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Five things to watch in Bucs' preseason opener at Bengals

TAMPA — You hear it all the time: "It's just preseason."

It's a catch-all for the NFL in August — if your team plays well, it's just the preseason; if your quarterback throws three interceptions, it's just the preseason.

But jobs are won and lost in the preseason — as the Bucs choose 53 players from the 90 on the roster, their play in the four preseason games is the best way to get an NFL job. Here are five things to watch in Friday's preseason opener at the Bengals.

1. Backup QBs: You'll see Jameis Winston for about one quarter, but who takes over from there? Ryan Griffin — the Bucs' No. 3 the past two years who hasn't taken a regular-season snap at age 27 — might get the first look, and he has played well with the No. 2 offense in practice. His competition is Ryan Fitzpatrick, signed to a one-year, $3 million deal but not assured of the top backup job.

Griffin must be better than he was in last year's preseason. He had four interceptions against one touchdown, playing primarily with third-stringers. Bucs backup quarterbacks had just two touchdown passes in 119 preseason passes last year. Expect much more with improved depth.

Loren Elliott | Times

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick (14) and Ryan Griffin (4) are seen during training camp.

2. Kicker battle: Practice kicks are being tallied as Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk battle for the kicker job, so preseason kicks carry huge importance.

How many chances might they have? The Bucs have had nine or 10 field-goal attempts in three of the past four preseasons. That would be better than 2014, when the Bucs had four field goals in four games.

Are preseason field goals that telling, though? Aguayo went 8-for-10 on field goals as a rookie in the preseason last year, good from as far out as 48 and 50 yards. He didn't hit a field goal longer than 43 yards in 16 regular-season games.

Misses will be costly. Both of Aguayo's preseason misses last year came at Jacksonville, going wide right from 32 and 49 yards. He'll be back there Thursday.

Loren Elliott | Times

Tampa Bay Buccaneers kickers Roberto Aguayo (19) and Nick Folk (2) are seen during training camp.

3. Receiver depth: Fans are excited to see DeSean Jackson for the first time, and they'll see promising rookie Chris Godwin as well. But those two are locks to make the roster, along with Mike Evans and Adam Humphries.

The intrigue is who can grab the last spot or two. Fans have seen Freddie Martino and Josh Huff, and to a lesser extent, Bernard Reedy. Donteea Dye has an ankle injury and likely won't play. Watch out for Derel Walker, a college teammate of Evans at Texas A&M who had gaudy numbers in the CFL last year: 109 catches for 1,589 yards and 10 touchdowns.

Also trying to make their case are two speedy rookies, Florida State's Bobo Wilson and Eastern Washington's Shaq Hill. The Bucs had only six touchdown receptions in last year's preseason, so this is a chance to showcase the improved depth at receiver.

Loren Elliott | Times

Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Derel Walker runs a route during a practice at One Buc Place.

4. New safeties: Chris Conte and Keith Tandy, back from last season, are more known commodities, familiar with Mike Smith's defense and working most often as the starting safeties in practice.

But the Bucs made investments in two challengers — second-round draft pick Justin Evans from Texas A&M, and free agent J.J. Wilcox, signed from the Cowboys. They need to show they've picked the defense, and the best way to do so is lining up in the right place and making plays in preseason games.

Those four seem like locks to make the 53-man roster, and Josh Robinson, a special-teams standout, will make the team on his kick coverage skills alone. The rest are outside shots, like Marqueston Huff, on his fifth team in less than a year, and Isaiah Johnson, who spent last season on the Bucs' practice squad.

Loren Elliott | Times

Tampa Bay Buccaneers safety Marqueston Huff participates in drills during training camp.

5. Linebacker depth: The last spot or two is up for grabs — that player is more likely to contribute on special teams, but it would help to show upside on defense should one of the top three or four linebackers get injured.

It's a battle between returning special-teamers from last year — Adarius Glanton and Cameron Lynch — and newcomers like undrafted rookies Riley Bullough and Richie Brown and CFL import Jeff Knox. Bullough was a surprise star on Hard Knocks this week, lauded by coaches for his communication in picking up the defense quickly and his leadership skills, even as a third-stringer.

Bucs fans will also be excited to see rookie Kendell Beckwith, who has made a remarkable return, not even nine months removed from an ACL tear in November. It's also a big game for Devante Bond, trying to show he can be the team's primary strongside linebacker after missing his rookie season with a hamstring injury.

Loren Elliott | Times

Tampa Bay Buccaneers inside linebacker Kendell Beckwith (51) defends tight end Cameron Brate (84) during the first day of training camp.

On the other side: Familiar names you'll remember on the Bengals side of this game? DE Michael Johnson, an expensive bust in one year with the Bucs in 2014, had 3.5 sacks last season after returning to Cincinnati. … Hardy Nickerson — that's the son of former Bucs great Hardy Nickerson — is tryiing to make the roster as an undrafted rookie out of Illinois, where he played for dad and Lovie Smith last season. … Karel Hamilton, an undrafted rookie receiver who played at Strawberry Crest, gets his first chance to overcome the odds and make the roster. … Former Gators QB Jeff Driskel, who finished his college career at Louisiana Tech, is Cincinnati's third QB, and could be in line for a practice squad job, with A.J. McCarron still lined up as Andy Dalton's backup, barring someone overpaying for him in a trade.

Five things to watch in Bucs' preseason opener at Bengals 08/10/17 [Last modified: Thursday, August 10, 2017 7:40pm]
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