The preseason usually tells us more about the players we don't know than those we're familiar with. (View audio slide show)
So, while we might get only a taste of what the likes of Warrick Dunn and Jeff Garcia might do when the regular-season starts, we get a much better sense for what the Elbert Macks of the world have to offer. Obviously, that's because the backups and fringe players get an inordinate amount of playing time in exhibition games, largely because they need to be evaluated.
So, based on all we've seen thus far, let's look at the unfamiliar faces who have been most impressive this preseason.
CB Elbert Mack: This undrafted free agent from Troy led the nation in interceptions with eight (including one returned for a touchdown) . Some will say that's because he played opposite first-round pick Leodis McKelvin, meaning opponents more often threw the other direction. That's certainly true. But Mack made the plays when given the opportunity. And he's proving capable of doing that at this level, as he did with last week's interception against New England. A superb athlete who packs a bigger punch than his size (5-10, 175 pounds) suggests, Mack might not make the Bucs' final roster but sure has the film to get a look elsewhere.
OL Jeremy Zuttah: I know, I know. This guy is no longer a secret. And yes, he was a third-round pick, nothing to sneeze at. Still, who expected him to be arguably the most impactful rookie of this class? So far, that appears to be true. He'll likely open the season as the starting right guard while Davin Joseph's broken foot heals. And Zuttah's versatility -- he can play guard and center effectively -- makes him valuable on game day, when you're limited to just 45 active players. Your backups must be able to step in under a number of different scenarios, something Zuttah can definitely do.
RB Clifton Smith: If you haven't noticed this guy during the preseason, you'll have to watch closer. He is, after all, a blur. Showing rare speed and uncanny quickness, Smith has shown he has enough skills to leave you wondering why he wasn't drafted out of Fresno State in April. Even Jon Gruden has wondered aloud about the same thing. He probably gets squeezed off the final roster because of the Bucs' depth in the backfield, but his array of skills as a runner, receiver and returner make him a full package. There have been many instances where he has lined up in the backfield, gone into motion, then lined up wide as a receiver. And he does it all pretty effortlessly, looking like a natural.
WR Antonio Bryant: Here's a guy who wasn't exactly an unknown, having posted a 1,000-yard season in 2006. But I've been doing this long enough to know that guys who spend a year away from the game rarely come back in the same form. Bryant hasn't been perfect as he attempts to overcome the physical challenges of returning to the game after not playing in 2007, but he barely looks like he's missed a beat. If final cuts were today, I don't see a scenario in which he doesn't make the team. He is probably the only guy among this undistinguished group of receivers who has separated himself from the pack. Click here to see today's feature that includes an interesting story about his first meeting with Gruden.
[Photos: Times files]