On September 2, 2010 in Houston, Rudy Carpenter threw two touchdown passes and compiled a passer rating of 127.7. Two days later, he made the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' active roster, and a year later he is still looking like an important part of the team's plans.
Wide receiver Arrelious Benn caught both of Carpenter's scoring throws in that 2010 preseason finale, and while his roster spot probably was not in jeopardy, he definitely came out of the game with a huge boost in his confidence.
Safety Corey Lynch, thought by many to be on the Bucs' 53-man bubble, picked off two passes and returned one of them 91 yards for a touchdown. He stuck around, too, and became both a special teams ace and an end-of-the-season starter.
Preston Parker, another rookie wideout but a more tenuous prospect as an undrafted free agent, caught two passes for 45 yards and looked strong on two kickoff returns. He proved to be one of the longer shots to make the 53-man roster and is back in 2011 for another shot.
Head Coach Raheem Morris had not yet coined the word, but those four players were 'youngry' – young like the rest of the Bucs' roster and hungry to prove they belonged. A year later, they're still youngry, but so are dozens of their teammates on the 80-man roster.
The Buccaneers are likely to rest most of their projected regular-season starters on Thursday night as they finish their 2011 preseason in Washington, so there shouldn't be much change on the front line of the team's depth chart. However, there are still roster spots and important jobs up for grabs as the Bucs near the regular-season opener, and the 50 or so players who are suiting up for the Redskins game know it. The effort level should be high on Thursday, and the competition should be intense.
So, where should a Buccaneers fan focus his or her attention on Thursday night? We asked the same question two weeks ago before the New England game, and that group included one starter (DT Gerald McCoy) and three others who have started at one point or another (Lynch, LB Dekoda Watson and QB Josh Johnson). But the Washington game belongs to the youngry, so here are five more Tampa Bay players worth keeping an eye on in the team's final preseason outing (their jersey numbers are included to help you pick them out in the crowd):
- RB Allen Bradford, #38
Buccaneers Insider has spent the week talking about the team's ongoing battle for the third-down back job as well as the potentially open roster spots behind LeGarrette Blount. You can watch interviews with rookie backs Allen Bradford, Mossis Madu and Armando Allen, Jr. on those subject here, here and here, respectively.
Of course, the situation is the same for all three. With Blount and all-around back Earnest Graham near locks and the team liking the lead-blocking capabilities of Erik Lorig and the untapped potential of Kregg Lumpkin, there may only be one roster spot available for the young backs. That's presuming several things, obviously – not all of those aforementioned roster spots are necessarily secure, or the Bucs could keep more than five backs – but it's reasonably to think the three rookies are in a head-to-head-to-head battle.
All three will surely see plenty of playing time on Thursday night at FedExField. Bradford, the Buccaneers' sixth-round pick out of USC, could get the start. It surprised some observers when the team drafted him in April, as his bruising big-back game seemed to be so similar to Blount's, but the Bucs' brain trust countered by saying they wanted to build a multi-headed power rushing attack. On the other hand, there could be an opening for a smaller, more elusive back in a third-down role, and that would seem to be where Madu and Allen could fit in.
It's possible Bradford could make that decision moot by putting together a big game on Thursday. He's had a decent preseason, showing power on a key goal-line run against New England and working hard on his pass protection, but a breakout game might bring clarity.
And don't forget to keep an eye on Bradford in between the offensive and defensive snaps. The former linebacker was a special teams standout throughout his USC career and he could make himself much more valuable by excelling in that area for the Buccaneers. He'll certainly get the opportunity – the Bucs' coaching staff has told Bradford to expect lots of playing time.
"I'm on all the special teams, so I've been doing it," he said. "They tell me I'm going to be tired on Thursday, so I've got to get some extra conditioning in, drink more fluids and just be ready.
- CB Anthony Gaitor, #39
The seventh-round pick out of Florida International has been one of the team's feel-good stories so far this preseason, playing the game at a hundred miles per hour and making some rather eye-opening plays. With the Bucs now knowing that Aqib Talib will be available from Day One and Myron Lewis is over his hamstring strain, cornerback isn't a shallow spot on the depth chart, but Gaitor has certainly made his case for inclusion anyway.
