The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are about to play their 2019 preseason finale in Dallas, and while the game has no actual stakes in any standings that matter, it is important for the young players who will get nearly all of the snaps. Or it can be important for any roster hopeful who uses the opportunity to solidify his shot at making the team.
How many of the eventual 53 seats at the regular-season table are still available in this game of musical chairs, which will have 37 of them removed by Saturday? Here's what Head Coach Bruce Arians said when asked that question earlier in the week:
"There’s about 10 and then there’s 10 practice squad spots for the guys that clear waivers."
That doesn't mean there's exactly 10 jobs still up for grabs, or that the Bucs' decision-makers don't already have favorites for those spots. But it seems quite possible that an eye-opening performance on Thursday night could make the difference for some players whose roster fates have yet to be determined.
Which got me to thinking: How has that gone in the past. Have big games in the preseason finales augured well for bubble players in the past? Let's take a look.
The current widespread practice of resting all starters in the preseason finale arose in the middle of the last decade. Jon Gruden's Buccaneers started most of their front-line players in the 2005 finale, though they admittedly didn't play long. In 2006, it was a bit of mash-up of starters and reserves on the first drive, and by 2007 it looked like it does today. So I started with 2006 and picked out what seemed to be the top performer in each preseason finale since. Let's see what happened with those players.
2006: QB Bruce Gradkowski – 13 of 17 passing for 90 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 107.5 passer rating. It's no real surprise that Gradkowski made the team as a sixth-round backup. What did prove to be a surprise was how much playing time he got thanks to a run of injuries. Gradkowski started 11 games that year…and nine more the rest of his nine-year NFL career.
2007: WR Paris Warren – seven catches for 110 yards and two touchdowns. This is a sad story, actually. Warren caught the game-winning 31-yard touchdown pass from Bruce Gradkowski with three minutes left in the game. Unfortunately, Warren suffered a broken leg while being tackled as he crossed the goal line, and he never appeared in another NFL game. Gruden said afterward that Warren would have made the 53-man roster.
2008: CB Eugene Wilson – five tackles, one sack, one pass defensed. Wilson was a veteran who had already started on two Super Bowl-winning Patriots teams. He did not make the Bucs' roster in '08, but don't shed a tear for him. He signed with Houston and played three more seasons.
2009: CB Torrie Cox – seven tackles, one interception. Cox had spent the previous year on injured reserve, but he had already logged four seasons with the Buccaneers. He did make the team in 2009, but it would be his last NFL season.
2010: QB Rudy Carpenter – 15 of 22 passing for 203 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 127.7 passer rating. Carpenter made the team as the third quarterback but was inactive all season. He was also on Tampa Bay's practice squad for most of 2011 before getting into one game near the end.
2011: WR Ed Gant – two catches for 121 yards, including a 96-yard touchdown. Gant did not make the 53-man roster but he did spend all of 2011 on Tampa Bay's practice squad.
2012: S Sean Baker – six tackles, two interceptions and a fumble recovery. Accounting for three turnovers in a single game is certainly a good look, but Baker did not make the Bucs' roster. He did return later for a stint on the practice squad, and he got into five games with the Falcons in 2014.
2013: LB Najee Goode – seven tackles, two passes defensed, 37-yard pick-six. A fifth-round draft pick the year before, Goode had made the team as a rookie and played in three games. After his strong finish to his second preseason, Goode was waived, but he was claimed by the Eagles and played in Philly for five years before going to Indianapolis for one season. He is still going strong, having signed with the Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent this spring.
2014: N/A. There was no real standout in this dud of a game against Washington.
2015: WR Adam Humphries – four catches for 62 yards and a touchdown. We all know how this one turned out. Humphries did make the team, and other than a brief stint on the practice squad that year, stayed there for four years. He turned into such a good slot receiver that it landed him a lucrative contract with Tennessee this offseason.
2016: LB Josh Keyes – four tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss. Keyes had played in seven games for the Bucs as a rookie but he would start his second season on the practice squad. He later made it up for four more games in Tampa and was most recently with the Texans last season.
