TAMPA — Don't tell Ryan Fitzpatrick the final NFL preseason game isn't important. It's how he earned entry into the league.
This year, for the first time, training camp rosters remain at 90 players rather than cut to 75 after the third game. There are many implications to that decision. The biggest: More exposure for players needing to prove they belong.
"It gives a lot of these guys a chance, and not just for one or two years but for a lot of years," said Fitzpatrick, who made the 2005 St. Louis Rams as a seventh-round pick out of Harvard.
"In that fourth preseason game, I was playing for a job (he had two touchdowns in that 2005 game, including the go-ahead touchdown with 3:42 left). So everybody likes to complain now about the shortened offseason and all that stuff. Well, this is a real chance for some of these guys who have put in a lot of work to show what they can do on tape and not just for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but for everybody."
For coaches it also means not exposing any starters to injury. When only 75 players were left for Week 4 of the preseason, it was impossible to rest all 22 starters. Those who were forced to play often resented it.
"We started off really healthy and we got a little more nicked up here the last 10 days or so," said coach Dirk Koetter, "but you just look around the league."
The Seahawks lost starting tackle George Fant to a torn ACL. The same injury ended Patriots receiver Julian Edelman's season. Bears receiver Cameron Meredith, Chiefs running back Spencer Ware and Colts center Ryan Kelly were all taken out by injury for 2017 in a meaningless game.
But there still are players battling for the final roster spots. That's true of the Bucs, who will have a close eye at several positions — defensive tackle, linebacker, receiver and offensive tackle to name a few.
"I know everyone has their projections on what it is, but I think most people would be surprised at how close it is for multiple spots," Koetter said. "There are some spots where we want to see how these guys play in the game. That's not only for roster spots on the 53 (man roster), but also guys we want to keep here on the practice squad. We look at practice squad as guys that we think have a chance to develop and play for us — and that's proven that we have done it."
At defensive tackle, the Bucs will likely choose from veteran Sealver Siliga and rookie Stevie Tu'ikolovatu, who did not practice Tuesday due to an undisclosed injury. The two have known each other since high school and Siliga insisted Tu'ikolovatu's locker be next to his own.
"It's been great, especially for somebody I know," Siliga said. "Your rookie year, like Stevie, you come into the league, you have to move to a whole different state and whole different environment, to have somebody from back home makes you feel more comfortable."
There are other battles. Josh Huff, Freddie Martino, Bernard Reedy and Donteea Dye for the fifth receiver spot. Riley Bullough or Cameron Lynch for the final linebacker position. And more.
"It's one of those things, especially as a veteran and all the starters that aren't going to play," Fitzpatrick said. "You still got to stay in it because these are the guys that are fighting and it's fun to watch that."
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud