Injuries are inevitable in training camp, and training camp is long, and that means on any given day a team can be welcoming hurt players back into the mix or seeing new ones head to the training room. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers experienced both the highs and lows of that inevitability on Tuesday morning.
"We had several guys back today," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter after the two-hour session under a very hot sun. "When you're practicing like this you have guys going out, guys coming in. Hopefully you've got more coming in than you do going out."
By sheer numbers, Tuesday's practice might have been a zero-sum outing for the Buccaneers. Which way it tilts in the end will depend on the long-term status of Donovan Smith. The Bucs' starting left tackle was helped to the training room during the first half of practice with an apparent leg injury after a pileup on a running play.
As is necessarily the case, Koetter had little information on Smith's status immediately after the practice ended.
"We'll have to see," he said. "When guys get hurt in practice, they come in, have the docs look at them, and they'll run their tests and we'll know something later."
First-year man Mike Liedtke stepped in at left tackle on the first-team line for the remainder of practice. Liedtke has just one game of regular-season experience, in last year's final week, and no offensive-line snaps but he has played left tackle in each of the first two preseason games. He was pressed into service at that spot after starting camp on the interior line after injuries to Leonard Wester, Cole Gardner and Cole Boozer. Those latter three also remain on the sideline.
Liedtke acquitted himself nicely at left tackle in those first two games but the Buccaneers obviously don't want to be without Smith for long. The fourth-year player has been an iron man for the team, starting all 48 games in his first three seasons and missing just 30 offensive snaps in that span.
"That's probably one of Donovan's best characteristics – he's very reliable and he's been very durable over the course of his career," said Koetter. "We just have to see. Obviously we'll hope for the best and we'll just have to see what happens."
In addition to Smith, second-year safety Justin Evans, one of the team's two starters on the back end of the secondary, left practice early after an apparent leg injury. On the other hand, the team did have cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and wide receiver Bobo Wilson back in action on Tuesday. Hargreaves has missed roughly two weeks after suffering a groin injury early in the preseason opener at Miami.
Hargreaves had been performing well in camp prior to his injury, and he was in the starting lineup against the Dolphins. He is competing to start on the outside opposite Brent Grimes and to be the first-team nickel back. In his return, Grimes mostly saw action in the slot and he seemed to pick up right where he left off before his injury. One of his highlights on the day was a quick blitz into the backfield during an 11-on-11 drill, which caused the play to be whistled dead before quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick could get a throw off.
"He looked really good," said Koetter of the third-year defensive back. "Vernon looked quick, he looked fast, he was communicating, he had a nice sack out there in team period. It's good to have him back."
HARD TO SHED THOSE LBs: The Buccaneers had also seen several previously-injured players return to practice on Monday, including cornerback Carlton Davis and linebacker Devante Bond. That was particularly good news for Bond because the team has a very heated battle still going on for the last couple openings at his position.
"I think that competition for those last linebacker spots is extremely close right now," said Koetter. "You can sort of see the positions where we're going to let some good football players go that we don't want to let go, but we're going to have to by numbers. That linebacker competition is still going on."
The Buccaneers are set in the middle with Kwon Alexander and on the weak side with Lavonte David, starting that group with a pair of Pro Bowl-caliber performers. Second-year player Kendell Beckwith would almost certainly be joining them as the starter on the strong side if he wasn't still sidelined following a car accident in April. Beckwith suffered an ankle injury in the accident that required surgery and he started training camp on the active/non-football-injury list.
Beckwith can be activated from that list at any time and immediately be eligible to practice, but training camp is nearly overall and the preseason slate is halfway completed without his return. By putting him on the active/NFI list, the Buccaneers maintained the option of later putting him on reserve/NFI at the start of the regular season. If that becomes necessary, Beckwith would have to miss at least the first six weeks (and five games) of the season.
That's not what the Buccaneers are hoping will happen, but if it is necessary the team will have one more opening in the linebacking corps. That could help the cause of such roster hopefuls as Bond, Cameron Lynch, Riley Bullough, Jack Cichy and Nigel Harris, at least in the short term.
Adarius Taylor has regularly run with the first team at strongside linebacker throughout camp and in the first two games, so his spot seems relatively secure. Depending upon Beckwith's Week One status and how many linebackers the team chooses to keep in the end – anywhere from five to seven would be conceivable – there could be one, two or three spots available for the other competitors.
"One of the biggest questions is going to be how many are we going to keep? And then, what is the health status of Kendell Beckwith going into the season?" said Koetter. "That's going to weigh into the whole linebacker scenario. What I would say is, linebacker is a lot like wide receiver, that we have really good competition basically from four through seven.
Bullough is tied for the team lead with eight tackles in the preseason and he has added one pass defensed. He is listed at middle linebacker on the Bucs' (very fluid) depth chart, but he also took a few first-team snaps on the strongside on Monday. Bond and Lynch both played extensively on special teams for the Buccaneers last year and Cichy is a sixth-round draft pick who missed his senior season at Wisconsin due to a knee injury.
"All those guys are doing some good things," said Koetter. "They all show up at different times. When you're a backup at either wide receiver or linebacker, special teams is going to factor in as well."
When making the final decisions at linebacker after the fourth preseason game, General Manager Jason Licht and team architects have to factor in how much a player can help right now and what he might develop into in the future.
"Cam Lynch is a proven special teams player, but he's also a little bit more of a vet, so that's always tricky," said Koetter, providing a good example. "Young guys versus vets. Upside versus where they're at right now. That's something that Jason constantly has to weigh, and that's why these last two weeks are still really important."
WRAPPING THEIR HEADS AROUND A NEW RULE: When it comes to the NFL's contentious new rule regarding the use of the helmet in tackling, the Buccaneers are in the same position as hundreds of coaches and players around the league: They're still trying to figure it out as they go.
The Buccaneers have yet to be flagged under the new rule, but they have seen it called twice against their opponents, one each on Miami safety Maurice Smith and Tennessee safety Kenny Vaccaro. They've also watched videos sent by the league designed to explain what hits are and are not subject to the rule, including some new submissions in the last two weeks. Nevertheless, some confusion remains.
"It's not clear," Koetter conceded. "The players in general – it's not crystal clear. We've watched the videos. The league has sent videos the last two weeks dealing exclusively with the use of the helmet. But it's still football and when they send videos out and they're showing them in slow motion, that's different than playing football. So I think there's just going to be an adjustment period. We can all recognize that this is a rule that will eventually lead to players' safety, but we're in an adjustment period for sure."
The flag on Vaccaro last Saturday gave the Buccaneers an extra 15 yards after a 38-yard catch by Mike Evans. That put Tampa Bay immediately into field goal range, and though the drive stalled there it still resulted in three points on a 44-yard shot by Chandler Catanzaro. The penalty on Smith in Miami turned a third-and-five at the Bucs' 17 into a first down at the 32 and helped kick-start an 88-yard touchdown drive. However, that's understandably not enough evidence yet to convince Koetter that the new rule will lead to an increase in scoring.
"That's impossible to say right now," said Koetter. "There's been rule changes in the past that there's major emphasis in the preseason and it kind of levels out when the season comes. This is a significant change. We'll just have to see how it goes."