The Bucs are closing the preseason with three games in a span of 11 days, so there's an urgency to the next week and a half as the team must decide how to pare its roster from its current 90 players to the final 53.
Monday's preseason win against the Bengals was another chance for players on the bubble to help or hurt themselves, and nearly all will have another shot to do so Saturday at home against the Browns before the initial cuts to 75 players come next Tuesday afternoon.
Beyond the individual players that make up the 53-man roster, the Bucs still must decide how many to keep at each position. We all but know they'll keep two quarterbacks and three specialists (kicker, punter, snapper) but the other positions are flexible. If you keep six receivers, you might carry only three tight ends. If you carry six linebackers, you might keep only nine defensive backs. And if you aren't sure of the position of the final five guys on the roster, it's even harder to project who those actual players will be.
So here's a rundown of the position battles to keep an eye on in these last two games -- you might keep two from one group and none from another. We're not including quarterback, because there's little doubt that Jameis Winston starts, Mike Glennon is the backup and Seth Lobato is likely headed for the practice squad. Here are the rest:
RUNNING BACK: If you pencil in Doug Martin, Charles Sims and Bobby Rainey as being on the roster, you have two pairs of backs competing for likely one or two roster spots: Mike James and rookie Dominique Brown at running back, and Jorvorskie Lane and rookie Joey Iosefa at fullback.
After just 10 yards on seven carries in the opener, James helped himself in a big way Monday, with nine carries for 39 yards, including a 13-yarder. Brown struggled, with 14 carries for 24 yards, including four straight runs from the 2- or 1-yard line, failing to get in fon fourth and goal. Neither played a down on special teams, so you wonder if the Bucs could take a gamble and keep three backs -- James was active in 11 games last year and had 32 yards of total offense, even with Sims and Martin missing time with injuries.
Will the Bucs carry a true fullback? If TE Luke Stocker can handle himself as a blocking back, you could save a roster spot by having him do double-duty if you carried four tight ends.
RECEIVER: This might be the toughest cuts for the Bucs -- presuming Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson and special-teams ace Russell Shepard are on the roster, that leaves eight players for likely three jobs: Louis Murphy and Robert Herron are back from last year, trying to hold off five rookies: draft picks Kenny Bell and Kaelin Clay, plus undrafted rookies Rannell Hall, Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye. Tavarres King is also there but likely on the outside looking in.
One job will go to the starting return specialist -- that's probably Clay's only chance to make the team, with Bell as a challenger there. But Bell has no catches Monday, two holding penalties and took a kickoff return out to the 12-yard line, so he's not a lock yet either. Murphy seemed in good shape after the opener, but he had five passes thrown to him Monday and only caught two for 11 yards. Herron? Didn't play special teams, had only 13 snaps and no passes thrown his way.
Of the undrafted rookies, Humphries played well Monday, with only three passes thrown to him and all three caught for third-down conversions. The rest of the team went 2-for-11 on third down the rest of the night. Hall had two catches for 25 yards, Dye had one for 12. Seems completely up for grabs with two games to play.
TIGHT END: Do the Bucs keep three or four, and who's the odd man out? Austin Seferian-Jenkins is a lock, and it seems Stocker's flexibility as a blocking back would help him. That leaves three players for one or two spots -- Brandon Myers, who took a paycut to come back for a second year and had two catches for 39 yards Monday; Cam Brate, who had three for 28 on Monday, and Tim Wright, who hasn't blocked well and couldn't come up with the only pass thrown his way Monday. Wright has 11 touchdowns in his two NFL seasons, but he's not a sure thing to make this roster.
OFFENSIVE LINE: Let's write in seven for the opening roster -- likely starters Donovan Smith, Logan Mankins, Evan Smith, Ali Marpet, Gosder Cherilus, as well as the injured Demar Dotson and backup tackle Kevin Pamphile. That leaves three or four jobs -- Reid Fragel and Patrick Omameh competing to be the fourth tackle until Dotson is healthy; Kadeem Edwards, Garrett Gilkey and Matt Masifilo competing for the third guard spot, and Jeremiah Warren and (currently injured) Josh Allen up for the backup center job. Bucs will likely dress only seven linemen, but should roster nine or 10 healthy linemen to open the year.
DEFENSIVE LINE: I'm guessing the Bucs carry only nine defensive linemen to open the year -- the starting four of Jacquies Smith, George Johnson, Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald is set, and Tony McDaniel and Henry Melton are locks as backups. That should leave three spots: Does injured DT Akeem Spence take up one? Will Gholston and Da'Quan Bowers might be battling for the last interior job, with T.J. Fatinikun, Larry English and Lawrence Sidbury battling for one or two spots outside. If Melton moves primarily to end, it changes things a bit.
LINEBACKER: Four jobs are set, with Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, Danny Lansanah and Bruce Carter locks to make the cut. That leaves five players for one or two spots -- rookie Josh Keyes and veteran Larry Dean each played a team-high 20 special-teams snaps Monday, a key part of making the team as a backup linebacker. Khaseem Greene had a key forced fumble in the opener, then only played four defensive snaps on Monday. Jason Williams tied for the team lead with four tackles Monday. Orie Lemon needs to get healthy quick.
CORNERBACK: The backup jobs behind Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner are up for grabs -- Mike Jenkins helped himself with a forced fumble Monday, but is the fourth corner even on this roster? Brandon Dixon had three tackles Monday, and he has the edge on the rest of the lot, but the Bucs could use their waiver position to pluck a corner dropped elsewhere in the final cuts.
SAFETY: Three jobs are spoken for, with Bradley McDougald, Major Wright and D.J. Swearinger. If Chris Conte gets healthy -- he hasn't practiced since the first day of camp due to a hamstring injury -- he'd be the fourth. That leaves Keith Tandy and Chris Hackett competing for the fifth job -- if there is one. We're presuming Sterling Moore stays at nickel -- if they carry a backup there, it'd likely be Leonard Johnson, providing his ankle injury suffered Monday isn't serious.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Can anyone challenge kicker Pat Murray or punter Michael Koenen? Murray's job seems safe, as the Bucs haven't let Brandon Bogotay try a field goal or extra point yet. Murray missed a PAT on Monday, as well as a 50-yard field goal, but he also connected from 53. Koenen is the more curious one -- with Spencer Lanning, now Karl Schmitz, the Bucs have searched for a challenger, but nobody has stepped up yet. Andrew DePaola is the only snapper on roster and seems to be in good shape to return for a second season in that role.