BY STEPHEN F. HOLDER
Times Staff Writer
TAMPA — By early Friday morning, just hours after returning from their preseason finale in Houston, the Bucs got down to the painful task of trimming the roster to 53 players in time for today's NFL deadline.
Coach Raheem Morris, who along with general manager Mark Dominik, offensive coordinator Greg Olson and associate head coach Rich Bisaccia will decide how to reduce the roster from its current 75 players, said many of the decisions would be difficult.
Which, he added, is how it should be.
"It's a positive thing that the cuts and the roster moves will be difficult," he said. "That means we're getting better and going in the right direction."
Here is a position-by-position breakdown of the decisions Morris and the Bucs are facing:
Josh Freeman and Josh Johnson are No. 1 and No. 2, respectively. About the only debate is whether the Bucs will keep two or three quarterbacks, but everything — from the upside of Rudy Carpenter to subtle hints from the staff — indicates they will keep three. Asked about Carpenter and whether he's played his way onto the roster after a two-touchdown performance Thursday night, Morris offered a stock answer: "We have to go back and figure out what's going to help your roster the (most)."
In: Freeman, Johnson, Carpenter.
Out: Jevan Snead.
The release of veteran Derrick Ward on Tuesday cleared things up a bit. What the Bucs have to figure out now is how they intend to structure their remaining personnel there, including how to divide it between running back and fullback.
We know Cadillac Williams is the starter at tailback and Kareem Huggins the backup. Earnest Graham is the fullback/all-purpose back who should have a noticeable role in the offense.
The debate centers on Clifton Smith, the return man extraordinaire who hasn't fared well as a running back. But he has two things going for him: The Bucs are a team willing to invest in special teams, and Bisaccia, also the special teams coach, fights for his guys. The downside for Smith is that the Bucs have a surplus of talent in the return game.
If the Bucs keep a backup fullback, Chris Pressley gets the nod.
In: Williams, Huggins, Graham
Out: Carlos Brown, Rendrick Taylor
Bubble: Smith, Pressley
The starting lineup here has been set for some time, but depth is an issue. Still, the cuts shouldn't be too difficult because there's a pretty big dropoff after the handful of key reserves.
One deciding factor will be versatility. The Bucs might choose to go with fewer linemen, banking that those who stay are capable of playing multiple roles. Tackle James Lee, for instance, is capable of playing on either side and could chip in at guard in a pinch.
In: C Jeff Faine, G Keydrick Vincent, G Davin Joseph, T Jeremy Trueblood, T Donald Penn, G Jeremy Zuttah, T James Lee, T Demar Dotson
Out: T Derek Hardman, T Xavier Fulton, C Donovan Raiola
Bubble: C Jonathan Compas, G Marc Dile
This unit could look exactly like last season — Kellen Winslow, Jerramy Stevens and John Gilmore. One possible change would involve adding much-improved Ryan Purvis, who's capable of helping in the passing game but isn't afraid to mix things up as a blocker.
In: Winslow, Stevens, Gilmore
Out: Jeron Mastrud
This one is a migraine waiting to happen. The Bucs have potentially dynamic rookies in Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn, and they have a solid young player in Sammie Stroughter. Beyond that, it's a little hit and miss.
Micheal Spurlock has evolved from former college quarterback into a sure-handed receiver with potent return ability, but he remains untested. Maurice Stovall is intriguing but can't stay healthy. Reggie Brown offers a veteran presence but the playmaking seems lacking. Michael Clayton has a guaranteed salary this year with little to show for it.
The choices are hardly obvious. But Morris offered a possible clue of their intentions on Friday when he seemed excited about the young talent in the receiving corps. Morris also said the Bucs are open to keeping six receivers, a slightly high number than in the past.
In: Williams, Stroughter, Benn, Stovall, Spurlock.
Out: Too close to call
Bubble: Brown, Preston Parker, Clayton
The Bucs are strong at defensive tackle but have a lot of mediocrity at defensive end. Rookie tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price will team with Roy Miller to give Tampa Bay a formidable interior. But the rotation at defensive end isn't nearly as clear.
In: T McCoy, E Stylez White, E Kyle Moore, Price, Miller, T Ryan Sims, E Michael Bennett
Out: T Dre Moore, E George Johnson, E James Ruffin, T Carlton Powell
Bubble: Tim Crowder, Erik Lorig
This is considered an area of strength, particularly the starting lineup. But even the reserves will play a role, with Adam Hayward lining up as a fullback and rookie Dekoda Watson showing potential on special teams and in spot duty as an edge rusher.
In: Barrett Ruud, Quincy Black, Geno Hayes, Watson, Hayward
Out: Rico McCoy, Lee Robinson
Bubble: Niko Koutouvides
The starting lineup is set, but the decisions are complicated by cornerback Aqib Talib's one-game suspension to start the season. He won't count toward the 53-man roster until he returns, so the Bucs must decide who their bonus defensive back will be.
Corey Lynch's impressive preseason and special teams play might force the Bucs to keep five safeties (one more than most teams). Sabby Piscitelli makes the roster in that scenario.
In: CB Ronde Barber, Talib, CB E.J. Biggers, CB Myron Lewis, FS Tanard Jackson, SS Sean Jones, FS Cody Grimm, Piscitelli
Out: SS Vince Anderson, CB Trae Williams, CB Brandon Anderson
Bubble: Lynch, CB Elbert Mack, CB Derrick Roberson
The Bucs feel good about placekicker Connor Barth, who was perfect in the preseason. And they were confident enough in rookie punter Brent Bowden to not bring in any competition for him, though has been up and down in the preseason. Andrew Economos returns as the long snapper.
In: Barth, Bowden, Economos.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.