Dozens of players will be fighting for jobs on Wednesday night when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Washington Redskins at FedExField. Not only is it the final warm-up before the regular season begins but – if recent seasons are any indication – it will be conducted almost entirely by players who make up the second, third and fourth columns of each team's depth chart. The final roster cutdown to 53 players will come just two days after the Bucs and 'Skins meet, and both teams' coaching staffs are looking for one last bit of useful evidence before making those decision.
Even for those players who have a good shot of holding onto their roster spots through the weekend, there is still the opportunity to carve out a larger role. Greg Schiano and the Buccaneers' coaching staff will be sure to get as many of their young players as possible into the game on Wednesday night in order to spread the opportunities around, so like any preseason game it will be a task to follow all of the substitutions. Referring to the roster and the depth chart here on Buccaneers.com can help, of course. In addition, we're going to once again point out five intriguing players you may want to make a point of tracking on Wednesday night.
1. G Derek Hardman, #73
No, Buccaneer starters are not likely to play for long on Wednesday, and some may not play at all. But just who is the starter at right guard, now that Davin Joseph is out for the year with a knee injury? That's something the coaching staff is trying in earnest to figure out in the week-and-a-half left before the start of the regular season. Expect them to take a look at several possibilities on Wednesday night, even if the candidates aren't lining up with a full first-team front.
One of those candidates would seem to be Hardman, a third-year player out of Eastern Kentucky who originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2010. Hardman may have flown under the radar to this point, but he has already defied the odds on several occasions, first by making the 53-man roster in 2010, then by taking over as a starter – and doing so rather effectively – late in that rookie season. That year, Hardman was asked to fill in for none other than Joseph, who suffered a season-ending injury much later in the campaign. The Buccaneers were in a do-or-die playoff race at the time, and the team ended up winning three of the four games in which Hardman started.
Hardman didn't play much last season, but he was on the roster the entire year, ready to provide that solid depth teams are in search of behind their starting offensive linemen, for just such situations as the Bucs currently find themselves in. Hardman may or may not be the eventual answer at right guard, but he's certainly in the mix, and he could help his cause with a strong showing on Wednesday night.
2. DE George Johnson, #97
Like Hardman, Johnson came from humble roots as an undrafted free agent, though his first two seasons in the league have been hampered by injuries. Johnson is healthy now, as his third season begins, and he's showing the Bucs the same sort of promise that he did before he got hurt in 2010 and 2011.
With Da'Quan Bowers now on the reserve/PUP list, and thus out for at least the first six weeks of the season, the team doesn't have an enormous amount of depth at defensive end behind starters Adrian Clayborn and Michael Bennett. At this point, Johnson is looking like a good bet to be the third man in that rotation, especially with E.J. Wilson now seeing a lot of action on the inside. The only other end currently on the Bucs' depth chart is the equally inexperienced Daniel Te'o-Nesheim.
Johnson played his college ball at Rutgers under Coach Schiano, but has been on the Bucs' radar since well before Schiano's arrival. He's a solidly-built 6-4, 265-pound edge rusher who is strong against the run and has pass-rush skills waiting to be developed. It is almost certain that he will see a very large chunk of playing time on Wednesday night, and with the Redskins likely sorting through their O-Line depth for much of the game, he should be in position to rack up a quarterback sack or two.
3. WR Jordan Shipley, #84
Shipley, the former Cincinnati Bengal recently claimed off waivers, has been with the Buccaneers for a little over a week now. He's had a little time to learn the basics of the offense and also show what he could do on special teams. Expect to see Shipley get a chance in both of those phases of the game on Wednesday night.
Tampa Bay has some difficult decisions to make regarding the receiving corps, and they wouldn't have claimed Shipley on waivers if they didn't think he had a chance to help them in the regular season. He had an outstanding rookie season for Cincinnati in 2010 playing mostly in the slot, and he could challenge for that job, or at least part of it, with the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay coaches are also likely to see what he can do as a punt returner, a job Shipley says he is eager to get a crack at.
Again, starters Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams aren't likely to see much action, if any at all, and Arrelious Benn is still not ready to return from his knee injury. That will leave most of the action on Wednesday night to five receivers – Shipley, Preston Parker, Tiquan Underwood, Sammie Stroughter and Landon Cox. All five are battling for what may be two or three spots on the roster; Shipley has so far had the least amount of time to prove himself.
4. LB Najee Goode, #53
The Buccaneers were thrilled with the play of their starting linebackers last Friday against New England, and that was with usual starting MLB Mason Foster sidelined by a hamstring strain. Adam Hayward filled in marvelously for Foster and showed at least one way that the Bucs have solid depth behind the presumptive starters.
But teams often go at least six deep at linebacker, particularly if all of the reserves are helpful on special teams. On the depth chart, Hayward, Dekoda Watson and Jacob Cutrera occupy the second column behind the starters, which leaves Goode and Rennie Curran in the next group. Those two are battling for spots, but not necessarily just against their fellow linebackers. Goode, for instance, could prove too promising to let go even if the team wants to hold onto their top six 'backers, and that would simply mean another position would lose a spot on its depth chart.
Goode is listed at middle linebacker behind Foster and Hayward, and with Foster still sidelined and Hayward already a known commodity, the rookie out of West Virginia should see extensive playing time against the Redskins. He could lock up a spot on the 53-man roster with a strong performance, especially one that also included good work on special teams.
5. QB Brett Ratliff, #7
Ratliff didn't get a chance to play last Friday against New England because the starters were in the game into the third quarter and Dan Orlovsky took the remainder of the snaps in the second half. That surely won't be the case on Wednesday, when any appearance by Josh Freeman would be very brief. Orlovsky will once again get extended playing time, but there should be a chunk of snaps left for Ratliff, as well.
Orlovsky would appear to have the top reserve spot behind Freeman well in hand, but Ratliff isn't just competing against his fellow Buccaneer quarterbacks. Like every team in the league, the Buccaneers will be taking a close look at the waiver wire over the weekend when all 32 clubs make their cuts. If the Buccaneers feel strongly about Ratliff as a solid #3 option, they would be less likely to dip into that new pool of free agents.
The Bucs may only keep two quarterbacks on the 53-man roster, as they did last year after the league changed the game-day inactive rules and eliminated the "inactive third quarterback" option. Like many teams around the NFL, the Buccaneers elected to keep a third quarterback on the practice squad again – in this case, Rudy Carpenter – ready to promote him to the active roster if needed. That means Ratliff, like many reserve passers around the league, is still trying to secure a third-QB role even if the position is defined a little bit differently these days.
And, of course, it would not be fair to count Ratliff out in the battle to win the primary reserve job behind Freeman. He certainly will still be trying to prove he should be the choice for that assignment.