The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took close to 90 players to Miami on Thursday evening, will probably suit up about 85 of them on Friday night and, if things go well, will get the vast majority of those players into the game when they take on the Dolphins in their 2012 preseason opener.
You're going to need a program.
You can, of course, refer to the roster and the depth chart here on Buccaneers.com for a little help after the game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. in Sun Life Stadium. Still, it may be difficult to keep track of all the substitutions after the starters exit the game, which is typically in the first quarter in any preseason opener.
Of course, some of the players will make things easier by distinguishing themselves with their play, though it is difficult to predict which ones before the game begins. Here are five players to keep an eye on Friday night, as the preseason opener will give them a good opportunity to make a strong first impression, on their coaches and the fans. There's a long way to go before the Bucs' depth chart is set for the regular season, but these players are certainly in interesting positions as the preseason begins.
1. DT Wallace Gilberry, #64
Analysis by Football Outsiders on ESPN.com (no link, as it's behind a subscription wall) suggests that Gilberry, formerly of the Kansas City Chiefs, is a player worthy of more playing time. Gilberry had 14 sacks over the last three seasons in Kansas City, including seven in 2010, despite starting just three games in that span. The Outsiders analysis also suggests that Gilberry is a better fit for the Buccaneers' 4-3 defensive front than the 3-4 Kansas City employed last year, in which he had 2.5 QB takedowns.
The 6-2, 275-pound Gilberry is a versatile lineman, listed as an end on the Bucs' roster but currently getting a lot of action inside in the Buccaneers' training camp. Tampa Bay's depth chart at defensive tackle has some intriguing depth – Amobi Okoye, Gary Gibson, Frank Okam – but it has yet to be fully sorted out. Gilberry definitely has a chance to insert himself into that rotation.
2. Mossis Madu, #32/Michael Smith, #34/De'Anthony Curtis, #39
We're cheating here with a combo listing, which means you've actually got seven players to watch in the Miami game. But these three might be battling for one job, and Friday's outing could be the first opportunity to begin separating themselves.
It is common, though not universal, for an NFL team to keep three tailbacks on its 53-man roster. The Bucs may, in the end, find a reason to keep one, two or three of those young runners. If the depth chart winds up with that typical three-RB set-up, then it is quite likely that the first two spots will be filled by LeGarrette Blount and Doug Martin. That's why, at least on paper, Madu, Smith and Curtis seem to be in a direct battle, and all are likely to get significant action on Friday night. (First-year RB Robert Hughes could also get some carries, but he is currently listed as fullback on the Bucs' depth chart.)
Madu is the only Buccaneer veteran in that trio, having made his own rise from undrafted free agent to the active roster over the course of 2011. He got a bit of action towards the end of last season and was impressive enough to warrant a further look, rushing 15 times for 55 yards and catching 10 passes for 72 yards. Tampa Bay drafted Smith out of Utah State in the seventh round this past April, intrigued by his blazing speed. And Curtis is the wild card, an undrafted free agent out of Arkansas who was talented enough to play both running back and cornerback for the Razorbacks last year.
3. Tiquan Underwood, #11
Underwood has made a splash in his first Buccaneers camp after three seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars and New England Patriots. In fact, Josh Freeman mentioned him in a recent SiriusXM radio interview while discussing what he considered to be a very deep group of receiving talent in camp this year.
Tall, lean and fast, Underwood has yet to establish himself as a regular part of a team's passing attack in his three NFL seasons, but he's trying to take that next step in Tampa. The injury to Arrelious Benn on the first day of training camp opened up more playing time for all of the receivers on the third and fourth tiers of the depth chart, and Underwood has been the one to most visibly take advantage of it.
Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are likely to start on Friday night, but they will soon give way to the reserves. Every training camp roster is packed with receivers, and the Bucs are no different in 2012, but Underwood has a chance to prove that his eye-opening work on the practice field can translate into game situations as well.
4. Leonard Johnson, #29
As with the Arrelious Benn situation at receiver, the Buccaneers' young cornerbacks have seen their camp opportunities increase after the Day One injury to E.J. Biggers. The Bucs expect to have Biggers (and Benn) back in the mix for the regular season, but his current absence has meant more first and second-team work for the likes of Myron Lewis and Anthony Gaitor.
Lewis was a third-round pick in 2010 who has not yet carved out a significant role, partly due to injuries. Gaitor was a seventh-round selection last year who made the team and has shown promise. Both have had encouraging camps. But the team is always searching for good cornerback depth, and Johnson, a Clearwater native who came in as an undrafted free agent this year, is an interesting candidate in that regard. The position is important enough – and often also very useful on special teams – that the Bucs are likely to keep a player like Johnson if he proves worthy no matter what else happens with the likes of Lewis and Gaitor and the other young cornerbacks.
It seems unlikely that starting left cornerback Aqib Talib will play on Friday night after sitting out the week of practice due to a mild hamstring strain. That may push Lewis into the starting lineup and bump everyone else on the depth chart up a notch. And that means Johnson has a very good chance to log a lot of snaps on Friday night, getting just the opportunity he needs to show he belongs.
5. Jamon Meredith, #79
The Bucs have the makings of a very strong starting offensive line, but rarely do all five starters end up taking every snap during the regular season. The Bucs know it is important to hit on the right mix of O-Line depth, as well, and that's one of the more important jobs of the preseason.
The team is sure to keep at least two reserve offensive tackles, though often only one is active on game day. The job as primary back-up appears to be Demar Dotson's to lose, given that he was the choice to start against Miami while left tackle Donald Penn is sidelined. Dotson has also worked at right tackle during training camp, so he could serve as that gameday-active swing tackle capable of filling in on either side.
Even if Dotson holds onto that third tackle spot, the team needs more depth at the position, and that may be where Meredith comes in. The fourth-year lineman has more experience than the team's other candidates at the position, appearing in 17 regular-season games and making four starts. He has played for Buffalo, Detroit, Pittsburgh and the New York Giants, and he is currently listed second behind Jeremy Trueblood on the Bucs' depth chart at right tackle.
Again, with the starters likely performing only a cameo, Meredith is likely to play extensively on Friday night. The preseason is his opportunity to show Buccaneers coaches that he can be a reliable reserve, ready to step up to the starting crew if any of the front-line players is unavailable.