Versatility is a wonderful asset for a player in the National Football League, especially a young player trying to increase his chances of sticking around. The downside: some pretty tiring afternoons.
After all, the more you can do, the more your coaches are going to find for you to do during practice. That's a pretty minor downside, however, for the likes of such young Tampa Bay Buccaneer players as Erik Lorig, Kregg Lumpkin, Michael Bennett and Ted Larsen.
Those players and a few others have, by necessity, showed off their football versatility on the Bucs' practice field in recent weeks. Each has taken on new roles and a greater percentage of practice reps. Now, thanks to a somewhat complicated injury report heading into NFL weekend #7, those young players could find themselves more involved in the action on Sunday, as well.
The Friday version of the Buccaneers' injury report includes game-status designations for each player, giving a rough idea of how likely those players are to suit up against the St. Louis Rams on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Seven of the nine Buccaneers who appear on that list are considered questionable or worse, and five of those seven are starters. The positions that appear to be the largest areas of concern are the offensive line, defensive tackle and running back, and that's where the versatile players above come in.
The Buccaneers already knew they would be without starting center Jeff Faine this weekend, which pushes another very versatile player, Jeremy Zuttah, into the lineup. Now, both starting guards, Davin Joseph (knee) and Keydrick Vincent (back), are questionable for the game, which could prompt the team to turn to Larsen, a rookie claimed off waivers from the New England Patriots just before the start of the regular season.
Larsen has played center and both guard positions for the Buccaneers on the practice field. Since Joseph practiced on Friday but Vincent did not, the left guard spot seems to be a bit more of a concern, and that's where Larsen may end up. If Vincent is sidelined, the team will leave Zuttah at center, where he has played well in Faine's absence, and let Larsen handle the guard spot.
A sixth-round pick by the Patriots who was originally a defensive tackle at North Carolina State, the 6-2, 305-pound Larsen has gained the confidence of the Bucs' coaching staff in a hurry.
"He's a sharp guy," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He's been able to play center for us, play some guard. He's stepped right in there. He's also a tough, physical guy. He's got a mean nature about him, and you need that up front. We definitely like those things about him and he's showing some versatility for us. We're excited to have the young man on our football team."
If Vincent can't play and Larsen steps into the lineup, the Bucs may need to address their offensive line depth. Such a move would leave James Lee as the only remaining healthy backup to the five starting spots. Lee generally fills the role of swing tackle and has shown the team on the practice field that he can slide inside if necessary, but the Bucs won't leave themselves that thin on game day.
"It depends on the health of our football team," said Morris of the OL depth chart. "We'll have to see. I won't go into a game with one backup on the offensive line. I always go in there with two. We always go in there with the seven that we have up, with the one swing tackle and your inside guy. We'll have to see where we are there. That will be gameday stuff, and Saturday stuff, too."
Other aspects of the Bucs' blocking schemes could be in the hands of relatively new contributors, too. Starting fullback Earnest Graham, who has fought a hamstring strain for the past two weeks, is also questionable for Sunday's game. Graham returned to practice on Thursday but was then held out again on Friday. He does so many different things for the offense, including taking some carries off the back of starting tailback Cadillac Williams, that the team will focus first on getting him healthy for Sunday's game.
"He came out and wasn't able to go today," said Morris. "We held him today. We're concerned about it and we'll know a little bit more on game day hopefully. We'll get some tomorrow, get him to game day, get him some rest and see where he is."
The Bucs could keep Lumpkin and/or LeGarrette Blount active in order to help out Williams as ballcarriers, but the more significant concern is Graham's role as a blocker and pass-protector. When Graham left last Sunday's game against the Saints in the first quarter, Erik Lorig, who recently converted from defensive end to fullback/tight end, stepped in. He would likely be part of the solution this Sunday in the possible absence of Graham, as would Lumpkin.
"Lorig's role increased very fast," said Morris. "He's earning his paycheck. He's gone from a little bit more than just an emergency guy to a guy you're starting to rely on. We've also cross-trained Lumpkin as a fullback, so he knows some of the fullback role. He's more of an Earnest Graham type with some of the things he's able to do for us. He can go out there and run our plays from our two-back looks, and he can also run our split-back things that Earnest is able to do for us and hopefully he can also execute some of the protection things that we ask Cadillac and Earnest Graham to be able to do for us. At the same time, he could carry the ball and do some other things, so he's earning his paycheck as well."
The only player besides Faine who has already been ruled out for Sunday's game is rookie defensive tackle Brian Price, who has a pelvis injury and is considered week-to-week. Price had been serving as the third man in a defensive-tackle rotation along with starters Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller. Veteran Ryan Sims will slide back into that role with Price out, but if the team wants some additional contributions inside it will turn to Bennett and Kyle Moore, a pair of second-year players.
Moore is already starting at left defensive end but is capable of moving inside. Bennett has recently gone from game-day inactive to part of the end rotation and now his presence gives the Bucs a little bit of wiggle room inside, as well.
"You've got a swing guy in Kyle Moore who can go in there and play a little bit for you, do some of those things," said Morris. "And Bennett can also go inside for you a little bit as well. We'll have all those guys ready to go."
Morris said that the team would not yet turn to third-year defensive end Alex Magee, who was acquired via trade from the Kansas City Chiefs on Tuesday. Magee will eventually be another valuable piece of depth on the line, as he can play both inside and outside and in fact did so in his first week with the team. He will be inactive on Sunday, but Morris is happy with what he's seen so far.
"I'm really pleased with what he's been able to do and how he's been able to pick it up, and really with his overall attitude," said the coach. "You can go one of two ways when you get traded or move to a different team. You can be sour and come in and not like what happened to you, or you can be excited and embrace your new opportunity. I think he's come in and embraced his new opportunity so far. I don't want to speak about him too fast, but his first two days of practice were exciting."
Moore also appears on the Bucs' injury report with a shoulder ailment that caused him to miss the New Orleans game, but he is considered probable for the Rams contest. Rounding out the Buccaneers' Friday injury report are cornerback Elbert Mack (heel, doubtful), linebacker Barrett Ruud (toe, questionable) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee, probable).