With the first set of mandatory roster cuts looming, the Buccaneers took the practice field at One Buc Place on Monday with their entire squad intact.

Tampa Bay will, however, trim its roster down to 65 players (not including NFL Europe exemptions) on Tuesday, which means 15 players will be given their walking papers.

“We have met and met extensively, and we’ll do what we feel is right for this team at this stage,” said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. “We’re still finalizing, and when we’re officially ready to announce it tomorrow morning we’ll be sure to do that.”

Among the players you won’t see released by the Bucs on Tuesday are their NFL Europe exemptions, so 11 players, including cornerback Blue Adams, defensive tackle Delbert Cowsette, kicker Todd France, safety Kalvin Pearson, defensive lineman Brian Save, linebacker Josh Buhl, punter Brian Simnjanovski and wide receivers Derek McCoy and Terrance Metcalf appear to be safe for another week.

“We’re going to keep hanging onto our exemptions as long as possible,” said Gruden. “They’re here, they’re young players who are developing and they’ll continue to do that until we can’t feasibly allow that to happen. Who knows? Some of these guys might make our team.”

One player you can expect to see released on Tuesday is running back Ian Smart, whom Gruden said would “hopefully catch on with another team” when asked about the tailback on Monday afternoon.

It was exactly two years ago that Ryan Nece beat out veteran Dwayne Rudd for Tampa Bay’s starting strongside linebacker spot in training camp and preseason.

Nece took the practice field at One Buc Place on Monday as a starter there again, but this time by default as Jeff Gooch, the projected starter, is sidelined indefinitely with a severe calf pull.

While Marquis Cooper played behind last year’s starting Sam linebacker, Ian Gold, for most of the 2004 regular season, the Bucs feel Nece earned the right to replace Gooch in the starting lineup with his performance during the offseason and in training camp.

“Our best three linebackers are going to play here,” said Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry. “It has nothing to do with Marquis Cooper. Marquis has made unbelievable strides from his first year to his second year. He came in in great shape, came in heavier and stronger than he’s ever been, so I look at it more as the job Ryan Nece has done. Ryan had unbelievable OTA days and he followed it up with a great training camp. Our philosophy is the three best linebackers are going to play. Unfortunately, Jeff Gooch has an injury, so Ryan Nece is going to step up and become the Sam.”

Nece’s playing and starting experience from the ’03 season, where he notched 70 tackles, weighed heavily into Tampa Bay’s decision to start Nece over Cooper.

“That is a big plus. Ryan Nece started here (10) games, so he’s not new to being a starter here as a linebacker,” said Barry. “And he’s gotten better in the process. He’s a very fast, much more physical and complete linebacker now than when he was a starter a couple years ago. He’ll do a good job, and I don’t want to discount the fact that Jeff Gooch is a key member of this team and we’ll miss him until he’s back.”

Tampa Bay welcomed fullback Rick Razzano (hamstring) and guards Jeb Terry (knee), Matt Stinchcomb (back) and Doug Buckles (appendicitis) back to practice on Monday. The team is hopeful that all four players will be able to play on Thursday night against the Houston Texans.

Although tackle Derrick Deese is still sidelined with a lingering ankle injury, having three offensive linemen, particularly Terry and Stinchcomb, both of whom are battling for starting jobs, back in the fold is extremely helpful for the Bucs offense.

“It makes a difference, from a positive standpoint,” Gruden said of having the injured offensive linemen back. “We’re able to look at these guys. They need to practice. Obviously, we’re able to have two sets of linemen working where we don’t overwork some of the guys who may have been or may be getting overworked.”

Defensive tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland also returned to practice after missing the past two weeks of practice while dealing with the death of his mother, Nancey. Gruden hopes McFarland will lean on his teammates for the emotional support he needs.

“He’s a very popular guy on this team, well thought-of,” Gruden said of McFarland. “He’s been here a long time. He’s got a lot of very close friends on the team and on the staff and in the organization. I’m sure he’s getting a lot of support from people. It’s very unfortunate. He’s not the only one who’s had to go through this. We just try to help him the best we can.”

Gruden on if winning and losing in preseason is overrated:

“Winning and losing is never overrated or underrated. We wouldn’t have a scoreboard if that was the case. We’re playing a lot of people, so is everybody else, and sometimes you don’t really get a true gauge as to where many of your starters are. We’re disappointed in the way we have lost these last two games in the closing seconds. Turnovers have played a role, obviously, and for that we’re very disappointed.”

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