Rookie WR Paris Warren scored a touchdown in both home preseason games
In a way, it's a reverse of draft weekend. During the draft, names come off the board when they're selected by one team or another. On Saturday, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the NFL's other 31 teams trim their rosters to 53 players each, names will come down as players are taken off their respective teams.
In both cases, though, the choices are difficult and the players are often rated very close to one another. Make the wrong decision, on either draft weekend or final cut-down day, and it can affect your team for years.
As the Bucs mull over their final moves that will put them in compliance with that 53-man limit on Saturday afternoon, it seems likely that the most agonizing decisions will be at wide receiver. The Bucs are much deeper in legitimate options at that position than they have been in some time, and that ultimately may mean deciding between several players they would like to keep.
"It's a tough call, no question," said Head Coach Jon Gruden on Friday. "Some of our young guys have proven that they've gotten better throughout the course of camp."
Thursday's preseason finale featured touchdown catches for three young receivers (Edell Shepherd, J.R. Russell and Paris Warren), a prominent kick return role for another one (DeAndrew Rubin) and some of the most significant playing time yet for a fifth (Larry Brackins). Of course, the Bucs will be basing Saturday's choices on everything they've seen since April, and they'll be taking into account factors beyond each player's preseason catch total.
"It comes down to a lot of things," said Gruden. "You really have to keep five or you've got to keep six. Can they play on special teams? Things of that nature. But we do feel pretty good about the progress that we've seen in these young guys.
"Paris Warren has shown up on the scoreboard a couple of times. He's made some physical blocks. J.R. Russell is a guy who's really come a long way in three or four months. Edell Shepherd has been solid. [Larry Brackins] is a physical talent. He's in the mix."
Brackins is an interesting case in that he was slowed by a hamstring injury through much of the summer and has played less during the preseason than 2005 draft mates Warren and Russell. Even before the injury, he was considered something of a project, given that he came directly to the league from the community college level.
"We realized that it was going to be a process," said Gruden of Brackins' immersion into the NFL. "It might not happen overnight. It might take some time, but he's still on our radar screen. He got into the game late into the third quarter [on Thursday] and played 15-to-17 snaps, I believe."
Complicating matters for young hopefuls like Russell and Warren is the board next to the Bucs' own team display, the one that could fill up on Saturday as intriguing veterans from other teams are let go. It's true at every position and it's true at receiver, even with all the attractive in-house prospects: If the Bucs see a player on the waiver wire that can help the team, they will entertain the idea of pursuing that player.
"We'll look at … every receiver who's on the waiver wire here in the next 24, 48 hours," said Gruden. "We'll make a decision based on what we feel we have through our evaluations. If there's a guy out there who can come in, clearly, and be a guy we can get some playmaking out of, we would entertain it."
However the situation shakes out for the Bucs' young receivers, the team already feels good at the top half of the depth chart. Joey Galloway is healthy and still ridiculously fast, and he looked potentially dominant in training camp. Clayton overcame sluggishness early in camp, the result of knee surgery rehab, to come on late and look like the 80-catch rookie of 2004. And free-agent acquisition Ike Hilliard has given the team the dependable third option it pursued when the Giants let Hilliard go this offseason.
"We like what Ike Hilliard did last night, making two key catches, one on an audible and one on a key third down conversion," said Gruden. "Joey Galloway only caught the one pass, but we had him open deep twice last night. We like the top three receivers."
Shepherd was the obvious fourth man on the depth chart when camp opened, as he had experience in the system and a very good camp showing in 2004. That may help on Saturday, as could his touchdown catch on Thursday night.
"Yeah, I gained confidence [in Shepherd]," said Gruden. "I think Edell's a good young receiver and he's done some good things. He looked good on the end-around last night, made a nice catch down the seam, blocked the perimeter well and played three different positions. He did exactly what we wanted him to do last night."
That's always nice to hear on the afternoon before cut-down day, sort of like seeing your name in the first round of a mock draft on the Friday before draft weekend. Still, in both cases, nothing is certain until the picks are made and the board is set.