The 88-man roster the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take into their upcoming string of organized team activity days (OTAs) is not the exact group it will bring to training camp in late July.
But it's close.
The current roster can't remain precisely as it is, for one thing, because of that number: 88. Draft picks who have yet to sign their first contracts do not count against the offseason and camp roster limit of 80 players, allowing the Bucs to go over that mark for the time being. No such luck once camp starts – a player must have a contract in place to participate and 80 men is the strict limit for the active roster.
In addition, there are almost certain to be a few tweaks here and there, which may or may not have lasting significance. Free agency continues until mid-July, and occasionally a team dips into what remains of the talent pool after the draft, when some pressing needs remain unset. In addition, there are plenty of young and unproven players both on and off the 32 rosters around the league; sometimes one gets picked up in the 11th hour in favor of another.
The Buccaneers made a small handful of moves in May and June last year, but few involved names that affected the 2009 season much – Anthony Mix and Joel Filani, etc. Byron Storer's practice-field knee injury and subsequent move to injured reserve was probably the most significant piece of news, and that certainly wasn't by design.
The point is, the 53-man regular-season roster and 45-man group the team will take into games will come mostly from the 88 players that are now on hand. The first free agency flurry has passed, the draft is done and the undrafted free agents have been signed. A few of the 53 names that will make up the roster that starts the season will probably come from last-week trades or waiver-wire pickups after the league-wide round of cuts. Most of the core, however, is already in place.
So let's take a look now, in the post-draft but pre-training camp period, at that roster, it's key additions and subtractions and the positions that are likely to draw particular attention.
Of the 88 players on the current roster, 36 are either rookies or first-year players. This is not particularly unusual at this time of year, as all teams have expanded their rosters from the 50s into the 80s, and largely with newcomers to the league. More telling will be the number of rookies who make it into the final 53.
Perhaps of greater note is that there are another 24 among those 88 who have played either one or two seasons in the NFL. That includes quite a few players who are expected to be key contributors in 2010 – Josh Freeman, Sammie Stroughter, Clifton Smith, Aqib Talib, Jeremy Zuttah, Roy Miller and Kyle Moore, to name a few. The 88 players on the roster have accumulated an average of just 2.1 years of NFL free agency credit to this point, and only Ronde Barber (13) is over 10.
Sixty-three of the 88 players are 25 years or younger, which again is skewed by the current makeup of the roster and won't be quite as pronounced when the season begins. Still, the Bucs got drastically younger last year and the trend should continue in 2010 if a good number of the nine draft picks make the team, as expected.
- WR Arrelious Benn…The Bucs traded up to get this potentially dangerous receiver in the second round. Benn is very good after the catch, a category in which the Bucs were lacking in 2009, and could earn playing time quickly.
- P Brent Bowden…The Bucs employed three punters in 2009 thanks to injuries to Josh Bidwell and Dirk Johnson, but none of the three remain in Tampa. Bowden, a sixth-round draft pick out of Virginia Tech is the only punter on the roster and the job appears to be his to lose.
- WR Reggie Brown…One of the first moves the Bucs made once free agency began was to trade a sixth-round pick in 2011 to Philly for Brown, who had produced big numbers in his first three NFL seasons before being crowded out by additions to the Eagles' receiving corps. For a low investment, the Bucs will find out if a new situation can return Brown to his 50-catch days of 2005-07.
- S Sean Jones…Another former Eagle, Jones was one of the Bucs' most notable moves in free agency. Tied for fourth among all NFL safeties with 16 interceptions over the past four seasons, Jones would appear to be in position to challenge for a starting job in the Bucs' secondary.
- CB Myron Lewis…A high third-round pick in April's draft, Lewis has a chance to contribute right away as the Bucs were thin at the cornerback position in 2009. Lewis has been compared athletically to Talib, the starter at left cornerback, and he should be in the thick of the battle for the third corner spot along with Talib and Barber.
- DT Gerald McCoy…The centerpiece of the Bucs' personnel maneuvers during the 2010 offseason, this third-overall pick in the draft is likely to make an instant impact. McCoy plays the under tackle position that has been so key to Tampa Bay's defensive success since the mid-90s, and if he can play it as well as expected it will have a drastic impact on the team's fortunes.
