The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished practice on Tuesday at noon, following a typical Friday schedule because it was two days before their preseason finale against Jacksonville on Thursday. A group of offensive and defensive linemen voluntarily ran some gassers after that, some players worked on their hands using the Jugs gun and a few others were stopped for interviews on the way in.
Still, after about 20 minutes later, the field was clear except for one small group of players working under the direction of Quarterbacks Coach Mike Bajakian. Rookie quarterback Austin Allen was joined by wide receiver Donteea Dye, tight end Matt Weiser and running back Devine Redding as the four tried to memorize, at walk-through speed, where they were supposed to go on a variety of plays on Bajakian's sheet.
This was an unusual practice field scene entirely created by what is annually a pretty unusual game. As is now common practice across the league (but wasn't until about a dozen years ago), the last week of preseason games is played almost exclusively by rookies and young players on the back end of the depth chart. Allen has all of nine NFL preseason passes under his belt and none of the other three in his post-practice group was on Tampa Bay's roster as recently as eight days ago, but all four are likely to see significant playing time on Thursday. First things first, they need to make sure they know what they're supposed to do when the ball is snapped.
The Buccaneers will have two days after Thursday night's meeting with the Jacksonville Jaguars to trim their roster from 91 players to 53 for the regular season. Obviously, the four players noted above face steeper odds than some; that's true of Dye, Weiser and Redding simply because of the short amount of time they've been with the team, while Allen is behind three experienced quarterbacks who have had outstanding preseasons. But was noted on Monday, every player who takes the field on Thursday night will be given an opportunity to create tape for 31 other teams.
And, despite the odds, some of those players could still win roster spots on Thursday night, or increase their chances of landing on the practice squad. This is most likely to occur at the positions where the depth of talent has created a competition that is still uncertain heading into these last few days of the preseason. Head Coach Dirk Koetter noted a few in particular after Tuesday's practice.
"Yeah, linebacker…offensive line, mainly because of attrition, and running back," said Koetter. "Who's going to be that last running back spot?"
View exclusive photos of Week Four of the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp from Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker
The Buccaneers most commonly keep four tailbacks on the 53-man roster, though that number can fluctuate from time to time, as is true at all positions. If the team does keep four – and Koetter specifically did not state that nor identify the players in the aforementioned battle – the trio of Peyton Barber, Ronald Jones and Jacquizz Rodgers is an obvious place to start. That would leave Redding as the newcomer in what has been an impressive competition between young backs Shaun Wilson and Dare Ogunbowale. Wilson's best performances so far have come on kickoff returns while Ogunbowale has made several good plays in the passing game.
The linebacker competition is complicated by the ankle injury that has kept presumptive strongside starter Kendell Beckwith out since the spring. Beckwith started the preseason on the active/non-football-injury list, which preserved the team's option of placing him on the reserve/NFI list to start the regular season. If that happens, Beckwith would miss at least the first six weeks and five games of the season, during which he would not count against the active roster.
Adarius Taylor has joined Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David in the starting trio while Beckwith is out and thus seems like a strong bet to make the roster. Behind that, however, it's difficult to rank the competition for what is likely two or three reserve spots, and some of that depends on Beckwith's status. Those in the mix are Devante Bond, Riley Bullough, Jack Cichy, Nigel Harris and Cameron Lynch.
Further complicating this battle is that neither Bond nor Bullough practiced on Monday or Tuesday. Bond left last Friday's game with a foot injury and Bullough was seen wearing a walking boot on the sideline of Tuesday's practice. Koetter has conceded on several occasions recently that injuries have to be factored into how the roster is put together to start the season, and that it obviously doesn't help the competitors to be unavailable to practice or play. That's specifically a factor right now for Bullough and Bond.
"We'll just have to see how things work out," said Koetter. "Jason [Licht] is going to get the best 53 – try to get 10 back [on the practice squad]. I mean, Riley's done a great job as long as he's been here, but we'll just have to see."
The Bucs will likely keep nine or 10 offensive linemen on the 53-man roster and, again, injuries will play a role in the construction of that crew. Third-year tackle Leonard Wester has recently returned to practice, as has rookie tackle Cole Boozer, but tackle Cole Gardner remains out. Mike Liedtke, primarily a guard at the start of camp, has risen through the ranks to become an intriguing option at tackle. Tampa Bay also played its last preseason game without three of its five O-Line starters, which highlights the importance of finding the right group of reserves. The Buccaneers usually prize versatility in that endeavor, which is why Liedtke's stock has risen.
"You're disappointed that some guys couldn't be out here more because of injury, but the obvious answer [of a surprise player] there is Mike Leidtke because Mike is an inside player at guard/center, but he was next man up at tackle, so he's made himself more valuable," said Koetter.
No matter what happens on Thursday night at those three positions, there are some tough decisions ahead for Licht and company. Koetter doesn't compare the difficulty of this year's roster reduction to previous years but does acknowledge that it is a challenge this year, particularly at a couple positions.
"[A]ll positions are different," said Koetter. "Some positions [are] better than others right now. Injuries always factor into it – where we're thin and where we're not. We definitely have more talented team at the top and at some positions [it's] definitely harder."