The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will wrap up their 2013 preseason on Thursday night against the Washington Redskins, and both sides are expected to play the game primarily with reserves. Most NFL teams follow the same preseason pattern, with the third week used as an extended regular-season tune-up for the starters and the fourth week devoted to getting one last look at the players still fighting for roster spots and depth chart advancement.
The Buccaneers have certainly learned a lot since the start of training camp: rookie DT Akeem Spence has potential to be an impact player, wide receiver Kevin Ogletree looks like a valuable free agent addition, wide receiver Eric Page is a trustworthy asset in the return game, etc. Beyond the more obvious developments, Tampa Bay's coaching staff has been gathering information at a great many spots on the depth chart and is close to making some very important decisions for the start of the regular season.
For each player competing for a job, his entire body of work will factor into the decision, from the offseason program to training camp to the preseason game action. And, of course, the team's specific needs at certain positions and the restrictions of a 53-man roster will inform the final outcome.
"I think every situation is individual," said Head Coach Greg Schiano on the day before the preseason finale. "If you're on the bubble, then you're a depth guy, so then what is your role and who best fulfills that role and do we see things all through camp and then tomorrow night, that lend us to believe you'd be able to fill that role the best out of anybody on our roster? So it's really specific to the guy and to the position and to our needs."
Schiano also pointed out that the Buccaneers have eight more spots to work with, given that they will be forming the first iteration of their practice squad in the days following the cutdown to 53 on Saturday. That provides extra motivation for some of the players farther down the depth chart, as a foothold on the practice squad often leads to something more permanent in the NFL.
In addition to that pursuit, here are several roster and depth chart battles to draw your attention on Thursday night:
- Tight End
On Wednesday, Schiano mentioned to two tight ends who are likely to see a lot of playing time this season, without specifically naming them. He clearly meant Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree, the first two players listed on the depth chart, and given their complementary roles it may not matter too much which one is considered the "starter." NFL teams almost always keep at least three tight ends, however, and sometimes a fourth. Schiano recently referred to that group as a "tight end by committee," which may not be the ideal situation but does offer significant hope for the other three players on the depth chart, Nate Byham, Danny Noble and Tim Wright. It is not at all clear, outside of the coaches' meeting rooms, how the depth chart is going to be arranged after Stocker and Crabtree, but Thursday's game could end up being a deciding factor.
"The way we play, there's going to be more than one tight end playing so I don't think it's…certainly it's a big deal because somebody's the starter and you compete to be the starter - but I think they're both going to play. And then the guys below them as well in certain packages."
- Defensive End
Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, a pair of high 2011 draft picks, came into camp as the presumptive starters at right and left end, respectively. However, in each of the last two games the Buccaneers have actually started Clayborn on the left side and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim on the right, then substituted liberally throughout the game. Te'o-Nesheim started the last 13 games at right end in 2012 after Clayborn suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week Three.
This is another position at which the Bucs may rely on a committee of contributors, making the final decision on starters and reserves a bit less significant. Still, the team is obviously still searching for the most effective combination.
"I don't know yet; we haven't decided exactly who the starting ends are," said Schiano on Wednesday. "I can't tell you that definitively. [Clayborn and Te'o-Nesheim] are definitely in the mix, though."
- Third Wide Receiver
Ogletree, the former Cowboy signed as an unrestricted free agent in March, leads the team in receiving this preseason (10-114-1) and has clearly been one of the top performers among a large group of reserve wideouts. With Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams entrenched as the starters, the Buccaneers are looking for another pass-catcher who can make their three-receiver packages more potent. The team will likely keep at least five wideouts overall, but the one who wins the third receiver job will see by far the most playing time.
Ogletree appears to be the leader in that competition, but that's another decision Schiano and company are holding off on until all the information is in.
"We haven't officially said that yet," said the coach. "I think Kevin has played well, but I think we'll make all those [decisions] when we set the depth for the Jets."
- Left Guard
The starter here is no mystery; All-Pro Carl Nicks will have his customary spot when he is ready to play. However, Nicks is still recovering from an infected blister in his foot and the timetable for his return is certain. The Bucs are preparing for at least the possibility that they will start the regular season without Nicks' services, looking for the best short-term fill-in and long-term backup at left guard.
Gabe Carimi, the former first-round offensive tackle who came over in June via a trade with the Chicago Bears, started the game in Miami last weekend at left guard. Before him Ted Larsen and Mike Remmers opened the games against Baltimore and New England, respectively, and Cody Wallace saw quite a bit of first-team action at the left guard spot during training camp.
Carimi could end up as the team's first option at that spot, and they're going to take another look at that possibility on Thursday night.
"It is viable," said Schiano of the Carimi-at-guard option. "He looked like a guy who has not played a lot of guard lately, especially on the left side. But the things that you see that you like, you say, 'Now that's good.' He's a big, strong man that gets movement and doesn't get moved back. There's some other things we've got to fix, work on, get him more comfortable with. But yes, a viable option for sure. There's some other ones as well, so once we get through this game, we'll sort it out, figure out what the line is."
For the sake of analysis, we'll assume that Darrelle Revis will be starting at left cornerback when the regular-season opens. That leaves the right cornerback spot open, with the most likely starting candidates being second-year man Leonard Johnson and rookie Johnthan Banks, a second-round pick.
The Bucs' depth was snipped a bit in recent days with the season-ending knee injury to Anthony Gaitor and the groin surgery undergone by Danny Gorrer. Gorrer's injury is not considered season-ending, so he may eventually fit into the picture, but on Thursday night the team will be keeping a very close eye on Michael Adams, Rashaan Melvin, Deveron Carr and Mason Robinson.
"I think they're all at different stages of development," said Schiano. "Mike [Adams] is a veteran player, and I think, as a group, they're playing well. The one thing that's a positive is there's not balls flying over the corners' heads. So they may be making some catches underneath, but they're tackling them, and if you can keep balls from flying over your head, you've got a chance to be in every game."
- Back-up Running Back
Doug Martin won't take any handoffs on Thursday night, so for the second week in a row the backfield reps will rotate between Brian Leonard, Mike James and Peyton Hillis. It's possible that the Buccaneers could keep all three, depending upon how much versatility they display and, for James especially, how much they can contribute on special teams. However, all three of them surely covet the spot directly behind Martin on the depth chart and a spot of some significance in the Bucs' offense.
"We're going to see – I don't know how many of them and how much, but we're going to get, certainly, a lot of touches in this game to make a determination," said Schiano of the ongoing running back competition.
- Other Battles
- Schiano has said on several occasions that the Bucs have two men who have performed well enough to start at strongside linebacker in Dekoda Watson and Jonathan Casillas. Since it's not clear how much either of those two will play on Thursday night, this particular battle may not be impacted much by the last preseason game.
- It appears that the Buccaneers will open the season with either Rian Lindell or Derek Dimke as their placekicker. Expect both players to get a chance to kick tonight, provided the offense gives them the opportunity.
- The Buccaneers have six safetieswho may be deserving of roster spots. With starters Dashon Goldson and Mark Barron likely seeing little or no action, there will be a healthy competition between Cody Grimm, Ahmad Black, Sean Baker and Keith Tandy on Thursday night.
- Spence may have started the first three games at defensive tackle next to Gerald McCoy, but Schiano has not yet named him a starter. In addition, the Bucs still have a whopping seven players for those two positions, even after the cutdown to 75, so there are obviously some depth decisions to be made from among Spence, Gary Gibson, Derek Landri, Pep Levingston, Matthew Masifilo and Andre Neblett.