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Mailbag: Underrated Bucs and Rising Young Players

TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 7: Wide receiver Karl Williams #86 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers runs the ball against the Green Bay Packers at Raymond James Stadium on October 7, 2001 in Tampa, Florida. The Buccaneers won 14-10. (photo by Chris Livingston/Tampa Bay Buccaneers)

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will play their first home game of 2018 on Friday night against the Detroit Lions, then finish up the preseason with another contest at Raymond James Stadium the following Thursday, against Jacksonville. The Buccaneers will likely play their starting lineups for at least the first half against the Lions but, as has become custom across the league, will rest most of the first line on their depth chart in that closer with the Jaguars.

This is accepted practice, but it hasn't always been that way. As recently as 2005, under Head Coach Jon Gruden, the Buccaneers had most of their starters in the lineup for the preseason finale against Houston, albeit for only about three series. In 2006, however, the Buccaneers held many of their starters out of another finale against the Texans. Quarterback Chris Simms started but only threw two passes while the likes of Ronde Barber, Cadillac Williams, Shelton Quarles, Derrick Brooks, Joey Galloway, Anthony McFarland and Simeon Rice looked on from the sideline. The Texans treated their lineup in a similar way.

The Buccaneers actually used this approach for the first time in 1998 under Head Coach Tony Dungy, in what was then a surprise move. Dungy held a bunch of starters out of the '98 preseason finale, including quarterback Trent Dilfer, left tackle Paul Gruber, defensive stars Warren Sapp and John Lynch, cornerback Donnie Abraham and the Thunder & Lightning duo of Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn. Some others, like Derrick Brooks, played in the game but only sparingly and without starting. Steve Walsh, very late in his career, was the starting quarterback for the Buccaneers in that game.

That proved to be an anomaly. The Bucs played their starters in the preseason finales for the rest of Dungy's tenure and for the first four years with Gruden at the helm. Once it became a commonplace thing for teams to use their fourth preseason games as one final showcase for young roster hopefuls, starting quarterbacks started to get a week off before the regular season. And that led to some interesting names starting under center for the Buccaneers.

Since most of those games were started by the primary backup at quarterback, there are some very familiar names on the list, including Josh Freeman, Luke McCown and Mike Glennon. In fact, Glennon started four preseason finales in a row (2013-16)! But that list also includes Rudy Carpenter and Brett Ratliff, two names that only made a fleeting mark in Bucs history. Ryan Fitzpatrick started the preseason finale last year.

Will Ryan Griffin join that list in this year's preseason finale? Maybe! We'll have to wait and see. But it's okay that I don't have the answer because nobody actually asked me that question. What you did ask me about can be found below. Let's get to your questions.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. As you'll see from time to time, I also unilaterally appropriate for myself – as any good pirate captain would – questions I like that are meant for our Insider Live show or are simply responses to one of my previous tweets. I've also taken to stealing emails meant for our Salty Dogs podcast, and I did that again this week. As always, if you specifically want to get a question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Fantastic podcast last week! Who do you think is the most underrated Buc of all time? 

Thanks! 

Bobby from LA! (via email to saltydogs@buccaneers.nfl.com)

As you can tell, I've swiped another question from my Salty Dogs inbox. Bobby, if you're reading this, rest assured we will also discuss your question on the podcast next week. This will just give me a head start on finding the best answer so that I can look a lot smarter than my co-host, Jeff Ryan. He prefers to be confronted with the questions cold each week. I like to do a little research.

Actually, I say "research" but since the concepts of being underrated and overrated are pretty subjective, I think the first thing you do with a question like this is go with your gut reaction. And the very first name that popped into my head when I read this one question was Karl Williams.

Williams joined the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M-Kingsville in 1996. He made the team and slowly gained a foothold in the offense during his rookie campaign before also taking over the return duties later in the season. Not satisfied by what they were getting out of draft pick Nilo Silvan or midseason replacement Marvin Marshall, the Buccaneers tried Williams on punts and kickoffs and the results were incredible. Williams averaged 21.1 yards on 13 punt returns and 27.4 yards on 14 kickoff returns and even scored just the second punt return touchdown in franchise history.