2017: WR Bobo Wilson – three catches for 58 yards, two kickoff returns for 66 yards. Wilson is still around, having split his first two seasons between the practice squad and the active roster. He may be closing in on an opening day roster spot for the first time, and another strong preseason finale would serve him well.
2018: RB Shaun Wilson – seven carries for 44 yards (6.3-yard average), two receptions for 24 yards. Wilson, an undrafted rookie, did make the opening-day roster and had the kickoff return to start the season. However, he ended up on injured reserve and was cut this summer. He is currently with the Washington Redskins.
Alright, I'd better finish this up before it ends up in Matthew Berry intro territory. Suffice it to say, a top performer in a preseason finale is no lock to make the opening-day roster, but it seems to have worked out more often than not.
View pictures of the Buccaneers leaving for their matchup against the Cowboys.
Now let's get to your questions.
A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer
question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to firstname.lastname@example.org.
How many WRs will make the team?
- edmonds_941, via Instagram
That's the million dollar question, isn't it? Or maybe one of about five $200,000 questions, all intertwined. Five or six receivers? Three or four tight ends? Five or six inside linebackers? Five or six cornerbacks? Four or five safeties? Etc.
Let's break this down with all the positions and what I think are reasonable numbers to keep at each, based on needs at each spot and the talent on hand.
Looks good, right? Well, the problem is that my proposed positional numbers add up to 54 total players, one too many. So if you want to keep your receiver number at six, you might have to lose one of your inside linebackers (Corey Nelson?) or maybe not carry a fourth tight end (Tanner Hudson?) or a fourth running back (Dare Ogunbowale?). Then you have to think about which one of those players is going to do the most for you. Is your sixth receiver, even if you'd like to keep him, going to bring more to the table than an extra running back or linebacker who happens to be better on special teams? And all of this is also hinges on keeping just eight offensive linemen, which seems just a little light.
All of that said, I think I'm going to stick with my six wide receivers, who are: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Breshad Perriman, Bobo Wilson, Justin Watson and Scotty Miller. The first three are almost surely safe, and the last three could be competing for two spots. However, Wilson may very well end up as the punt and/or kickoff returner, Watson plays on a lot of special teams unit and Miller is a sixth-round draft pick with a ton of speed. The Bucs may not want to risk any of them to the waiver wire, which would be necessary if they wanted to try to start one of them out on the practice squad.
If anything, I'm probably going to pare my inside linebackers down to five, in part because there is some crossover with the outside linebacker group, and we would still have nine linebackers total. Devante Bond may be the key there; his newfound value as an edge-rusher would allow me to count him as one in both the OLB and ILB groups, and he is very good on special teams.
Also keep in mind that the answer to this question could be different on Saturday and Sunday this weekend. Saturday is when all 32 teams trim their rosters from 90 down to 53, and Sunday is when waiver claims take effect. I'm willing to go a little light on the offensive line because I'm not sure there's
enough depth there in the current group to warrant keeping four as reserves. That said, if the Bucs find a lineman they like on the waiver wire, that could impact another position, which could very easily be wide receiver. Bruce Arians has said on several occasions in the past week that some players shouldn't necessarily get comfortable when they finish Saturday still on the roster.
Ultimately, it comes down to the special teams value that Wilson and Watson offer and my idea that the Bucs have not yet had enough evidence to decide how much Miller can do and would like some more time with that decision. I think they keep all three around, at least at the beginning.
Will Scotty Miller start the regular season?
- yrnelijah, via Instagram
Okay, if you mean, "start the regular season on the active roster," I just answered that above. If you mean actually start games in the regular season, I don't think so. Not yet anyway. Mike Evans is your starting X and he has a vise grip on that job. Chris Godwin is your Z who can also slide into the slot. Breshad Perriman is your next man in when the team goes three-wide. I wouldn't expect Miller – or for that matter, almost any sixth-round rookie, to have a huge impact in his rookie year. Even if you think Miller could develop into another Adam Humphries, that doesn't happen overnight.
