Any young players hoping to make one final impression on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' or Washington Redskins' coaching staffs may have to do so on a wet track.
The Buccaneers and Redskins conclude their respective preseason slates together with a Wednesday night game at Raymond James Stadium that was hastily moved up by 24 hours due to the threat of a tropical storm. While the worst weather isn't expected to hit until Thursday, when the game was originally to be played, a steady rain fell over the Bay area on Wednesday.
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It's an unusual backdrop for a preseason finale, but the change was worth it in order to preserve this last audition for the dozens of players still fighting for roster spots. The two teams, which are expected to devote most of their snaps to the players on the back half of the depth chart, worked together in order to make sure the game was still played.
"There are still guys that this game is really important to as far as jobs and making teams, making practice squads, getting picked up by other teams," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "That's the same for both teams. So I appreciate everybody's hard work, a lot of changes had to made to get it done."
The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
Demar Dotson, the longest-tenured player on the Buccaneers' current roster and a player who presumably doesn't have to worry about the upcoming cuts, understands how critical this game can be. His own first NFL start came in the fourth game of the 2010 preseason. At the end of his second summer in the NFL, Dotson opened up at right tackle against the Houston Texans on September 2, 2010, part of a starting offensive line that also included such mostly-forgotten names as Marc Dile, Dominic Raiola and Derek Hardman.
Dotson would actually spend that season on injured reserve, but he returned in 2011 to become one of the team's main O-Line reserves, and two weeks into the following season he had found a home in the starting lineup. He's now an anchor on the Bucs' line and the owner of a brand-new contract extension.
"I know how important this fourth preseason game is, because I've been one of those guys that played in it," said Dotson on Monday, two days before the Bucs were set to conclude their 2016 preseason with a home game against Washington. "This is do-or-die as for making this team or not. This is a chance to go out there and prove to not only this team but 31 other teams that you belong in the NFL. It's a big advantage for a lot of young guys."
One of those young guys is a fellow offensive lineman, Josh Allen, who like Dotson originally joined the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent. Also like Dotson, Allen has seen very little regular-season playing time in his first two years in the NFL but has shown enough promise to keep the Buccaneers intrigued. He just finished his third training camp in Tampa, and for the first time he might break the season as a member of the 53-man roster.
That looks like a stronger possibility after Allen got a very useful head start on many of the other young players at the back end of the depth chart. With J.R. Sweezy on the PUP list, Kevin Pamphile tending to a family matter and Ali Marpet sidelined by a minor injury, Allen suddenly found himself in the starting lineup at left guard against the Cleveland Browns. He was praised for his play by Koetter and very well may have enhanced his chances to stick around through the tumultuous upcoming weekend.
"Preseason games are real football," said Koetter. "Some guys can make plays in practice, [but] don't necessarily make plays in a game and vice-versa. Great example: Josh Allen last week for us, he got thrown into a situation where Josh basically comes all the way from our third-team guard up to starting and he played very well. Of course that helped his stock. That's just one example."
Allen will surely get another chance to log significant playing time on Wednesday, right before team management commences the reduction of the roster from 75 players to the regular-season limit of 53. He knows he made a good impression five nights ago and now he hopes he can build on it.
"It's a huge confidence boost, definitely, but I have a lot more work to do," said Allen of his outing last Friday. "This game is very, very important for young players, and myself of course."
Earlier in the week, Koetter indicated that there were still battles going on for roster spots and playing time at almost every position on the depth chart. The most hotly-contested areas, however, appear to be wide receiver, running back, linebacker and cornerback. On offense, the front-line skill-position quartet of Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson, Doug Martin and Charles Sims will likely watch most or all of the game from the sideline. That will give plenty of playing time to the likes of running backs Mike James, Peyton Barber and Russell Hansbrough as well as wide receivers Kenny Bell, Bernard Reedy and Jonathan Krause, among others. Johnthan Banks and Josh Robinson could be competing for the fifth (and perhaps last) cornerback spot, while the reserve linebackers still in the mix include Devante Bond, Luke Rhodes, Adarius Glanton, Josh Keyes and Micah Awe.
"It always helps knowing that you're going to get more chances at it," said Bell. "If you have two opportunities and one's a catch and one's a contested catch, those stick out. If you get eight targets and you catch six of them, that's huge. Going back to opportunities, how important this week is, [Wednesday] night is big."
And as for that wet track? Well, it's not ideal, particularly for Bell and the other receivers, but in the end it's just another challenge to overcome in their shared quest to make it in the NFL.
"Yeah, that's just unfortunate," said Bell. "Just to really stack it against you. You're talking about trying make a team as a receiver, to know that a tropical storm is coming that is going to mess with the field and there's going to be a wet football, that's tough. It's kind of stuff you kind of just have to laugh at and as life is throwing punches your way, you've just got to dodge them because that's certainly a big one."
The Buccaneers take on the Redskins in the final week of the 2016 preseason on Wednesday night, with kickoff scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at the new Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, which five days ago debuted its massive new videoboards in both end zones and on all four corner towers. The game will be broadcast locally by WFLA News Channel 8 and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.