A week ago in Miami, wide receiver Tiquan Underwood had an outstanding night in his Tampa Bay Buccaneers' debut, leading the team with three receptions for 76 yards in a 20-7 win over the Dolphins. Underwood's spectacular 44-yard catch in the second quarter, on which he somehow wrestled the ball away from a well-positioned Miami safety, set up the Buccaneers' second touchdown of the game.
Underwood was just one of 81 players Head Coach Greg Schiano got into that preseason opener, representing virtually every healthy player on the 90-man roster. Admittedly, that could be confusing for Buccaneer fans trying to keep track of the competition for the eventual 53 spots on the regular-season roster. As such, Buccaneers.com suggested five players prior to last Friday's game for fans to keep an eye on; Underwood was one of them.
The Bucs haven't reduced their roster at all since that first preseason game – the two rounds of cuts come after the third and fourth contests – so there are still more than 80 players to keep track of on Friday night when the team plays its August home opener against Tennessee. 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 Friday.
1. LB Jacob Cutrera, #51
The Buccaneers may be closer to a starting lineup at linebacker, with rookie Lavonte David handling the weakside position well and second-year man Mason Foster looking like he can handle being the quarterback of Schiano's defense. There is still a lot to be decided, however, across the entire linebacker depth chart.
Even if David, Foster and Quincy Black do take the three starting spots, there are still six other linebackers on the roster fighting for roster spots that could total…well, that's not even certain yet. It is common for an NFL team to keep anywhere from five to seven linebackers, depending upon how versatile they are and how much impact they make on special teams. That means all six of those reserve linebackers are still very much fighting for jobs.
Cutrera is an interesting candidate. The Bucs signed him last October off the Jacksonville Jaguars' practice squad and he immediately emerged as a top special teams performer. Unfortunately, his promising Buccaneer debut season was cut short by a season-ending injury in early December. Now he's back for his first training camp/preseason with Tampa Bay and is listed second on the depth chart at weakside linebacker after David. Cutrera played extensively in the second half last week and pitched in with one tackle and a third-down pass break-up in the end zone that helped deny Miami its last scoring opportunity.
2. TE Drake Dunsmore, #81
Dunsmore played all over the field in Northwestern's spread offense before the Buccaneers drafted him in the seventh round this past April. It will be interesting to see how and where he can fit into Tampa Bay's offense under its new coordinator, Mike Sullivan.
Dunsmore didn't play a lot of traditional end-of-the-line blocking-TE snaps for the Wildcats, and that may not be his role with the Buccaneers, either. During the offseason, the coaching staff changed the roster designations of several player, including several tight ends who are now marked as tight ends-slash-fullbacks. Dunsmore was one such player, indicating that the team may see him as a good fit for an H-back type role where he moves around between the backfield and the line of scrimmage.
Dunsmore was one of 15 different players, including four tight ends, who caught a pass in the game at Miami. With second-year man Luke Stocker possibly not playing against the Titans – he missed most of this week of practice – all of those young pass-catchers could be in for more playing time.
3. CB Anthony Gaitor, #26
Our little statistical exercise on Thursday pointed out how important of a decision it can be when a team picks who the third and fourth cornerbacks into the game are going to be. The "nickel back," in particular, might be on the field for close to 50% of the team's defensive snaps over the course of a season.
Gaitor, last year's seventh-round pick out of Florida International, is obviously in the mix for that job. The situation became more complicated on the first day of training camp when E.J. Biggers went down with a foot injury that may keep him out into the early days of the regular season. Biggers appeared to be the front-runner for that nickel job, but Gaitor has taken a lot of those snaps since.
There are other intriguing candidates, however. Third-year man Myron Lewis finished training camp very strong and now appears to be a significant consideration for playing time, and the team is also high on undrafted rookie Leonard Johnson. The next three preseason games could go a long way towards sifting out the competition, and that's good news for Gaitor, who seems to have a knack for stepping up his game when the lights go on. Against Miami, he finished second on the team with four tackles and added a pass defensed.
4. WR Sammie Stroughter, #18
Stroughter is more familiar to Buccaneers fans than most of the players on this list, as he has been with the team since 2009 and has at times held down important roles in the offense. As a rookie, despite coming in as a seventh-round pick, he quickly developed into one of the team's best third-down threats and finished with 31 catches. In 2010, he started four games and had another 24 catches. He is also a proven return man, as evidenced by a career 27.7-yard kickoff return average that ranks second in team history.
Of course, the Buccaneers' receiving corps has undergone some fairly drastic changes since Stroughter's arrival in 2009. Most recently, the team signed Vincent Jackson away from the San Diego Chargers, giving the team a new number-one option. With Jackson joining the likes of Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn (currently injured), Preston Parker and Stroughter himself, there are plenty of proven NFL pass-catchers on hand in Tampa. Others have made the competition even more fierce, including Tiquan Underwood, Ed Gant and Wallace Wright.
Stroughter, who enjoys the competition, is looking to carve out a role in the Bucs' offense once again. He's also on a short list of players being considered for the kickoff and punt return roles. He will try to make the most of the opportunities he gets Friday night against the Titans.
5. DT Amobi Okoye, #96
One of the most important jobs still left unfinished as the Buccaneers transition from training camp into the remainder of the preseason is the sorting out of the team's defensive line depth. The coaches see huge promise in such front-line pass-rushers as Adrian Clayborn, Gerald McCoy and Michael Bennett, but most NFL D-Lines operate best when there is a deep group of players to rotate in and out.
The Buccaneers may have that depth on the roster right now, but they're still determining how it is going to shape up. One of the players who could become critical in those efforts is veteran defensive tackle Amobi Okoye, part of the team's second wave of free agent signings this offseason.
Okoye had a slow start to training camp as he recovered from arthroscopic surgery on his knee, but he was healthy enough to play in the opener at Miami and in fact he tipped the pass that was eventually intercepted by Lavonte David in the second quarter. A former first-round pick in Houston, Okoye has extensive starting experience in the NFL and has shown elite pass-rushing abilities at times. In his one season with the Chicago Bears last year, Okoye pitched in with four sacks despite filling a reserve role for the first time in his career.
Okoye won't start on Friday against the Titans – McCoy and Roy Miller will take the opening snaps at defensive tackle – but he is likely to play quite a bit in the first half, perhaps even mixing in with the starting unit. A strong performance from the one-time Louisville star would make the Buccaneers feel better about their developing D-Line depth.