So that's how it began for Williams, and he forged a career that was good enough and long enough to make him pretty memorable for Bucs fans, I would think. He was on the Super Bowl team in 2002, so that helps. But did you know that of all the receivers in franchise history, Williams has played the most games as a Buccaneer. Yep, 115, which puts him 18th among players at all positions for the team. The only other receiver to play in at least 100 games for the Bucs – in his case, exactly 100 – is Gerald Carter.

Did you know that Williams is also the franchise's all-time leader in punt return yards, and that with 2,279 of them he's got 723 more than the next man on the list, Danny Reece? There are only four players in team history who even have 723 punt return yards.

Did you know that Williams has five of the 11 punt return touchdowns in franchise history, and that nobody else has more than one? This particular stat has relevance beyond the confines of the Tampa Bay area, too. From 1996 through 2002, only three players in the entire NFL had at least five punt return touchdowns. You may have heard of the other two. Desmond Howard, the fourth-overall pick in the 1992 draft and the MVP of Super Bowl XXXI, had seven punt-return TDs in that span. Jermaine Lewis, who twice led the NFL in punt return average and ran back a kickoff for a touchdown in Super Bowl XXXV (at Raymond James Stadium!), had six.

Just for fun, I widened the search to four punt return touchdowns in that same span that Williams had five to see if any more impressive names would show up. Yep! Right there in a tie for the next spot are Eric Metcalf (another noted return man), Darrien Gordon and the one and only Deion Sanders.

Did you think I would find a way to not only favorably compare Karl Williams to some of the best players in franchise history but also to Deion Sanders and Desmond Howard? You probably did not, because you and everyone else have not properly rated his career. Karl Williams is underrated!

I think Williams is a fine choice for the answer to this question since, as I said, it's quite subjective and our tastes may differ. But I'm going to give it some more thought, see if I can find another four or five candidates and then discuss it with Jeff in next week's podcast. Tune in! (Here's a page with all the Salty Dogs episodes so far.)

Let me start with the end of that question because it seems a little strange to me. Fitz "crumbles under the bright lights?" I'm not going to try to talk you into Ryan Fitzpatrick's merits if you're not a fan, but that's a pretty strong statement. Is it based on the preseason so far, because the veteran quarterback had one very nice game in Miami (should have been eight-for-eight but for two drops) and one shakier one in Tennessee. In both cases, we're talking about a pretty small sample size, too.

Are we talking about last season, because the Buccaneers won two of the three games that Fitzpatrick started and he perfectly acceptable passer rating of 86.0, with a seven-to-three TD-INT ratio. I would think crumbling under pressure would involve turning the ball over a lot, but he didn't do that last year and he has no giveaways so far this year. The first time Fitzpatrick was called into action as a Buccaneer in the regular season was last year in Arizona when Jameis Winston injured his shoulder for the first time. Tampa Bay was losing 24-0 when Fitzpatrick came in, with five minutes to play in the first half. That seems like a pressure-packed situation in which he would be relied on to throw on nearly every play. Fitz threw for 290 yards and three touchdowns and the Bucs only lost by five points, 38-33.

Alright, enough of my rant. The meat of your question is about Ryan Griffin, and it's good that he has you and some other fans asking about him. Griffin has indeed performed well in the preseason so far (108.7 passer rating, 70.3% completion rate, 2-1 TD-INT ratio), and that's encouraging because, for at least three weeks, he will be one injury away from taking over the Bucs' offense in the regular season. Yes, we can point out that Griffin's playing time has come against mostly reserves on opposing defenses, and that's a valid consideration, but he has also helped to elevate the play of the Bucs' own offensive reserves.

Griffin was doing well early in camp last year, too, before suffering a shoulder injury that drew his competition with Fitzpatrick for the primary back-up spot to Winston to a quick close. Griffin missed the first half of the season and when he came back he was clearly the third-stringer when both Winston and Fitzpatrick were healthy. That said, last fall the Buccaneers made a point of extending Griffin's contract to cover the 2018 season, so they still saw him as part of the overall solution at the position.

