Pictures from the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Tuesday.
While the Tampa Bay Buccaneers prepare for their third preseason game, the team's linebackers are in the midst of their own numbers game.
The numbers in question, of course, are 10 – the number of linebackers currently on the roster – and five, the likely number of linebackers that will be on the roster come September 10. Talent and production will obviously drive the Buccaneers' decisions on cutdown day, but so too will the reality that the 53-man regular-season limit puts a cap on how many players the team can keep at each position.
"We can't just say, 'Alright, we've got 10 linebackers we want to keep, we're going to keep no wide receivers,'" said Head Coach Dirk Koetter after practice on Tuesday. "It's got to add up to 53, and you've got to have two deep in a real game when you've only got 46."
The Buccaneers' competition at linebacker has only become more complicated since the start of training camp, most of it in good ways. For instance, rookie Kendell Beckwith has probably made a bigger impact than what was expected in the spring, thanks to his remarkably quick return from a November knee injury and the preseason injury to fellow linebacker Devante Bond. With Bond sidelined for several weeks, Beckwith has moved into the starting strongside spot but has also continued to get some second-team looks at middle linebacker. He has drawn consistent praise from Koetter for his play.
Obviously, Bond's injury is one of the few negative developments at linebacker since the start of camp. However, he had been playing well before his injury, particularly in training camp pass-rush drills. The Bucs may have two players that they want to find playing time for at strongside linebacker, with Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander obviously locking down the weak side and the middle, respectively. Undrafted rookie Riley Bullough drew Koetter's praise early in camp for his communication skills – making Bullough a Hard Knocks focus in the process – and returning reserve Adarius Glanton had a strong showing in the second preseason game.
You could quibble a bit with the numbers above. The Bucs do have 10 linebackers in camp, but one is international exception Eric Nzeocha, who is going to spend the entire season on the practice squad regardless of his play in camp. It's really a nine-man competition, with the players listed above plus the returning Cameron Lynch, undrafted rookie Richie Brown and CFL import Jeff Knox. The Bucs might also choose to keep six linebackers instead of five, but that would obviously involve losing a spot at another position.
If the Bucs do go with a five-man linebacking corps, that may mean a fierce competition over the next two weeks for one spot, depending upon Bond's health. Glanton has certainly done nothing to hurt his cause, and he has the sort of do-it-all versatility that the coaching staff appreciates at every position.
"Adarius did everything he's ever been asked," said Koetter of the fourth-year player who first joined the team late in the 2015 season and was on the active roster for all of 2016. "Last year when he got in a game he made plays. He was a stalwart on special teams. He made plays, that's what backup players do. They make plays when they get their opportunities and eventually they may get a chance to move into the starting lineup, and he's a good example of that."
Pictures of fans at the Buccaneers' training camp practice on Tuesday.
Earlier in camp, Koetter noted that Glanton primarily backed up the weakside and middle spots. On Tuesday morning, he got in some first-team work at the MIKE position with Alexander sitting out the practice. As the coach noted, he's a proven special teams player, which only increases his value. He was even the Buccaneers' emergency long-snapper last year, and he even got in two snaps in the season-finale win over Carolina.
Glanton could get in a good amount of work in Saturday's game if Alexander is limited in any way. For Bullough, it's probably the preseason finale on August 31 that will be his best showcase. Starters generally sit out that game, leaving all the snaps to the reserves who are still trying to win a spot on the 53-man roster.
"We talked about this the other day: It's a numbers game everywhere," said Koetter. "Riley's doing fine. He's an excellent communicator, he's a tough guy, he's good in the run game, but it's going to come down to numbers. Riley's doing fine, he's improving. He's another guy, when he's out there, he makes plays. But he's fighting the numbers now."
- Those two snaps Glanton executed in last year's season finale were necessary because long-snapper Andrew DePaola suffered a knee injury in the third quarter. Glanton snapped for one field goal, which was blocked, and one extra point, which proved to be the winning margin in a 17-16 decision.
DePaola's injury came near the end of his 48th straight game as the Buccaneers' long-snapper. Because it required surgery and rehab, and because his contract expired at the end of the 2016 season, DePaola became a free agent in March. The Buccaneers chose not to extend a tender offer to make him a restricted free agent, due to the uncertainty of his recovery timetable, and they filled the long-snapper position by signing ninth-year veteran Garrison Sanborn.
But the Buccaneers kept an eye on DePaola, appreciative of his contributions the previous three seasons. On Tuesday, DePaola was re-signed, creating the newest competition on the depth chart.
"DePo played really well for us last year, had a very unfortunate injury at the end of the season," said Koetter. "He played so well for us, [General Manager] Jason [Licht] kind of had it in the back of his mind all along that if DePo made it back before the season we'd like to bring him in here and take a look at him and see where he's at. Today is just the first day of that, and I just saw maybe two plays, so we'll see what it looks like."
- The Buccaneers will have two games to see both DePaola and Sanborn in action. That might not have been true in years past. Previously, teams were required to reduce their rosters from 90 players to 75 after the third preseason game, then make the final cuts after the fourth game. It might have been difficult to devote two roster spots to the long-snapper position with a smaller roster.
In fact, it was often difficult for coaches to maintain a full depth chart for the preseason finale, given that they were already subtracting around 22-25 starters and key players. At times, that led to such make-do innovations as cornerbacks filling in at safety and fullbacks getting a high number of carries. That shouldn't be an issue with the 90-man rosters that teams will take into the last game this summer.
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It's not just the coaches that will benefit from the new rule. Koetter thinks it's an important development for young players, as well.
"I think it's great," he said. "I think it's going to make that fourth preseason game better all around, keeping it to one cut. I'm a big proponent of just the one cut. I think it's a great move by the NFL, and I think it's great for a lot of guys to get more plays on tape, for guys that aren't going to make our team or any other team, for the rest of the league to see. That cut-down day, there are a lot of good football players that get put on the street. All teams have different strengths and weaknesses so those other guys are able to get picked up."
In fact, the players who might have most likely to be waived in that 90-to-75 cut are likely to benefit from the new rule the most. Since those players would presumably be at the back end of the depth chart, some might not see much action at all in the third preseason game.
"We might not get everybody in," said Koetter of Saturday's game against Cleveland. "There's no guarantee everybody's going to play. We didn't get everybody last week; we came close but we didn't quite make it. Remember now, preseason games are building towards your opener. They're not getting everybody equal reps. That's not the object of it."