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Young Players Prepare for Center Stage

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This coming weekend, hundreds of NFL players will be sent to the waiver wire as all 32 teams trim down to 53 men for the regular season. For many of those players, though, being cut doesn't mean their NFL dreams are dying, just that they've been delayed. And often not for long.

Reducing a roster from 90 to 53 involves mostly waiving young players but can also include the release of veterans and the placement of players on various reserve lists, such as injured reserve. Of the 37 players the Buccaneers cut or put on a reserve list in last year's cut-down to 53, 25 were back in training camps this summer.

Moreover, six of those 37 players eventually saw action in the regular season for the Buccaneers last fall, including wide receivers Bobo Wilson and Freddie Martino. A few others played in the regular season for other teams, such as long-snapper Andrew DePaola and defensive end George Johnson. Ten of those 37 are either with the Buccaneers now or started camp this summer in Tampa, a list that includes some very serious candidates to make this year's 53-man roster, such as offensive lineman Mike Liedtke.

Those numbers help to soften the harsh math of this last preseason week. Underdogs make the Buccaneers' roster every year, but more of them do not. Even if the Bucs had reason to be invested in all 90 players on the roster right now, they simply cannot keep them all past this weekend. Some hard decisions have to be made, but that doesn't mean this week is a waste for the 37 who don't make it. In fact, this final preseason game can go a long way towards advancing the careers of players in that position because there will be more eyes watching than just those of the Bucs' coaching staff.

"We always talk to these guys about how, here at the end, this last week and this last game, not only are you being evaluated by our team but you're being evaluated by all the other 31 teams," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "If you look around the league, different teams have different injuries in different spots, so maybe Team A's short of O-Linemen, Team B might be short of corners or wide receivers. Pick your position. There's good football players that aren't going to make their teams that the G.M.'s all across the leagues and their staffs have their eye on."

As Koetter noted, the Buccaneers used that exact approach to add Ryan Griffin in September of 2015, claiming the young quarterback off waivers after he was cut by New Orleans. (The Cleveland Browns also put in a claim but Griffin was awarded to the Bucs.) Griffin is still in Tampa and is essentially a lock to be the Buccaneers' second quarterback when the regular season begins.

Griffin, who has had an excellent preseason with a passer rating of 113.8 through three games, seems like the logical player to start this Thursday's game, but he may not stay in the game long. Ryan Fitzpatrick started Game Four of the preseason last year but threw only seven passes before giving way to undrafted rookie Sefo Liufau for the rest of the game.

The player in Liufau's spot this year is undrafted rookie Austin Allen, who has seen only brief cameos in the last two preseason games. He'll likely play a lot, and he knows it's a great opportunity to put together some good game tape. His chance to play in last Friday's loss to the Lions didn't go particularly well for him or the team, but he was put in a pretty difficult decision at the very end of the game.

Allen knows that's true for him and some of the young receivers to whom he'll be throwing, along with deeper reserves all across the depth chart.

"I'm excited," said Allen. "It's an opportunity for a lot of guys in the room to put some good film out there. [We'll] try to do what we've been learning for the past six weeks and just go out there and play some good ball. I'm proud of the way I've studied and tried to learn this offense the best I could, getting to know everyone. I wish last [Friday] would have gone a little better, but I'm excited for this opportunity Thursday. I'm just going to run with it, leave it all out there and try to get some good film out there."

Allen's last pass against the Lions was intercepted, but he had no choice but to throw it out there in the waning seconds. If he gets two or three quarters of play on Thursday, he'll have a chance to roll with the peaks and valleys of a long game and perhaps give a better indication of what he can do. That's true for a lot of players who have seen mostly fourth-quarter action to this point.

"It helps because the first three games you're kind of in and out of the game, can't really get a good feel for it," said linebacker Riley Bullough, who is in a crowded battle for the last few spots at his position. "So this game's a good opportunity for guys like me to get in there and play a few quarters in a row or whatever it might be. So I think that's a good thing."

Most of the team's established players will sit out on Thursday night, or make only brief appearances. But they will won't take the game lightly because they know how it important it can be for their younger teammates. Ryan Jensen certainly knows. Five years ago, he was a sixth-round draft pick out of a smaller college program (Colorado-Pueblo) in Baltimore, so he was fighting the odds to some extent. In fact, Jensen had to start his rookie season on the practice squad before getting promoted later in the fall. From there, his career trended upward, to the point where he was one of the most coveted targets in free agency this past offseason. Obviously, he understands the pressure his younger teammates are under this week, but he also knows they can handled it.

"That's why we're professional athletes," said Jensen. "The guys going into that fourth game need to focus on doing well and getting that good tape out."

So the math of this last week isn't quite as harsh as it seems on first light, and it doesn't mean that 37 NFL futures will be extinguished over the weekend. Still, it's a real challenge for a lot of players who, through most of their athletic careers, have been among the very best on their teams.

"It certainly means a lot to them," said Koetter of the last preseason game. "When you look at what's going to happen next weekend, basically – using round numbers – 40 guys times 32 teams are going to get cut. That's a lot of good football players getting cut that…have probably always been starters. As we get closer to the cut, I think the reality of what this league is and how this is really a competition all along from 90 to 53, I think that really starts to sink in."

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