If you arranged all 897 players on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' all-time roster – including the 11 who just joined it this past weekend – in alphabetical order, Jeremy Zuttah would be 897th. Zuttah will eventually be pushed lower as new players arrive, but he's not likely to lose that final spot on the list. In fact, no player alphabetically later than Zuttah has played in the entire NFL since 1942.
Where Zuttah's position has been much less constant in his three-plus seasons in the NFL is on the Buccaneers' depth chart. He wants to be a #1, of course, but his own invaluable flexibility has made him something more like a Super-2, giving the team trustworthy depth at virtually every spot on the offensive line.
For now, however, Zuttah is a #1 again…and we shouldn't be surprised. On Friday, Head Coach Raheem Morris revealed that Zuttah will replace Ted Larsen as the starting left guard on Sunday in Minnesota.
Despite being listed as an opening day starter just once in his first four seasons, Zuttah will be making his 31st NFL start this weekend. He has started at both guard positions and center, and he is always part of the team's emergency game-day plans at offensive tackle, should injuries occur. Last year he opened one game at right guard and eight at center, but on Sunday he'll be returning to the position he held down for all 16 games in 2009.
"It will be good to be back out there," said Zuttah, a notably stoic speaker even at a position loaded with individuals of similar disposition. "It's tough to have to play a couple positions. You feel like if you locked into one you could specialize in it. But you do what you've got to do. I'm just looking forward to my opportunity. I've played more center, but I played a whole year at left guard so it shouldn't be too much for me to get back into it."
Actually, Morris would be happy if Zuttah just went back to playing the way he did a few weeks ago, during a very strong preseason. Morris eventually decided to go with the five players who started training camp at the top of the depth chart, but changed his mind at left guard after the season opener. Larsen had been struggling with an ankle injury for several weeks and, while he was cleared to play against the Lions, he displayed less than his usual power, according to Morris.
"Zuttah's been playing well in the preseason," said the coach. "Hard play, consistent play. I know he's a smart player. I know I'm going to get that from him. But I just want him to play hard-nosed like he has been playing. Larsen didn't play terrible last week but coming off the injury I thought he didn't play as aggressively as he normally would and give you the power that he normally gave you last year. So we're going to try a little change-up this week."
Zuttah's versatility has certainly been a double-edged sword for the young player, though it's been an unqualified asset for the team. Morris knows it can sometimes frustrate Zuttah to be a super-sub instead of a full-time starter, but he has seen the former Rutgers standout handle every lineup change with class and determination. Though he would love to be a #1 at just one spot, Zuttah diligently learns every position so the team can use him to solve whatever problem arises. Even now, with a new hold on the starting left guard spot, Zuttah would likely be the one to move if any of the other four linemen went down with an injury in a game.
"It's really amazing to be as smart as Zuttah is," said Morris. "He's quarterback-smart, where he can go to any position and play for us. He can play backup tight end for us. He does it all – tackle, guard, center. He's athletic enough, probably, to get a carry or two. He's really a versatile player and a great, great, great addition to our football team with his versatility."
Morris didn't make the switch at left guard this week because he's down on Larsen. He has appreciated the way the second-year player has fought through an injury and continued to compete, but that approach can make it more difficult for a coaching staff to evaluate who should be playing. It's a virtual certainty that Larsen will still figure prominently in the Bucs' plans as the season progresses.
"Larsen is a young player who doesn't want to give anybody else any snaps," said Morris appreciatively. "[The ankle injury is] not enough to keep him off the field, but he's such a tough kid and he's not going to tell you anything. When he injured the thing in the Patriots game he didn't want to come off. It's just one of those things. You've got to be the coach of that whole situation.
"All of these guys strive for greatness. All these guys want to be great, and that entails guys trying to find their role and what they're going to do for our team."
The Minnesota Vikings' offense peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s when Randy Moss, Cris Carter and Jake Reed made it difficult for opposing defenses to key in on running back Robert Smith, and vice versa. The Vikings have had good offensive years since – they ranked second in the NFL in points in 2009 with Brett Favre and Adrian Peterson – but few teams have ever presented the sort of conundrum that the Smith-Moss combination did in their heyday.
Still, the current Minnesota offense has a diverse array of weapons, too, beginning with Peterson, the league's most consistently productive back. Buccaneers Defensive Backs Coach Jimmy Lake ticked through some of the others in rapid-fire fashion on Friday – deep threat Bernard Berrian; former Atlanta wideout Michael Jenkins; pass-catching tight end Visanthe Shiancoe; even 34-year-old, 275-pound tight end Jim Kleinsasser.
The most interesting weapon in the Vikings' arsenal, however, may be third-year wide receiver Percy Harvin. Harvin had just two catches for seven yards in Minnesota's opener, but he also ran four times for 15 yards (and, incidentally, scored on a 103-yard kickoff return). Harvin has topped 50 catches each of his first two NFL seasons despite missing a handful of games due to migraine headaches, and he's been seen lined up all over the Minnesota offense.
But speaking of versatile players – the theme for the day? – the Bucs think they have another one who will help them counter Harvin's tricky maneuvering.
"Percy Harvin does a lot of good things for them," said Morris. "They're trying to get the ball to him. The only answer for me if we're talking about the slot is 20. You've got to talk about what Ronde [Barber] is going to be able to do with him in that slot and going into the backfield. Ronde, being a versatile player as well, if he does go in the backfield he can be a linebacker, if he does go to receiver, he can play him at receiver. Having the ability to play different things like man and zone and things like that with Ronde Barber would be the answer for that."
As per league guidelines, the Buccaneers released an updated injury report on Friday that, for the first time in the week, including gameday status designations (out, doubtful, questionable or probable). The Bucs report had few surprises, though there was an additional player on the list after Friday's practice.
Reserve offensive tackle James Lee was added to the report on Friday after being held out of practice due to knee swelling. Morris said he does not think the knee will be a long-term problem, but Lee has been marked as questionable for Sunday's game.
Two other Bucs have already been ruled out, as expected. Wide receiver Sammie Stroughter underwent minor surgery on Monday after injuring his foot in the season opener against Detroit, and he is expected to miss several weeks. Cornerback Myron Lewis has made significant progress in his return from a hamstring injury in recent days, even taking part in a little bit of team activity in practice on Friday, but he will not return for the Minnesota game.
The only other player on Tampa Bay's list is rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, who tweaked a shoulder in practice on Thursday. He practiced without limitations on Friday, however, and is considered probable to play.
The Vikings' injury report was also four men deep, though nobody is considered worse than questionable. That designation went to defensive end Adrian Awasom, who missed the first two days of the week with a knee ailment, and starting middle linebacker E.J. Henderson, who was not on the injury report when the week began. Henderson was added with his own knee issue on Thursday and did not practice during the last two days of the week.
Cornerback Asher Allen (toe) and wide receiver Michael Jenkins (groin) are both considered probable.