That said, there has been no thought of a Fitzpatrick-Griffin competition this summer. Head Coach Dirk Koetter said right at the start of camp that Fitzpatrick would start the three games while Winston was on a suspension, and that he didn't foresee that changing in the absence of an injury. Nothing has changed since then. Fitzpatrick is the starter.

Now, could Griffin see some snaps with the first-team offense? That also does not seem likely. Fitzpatrick will start again on Friday against the Lions, and if Koetter decides to leave the rest of the offensive starters on the field with another quarterback, it will be Winston. So it's not that Griffin has done anything wrong to eliminate an opportunity to play with the first-team, it's just that the Buccaneers have too much else they need to accomplish with that unit. Griffin could start the fourth preseason game, but if he does so he would still be playing with a cast of reserves.

There are a lot of players who have performed well in camp and have helped their various causes, whether it be to make the team or to win a job or to earn more snaps in a rotation.

Rookie cornerbacks Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart may have accelerated their timetables for earning important roles on defense with how well they've played. Undrafted rookie wide receiver Sergio Bailey has made several big plays in the games, which have not gone unnoticed. At the least, he's probably improved his chances of landing on the practice squad, which often leads to a roster spot in the long run. Peyton Barber may have solidified his hold on the starting spot at running back.

But I think what you really mean, the way you want me to interpret this, is which player started camp with no certainty of making the 53-man roster but is finishing it with a much better chance. If that is indeed the question, my answer is Mike Liedtke.

I'm tempted to say undrafted rookie running back Shaun Wilson, but I've been predicting that he would make it since the start of camp. A week or so lost to injury didn't give him a chance to improve his standing for a while, but he's back now and clearly in the mix. The move of Charles Sims to injured reserve, as unfortunate as it is, increases Wilson's chances, but your question was about a guy helping himself.

So far, Liedtke has played in one regular-season NFL game, and that was the Buccaneers' last one of 2017. He played on special teams and did not take any snaps on offense. Liedtke had made it into that game following a late-season promotion to the active roster after spending most of the fall on the Bucs' practice squad. He had previously been in camps and on practice squads with the Dolphins (2015), Chiefs (2015-16), Jets (2016) and Browns (2016). The Bucs first brought him to town in November of 2016, signing him to the practice squad, and he went to camp with the team last summer.

Liedtke started at both guard and tackle at Illinois State but he seemed to be getting most of his work with the Buccaneers at the inside spots. That was, until a rash of injuries took out Leonard Wester, Cole Gardner and Cole Boozer (and more recently, Donovan Smith), making the Bucs very thin at tackle. Without much advance warning, Liedtke played left tackle for the second-team line in the preseason opener at Miami. He did the same thing against the Titans in Week Two.

Now, with Smith going down in practice on Tuesday, Liedtke might actually be starting at left tackle on Friday night. That's the lineup the Buccaneers went with in practice on Wednesday, so it's definitely a possibility. That is an awesome opportunity for the first-year lineman to prove he can handle such an important job, and if he does so, it would make him an intriguing option for one of the O-Line reserve spots on the regular-season roster.

Those jobs could be determined in part by injuries, particularly if Wester and Gardner are still unable to take the field when the regular season rolls around. The Buccaneers generally keep nine offensive linemen on the 53-man roster and seven of them active on game day. One of the most prized attributes for those reserve linemen is versatility. When you have a limited number of spots, especially on game day, you must have a couple of guys who can play multiple positions. Most commonly that means a player who can handle either tackle spot or all three of the interior spots, but it's particularly useful to have a player who can help inside and on the edge.

Thanks to all those injuries, the final makeup of the Bucs' offensive line group for the regular season is still very much up in air. Mike Liedtke has taken advantage of some new opportunities created by those injuries, and it seems to have increased his chances of remaining a part of that group.

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