Roster breakdown: Options for Bucs' 53 players
The Bucs are still six days away from their first preseason game and five weeks away from the season opener, but sites are already making projections for the team's 53-man roster under first-year Bucs coach Lovie Smith.
The biggest questions of who will fill those final spots on the roster are still to be answered over four preseason games, but the debate can start with an understanding of how Smith has constituted a 53-man team in the past. Many things can change since his 2012 Bears team -- a new offensive scheme under Jeff Tedford and different strengths in the talent he has in Tampa. But the way he filled his roster two years ago can shed some light into how he might assemble the Bucs this fall.
QUARTERBACK: The Bears initially carried only two quarterbacks -- starter Jay Cutler and backup Jason Campbell -- with current Bucs starter Josh McCown among the final preseason cuts. That didn't change until Cutler suffered a concussion in November and McCown was signed, though he was a gameday inactive the final six weeks. Again, to be clear: McCown only was dressed for the active roster in one game in Smith's final season; if he can't make it as a third QB, I can't imagine Mike Kafka or Alex Tanney can this fall. So the Bucs should carry two quarterbacks in McCown and Mike Glennon, unless there's a preseason injury of some kind.
RUNNING BACK: The big talk of preseason is that the Bucs are five deep at tailback, with Doug Martin, rookie Charles Sims, Bobby Rainey, Mike James and Jeff Demps; that doesn't even count fullbacks Lonnie Pryor, Jorvorskie Lane or Ian Thompson. How many spots are they battling for? Smith carried three tailbacks and one fullback for 12 of the 16 games in his final season -- he carried a fifth back only when starter Matt Forte was injured three games into the season. That fullback, Evan Rodriguez, was often used as a tight end as well, but one week, Smith only had three total active running backs. By that, it's hard to imagine the Bucs carrying more than five backs unless one has a full-time job as a returner; so if a fullback makes the roster, it's likely at the expense of one of the five tailbacks. If there's a position where Smith is likely to carry more (five here), you can make a case for running back.
WIDE RECEIVER: The Bears carried six receivers every week in 2012 -- even seven for two weeks in December -- and consistently had one if not two among the seven inactives on gameday. Brandon Marshall was a dominant No. 1 that year -- his 118 catches were more than the next three wide receivers (76) combined, as Alshon Jeffery was only a rookie and eased into things. His primary returner, Devin Hester, was active on offense with 23 catches. Don't discount a receiver making the team as a special-teams ace -- Eric Weems was on roster all season and had more special-team tackles (five) than catches (two), which bodes well for Bucs like Russell Shepard or Lavelle Hawkins.
Right now, you'd say Vincent Jackson and rookie Mike Evans are locks, with rookie Robert Herron seems a safe bet. That leaves three spots, and Chris Owusu and Louis Murphy are probably in the best position. That leaves seven for one spot -- Eric Page, Skye Dawson or Solomon Patton may need to secure a job as returner to make the cut; Tommy Streeter and David Gettis have good size but would need a strong preseason to stick around. Shepard and Hawkins, again, would count here but likely wouldn't catch many passes.
While carrying six WRs, Smith consistently made one inactive each week, dressing only four receivers a few times late in the season.
TIGHT END: Except for a four-week stretch midseason, Smith kept only three tight ends in 2012, and the Bucs have three strong TEs in Tim Wright, Brandon Myers and rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins. It's a huge upgrade in talent from what Smith had in Chicago -- he got 29 total catches from tight end. He actually had three TEs start in one game, and opened another with six offensive linemen. If three's the expected number here, it means Luke Stocker needs a big preseason to convince coaches to keep a fourth.
OFFENSIVE LINE: In 11 games, Smith had eight offensive linemen on roster in 2012, typically dressing seven with a backup swing tackle and one backup at center/guard. He went to nine linemen for a four-game stretch, but actually carried just seven one week late in the year. The Bucs' uncertainty at guard might tempt him to carry an extra backup, knowing he's more likely to need a change or rotation there.
Center Evan Dietrich-Smith and tackles Anthony Collins and Demar Dotson are locks as starters, and you'd think Jamon Meredith is next most likely because he can play guard and tackle. Two draft picks seem safe -- Kevin Pamphile can be the swing tackle, and Kadeem Edwards could be a starting guard. That's six names, likely leaving two spots for eight guys -- guard Oniel Cousins has the most experience, second-year pro Patrick Omameh will also get a shot to start at guard.
