Between the August 31 league-wide roster cuts and opening night on September 9, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made approximately 50 player moves. The last two came in just hours before kickoff against the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night and were barely a blip on the radar on a night the team was focused on celebrating its Super Bowl LV and then beginning its title defense in earnest.
Those two moves, however, proved quite important to the Buccaneers' Week One outcome, and they underscored the importance of new rules allowing for more roster flexibility. They were the elevations of safety Andrew Adams and wide receiver Jaydon Mickens from the practice squad. Tampa Bay might have still beaten the Cowboys without those moves, but Adams and Mickens definitely made important contributions to what would prove to be a very narrow last-second, 31-29 win.
The new collective bargaining agreement ratified in 2020 introduced a new rule allowing teams to elevate up to two players from the practice squad to be active on any given game day. For Sunday games, those moves have to take place by 4:00 p.m. on Saturday, but teams can wait until the day of the game if they are playing on Thursday or Monday night. That new rule was put in place before the COVID-19 pandemic added massively complicated the efforts of sports leagues to keep their seasons intact, but other changes were added last summer to further help navigate that landscape. One was the expansion of practice squads to 16 players.
The Buccaneers used their elevation options for almost every game in 2020 but didn't always keep their elevated players among their 48 active for the game. In this case, both Adams and Mickens were kept active, as Bruce Arians and the Bucs' coaches essentially chose those more experienced options over first-year safety Chris Cooper and rookie wideout Jaelon Darden, neither of whom has played in a regular-season NFL game. This particular game was being played under an intense spotlight against a dangerous opponent, and Arians wanted players who were used to that kind of situation.
That was particularly true of Darden, who appeared to beat out Mickens for the punt and kickoff return jobs at the time of the roster cuts. Darden, a fourth-round pick with electric open-field moves, will get his chance eventually but the Bucs turned back to Mickens on Thursday night.
"Jaelon's done a heck of a job but I'm not going to let him fail as a rookie," said Arians. "He's got such a great, great future. We wanted as much veteran presence on that field as we possibly could, knowing the situation and the intensity of the game. Mick's been there and done it. It's not a thing against Jaelon, it's just more a guy that's been there and done it."
Mickens fared well against the Cowboys, averaging 30.7 yards on three kickoff returns and 10.5 yards on two punt returns. His 41-yard kickoff return late in the first half set up a two-play touchdown drive that gave the Bucs a 21-16 halftime lead. Mickens also had a 24-yard punt return mostly erased by a penalty, though the Buccaneers still got good field position at the 50 and scored a touchdown on that possession.
"Our special teams won the ballgame, there's no doubt," said Arians. "Between Bradley [Pinion] pinning them inside the 10 three times and Mick covering…Mick had a hell of a night [in the] return game; it's a shame we had a penalty on the punt return."
Mickens was the team's primary return man for much of last season and though he didn't make the 53-man roster to start the season he never really left the team, signing immediately to the practice squad after being released. Adams, on the other hand, played for the Super Bowl champions last year but then left in free agency, signing with Philadelphia. The Bucs, who also re-signed the veteran safety a year ago after he left for Detroit but then was cut before the season, were watching his status in Philly. They were ready to pounce if the Eagles also went in another direction at safety.
"Oh, it was huge," said Arians of getting Adams back into a familiar defense. "We had our eye on him the whole time to see what was going to happen. We had a great list of about five guys. Double-A, he knows the system, he can jump right back in and he stepped up and played real good for us last night."
The Bucs needed Adams when safety Mike Edwards left the game two plays into the second half due to cramps. Arians might have turned to the versatile Ross Cockrell in that spot, but Cockrell was already in the game replacing injured slot corner Sean Murphy-Bunting. Later in that same drive, Dallas faced a third-and-goal at the two and could have taken the lead with a touchdown. Instead, Adams made a superb open-field tackle on powerful running back Ezekiel Elliott on an option toss from Dak Prescott. The Cowboys settled for a field and the Bucs still had a two-point lead.
As is the mechanism of the practice squad elevation rule, both Mickens and Adams automatically reverted to that squad after the game without having to pass through waivers. Their time on the active roster was brief but on Thursday night they were as important as any of the other 53 players on that roster. Either or both could be elevated again, and if they continue to be difference-makers the Bucs may have to find a spot for them on the active roster.
The Buccaneers are hopeful that starting safety Jordan Whitehead can return from his hamstring injury for the next game against Atlanta. If he does, that will give the team some additional ways to cover for the likely absence of Murphy-Bunting due to his elbow injury. But Whitehead wasn't available Thursday and Adams was, thanks to some very useful new rules and the Bucs' decision to bring the veteran safety back.
"Yeah, it gives us great flexibility," said Arians of the possible return of Whitehead. "Antoine [Winfield, Jr.] has played [in the slot] and Mike has played it, so it gives us some really good flexibility to interchange those guys a little bit more and still have Ross on the field, too. Yeah, it gives us a lot more flexibility. We were thin real fast last night."