- DT Brian Price…McCoy's immediate running mate, Price was the 35th player drafted overall in April and Tampa Bay's second pick after McCoy. Neither rookie is guaranteed a starting spot in 2010, but the team certainly hopes those two form the backbone of the interior line for years to come. Price can play under tackle like McCoy but will likely work primarily at nose.
- WR Mike Williams…A fourth-round pick, Williams was the talk of the team's post-draft rookie mini-camp, and he too could challenge for playing time right away. Behind tight end Kellen Winslow and his 77 catches, no returning Buccaneer receiver had more than 31 grabs in 2009.
NOTABLE SUBTRACTIONS FROM 2009 ROSTER
- S Will Allen…Allen may not have figured too prominently in the team's secondary plans in 2010, but he was the team's special teams captain for the past two seasons. He left for Pittsburgh as a free agent.
- P Josh Bidwell…Bidwell's body of work in his first five seasons with the Buccaneers was unassailable; by any statistical measure, he had the best run of any punter in team history. A late-developing hip injury cost him all of 2009, however, and Bidwell was released in February. He will now continue his career in Washington while the Buccaneers turn to a promising young player at the position.
- WR Antonio Bryant…Bryant led the Buccaneers in 2008 with 83 catches for 1,248 yards and seven touchdowns. His drop in production in 2009 – 39-600-4 – was clearly the result of a preseason knee injury that remained something of an issue throughout the year. Perhaps due to the depth they envisioned in the 2010 draft and the emergence of Sammie Stroughter, the Bucs did not make an effort to re-sign Bryant in free agency and he moved on to Cincinnati.
- DT Chris Hovan…The Buccaneers parted ways with the hard-working Hovan, who had been an anchor on the team's line for five seasons, after picking up both McCoy and Price in the draft. Hovan started all but one game over the last five years for the Buccaneers at nose tackle. Again, the team is turning to youth at the position and hoping to help a 32nd-ranked rush defense while also restoring more pass-rush to the middle of the line.
- DE Jimmy Wilkerson…Wilkerson was a good free agency find for the Buccaneers in 2008, producing 11 sacks in two seasons, as a reserve in 2008 and a starter in 2009. Wilkerson was also a high-energy player who stood up well against the run. The Bucs will be looking for a new starter on one end of the line after Wilkerson, who is currently recovering from a late-season ACL tear, signed with the New Orleans Saints.
- CB E.J. Biggers…The Buccaneers' coaching staff was seeing a lot they liked out of Biggers, a seventh-round draft pick, in training camp and the preseason last year. However, a shoulder injury cost the former Western Michigan standout his rookie season, leaving his potential still a question mark. The Bucs believe Biggers can be a significant part of the competition at cornerback this summer, and he is now completely healthy.
- LB Angelo Crowell…Crowell was just finishing his recovery from a knee injury suffered in Buffalo before he signed with the Buccaneers when he was felled in 2009 by a biceps injury. Crowell is now over that ailment, as well, and will be back in the competition for the strongside linebacker spot. Crowell was a very productive starter for three seasons in Buffalo before his injury.
- T Xavier Fulton…A 2009 draft pick like Biggers, Fulton also missed his rookie season due to an ACL injury. His target since the injury has been May of this year, so the Bucs hope to have the promising lineman back on the field for some or all of the OTAs.
- RB Earnest Graham…The Buccaneers' do-everything gladly accepted a fullback role in 2009 and, as always, excelled at whatever he was asked to do. He missed the final game of the season, however, with a toe injury that is now completely healed.
- RB/KR Clifton Smith…Smith sustained two concussions in 2009, and the second one prompted the team to shut him down for the last month of the season. He has no lingering effects from the injuries, however, and is fully involved in the offseason program. Smith has been one of the most dangerous return men in the NFL during his first two seasons and is a weapon the Bucs will be thrilled to have back in 2010.
- WR Sammie Stroughter…Stroughter also got hurt late in the season, costing him the last two games in what was an eye-opening rookie campaign for the former seventh-rounder. It was a foot ailment that felled him in Week 15, but a very committed approach to rehab during the winter months got Stroughter back in perfect shape for the offseason program.
POSITIONS OF INTEREST
Buccaneers management has sought to strengthen the depth at every position while also finding cornerstone players around which to build a foundation for years to come. There will be competition at every position heading into training camp, and with such a young crew it is likely to be fierce. New starters or big-time contributors could emerge at any spot on the depth chart.
