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Bucs-Jaguars: The position battles looming for Tampa Bay

 
Buccaneers linebacker Riley Bullough (49) high fives outside linebacker Kwon Alexander (58) after breaking up a pass during a drill at Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp on August 13, 2018 at One Buc Place in Tampa, Fla. MONICA HERNDON   |   Times
Buccaneers linebacker Riley Bullough (49) high fives outside linebacker Kwon Alexander (58) after breaking up a pass during a drill at Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp on August 13, 2018 at One Buc Place in Tampa, Fla. MONICA HERNDON | Times
Published Aug. 29, 2018|Updated Aug. 29, 2018

TAMPA — A year ago, Bucs linebacker Riley Bullough was the training camp darling, an undrafted free agent with long blonde hair, the nickname of Fabio and a star of Hard Knocks.

Then the final preseason game came and went, he was cut by the team, then cut his hair and re-signed to the Bucs practice squad. In December, Bullough was promoted to the active roster.

He's had an outstanding month of August and was getting some time as the backup middle linebacker. But Bullough injured his foot and spent the past week in a walking boot.

As the Bucs play their final preseason game Thursday against the Jaguars, Bullough is part of another linebacker logjam. Along with receiver, running back and offensive line, it's one of the positions where important decisions will have to be made before the team reaches the 53-man roster Sept. 1.

Coach Dirk Koetter is making no promises or predictions.

"We'll just have to see how things work out,"  Koetter said. (General manager) Jason (Licht) is going to get the best 53 — try to get 10 back (on the practice squad). I mean, Riley's done a great job as long as he's been here, but we'll just have to see."

Who performs well in Thursday's game will certainly impact the Bucs' decisions. Let's take a look at the position battles that still have to be settled:

Linebacker

Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander and Adarius Taylor are locks. From there, a lot depends on whether the Bucs keep Kendell Beckwith or move him to the non-football injury/reserve list as he recovers from a broken ankle he sustained in a car accident. If so, he would not be eligible to play for six weeks, missing five games.

The remaining spots are between Bullough, who isn't likely to play tonight, rookie Jack Cichy, Cameron Lynch and Devante Bond, who also is hurt.

"Well, Cam Lynch is a proven special teams player, but he's also a little bit more of a vet so that's always tricky," Koetter said. "Young guys versus vets, upside versus where they're at right now.   That's something that Jason constantly has to weigh that.

Running back

Peyton Barber is the starter. He has 15 carries for 87 yards and two touchdowns, a robust 5.8 yard average. Rookie Ronald Jones will split the duties and will provide explosive plays. Jacquizz Rodgers is the third-down back Koetter has the most confidence in. With Charles Sims going on injured reserve, undrafted Duke rookie Shaun Wilson should make this team as a kickoff returner. He will play some tonight along with Dare Ogunbawale and Devine Redding, who signed this week.

Offensive line

Injuries is the biggest story on the offensive line. The player who helped himself the most is Mike Liedtke, a guard/center who went from the eighth tackle to a backup for starter Donovan Smith, who is out another 1-3 weeks with a knee sprain.

"I want to stay here, I love it here, but you never know what's going to happen in this league," Liedtke said. "So it's also your interview for 31 other teams. It's very important and my mindset going into the game is to just be prepared to play the whole thing at whatever position they need me to. We haven't talked about it yet, I don't know where I'll be."

Coming back from injury is tackles Leonard Wester and Cole Boozer, who will be making their preseason debut tonight. Wester missed all of camp with a knee sprain, but he has played in 11 games the past two seasons for the Bucs, which could help him.

"The biggest thing for me is coming back to practice is how is my knee going to hold up," Wester said. "It's held up great and so moving forward the biggest issue just gets into knocking the rust off and seeing where my condition levels are at. That's really more of the focus now and so at the end of the day, there's guys on this team that have earned the opportunity to be on the team and if I'm not one of those guys because of my lack of being able to be out there I understand that."

The Bucs typically keep 10 offensive linemen, especially with Smith hurt. Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Caleb Benenoch, Demar Dotson, Evan Smith and rookie Alex Cappa are locks. Liedtke, tackle Brad Seaton and center/guard Adam Gettis have had the best preseason of the rest.

Receiver

This is the deepest position on the team. Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin, and Adam Humphries will be active each week. The injury in pre-game warmups last week to Sergio Bailey make the decision easier. It appears that rookie Justin Watson will make this roster. But he has to prove he belongs tonight against Freddie Martino, Bernard Reedy, Bobo Wilson, who's been hurt.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud