The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Dolphins in Miami on Thursday night in their last game that won't count in the standings. On that most obvious level, that makes Thursday's contest far less important than the one against Tennessee that will follow 10 days later. For several dozen Buccaneer (and Dolphin) players, however, this might be the most important game they take part in all year.
On Sunday and Tuesday, The Buccaneers began the process of reducing the roster from the bloated camp figure of 90 players to 53; the rest of the cuts will take place on Saturday. The starting lineup is down to just a couple question marks, and most of the key reserves are easy to identify, as well. What is still under construction is the back end of the depth chart, and that will be the primary issue addressed on Thursday in Miami.
And so it will be a big night for such young players as linebacker Josh Keyes and safety Chris Hackett, a pair of undrafted rookies who will play extensively in the preseason finale. There are others in the same category, but those two were mentioned as prime examples by Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier on Tuesday.
"Our back up linebackers are, for the most part, veteran guys with the exception of – we have one other guy who is a rookie, undrafted free agent – Josh Keyes," said Frazier. "He's done some good things in the games we have had him in. Thursday night will be important for him. He'll have to show us some things. At safety there isn't really a rookie other than Chris Hackett. He has chance to maybe show some things and fight for a roster spot as well. Chris probably has a lot to prove on Thursday night, Chris Hackett, and Josh as well."
Despite the fact that Keyes is the only player in the linebacker room who hasn't already established himself as an NFL player, he still has a shot to make the active roster, according to Frazier. The Bucs appear to be settled on Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander as starters and are letting Danny Lansanah and Bruce Carter decide the third starting spot. Lansanah and Carter are strong bets for roster spots no matter who wins that competition at SAM linebacker, but Keyes is right in the mix for reserve/special teams roles with veterans Jason Williams, Larry Dean and Khaseem Greene.
"We're not very deep when you talk about our fifth and sixth linebacker spot," said Frazier. "That's not settled. We kind of know who are top four are."
Though it's hardly a revelation, the deciding factor for Keyes and Hackett could be how well they perform on special teams. Keyes, in particular, is battling against three players who have all had success in the kick-and-coverage game. Tampa Bay's coverage units have shown some signs of weakness in August, though it's fair to say that rotating personnel can play a part in that. Still, that's an area in which the two rookies can help themselves immensely on Thursday night.
"We have to do a better job, especially with our coverage teams," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "That has a lot to do with, of course, scheme, but personnel too, on who some of those down-the-line players are. That's why you can find out a lot from this last preseason game, to see exactly who wants to play those roles."
Photos from the Bucs' practice on Tuesday, September 1st.
- Safety Bradley McDougald and kicker Patrick Murray did not practice on Tuesday due to what Smith referred to as minor injuries. That is probably a more significant issue for Murray, since he is one of three placekickers fighting for one job as the preseason finale looms. McDougald, on the other hand, is the team's starting free safety and thus was not likely to see much action against the Dolphins anyway.
"[They're] both nursing injuries right now," said Smith. "We'll kind of see how it plays out. Couldn't go today though; neither one could."
Rookie wide receiver Kenny Bell won't play on Thursday, either, though he was apparently pushing to test out his injured hamstring this week. Smith won out on that issue, sticking to his cautious approach to returning from hamstring injuries.
Check out photos of the Buccaneers' current roster.
"Kenny hurt his hamstring Friday and wants to test it now – not going to happen," said Smith. "You don't come back from hamstring injuries that quick. It's good that he wants to do that and I'm sure that the pain is gone, but he's not quite ready yet."
Jacquies Smith, the Buccaneers' starting right defensive end, has been ramping up his activity on the practice field in recent days after missing several weeks with a shoulder injury, but he is not expected to play in Thursday's game.
"The fact that the starters are going to be limited, I don't think there is any reason to have to put him out there," said Frazier. "We kind of know what Jacquies can do and that's not necessary for him to play in this ball game."
With Smith out for the last two preseason contests, the Buccaneers have pulled Henry Melton from their very deep pool of defensive tackles and started him at right end in both games. Melton is almost certain to be a key part of the team's interior-line rotation but the Bucs are still finding out if the 2015 free agency acquisition can help them on the edges as well. It's a position that Melton has played on a couple occasions before in the NFL, and some in college. He's obviously a versatile athlete, having spent his first two collegiate seasons at Texas as a running back.
"We know he has that capability," said Frazier. "We'll see as we go. Nothing is conclusive at this point. We just want to be able to take a look at him out there and see how he moved around. He's done it before. He's quite an athlete, as you know.
"He's done a good job. He's a very savvy guy who has real good athletic ability and understands the game well. He's given us another option. We have some things to talk about as we prepare for the 13th."
- Another job that is still being contested as the preseason nears its conclusion is nickel back. While not technically a starting position, it is essentially treated as one by the Buccaneers, who train their nickels separately from their outside corners. With Leonard Johnson being waived/injured on Tuesday in the cut-down to 75 players, the battle seems to be down to two players, with one extreme dark horse.
"In a lot of ways that guy is a starter on your defense with all the multiple wide receiver sets you get today," said Frazier. "He plays an extended period of time. Unfortunately Leonard gets injured; we knew we weren't going to have him for a while. Some other guys have to step up. That gives Isaiah Frey a chance. It gives Sterling Moore a chance. Those guys will probably be the primary guys competing for the job.
"We have one other rookie, Jude [Adjei-Barimah]. He'll have a chance to compete and get some reps in the Thursday night game as well. Young kid out of Bowling Green who has shown some flashes here in training camp. We have some options. Hopefully one of those guys will step up and be the guy."
- Depending upon the results of the competition between Murray, Connor Barth and Kyle Brindza, the Buccaneers could have an entirely new punter-kicker combination in 2015.
They will definitely have a new punter, with first-year player Jacob Schum the only one left standing after Karl Schmitz and Michael Koenen were let got on Sunday and Tuesday, respectively. Schum has had to bounce around the league a bit while trying to land a more permanent role, which is not at all atypical for young NFL kicking hopefuls, and this is actually the third time he's landed in Tampa. Between some time with the Bucs during the spring of 2014 and on Tampa Bay's practice squad for a couple days in the fall, Schum also had one stint in Cleveland and two with the New York Jets.
"You just kind of pick up something different each time," said Schum of his travels. "You grow as a person, you grow as a teammate. You kind of just are learning the ins and outs of everything. It's a crazy business, but there's nothing else I would rather be doing. I love what I do. I want to help this team win. I really feel that I can do that. I'm glad they brought me back in to give me this other chance. I feel this is a really great opportunity to get my career rolling and hopefully be part of this team for a really long time."
The perfect example of the sometimes transient nature of trying to kick or punt in the NFL: On August 13, Schum and Brindza played in the same game, a thousand miles away from Tampa. Schum was punting for the Jets and Brindza was kicking for the Lions in a game won 23-3 by Detroit, the home team. Both players did well, with Schum posting a 51.3-yard gross and 41.8-yard net on four punts and Brindza hitting on 49 and 41-yard field goals…and also blasting a 45-yard punt.
At Notre Dame, Brindza handled the kicking and punting jobs his last two years, including kickoffs. He excelled in all three areas this summer for Detroit and while he might not be needed for the punting job in Tampa, he could win the three-way competition with strong work in the other two areas. Obviously, both Murray and Barth will be attempting to do the same thing, and they both have track records as successful kickers in the NFL.
"I'm blessed to be able to have this opportunity as well as a team showing that much interest in me," said Brindza. "It's my turn to prove my worth, [show] what they got and run with it.
"I'm not taking anything for granted. I'm not saying I have a solid spot on this team. My job today is to go out and prove my worth and be able to showcase what my talent is and showcase that I'm able to be on this team – make that cut. Take nothing for granted because you never know, one day it could all be gone."