That said, there are clearly positions that are in line for some changes, or at least a little more scrutiny than usual. Let's take a look at a few of them:
- Wide Receiver…As mentioned, Antonio Bryant has departed and rookies Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams have arrived. While a good percentage of running backs make instant impacts as rookies, the results for receivers are all over the board, no matter how highly they are drafted. Look at the 2007 draft: Calvin Johnson and Dwayne Bowe were immediate hits while Sidney Rice and Steve Smith needed a few years to hit it big. Also from that draft, third and fifth-rounders Mike Walker and Steve Breaston have to this point outperformed the ninth overall pick, Ted Ginn Jr. Of course, some of the disparity in results has to do with opportunity, and there things look very favorable for Benn and Williams in Tampa. If they can adjust quickly to the NFL and make a connection with second-year starter Josh Freeman, the two rookies will have an excellent chance to be involved in the passing attack in 2010. Sammie Stroughter will also look to build on his intriguing debut and Maurice Stovall and Michael Clayton could also produce bigger numbers.
- Defensive Tackle…McCoy and Price, at the least, should be part of the rotation right away, and there is at least one starting spot open with the departure of Hovan. Fellow starter Ryan Sims returns and will both help his younger teammates develop and fend off the advances for his spot in the lineup. And second-year man Roy Miller, a third-round pick in 2009, remains a player out of which the Bucs expect big things.
- Defensive End…Jimmy Wilkerson departed and the draft didn't deliver any new options at the position until the seventh-round selection of Stanford's Erik Lorig. Still, there was turnover at the position during the 2009 season, when Tim Crowder and Michael Bennett arrived, and Crowder took on an increasingly large role as the season progressed. The Bucs also believe then-rookie Kyle Moore was finding his way near the end of the season and could provide much more in 2010. Beyond that, there are a number of young and hungry players trying to prove they belong in the NFL, including James Ruffin, Maurice Evans, Brandon Gilbeaux and George Johnson. If the Bucs' additions at defensive tackle have the effect the team is expecting on opposing blocking schemes, ends like Stylez G. White, the one returning starter, could see serious improvement simply by taking advantage of more one-on-one pass-rush opportunities.
- Kick Returner…Obviously, the Bucs have one of the league's best options at this spot in Clifton Smith, who is clearly the number-one option for the team. Still, even with Smith likely to repeat his exploits of the past two years, it's worth noting that there are some other very intriguing return men on hand, particularly Stroughter and Micheal Spurlock, both of whom scored touchdowns in that capacity last year. Could the team try to find a way to make use of several of those options in 2010?
- Linebacker…All three starters from 2009 return, so there is no huge mystery at the position. The story here is the interesting depth the team seems to suddenly have at linebacker. Behind returning starters Barrett Ruud, Quincy Black and Geno Hayes are the likes of Angelo Crowell, a former NFL starter returning from injury; Adam Hayward, a versatile 'backer capable of playing all three spots, and; Dekoda Watson, a 2010 seventh-round pick out of Florida State who appears to be a good fit for the Bucs' system. Will any of those three, or perhaps free agent pick-up Jon Alston, push the starters for playing time or a spot in the opening 11?
- Cornerback…Barber and Talib return to their starting positions, but the Bucs used a handful of players for the nickel back spot in 2009. Most notable among them was former undrafted free agent Elbert Mack, and Mack is back in 2010 also and is a strong candidate for that job again. There just happen to be a few more likely candidates in the mix this year. Third-rounder Myron Lewis has excellent size and should fit into the Bucs' defensive plans for years to come, and E.J. Biggers, as mentioned above, is a promising prospect as well.
- Punter/kicker…There is no competition at punter currently, but the position will still receive a lot of attention as rookie Brent Bowden tries to prove he is equal to the challenge. The kicker position also has a returning incumbent in third-year man Connor Barth, who was very impressive handling the job for the last nine games of 2009. Barth was signed after both Mike Nugent and then Shane Andrus failed to take control of the job, and Barth was good on 14 of 19 field goal tries for the Bucs, including seven of 45 yards or longer. Still, it's hard to describe a kicker as a complete lock when his tenure includes only nine games. At the moment, Barth will get competition from rookie Hunter Lawrence, who was signed as an undrafted free agent out of Texas.