TAMPA — RB Derrick Ward believes he should not just be judged on the preseason but also on the body of his work.
As for his body, Ward has denied persistent whispers that he reported to offseason workouts 16 pounds overweight.
As for his work — well, 17 carries for 31 yards (1.8 average) might trump the 1,000-yard rushing season he enjoyed with the New York Giants two years ago.
That's what makes tonight's preseason game against the Jaguars so critical for Ward and several other Bucs.
The third exhibition is the best dress rehearsal for the regular season, when starters normally play the first half and sometimes into the third quarter.
Over the next two weeks, NFL teams must trim their rosters from 80 to 53 players. Here's a glimpse at some guys who need a great performance tonight.
• Ward: He has simply been outperformed at tailback in the preseason by Kareem Huggins, who leads the Bucs in rushing with 99 yards on 16 carries (6.2 average), and Carlos Brown (10 rushes, 54 yards).
Ward's base salary is $3.5 million, too much for a third-down back. He's coming off a concussion against Kansas City, and coaches were disappointed by his body language in Miami. In a pinch, fullback Earnest Graham could provide depth at tailback, so Ward has to make up some ground.
• RB Clifton Smith: A case of gout has prevented Smith, a Pro Bowl kick returner, from playing this preseason. He's expected to make his debut tonight but faces an uphill battle. Smith has never been considered much of an option at tailback, and now his spot as a kick returner is being challenged by Micheal Spurlock, who has made significant strides at receiver.
• WR Reggie Brown: The Eagles free agent is a terrific route runner and lends experience to an otherwise young group. Brown has only one reception for 12 yards in the preseason and should get a longer look tonight. Sammie Stroughter has already claimed the starting Z receiver spot opposite rookie Mike Williams. Brown plays no special teams, so he needs to give the Bucs a reason to play him on Sundays.
• WR Preston Parker: The former Florida State player, who finished his career at North Alabama after being dismissed by the Seminoles for off-field problems, is making a strong case with his play on special teams. He's averaging 12.9 yards per punt return and can cover kicks, too.
• DT Brian Price: The UCLA rookie finally got on the field last week, which was the first step. Now he has to start getting in condition to play a regular-season game. Look for Price to get lots of work tonight against a physical Jaguars offensive line. Price is not fighting for a roster spot, just playing time behind Roy Miller.
GOOD BET: This might say more about the talent level of the team's roster, but it appears the entire draft class will make the final 53-man roster this season. That includes seventh-rounders Cody Grimm (safety, Virginia Tech) and Erik Lorig (defensive end, Stanford).
INVISIBLE: The team's most productive passing combination is QB Josh Freeman to TE Kellen Winslow. That said, Freeman's broken thumb will prevent him from throwing more than eight passes in preseason. If Winslow doesn't play tonight, he likely will be held out the entire preseason.