Morris is a former defensive backs coach, and sometimes it seems as if he can't help championing the cause of a young, unproven DB. He did it last year with E.J. Biggers, and that former seventh-round pick is now an important part of the secondary rotation. This year, Morris seems to have taken a shine to Gaitor, and it's not hard to understand why. The rookie seems unfazed by the pressure of the situation and is simply playing the game with a huge smile on his face at all times.
Through three games, Gaitor has already racked up three passes defensed and a sack to go with his five solo tackles. He could start on Thursday against the Redskins, and he's ready to make the most of it.
"I'm just going to go out there and play my best game and have fun," he said. "There's no type of pressure on me or anything like that; I'm just going to go out there and play football.
- OL Jeremy Zuttah, #76
Zuttah might seem out of place on this list, given that it is dominated by rookies, but the former 2008 third-round pick is only 25 years old and his NFL career path is still being decided. Each of his first three seasons in the NFL has been significantly different, but in some way or another he has managed to contribute in a big way. It would be no surprise if that happened again in 2011, and Thursday's game could offer some clues as to how.
Starting left guard left the Miami game early on Saturday night with an ankle sprain and Zuttah stepped in and performed well, as he is wont to do when one of his teammates is suddenly unavailable. Zuttah has also spent significant time at center and right guard during his first three seasons, and it's not unrealistic to think he might someday help at the tackle positions.
Larsen won't play on Thursday night, which will give Zuttah a larger opportunity to show he should be involved in some significant way on the offensive line.
"There is always a battle there," said Morris of the left guard spot. "You could never say no to Zuttah. The versatility that Zuttah brings to our offensive line is unique. He's playing with a nice, nasty demeanor. That battle will continue to go on for as long as those two players are here, I believe. Larsen did a nice job of going in and being thick and playing heavy for us last year. Zuttah did a nice job when he went in there and played center for us and started a bunch of games. We've got a bunch of wins with him. He also started for us the year before at guard and won a lot of games for us."
- LBs Tyrone McKenzie, #50/Derrell Smith, #53
Early in training camp, the Bucs appeared to have a pretty unpredictable battle on their hands for the suddenly vacant starting middle linebacker job. With Barrett Ruud moving on to Tennessee, Tampa Bay was going to move forward with either third-round pick Mason Foster, 2010 waiver-wire find Tyrone McKenzie or undrafted rookie Derrell Smith. Morris sang the praises of all three in the opening days of camp.
Before long, however, Foster took the clear lead in that battle, and it now seems all but certain that the former Washington standout will be the opening-day 'Mike.' That doesn't mean the competition is over, however, for McKenzie and Smith.
We're cheating a bit by lumping two players together here, but McKenzie and Smith seem to be in the exact same boat. Both are unproven but apparently highly-valued by the Bucs' coaching staff. Both are possible key players on special teams. And both could make the 53-man roster, regardless of what happens with the other. So far McKenzie has seven tackles on defense and two stops on special teams. Smith has six tackles on defense and a quarterback pressure. Both should see significant playing time on Thursday night, and their performances could be critical as the Buccaneers' coaching staff figures out how to construct a 53-man roster this weekend.
- RB Kregg Lumpkin, #28
We described the battle between the Bucs' three rookie backs above. All three might have to wait to see what Kregg Lumpkin does first.
The Buccaneers claimed the former Georgia back off waivers a year ago when the Green Bay Packers let him go during the final roster cuts. Lumpkin might have gotten more of an opportunity to establish himself during the 2010 season if it weren't for the onslaught unleashed by Blount, who was also claimed off waivers one day later.
Blount's primacy didn't lessen the Bucs' opinion of Lumpkin. When Cadillac Williams moved on to St. Louis in July, the Buccaneers considered Lumpkin a primary candidate to play on third downs. They still do, although Morris recently suggested that Graham is the leading candidate for that job at the moment. That could change if Lumpkin proves himself on Thursday night against the Redskins.
"This is a big game for Kregg," said Morris. "This is a huge game for him. I want to see Kregg Lumpkin run the ball. I want to see him protect. I want to see him catch the ball in the backfield. I want to see him go out there and compete with Earnest Graham and give the battle that I would've liked to see when they started camp. I'm not down on Kregg, but I certainly want to see him get back into this battle with Earnest to earn his right to play; to show that he wants to play, to show that he should be out there. That's a good thing. I want to give him an opportunity this week."