably close to everybody in your room. But as a head coach, it doesn't get any easier."
Still, the Bucs did keep six of their eight 2011 draftees, including defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, linebacker Mason Foster, tight end Luke Stocker, running back Allen Bradford and cornerback Anthony Gaitor. Clayborn and Foster have already cracked the starting lineup and Bowers and Stocker, while not technically starters, are expected to play quite a bit.
Gaitor is the fifth player chosen in the seventh round that the Buccaneers have kept in the last three years, as the team has made dramatically better use of the latter stages of the draft in recent seasons. Gaitor's outstanding preseason performance suggests that he could follow in the footsteps of cornerback E.J. Biggers, wide receiver Sammie Stroughter, linebacker Dekoda Watson and fullback Erik Lorig and not only stick with the team but carve out a significant role.
In its current makeup, the Buccaneers' 53-man roster for 2011 is balanced a little differently than usual between positions. For instance, only two spots were devoted to the quarterback position, and another two to tight end. Tampa Bay kept nine linemen on both sides of the ball, which is not terribly unusual, but also loaded up the secondary with a whopping 12 players. That includes seven cornerbacks, as the team's excellent draft work – and "Second Draft" work – at that position has produced considerable depth. In addition to Gaitor, Biggers and starters Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber, the Buccaneers retained Myron Lewis, Elbert Mack and D.J. Johnson.
Johnson probably counts as one of the longer shots to make the 53-man roster, at least if one were to make predictions at the beginning of training camp. However, the third-year player out of Jackson State who joined the Bucs for the last six weeks of the 2010 season, led the team with seven passes defensed during the 2011 preseason and capped his work with an interception in the preseason finale on Thursday night.
The Bucs also kept defensive end George Johnson, who first came to the team as a tryout player in its 2010 rookie mini-camp. Johnson earned a spot on the training camp roster with a strong showing in that camp, but not immediately on the 53-man roster. He spent the first 13 weeks of 2010 on the Bucs' practice squad before being promoted to the active roster in December. He also shined during this year's preseason, leading the team with three sacks.
Other than Yount, the only undrafted free agent who made the 53-man roster this year is safety Devin Holland, signed after the draft out of McNeese State. Holland recorded eight tackles, one interception and two passes defensed during the preseason but probably secured his spot with his special teams play. Possessed of great speed and an obvious willingness to hit, Holland likely benefited from the NFL's change to the game-day eligibility rules in 2011.
Previously, teams were allowed to keep 45 of their 53 players active on game day, plus an "inactive" third quarterback. That third quarterback could be brought into the game, but if he entered prior to the fourth quarter, that made the team's other two quarterbacks instantly ineligible to return. Now, teams are allowed to have 46 players active, and that 46th spot does not have to be devoted to a quarterback. The Buccaneers' kept only two quarterbacks on their 53-man roster and believe the 46th spot can be used to bolster the special teams units. Holland, who had three kick-coverage stops during the preseason, is a strong candidate to be that 46th man on game day.
Tampa Bay kept only five linebackers, but that is a testament to both Adam Hayward's versatility and the team's depth of talent in the secondary and on the front line. The Bucs kept nine defensive linemen, and that includes five recent first, second or third-round draft picks: Clayborn, Bowers, Gerald McCoy, Brian Price and Roy Miller. Johnson also forced his way into the equation, as did jumbo defensive tackle Frank Okam, picked up in the middle of last season after he was released by Houston. Michael Bennett, the starting left end ahead of Bowers, and Tim Crowder round out the group.
The Bucs also kept nine offensive linemen, including a pair of backup offensive tackles in Demar Dotson and James Lee. Jeremy Zuttah and Derek Hardman create interior depth, and Zuttah's well-documented versatility makes that possible. Three of those four O-line reserves – Zuttah, Hardman and Lee – combined to make 22 starts last year, giving the team more experienced depth behind the starting five than usual.
The position that may have seen the least turnover since the end of last season is wide receiver. The Buccaneers kept six receivers on Saturday, all of whom were on the team at the end of last year (though Arrelious Benn was on injured reserve). The only wideout who finished 2010 with the Buccaneers who will not start 2011 with the team is Maurice Stovall, who departed via free agency. Otherwise, the Buccaneers are obviously very comfortable with all the young depth it has added over the last two years, keeping Benn along with Mike Williams, Dezmon Briscoe, Sammie Stroughter, Micheal Spurlock and Preston Parker.
Again, no position on the depth chart was necessarily finalized on Saturday. The cut-down to 53 was simply a necessary, if unpleasant, part of the process towards building a championship roster. Other moves lie ahead, including the formation of an eight-man practice squad in the next few days. On Saturday, the Buccaneers did what they had to do on the toughest day of the toughest weekend of the year.