In the NFL, team architects generally have a strong idea of how many players they would like to keep at each position during the regular season. They have targets, at least – nine offensive linemen, perhaps, or six cornerbacks – in order to make all the pieces fit on a 53-man roster.
Sometimes, however, the players vying for those 53 spots don't cooperate.
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"If there's a good football player that we think we need to keep we'll always find a way to do that," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith, who (along with General Manager Jason Licht) is facing his own cut-down to 53 in five days. "Hopefully we have guys put us in that position where we're considering keeping more than we normally would."
Check out photos of the Buccaneers' current roster.
You can't keep more than 53 overall, of course, so what that means is adding a little bit extra at one position at the expense of another. On Monday, the Buccaneers pulled of a relative rarity in the NFL – a straight-up player-for-player trade – and, potentially, it both impacted and was influenced by this depth chart give-and-take.
Consider the positions involved in the deal, which sent third-year tight end Tim Wright to the Detroit Lions in order to acquire rookie kicker Kyle Brindza. That maneuver left the Bucs with three kickers and four tight ends on a roster that must be trimmed from 80 players to 75 by Tuesday afternoon, and then to 53 by Saturday. That's too many kickers, of course, and maybe too many tight ends, but the next few days will determine just how many players are kept at each spot.
First, there's the position at which the Bucs added depth, one that usually has no depth at all beyond the primary job-winner. It is uncommon, though not unheard-of, for a team to keep two placekickers on its 53-man roster, simply because it's hard to justify losing depth at another position. It happens from time to time if the two kickers have balancing strengths, as was the case in Denver in the second half of last year when Connor Barth – now one of the Bucs' three kickers – handled field goals and Brandon McManus took care of kickoffs. It could potentially happen if a team was thinking about giving the job to an inexperienced applicant but wanted to keep a veteran safety net around.
Would the Buccaneers do that, perhaps with a combination of Brindza and Barth or incumbent Patrick Murray? It's not the most likely outcome, but it's a possibility.
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"We like to have our options," said Smith, when asked about the possibility of a two-kicker approach, at least early in the season. "I'll always talk about our options. Most likely not, but we'll see."
If that's not the preferred approach, then the Buccaneers have just five days and one live game to decide who they want to keep among the trio of Murray, Barth and Brindza. Giving up a roster asset to acquire Brindza at least indicates that the Bucs believe the young free agent out of Notre Dame has a chance to win the job. It's worth noting that in his preseason efforts in Detroit Brindza not only made all three of his field goal tries (from 49, 41 and 51 yards) but also earned touchbacks on seven of eight kickoffs. For good measure, he also punted four times for the Lions, with gross and net averages of 49.3 yards and three downed inside the 20.
"Strong leg," said Smith. "Of course, he's a young guy, playing at Notre Dame we know a little bit about him. As we've said all along, we'll always be looking to improve our ballclub. If we see somebody that we think deserves a look, we'll give him that. That's the case with us right now."
The Buccaneers have struggled in the kicking game this summer after getting good results from Murray during the 2014 regular season. Murray was 20 of 24 on field goal tries, including five of six from 50 yards or farther, last fall but is just two of five in the 2015 preseason. Murray has also missed an extra point, which is less surprising with that kick now a 33-yarder instead of a 20-yard chip, but not something the Bucs want to be worrying about this fall. Barth, who held the Bucs job from the middle of 2009 through the 2012 campaign, returned just before the last preseason game but also missed his only field goal attempt on Saturday.
"[I'm] surprised, because [Murray] was very accurate," said Smith. "There's a reason why we went with him as our kicker last year. But, you know, that happens sometimes. But for him, he knows how important it is, and we need someone we can rely on in those situations. I think his kickoffs have improved a little bit. But it's simple: You can't miss an extra point this year when we decide to go for that. And on field goals, when we do it, we need an automatic three, pretty much. Patrick knows that."
Photos from the Buccaneers' preseason game against the Browns at Raymond James Stadium.
The Buccaneers also want good results on kickoffs, with as many touchbacks as possible. Punter Michael Koenen has been one of the league's better kickoff men for the past four years, but he is also battling for his job with first-year man Jacob Schum.
"There is an importance to having a kicker – just talking about the kicker – that can kick it out of the end zone, where we know exactly where [the next drive] starts," said Smith. "Good returners, taking them out of the game. But then it's about being accurate when you need it, whether it be an extra point from the 15, or 50-plus. You need somebody to get those points. Last game, you can't miss field goals like that. It really does hurt you."
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The second position affected by Monday's trade was tight end, and while the subtraction of Wright obviously doesn't make it harder for the team to get its numbers down at that spot, it does highlight the depth that will still make decisions difficult in the next few days. The Buccaneers, and most teams, most often reserve three spots on the 53-man roster for the tight end position, but they could conceivably expand on that this season.
Behind the scenes photos from the Bucs' preseason game vs. the Browns at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
The Buccaneers brought Wright back on a waiver claim from New England in June, 10 months after they had traded him to the Patriots to acquire guard Logan Mankins. That led to a rather crowded field of tight ends led by second-year starter Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The Buccaneers have high hopes for Seferian-Jenkins as a two-way blocking-and-catching tight end but also like the various skills that Luke Stocker, Brandon Myers and Cameron Brate bring to the table. Brate, an undrafted free agent a year ago out of Harvard, seems like the wild card in that group.
"We add had an opportunity to add [Wright] and let him compete with our guys," said Smith. "But it's a good point – [the trade] does say something about the guys we have and what their roles are. From Austin, of course to Luke to Brandon to Cameron, we have an idea of how we're going to use them. We haven't decided exactly how many, whether we keep three, we keep four, how does the fullback come into play with that? Just right now, it was fair – what's best for our team always – but also what's fair to Tim right now, to get him to the right spot."
Brate got a chance to play in five games last year and looked like an NFL-caliber talent the Bucs would like to have time to develop. Stocker is considered a very strong blocker and a big-time contributor on special teams. Myers is a proven pass-catcher in the NFL with 79 and 47-reception seasons on his resume. As Smith indicated, the Buccaneers have specific ways they would like to combine those players on the field to present problems for opposing defenses.
Right now, those four players present a problem for Smith and Licht, the kind of problem every team architect hopes for: Too many good players to choose from. They hope that their kickers give them the same problem in the next few days, but time is short before the final roster cuts.