DE Corey Smith saw two veterans trimmed off the roster at his position
The first cutdown day before the regular season provides, almost by definition, incomplete answers. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year, it reduced the roster from 88 to 72 players but didn't offer compelling evidence as to who would be the fourth cornerback, the primary quarterback sub, the backup nose tackle or the sixth receiver. In fact, it didn't even answer whether there would be a sixth receiver.
But it did push all of those issues, and more, to the front of the table.
Here's a look at some of the things we know and some of the subjects that are beginning to gain clarity:
O'Dwyer's status: It was not unexpected that the Bucs would put the veteran O-lineman, one of their key offseason acquisitions, on a reserve list. But the fact that it was the PUP (physically unable to perform) and not the IR (injured reserve) means that the team is holding out hope of O'Dwyer making a contribution this season.
O'Dwyer, currently rehabbing from surgery to repair a torn pectoral muscle, could be brought off the PUP list after six games, in plenty of time to play a significant portion of the season. "He's rehabbing quite well right now and he's ahead of schedule," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, "so there is a chance he returns at some point this season."
Overall O-line health: The trade of Jason Whittle to the Giants is a good indication that the Bucs are comfortable with the depth and health of their offensive line. Whittle was a candidate to start at right guard and/or be the primary backup center. However, Matt Stinchcomb, Derrick Deese, Jeb Terry and others have all recovered from minor injuries and the Bucs still have a lot of players to sort through up front. In the most recent preseason game, Stinchcomb and Cosey Coleman were the starters at guard; and, as mentioned above, O'Dwyer could get back into the picture at some point.
"Kenyatta Walker still has some soreness in his knee, but other than that we feel like we're as close to full strength as we've been," said Gruden.
Decisions at defensive end: The Bucs may not be quite done arranging their ends, but they appear to be close. It appears to be youth over veterans as the backups, with Lamar King relegated to injured reserve and Reinard Wilson released. That leaves three other ends behind starters Simeon Rice and Greg Spires: 2003 second-round pick Dewayne White, second-year man and NFLEL standout Corey Smith and undrafted rookie Josh Savage.
White started off camp strong and was considered one of the team's most improved players from 2003 to 2004. Smith has stretched his outstanding NFLEL season into a strong preseason and even Savage has caught the coaches' eyes. Making the decision easier is the swingman abilities of fourth-year player Ellis Wyms, who has handled the backup end job before.
"Wyms is a versatile guy, and I think Josh Savage has done some really good things for us as a defensive end," said Gruden. "Obviously, Corey Smith's had a good camp, and Dewayne White has been up and down. We need to see more out of him in this final preseason game. But Ellis Wyms is a guy who can play inside or out, and we feel like we've got some depth there."
The fate of late-round rookies: This could be the Bucs most important draft class in years, with Michael Clayton potentially playing a big role in the offense and Marquis Cooper and Will Allen looking like instant contributors on special teams. Still, it's tough for a full class of eight draftees to find spots on a veteran-laden roster, as sixth-rounder Nate Lawrie and seventh-rounders Casey Cramer and Lenny Williams found out. After fifth-round G Jeb Terry, only impressive receiver/return man Mark Jones, another seventh-rounder, survived the first day of cuts.
However, the Bucs saw enough out of all of those players to believe any or all of them could return at some point.
"There's no question they have physical talent," said Gruden of Lawrie and Cramer, the Ivy League pair that competed at tight end and fullback, respectively. "They just need more experience. Hopefully we can get them into camp again at some point and continue working with them. They just need some time to develop their skills a little bit, but they're good kids, they do have talent and unfortunately we can't keep everybody."
Same story for Williams, with the added difficulty of a crowded cornerback depth chart.
"Torrie Cox is healthy this year, Brian Kelly's healthy and Ronyell Whitaker's had a good camp," said Gruden. "It's very difficult to keep everyone, and Lenny Williams is another guy who had some flash potential. He's a young kid who I do believe will get another chance at some point."
