How important is Thursday night's preseason finale to the young receivers battling for spots at the end of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' receiving corps?
"It's my Super Bowl," said Donteea Dye.
The Buccaneers have 11 wideouts on their roster, which currently stands at 91 players. That number will have to be trimmed to 53 by Saturday afternoon, and the receivers' room is likely to be cut in half. Obviously, the Bucs won't end up with 5.5 receivers, but it's fair to say they will be deciding between keeping either five or six.
Realistically, that means there is either one or two spots available for seven men, behind the likely top four of Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries and Chris Godwin. Those seven include three players who do have some NFL regular-season experience (Dye, Josh Huff and Freddie Martino) and four who do not (Bernard Reedy, Derel Walker, Bobo Wilson and Shaq Hill).
Pictures of the Buccaneers' wide receivers at training camp.
In addition, the Bucs will likely choose between three and five out of their current seven-man group at tight end. That means Thursday's game is also very important for such young players as Antony Auclair, Tevin Westbrook and Alan Cross.
Most or all of Tampa Bay's presumed starters will get Thursday night off, as well as some other key figures on the depth chart. That leaves plenty of snaps to go around for Dye and his fellow roster hopefuls. And even though he clearly understands the importance of the preseason finale, Dye said he's feeling no real pressure.
"If you look at it like that, you won't play to your highest ability," he said. "You've got to play comfortable. That's how I plan on playing."
Humphries, who caught 55 passes as the Bucs' slot receiver last year and is set to reprise that role in 2017, knows exactly how Dye feels. In fact, he remembers being in the same position alongside Dye when both were undrafted and unheralded rookies in 2015. A third undrafted rookie, Rannell Hall, was also on the bubble. In a 22-17 win in Miami to close the preseason, Humphries and Hall started and both produced. Hall had four catches for 63 yards while Humphries had four for 62 yards and a touchdown.
"That was probably the biggest game of my career," said Humphries. "I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember every catch I had that game. It was going down to the wire between me and another guy to make the team and we both played well that game, but I had a chance to make some big plays and I ended up making the team that year. Obviously, that fourth game is huge and a lot of guys are excited to go out there and put some good film on tape."
Humphries did make the initial 53-man roster, and though he had a very brief demotion to the practice squad early in 2015 – with Dye getting a call up from that unit at the same time – he has played in 28 games over the last two seasons and is now far more entrenched. Dye has also seen a good amount of playing time, most of it in 2015, and both Reedy and Martino have appeared on the Bucs' regular-season roster, with Martino playing in 13 games last year. Huff played for both Philadelphia and Tampa Bay last year, but Walker, Wilson and Hill are all trying to get their feet in an NFL door for the first time.
Humphries' advice to those young players is similar to Dye's approach: Don't put too much pressure on yourself, and think about the long term. It's a good point – even Hall, who eventually ended up as the odd man out among those 2015 rookies, has since caught on with the Cleveland Browns. He caught two passes in Thursday's game at Raymond James Stadium.
"Don't think about it too much – it's football," said Humphries. "Obviously, we are going to keep five or six receivers here, so if you don't make the team here there is a chance you could come back later in the year or just put good film out there and maybe you can make another team. You can't really think about it too much. Just go out there, play football and have fun."
While a couple big plays and significant special teams contributions could help the young pass-catchers in their quest for a roster spot or even practice-squad consideration, others want to show that they have made progress over the month of training camp and preseason games. Auclair, a rookie who played his college football in Canada, is learning the NFL game on the fly and just wants each practice and each game to be better than the last.
WATCH: MONDAY'S PRESS CONFERENCES
"I've got to get better and correct some mistakes I made earlier, [work on] some details like on the run blocks, the angles and stuff like that," he said. "It would mean a lot, especially for me being from Canada. It's been hard to learn a new game, and I'm still learning to this day. So it would mean a lot."
While Dye has the advantage of previous experience in the NFL, he faced the disadvantage of an injury that kept him out for the first half of the preseason. That made the last two games even more significant for him. Dye played extensively in Thursday's game, with both Evans and Jackson sitting out, and had two catches for 18 yards. He also had a grab at the goal line that convinced Head Coach Dirk Koetter to throw the challenge flag, believing it should be ruled a touchdown. Dye and the Bucs didn't get that call, but the game tape still shows a very nice play by the receiver.
"I'm just blessed to be in the position I'm in," he said. "I sat out for about two-and-a-half weeks with an injury so I'm just happy to be back. I lost so much time sitting out the first two games, so these last two games mean a lot for me. I've just got to keep doing what I'm doing, stay on top of my Ps and Qs, and it will be all good."
While this week is akin to Super Bowl prep for the young receivers, it's more like the off week *before *the Super Bowl for the Bucs' front-line pass-catchers. Since they don't have to prep for a game against Washington, they can already start looking ahead to the Dolphins, their opponent in Week One of the regular season.
"It will give us a chance to game plan for our opponent more than six days, so that will be good for us," said Evans. "We will be well prepared, hopefully. [We will] get as healthy as possible – we've got a lot of off days in this time, so we just have to get everybody healthy and be ready to rock Week One."
Of course, Evans will be there on the sideline on Thursday night, rooting on the receivers who are suited up for the game. He knows, of course, that they can't all make the 53-man roster to start the season, but he'll be rooting for them to put their best work on tape. It's their last chance to do so before roster cuts on Saturday, and that makes it a very big game indeed for a lot of young players.