Chas Gessner finds himself in the middle of a deep group of receivers, all of whom hope for significant playing time on Saturday
The Jacksonville Jaguars are looming around the corner this weekend, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' biggest battle Saturday might be finding playing time for everybody who needs it.
For most clubs, the third preseason game is the one in which the healthy starters see the most action. And, yes, Saturday's game in Jacksonville is the third of four on the Bucs' preseason slate. However, Head Coach Jon Gruden warned on Wednesday that nothing was set in stone in terms of player substitution patterns.
"Sometimes these things go down to the wire, so I can't say right now," Gruden said. "We don't have to put out a list – not that I'm trying to be evasive here, but it is training camp and everybody's sore. If I went through everybody who had a nick or nag, I'd have to go through a litany of bodies. We're planning on everybody playing. Obviously, Torrin Tucker will be doubtful in the game, but other than that, I expect everybody to play.
"We're ready to play another preseason game, and, once again, a lot of guys are going to play. We will see some of our starters play maybe a little bit more than they have, but we are going to substitute quickly at some positions to get a look at guys."
Translation: Proven talents such as Cadillac Williams and Joey Galloway are likely to be on the field for the first time this preseason in Jacksonville – but perhaps not for long. It's not so much a matter of protecting the veterans as it is a need to see other Bucs players who are vying for a roster spot. For Gruden and his coaching staff, time is running out. Three days after the game against Jacksonville, the Bucs will be forced to make an initial roster cut, trimming the 89-man roster down to 75. Four days after that, the roster will again be pared down to the final 53 players who will begin the 2006 season as Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Some of those 53 spots are being contested more hotly than others. For instance, how many of those 53 will be devoted to wide receivers – and then, of course, to which ones – is a key question on the minds of everyone who has observed this team since the start of training camp. The Bucs are trying to sort through what might be the most talented group of receivers, top to bottom, in team history.
Joey Galloway is returning after a career year that included personal bests in catches and yards. It appears that he hasn't lost a step. After a season in which he was nagged by injuries, third-year man Michael Clayton is healthy and ready to regain the record-setting form he displayed during his rookie year. David Boston appears on the verge of a rebound season. Ike Hilliard brings 10 years of experience to the group, and Maurice Stovall and Paris Warren have made nice plays in the team's first two preseason games and Edell Shepherd was a difference-maker against Miami. Throw in Chas Gessner, J.R. Russell, Mark Jones and Derek McCoy and you realize that there are no easy calls in this group.
"The coaches have some tough decisions this year, they really do," said quarterback Chris Simms. "It's an extremely talented group from top to bottom. They all can run, they've all got size – except for Joey and maybe Mark Jones. They're all big guys. I wouldn't want to be a coach this year because I don't know what they're going to do. They've all played really well, and they've all had good camps."
It's a situation that Gruden hopes will be better defined after Saturday.
"It's a challenge," Gruden said. "You'd like to come out and do more in the passing game, honestly, to see where some of these guys are, but at the same time you've got to play the game, you've got to take a look at some other aspects as well. Joey hasn't played yet, which has allowed us to look at some other players more extensively. It is a competitive situation. There's no doubt about it – we've got some good players there, and hopefully Saturday night can clear some things up for us."