The rest are unproven -- Jace Daniels, Jason Foster and J.B. Shugarts have never played in an NFL game, and of the rookies, Andrew Miller has experience at guard and center, which could give him an edge on Matt Patchan (tackle) or Josh Allen (center). If any of those six are to stick on more than a practice squad spot, they'll need to show consistency in preseason.
DEFENSIVE LINE: Smith generally carried nine defensive linemen, with two inactive each week to dress seven. As he's mentioned, that's typically three ends, three tackles and a player who can help at both spots. You can argue six spots are spoken for, with Michael Johnson, Adrian Clayburn and Will Gholston at end, and Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald and Akeem Spence inside at tackle. If any of those six don't make the cut, it'll be news.
That leaves three spots (for eight players), only one of which might actually dress on gamedays -- Da'Quan Bowers is the biggest name, and he can go inside to tackle, which helps his chances. Smith has had praise for second-year end Steven Means, and the other ends -- Scott Solomon and rookie Chaz Sutton -- need to show something. Ronald Talley has been out with a hamstring, hurting what chances he had, but the battle's wide-open for the fourth DT job, between Matt Masifilo and undrafted rookies Euclid Cummings and Gibreel Black.
LINEBACKERS: There's been talk of six making the cut, but Smith actually carried seven linebackers in 2012, even stretching to eight and nine as he battled injuries in the final month of the season. The depth is more about special teams -- the Bucs will be in nickel (with two LBs on the field) more often than not, so you may see only 3-4 linebackers in the regular defensive rotation.
Those top four are almost assuredly Lavonte David (weak), Mason Foster (middle) and Jonathan Casillas (strong), with Dane Fletcher as the top backup at multiple positions. There are six left for 2-3 spots, all light and quick with limited NFL experience, leaving special teams perhaps as the deciding factor on who sticks around.
Three guys played sparingly last year -- Ka'Lial Glaud had two tackles late in the year, Danny Lansanah played only one game; Brandon Magee, the former Rays draft pick, had five tackles as a rookie with the Browns. Damaso Munoz is a CFL import known for special teams, Jeremy Grable was a late addition, and undrafted rookie Nate Askew is the converted receiver from Texas A&M.
DEFENSIVE BACKS: D.J. Moore's release is a reminder that you shouldn't presume anything, but Smith generally carried 10 DBs in 2012, dipping to eight at the end of the season.
How many jobs seem locked up? Plenty. You'd think Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks and Mike Jenkins have three corner jobs covered, and Mark Barron, Dashon Goldson and Major Wright are in the same boat at safety, as is Leonard Johnson at nickel. That's seven guys who would be bigger surprises than Moore if they were cut, leaving three spots for 11 guys currently in camp.
Of those, safety Keith Tandy and nickel Danny Gorrer have a big edge in experience, but it's wide-open among the other nine. Corner Rashaan Melvin has missed a week with an ankle but has good size; corner Deveron Carr was limited by injuries last year. Safeties Kelcie McCray and Bradley McDougald were waiver pickups during last season and nickel Quinton Pointer has some NFL experience. The rest are still outside shots -- undrafted rookies Keith Lewis and Mycal Swaim and mid-camp additions Anthony Gaitor and Kip Edwards.
SPECIALISTS: Smith actually opened 2012 with two punters (!) due to injury concerns, but otherwise kept the same three specialists all year. Barring a surprise, Connor Barth has the kicking job, Michael Koenen has the punting covered, with Pat Murray as the only competition for either spot in camp. Jeremy Cain is the experienced option at long-snapper, with Andrew DePaola as a challenger in camp.
The curious question, given all this, is how Smith fills the final few spots on his 53 -- which positions get the extra depth? Is it a fifth running back? A fourth tight end? An extra lineman on offense or defense? Which positions do the returners and gunners on special teams come from? Smith is already thinking about the eight spots on his practice squad -- which young players can he stash there, though doing so risks them signing to another team's active roster?
These are the questions answered in the second half of preseason games, when the starters have their helmets off on the sideline and the last jobs on the team are won and lost.