The best chance Miller would have to "start" is for him to win the punt return job, which I guess is still possible. He was in the mix in Game Three and should get some more reps on Thursday night. If he managed to win that job, he wouldn't technically be a starter, but he could still be the first guy on the depth chart at one position.
Are we going to see Mathew Eaton on the field more?
- Guam_evo, via Instagram
A bit more, perhaps, though his trend has been in the opposite direction.
The Buccaneers added Eaton to the roster about five days into camp after a couple other receivers got hurt, and he actually played the most in the first preseason game. Miller and K.J. Brent were held out of that game and the Bucs moved down into their reserves pretty quickly, so Eaton got 21 snaps just nine days after joining the team.
The Bucs first and second-stringers saw increasingly more work in the next two weeks and Eaton logged two snaps on offense against Miami and none against Cleveland, though he did still play on special teams in that latter game.
Now, in Thursday's game, it's all about the reserves, so Eaton and many others should see some uptick in their snaps. However, he still might be behind a couple other players in the pecking order at wide receiver. Judging from the snap totals of the last couple weeks, he would definitely be behind undrafted rookie Anthony Johnson. Eaton should play some more but the Bucs also have DaMarkus Lodge, Spencer Schnell, Cortrelle Simpson and Emanuel Hall to look at, too. I wouldn't count on any one guy getting a huge number of snaps.
Is Justin Evans going to play or will they wait to play him once the regular season starts?
- gabeevans01, via Instagram
By all accounts, yes, Justin Evans is going to play on Thursday night. Both Evans and Arians said so at varying times this week. I wouldn't expect it to be an enormous amount of playing time because Evans is still getting his sea legs back and there are a lot of young players that need the reps. But it will be something.
It's an unusual situation. Just a year ago, Evans was one of the players who didn't need to bring his uniform to the fourth game because he was an entrenched starter. However, he finished last year on injured reserve and then was not able to come back from his foot injury at any point in the offseason or during training camp. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers had added a safety in the draft (Mike Edwards) and free agency (Kentrell Brice) and they had to work with what they had. It's clear that Edwards and Whitehead, in particular, impressed the coaching staff, though Edwards has been out for a couple weeks now with an injury. Evans is not the entrenched starter he was a year ago.
And that means he gets – and apparently wants – a chance to play in the preseason finale. Arians wants that to happen because Evans hasn't had a chance to get integrated into the new defense and he needs to "train his eyes" in Todd Bowles' scheme. Evans has come to every practice and been in every meeting, but that's no substitute for getting out on the field and reacting at full speed. For his part, Evans, I would assume, is just extremely eager to play football again.
Do we have any OLBs that could clinch a spot on the team with this last game?
- ninjaneat, via Instagram
It's certainly possible.
Let's start with the ideas that Jason Pierre-Paul is not going to be ready for the start of the season and that the top three OLBs are Carl Nassib, Noah Spence and Shaq Barrett. Fourth-round draft pick Anthony Nelson has missed the whole preseason so far with a leg injury but just returned to practice this week. I would suspect he rounds out the top four, even if he's not quite ready to be in the rotation yet. That leaves three more at the position, not including Devante Bond, who is still listed among the ILBs on the Bucs' depth chart: Farrington Huguenin, Demone Harris and David Kenney.
My working theory has always been that, even when roster decisions get tough, an NFL team won't give up an edge-rusher with real potential if they can avoid it. Those are just too hard to find. Huguenin, Harris and Kenney have all had their moments in camp and the preseason games, and the first two each have one of the Bucs' 10 sacks through three contests. Could one of them persuade the Bucs to go a player deeper on the OLB depth chart with an impressive showing in Dallas? I could absolutely see that. There's talent there at the OLB position, but a lot of question marks and, without Pierre-Paul to start the season, not a lot of proven players. The Bucs might keep an extra one around just to see how it all shakes out.