With just one more chances before the real bullets fly in the regular-season opener against Detroit on September 11, many unanswered questions remain for the Buccaneers. Thursday night’s preseason game should provide some answers heading into the upcoming season. PewterReport.com presents a few things to look for as Tampa Bay plays its final preseason game against the Washington Redskins on Thursday night at FedEx Field.
Who makes this year’s safety patrol?
With the safety play this preseason, and X-factor Tanard Jackson still in the equation (he is eligible to appy for reinstatement after Week Two), the Buccaneers have seemingly developed one of the most competitive units on the team.
Last year’s top two safeties, Sean Jones and Cody Grimm, appear locked in as starters, although neither has produced many highlights thus far through three preseason games. But the comfort level defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake and head coach and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris feel with these two will probably mean both run out of the tunnel, as Morris likes to say when describing starters, on September 11 when Detroit comes to town.
How many safeties will the Buccaneers keep on the team? That number will go a long way in determining whether former Gators rookie Ahmad Black makes the 53-man roster. Black, who was hurt three plays into the first preseason game with a high-ankle sprain, has yet to play since, and may not against Washington. Tampa Bay is clearly in a dilemma with Black. If it plays him and he does well, the odds of him clearing waivers, should the Bucs cut him, diminish. Having game tape on Black works to the Buccaneers' disadvantage.
As it stands now, without Black playing, the odds of another team making a move to claim him are slim, as the potential teams would only have film of him from his college days. On the other hand, the Buccaneers coaches and management really want to see what the fifth-rounder can do under the lights. But one preseason game against Washington’s second and third-team units may not be enough to convince management that he deserves a place on the active roster to start the season.
Corey Lynch is a safe bet to make the 53-man squad, as the Buccaneers are high on his athleticism, special teams abilities and his cerebral knowledge of Tampa Bay’s defense. Second-year player Larry Asante has also made an impression on coaches and fans this preseason with his steady, if not spectacular, play. Morris has also mentioned Dominique Harris as another player that has caught his eye so far in camp. Rookie Devin Holland survived the initial cut downs, but has been known more for two hits which drew fines from the NFL on special teams, than anything else. A hard-working, physical safety, Holland may also be an odd man out when Tampa Bay makes its final roster adjustments this weekend. However, Holland may be brought back on the practice squad because the team likes his physicality.
Can Mossis Madu or Armando Allen Jr. make the cut?
A Bucs fan posed the question on PewterReport.com's message board recently, “Are the Buccaneers hiding Madu or Allen Jr.”? In PewterReport.com’s opinion, the answer is no. The two have just been lost in the shuffle and have been given little game-time opportunities. With the Buccaneers unable to get the ground game going thus far in preseason, and the need to try and identify the third-down back position; both Allen Jr. and Madu have spent more time watching from the sidelines than getting grass stains on their uniforms.
Both of these running backs are perfect examples of how the lockout has impacted rookie free agents across the NFL. Without the luxury of OTAs (organized team activities) and mini-camps, the chance to impress coaches and the Buccaneers front office has been severely restricted, and quality talent will be cut across the league on Saturday at 4 p.m. There just hasn’t been enough time for some skill position players to make a difference.
With that said, there were 31 other NFL teams that passed on Madu and Allen Jr. in the 2011 draft, and both faced a mountain of a challenge to make the roster even had it had been a normal offseason. Clearly circumstances have hurt the two, but they need to look no further than the current top three Buccaneers running backs for motivation, as LeGarrette Blount, Earnest Graham and Kregg Lumpkin were all undrafted free agents.
Both should get extensive looks against the Redskins and while they face an uphill climb, perhaps one will stand out and at least make the Buccaneers coaching staff’s decision on finalizing the roster a little more difficult.
Who will handle kickoff and punt return duties?
Micheal Spurlock surely must be the favorite to start opening day as the Buccaneers' primary kickoff and punt returner. Returning the first kickoff for a touchdown in franchise history will forever make Spurlock a beloved fan favorite, and last season he added an 89-yard kickoff return for a touchdown against the Falcons. In between the two kickoff touchdowns, Spurlock returned a punt for a touchdown in helping the Buccaneers upset the New Orleans Saints on the final Sunday of the 2009 season.
Through the preseason, Preston Parker has also lined up in those positions and was given the opportunity to push for the right to start (seven punt returns, 56 yards, 8.0 avg., and one kickoff return for 20 yards) but has been less than spectacular in his quest. Watching Parker’s Florida State games, we saw him as a shifty, quick, cutback-type player, and felt like he could transition well into the NFL as a kick returner. But for whatever reason it has never happened. At 6-foot, 200 pounds, the former Seminole has certainly put on some size since joining the NFL ranks, but the elusiveness that made him a game-changing threat while in college doesn’t seem to be there. Of course the speed of the game and the size and ability of NFL players is entirely different.
The top punt returner in the preseason was former St. Pete star Jock Sanders, who averaged 11.3 yards on seven returns with a long of 21. But Sanders was part of the first wave of roster cuts last Monday.
Look for Anthony Gaitor and Sammie Stroughter to possibly return kickoffs and punts against Washington on Thursday night. But unless someone has a monster return, expect Spurlock to be the Buccaneers' starter on opening day.
Can Zuttah push Larsen from the starting lineup at left guard?
Sources inside the Buccaneers organization recently voiced a bit of displeasure to PewterReport.com about the play of offensive guard Ted Larsen. Larsen was thrust into the lineup after injuries to Davin Joseph and Jeff Faine last season decimated the offensive line. The 2010 play of the former North Carolina State star had the Buccaneers coaching staff feeling pretty solid about the guard position after Joseph was re-signed. But through three preseason games, Larsen has struggled with penalties and missed assignments.
Former starter Jeremy Zuttah has played well when spelling Larsen, and has some fans clamoring for the former third-round pick to get back in the starting lineup. And while it may very well happen, the Buccaneers are silently hoping Larsen can get back to the level of play he showed in 2010.
Zuttah, a versatile athlete, can play both guard positions, and as proven last year when taking over for Faine, he can also be a quality NFL center. With the injury history of Faine and Joseph, Buccaneers coaches and management would prefer to have Zuttah available to fill in at one of the three positions if called upon.
However if Zuttah clearly outplays Larsen, who is struggling with an ankle injury, on Thursday night, it will be hard to keep the fourth-year player off the field come opening day.
Who will be the odd "men" out on the D-line?
After releasing Brandon Gilbeaux on Monday, the Buccaneers brought their roster of defensive tackles and ends down to 13. When coaches begin the process of deciding who stays and who goes on the plane ride home on Thursday night, it should be a hotly debated topic. Deciding on whether the Bucs should keep eight or nine linemen will also be part of the equation. Another factor will be which of the players are eligible for the practice squad.
PewterReport.com will be looking to see which of the fringe players step up on Thursday night. Will George Johnson add to his preseason-leading sack total of three? Can Kyle Moore play his way back on the roster or will the Buccaneers waive him and add him to practice squad, which he is still eligible for? Has John McCargo done enough in two weeks to stick in Tampa Bay?
PewterReport.com sees the following linemen making the team when the dust settles on Saturday afternoon: DT Gerald McCoy, DT Brian Price, DT Frank Okam, DT Roy Miller, DE Da’Quan Bowers, DE Michael Bennett, DE Tim Crowder, and DE Adrian Clayborn. If the team decides to go with nine defensive linemen, we think Johnson rounds out that group.