Faith in Gramatica: Despite several unsightly misses against Miami, the team is still encouraged with the summer their one-time Pro Bowl kicker, Martin Gramatica, has had overall. Gruden admitted to some concerns the day after the Miami game, but has had his confidence rekindled by the way Gramatica has handled this week of practice, and how well he has hit the ball during some tough drills.
Gruden said the chances of the Bucs bringing in another kicker to compete with Gramatica are "not very good.
"We've got a kicker here; he's kicking the ball great the last two days. We put him under some intense fire. We set up some drills for him and he's responded well. I think he's going to be fine. We've got to prove that, but I do believe he's going to be fine."
As for the things that are still being decided, they include the depth chart at several noteworthy positions.
Simms vs. Griese: The Bucs released their fourth quarterback on Tuesday, so it appears as if Simms and Griese are fighting for the number two and three jobs behind starter Brad Johnson. And though Simms, the second-year man, has repeatedly impressed this summer, the battle is not yet decided. On Thursday in Houston, Griese will be the second man in as part of a prearranged preseason shuffling between the two.
"It's a good battle," said Gruden. "Both guys have done some good things. I'm really confident in the quarterback position. It all starts at the top with Brad Johnson; and I think Chris Simms has showcased his abilities this summer; and I think Brian Griese is still a darn good football player. So we're excited about that position. At the same time, nothing's settled."
The fourth cornerback: This remains a battle because three players –Cox, Whitaker and Corey Ivy – are all performing very well. Cox, a second-year man who missed all of 2003 with a knee injury, has come back strong to give Ivy very stiff competition. And Whitaker, who held the job in the latter part of 2003 after a rash of injuries, has also held up well. In addition, all three can contribute on special teams, particularly Ivy, the team's 2003 special teams MVP.
Backs – who and how many: Michael Pittman will miss the first three games of the season on a suspension, but Gruden insisted on Tuesday that Pittman will have a spot on the roster. He won't count against the 53-man limit during that time frame though, and the Bucs still have a large group of runners from which to select. Only one, Cramer was cut on Tuesday. None of the five tailbacks met the turf.
Charlie Garner is the expected starter, but reserves Jamel White, Brandon Bennett and Earnest Graham have all played well. If the Bucs end up making one or more cuts at this position – and it would seem unlikely that the team would keep seven, eight or nine running backs – they will likely be releasing a player that they like very much.
"It's a good problem to have," said Gruden. "If you think that highly of your runners, that's a good thing. Again, how many numbers you can keep at each position will be largely dependent on special teams play. It's going to be a tough call for us, there's no question about it."
Too many receivers, too: As discussed in greater depth on Monday, the Bucs have been impressed with just about all of their receiver candidates so far. Only one, veteran D'Wayne Bates, was released on Tuesday. Behind the three depth-chart frontrunners, Joey Galloway, Tim Brown and Clayton, the Bucs have an intense battle going on. Whoever emerges on the regular season roster, it will be the Bucs that win.
"We think [Bill] Schroeder's done some good things this summer and [Frank] Murphy, Mark Jones, Marcus Knight and [Danny] Farmer have had their moments, too," said Gruden, acknowledging the receiver logjam. "It will be a tough call for us. We'll try to be as fair as we can and do all we can to keep the guys we think can help us out the most."
Charles Lee, who has yet to play this preseason due to a hamstring injury, will see action in Houston, and that only increases the size of the pleasant problem. Lee was one of the team's top performers down the stretch last season, after the deactivation of Keyshawn Johnson. Also, one can't forget Joe Jurevicius, who was not placed on any list as of Tuesday. Jurevicius may or may not follow O'Dwyer onto the PUP list; the issue will be how long the team thinks he still needs to recover from his back surgery.
There are other roster questions still to be answered, of course. How many linebackers will the team keep? Will any players be kept solely on their return-game possibilities. Will the team keep all four of its remaining tight ends? The answers remained out of focus after Tuesday's series of roster moves, but they won't stay that way for long.