Bucs vs. Dolphins tonight: Ten position battles to watch

All eyes tonight will be on rookie cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis, second-rounder who are battling for roles in the Bucs secondary.(CHRIS URSO | Times)
All eyes tonight will be on rookie cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis, second-rounder who are battling for roles in the Bucs secondary.(CHRIS URSO | Times)
Published August 9 2018

The NFL preseason moves pretty fast. Tonight, the Bucs open theirs at the Dolphins, and three weeks later, Tampa Bay will be finished, left with the final decisions to pare the current 91-man roster down to the initial 53 on Sept. 1.

After two weeks of training camp, there are position battles all over the field, with a few starting jobs up for grabs and much more roster spots in close competition, sometimes even between three of four players.

So here are 10 battles to watch, remembering that the earlier you play in a preseason game, the more likely you are to make the actual team.

CORNERBACK: Brent Grimes won't play tonight, which means every snap has an impact on who might be starting, both in base defense and nickel. On the outside, it's essentially a four-man battle then between third-year pros Vernon Hargreaves and Ryan Smith and rookie second-rounders M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis. At nickel, it's Hargreaves and Stewart battling, so Hargreaves is facing simultaneous challenges at both of his positions. It's unlikely he would lose both, but could easily lose one of the two.

Those are likely the five corners on the team, which would put Javien Elliott on the outside looking in, and undrafted rookie Marko Myers hoping for a practice-squad spot. Stewart has consistently made plays in camp, and Davis is a taller option that could help against bigger receivers.

RELATED: Ronald Jones headlines newcomers for Bucs' preseason opener

RUNNING BACK: There are two dynamics in play here. Rookie Ronald Jones is trying to prove himself and chip into Peyton Barber's role as a returning starter from the end of last season, and Jacquizz Rodgers and Charles Sims are trying to show their value as veteran complementary backs, especially as pass-catchers on third down.

Undrafted rookie Shaun Wilson is the wild card here, and he isn't likely playing, having missed the last two practices with an undisclosed injury. Wilson has turned heads on returns and with his quickness, and keeping him could be at the expense of either Rodgers or Sims.

Jones can help himself not only with the big-play threat he was drafted for, but in showing how he's picked things up in pass protection as well.

BACKUP LINEBACKER: Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander will rarely come off the field this season, with Kendell Beckwith and Adarius Taylor locks for the next linebacker jobs. That leaves one or two spots and a good, deep battle for them between four or five players.

Devante Bond, who led the team in special-teams tackles last year, didn't practice Tuesday and is likely sitting out tonight's game. That puts the focus on sixth-round rookie Jack Cichy from Wisconsin, playing for the first time in nearly two years after ACL surgery last year, and second-year pro Riley Bullough, a fan favorite from "Hard Knocks" last year.

One of those last three likely doesn't make the cut, unless Beckwith remains injured and isn't on the roster to start the season. And even that leaves Cameron Lynch, a regular on special teams last year, and former USF star Nigel Harris as challengers for those last spots.

FIFTH RECEIVER: Freddie Martino has missed the past week of practice with injury, so the two receivers to watch tonight are rookie Justin Watson, the team's fifth-round pick from Penn, and second-year pro Bobo Wilson, who was promoted at the end of last season and even caught a touchdown pass.

Only two of the three will reasonably make the roster, and that requires the Bucs to carry six receivers, which isn't a lock. Keep an eye on special teams, where Watson will line up all over and Wilson may need to win a return job to stick around, much like Bernard Reedy. Two speedy rookies, Sergio Bailey and Erv Philips, should get looks in the second half, but are likely battling for practice squad spots at best.

FOURTH TIGHT END: O.J. Howard, Cam Brate and Antony Auclair have the first three tight end jobs secured, but the fourth is wide-open. Alan Cross is the most experienced option, with 11 catches in the last two seasons, but he's facing a challenge from three undrafted rookies: Donnie Ernsberger, Tanner Hudson and Jason Reese.

Ernsberger, shorter at 6-2 much like Cross, got the biggest bonus of the three at $15,000, but Hudson (converted from QB in college) and Reese both are 6-5; it's reasonable that one of the three would also make the practice squad.

SAFETY: Justin Evans should play every snap this season as he did in the second half of his rookie year, and Chris Conte has consistently been the other starter in training camp.

That leaves Keith Tandy as a smart veteran who can rotate in, and rookie Jordan Whitehead, a fourth-rounder who has worked consistently as the fourth safety. Josh Robinson is a special-teams captain who could fill in at safety, and those should be the five on the 53-man roster.

That leaves Isaiah Johnson, who had four tackles in four games last year, and undrafted rookie Godwin Igwebuike, who got $105,000 in guaranteed money and is likely in line for a practice-squad spot.

RIGHT GUARD: The job was Caleb  Benenoch's for the first week of camp, but rookie Alex Cappa got a look and Benenoch has been limited by injury. That means Cappa probably gets a longer look tonight, and in theory could rep with the first and second lines. Evan Smith was working as the second right guard some this week, which would help a depleted group of right tackles pushing through a rash of injuries.

NINTH OFFENSIVE LINEMAN: Leonard Wester's injury means more opportunities for the other young tackles, like Brad Seaton, Cole Gardner and rookie Cole Boozer. They're ahead of camp additions Jerry Ugokwe and Jarron Jones and in best position to contend for the ninth and final OL job on the 53.

For now, you can pencil in Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Demar Dotson, plus Benenoch and Cappa and Evan Smith as the top seven. Wester would be next if he's healthy, but that leaves only one more if the Bucs carry nine, with Mike Liedtke and Adam Gettis also in contention on the interior.

TENTH DEFENSIVE LINEMAN: Injuries to Vita Vea and Mitch Unrein mean more reps tonight for Stevie Tu'ikolovatu and DaVonte Lambert, who will make their case for the Bucs to carry a fifth defensive tackle, though it might be just four on roster.

On the outside, Will Clarke is in line to be the fifth end, and the challengers are all young and inexperienced: Pat O'Connor, who spent most of last year on the practice squad, and three undrafted rookies in Evan Perrizo, Demone Harris and Kiante Anderson. More realistically, those four are competing for a practice-squad role in the on-deck circle if anyone is injured in-season.

KICKOFF RETURN: Wide-open, especially with Shaun Wilson injured. Jacquizz Rodgers had the most returns last year, and if Koetter seeks a reliable veteran in the role, it could help Rodgers stick on the roster.

The Bucs cut Reedy in midseason last year, but a return job is his best chance at making the team. The real wild card? Rookie RB Ronald Jones, who didn't handle returns at USC but has the speed to merit a look. The Bucs may not want to put too much on his plate in a busy month of learning, too.