The third game of the NFL preseason is where the competition for jobs and roster spots begins to narrow down. Designated starters draw the majority of the snaps for the first time, leaving fewer left over for the dozens of other hopefuls on the roster. The narrowing process continues following the third game when the roster is reduced by a certain fraction (this year, from 90 players down to 80) in advance of the preseason finale and the final cuts.
In some ways, however, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are seeing their pool of competitors widen this weekend, and for one simple reason: better health.
A half-dozen Buccaneers who have yet to make their 2011 debuts will probably due so this Saturday against the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium (five of the six, at least, seem like virtual certainties) and it's a very intriguing list.
Half of the six players on the list – wide receiver Arrelious Benn, cornerback Aqib Talib and tight end Kellen Winslow – are starters on the depth chart, so their late appearances in the preseason probably haven't endangered their roster status. Still, if they're taking up snaps, the competition for the rest of the depth chart becomes more intense.
The other half – cornerback Myron Lewis, defensive tackle Brian Price and tight end Luke Stocker – figure to be key reserves who will see a lot of playing time. All three step back into the mix at positions that appear deep and difficult to predict with two rounds of roster cuts coming up.
The return of all six players – Talib appears to be the one lingering question mark – gets the Bucs much closer to where they hope to be for the beginning of the regular season, and that's an exciting development for the team's coaching staff.
"This week, this game, we're looking to shake off a little bit of the rust," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We've got Price going out there for the first time, Luke Stocker, Kellen Winslow. A bunch of guys will get to shake off some rust and get that game-day experience. I'm really looking forward to this week and it's been fun getting a little prep this week."
All six have participated in every practice this week, and on various days Morris has spoken optimistically about each one suiting up on Saturday. After Thursday's practice, Morris again addressed the likely game-day roles for each of the six, expressing reservations only about Talib, the starting left cornerback. Both he and Lewis missed the first two preseason games due to mild hamstring strains.
"Myron Lewis is closer than Aqib," said Morris. "Aqib practiced today but I don't know if he's as far along as I'd like him to be. I'll [continue to] evaluate him."
Morris' hope is that he'll be able to evaluate all six in a game setting this weekend. That's especially true for Price and Stocker, who could end up in some very specific roles when the regular season rolls around. Morris envisions Price as a replacement at nose tackle on third downs and obvious passing situations and thinks he could get 25-30 snaps a game in that capacity. And the Bucs' staff has long thought of Stocker as the perfect complement to Winslow in more dangerous two-TE sets than the offense has featured in the past.
"We want to get him in some of the rotation we want him to be in for the season," said Morris of Price, the team's second-round pick in 2010. "I want to do that this weekend for him. He looks healthy. He's really coming back. He's excited to be back, first of all. You can just see it in his face. He's a different kid. He's out on the practice field, he's going hard and I'm excited to see him out there this Saturday."
As for Stocker, who caught a bad break during his very first NFL practice with a fluke hip injury, Morris likened his return to getting an extra present late on Christmas day.
" Looking at him out there, he's a big blocker type but he also has some foot quickness," said Morris. "We're really starting to see some of the stuff that we fell in love with at the Senior Bowl come alive for him. He's an exciting young player and he's looking to go out there and shake the rust off as well. I'm really fired up about that young man. He brings a lot of excitement to that tight end room, with Kellen Winslow, and the complement that's going to be with them, the third guy…it will be a lot of fun to watch those guys go out and play."
Lewis may have farther to go to define a role because he didn't become a defensive regular until late last season and he's been sidelined most of August while the other corners have picked up increased playing time in Talib's absence. Still, the coaching staff liked what they saw of Lewis in the nickel package over the last five weeks of 2010 and he has looked good on the practice field this week. Lewis was particularly impressive during Wednesday's full-speed workout, grabbing two interceptions and knocking down several other deep balls. It's easy to envision the Buccaneers wanting Lewis, easily their biggest cornerback, on the field when they take on the Detroit Lions and Calvin "Megatron" Johnson in Week One of the regular season.
Lewis says he feels completely healthy and doesn't expect to be limited on Saturday.
"It's feeling good to get back out there, run through all the drills and get my hands on some balls," he said on Wednesday. "I had a good practice today, a good turnaround from the hamstring injury.
"As of right now I feel real good. My plan is to play Saturday and do my best out there."
Benn has been impressive on the practice field this week, too, showing no lingering effects of his knee injury late last season. The coaches have stopped urging him to slow down on his routes and he's been running with the first-team offense, opposite Mike Williams. Benn said yesterday that he's trying not to think too much about his return to the game-day playing field in order not to hyperventilate out of excitement.
Of the six aforementioned players, only Winslow has not been limited due to injury during the preseason, at least not directly so. Winslow has to battle through knee issues every season in order to play, but he hasn't missed a regular-season game in his two years in Tampa. He and the Bucs have obviously found a system that works for him, and this summer that has included holding him out of the first two weeks of play. It probably made sense, anyway, as the Bucs had to put their primary two-TE plans on hold for several weeks while Stocker recovered.
Winslow desperately wants to play, however, and he'll likely get his wish on Saturday.
"He's really been out there every single day, he's been working hard, feeling good. He's got a lot of energy, a lot of bounce to his step. Him and [Josh] Free[man] are like best buddies. They really want to work together and they demand a lot from each other. He had a great camp and now we're looking forward to getting him some game action. He's a tempo-setter. He's certainly looking to set the tempo this week."
Morris said one of the team goals he has been preaching to his players all week is successfully pulling off a fast start, which was conspicuously lacking last Thursday against New England. The Buccaneers have done a bit more game-planning this week than in their first two preseason outings, and they've conducted the daily schedule in a way that closely resembles a regular-season week.
And, even better, they'll have nearly a fully healthy roster to help them achieve those goals. Some of the players will just be "shaking off the rust," as Morris said, but merely having the likes of Winslow, Benn and Price in action should help the Buccaneers take another important step forward as the regular season approaches.