TAMPA — The Bucs have consistently stated their roster decisions are becoming increasingly difficult, which they hope means that the roster is richer in talent.
That was never more evident than Saturday when teams were required to reach the 53-man regular-season roster limit. The Bucs were having trouble choosing between certain players, so in some cases, they simply didn't choose.
Presumably unable to pick which defensive backs to cut, the Bucs kept a dozen, with five safeties and seven cornerbacks making the roster. Among them: cornerback and seventh-round pick Anthony Gaitor, veteran cornerback Elbert Mack and undrafted rookie safety Devin Holland, a prospect from McNeese State. Safety Ahmad Black, a fifth-round pick from Florida, was released.
The concept applied at defensive line, where the Bucs retained nine players, including third-string defensive end George Johnson.
"Toughest weekend of the job," coach Raheem Morris said. "This year it's particularly tougher than my first two (seasons). … As a head coach it doesn't get any easier. You look at these guys, you build relationships. It's a tough day."
While the Bucs went "heavy" at a few positions, they had a different approach at others.
They kept two of five tight ends, releasing rookie Daniel Hardy, Ryan Purvis and Nathan Overbay. That leaves Kellen Winslow and rookie Luke Stocker.
Linebacker is another thin position, with five making the final roster. Lawrence Simoni and Derren Smith were released. Smith is likely to join the practice squad, but the Bucs are scouring the wire and pool of free agents for a young veteran linebacker capable of playing in the middle. They will use Adam Hayward as a backup in the meantime.
As expected, the Bucs went with two quarterbacks, releasing third-stringer Rudy Carpenter and No. 4 Jonathan Crompton. Carpenter, who spent all of 2010 on the active roster, has been invited to join the practice squad after he clears waivers today, but he hasn't decided yet because of offers from other clubs, said his agent, Steve Feldman.
Black was among the most notable cuts. The Lakeland native spent most of the preseason recovering from a high ankle sprain, and the loss of offseason workouts because of the lockout was particularly damaging to his chances because the team had little time to see him in action.
The Bucs also released receiver Ed Gant, a prime candidate for the practice squad who starred in the final preseason game and impressed during a stint on the practice squad last season.
Meanwhile, Johnson is the sort of player the Bucs like to develop. Undrafted out of Rutgers last season, he was little more than a training camp body before making an impression that landed him on the practice squad. Johnson went on to have a solid training camp, then notched three sacks through three preseason games, leading the league.
"Maybe it's something they see in me, that they can get more out of me," he said Saturday. "I don't know, but I did everything they wanted me to do in the preseason and, sometimes, even more."
Holland was an unknown through most of the preseason but showed relentlessness. He was fined twice in the preseason, including once for an illegal hit that knocked out Patriots running back Danny Woodhead.
"I go 100 percent," Holland said. "I just came here with one thing on my mind: Do whatever it takes to make the team."
On Friday, the Bucs informed veterans Kyle Moore, linebacker Tyrone McKenzie and John McCargo that each would be released, a move that gave each a chance to hit the open market before players released Saturday. There was no word on whether any of the three had found new teams.
One thing that's clear is the roster under Morris and general manager Mark Dominik is a work in progress.
"I've been cut before," said cornerback D.J. Johnson, a surprise survivor of the cuts. "I've even been cut in the middle of the season. You never know. All you can do is, when you're on the field, try to take care of you and hope things work out."