TAMPA — Bucs head coach Bruce Arians noted this week that there are about 10 spots still available on the team’s 53-man roster, and he sent a clear message to those on the bubble heading into Thursday’s final preseason game against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.
"Play your (butt) off Thursday night, and make me can't cut you," Arians said.
In determining how to round out the team's roster, Arians said that special teams play Thursday will be a determining factor.
"That's where most jobs are going to be won in this game," Arians said. "Somebody recovers a kick, maybe knocks a ball loose, does something big, that gets one of those last 10 spots, or one of those 10 practice squad spots. There's a bunch of spots open."
Here are five positions where the biggest roster battles exist going into Thursday.
With Mike Evans. Chris Godwin and Breshad Perriman taking the first three spots, and Justin Watson a likely fourth, that leaves Bobo Wilson and Scotty Miller competing for the fifth position. Most likely, it’s up to Miller, who missed the first two preseason games with a hamstring injury to force the Bucs to keep a six receiver at the cost of having fewer players elsewhere. Wilson has had a great preseason. He’s second on the team in catches (nine) and third in receiving yards (112). Maybe more important to his value is his role as a special teams piece as a kick returner, punt returner on coverage teams. Wilson was the team’s best kick returner last year (28.4 yards per return). When they drafted Miller, they believed he could be a vertical threat because of his speed, but he caught just two balls for 15 yards last week. He will have to show more of that potential this week as a receiver and punt returner.
This position might be the most in flux going into Thursday, and that might affect how many tight ends the Bucs carry going into the season. Cameron Brate hasn’t practiced for two weeks with an undisclosed injury and is coming off hip surgery. Blocking tight end Antony Auclair left last week’s game in the first half with a calf injury and spent the beginning of the week in a walking boot. Arians said neither injury is serious and both are expected to be ready for the season opener on Sept. 8 — and there’s plenty of time for them to be ready — but their uncertainly could open the door for not only preseason darling Tanner Hudson but also former Clemson standout Jordan Leggett. Hudson is the Bucs’ leading receiver this postseason (17 catches, 226 yards, 2 TDs), but Arians has been open about wanting him to improve his blocking. Comparatively, Arians lauded the strides Leggett has made as a blocker, and he served as the blocking tight end early in the game when Auclair exited. Carrying four tight ends could mean just five receivers or maybe even just three running backs.
Devonte Bond, who was initially practicing inside, moved outside and now appears to be among the top four linebackers there. And even though Bond missed last week's game, his ability to play both inside and outside and special teams make him a valuable player. Arians called him "a horse" on special teams this week. That might make Jack Cichy's path to the 53-man roster easier. Cichy, who is coming back from his second ACL surgery, has not only made plays, but Arians has taken note of the energy he brings to the huddle. "Even when he’s not [on the field], he’s hollering out there to somebody else, ‘Hey, do this,’ ‘Do that,’ ‘Great job.’ He’s turned into one of my favorites," Arians said. Cichy, 23, also has age on his main competition, 27-year-old Corey Nelson.
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Despite the unit's poor showing last week, allowing five sacks in the first half, the Bucs' starting offensive line is set. Add on versatile veteran Earl Watford, who can play across the line, and Caleb Benenoch, and there's seven, but you really have to reach hard for an eighth offensive lineman that stands out. Very quietly, undrafted rookie Zack Bailey has climbed from third team to second-team regular at guard. Watford can step in at center in a pinch, but both undrafted rookie Nate Trewyn and 30-year-old Josh LeRibeus have seen significant second-team snaps at center. This is a reminder that offensive line depth is thin not only with the Bucs but across the league. Still, it wouldn't be a surprise if the Bucs fill out their final offensive line spots through the waiver wire, where they currently sit in the fifth spot, after final cuts are made.
Matt Gay solidified his claim for the placekicker job by making his second game-winning field-goal kick in as many weeks. His 21-yard conversion with 15 seconds left last week to beat the Browns wasn’t as big as the 48-yard game winner he made in Week 2 against the Dolphins, but it came after his first preseason miss from 37 yards out. After Friday’s game, Arians said Gay has struggled kicking on the right hash from 38-41 yards during camp, but more recently said Gay’s corrected that. Still, Gay is 4-for-5 overall this postseason, and the Bucs spent a fifth-round pick on him, so he definitely appears to be ahead of incumbent Cairo Santos, who has made his only two field goal attempts, both from 23 yards out. This week, Santos could be auditioning for other teams who need kicking help like the Bears, Bengals and Jets.
— With Dare Ogunbowale’s ascension up the depth chart, will the team still carry four running backs, or will veteran Andre Ellington be caught on the outside looking in, at least initially? Ellington’s $805,000 contract becomes guaranteed if he makes the opening 53-man roster.
— What’s to make of Noah Spence, who was a first-team outside linebacker on the Bucs depth chart, playing all 60 defensive snaps in last week’s game? Was it a matter of availability at the outside linebacker spot, or a sign that Spence still has something to prove, notably show his ability to stop the run? Also, fourth-rounder Anthony Nelson hasn’t played a preseason game, and likely won’t on Thursday.
— When will rookie Mike Edwards, who was projected to be a starter at one safety position, return from injury? The Bucs’ third-round pick hasn’t played since the first preseason game. The Bucs finally have safety Justin Evans back, but he’s missed the entire preseason. How does all of that affect the safety position and does it open the door for someone like Darian Stewart or Isaiah Johnson. Stewart is a battle-tested veteran who can bring the pressure from the safety spot (three quarterback pressures and a half sack in two games) and Johnson is a valued special teams contributor.
— When does the team believe nose tackle Vita Vea can return from a knee injury, and how does than impact the defensive line position. If Vea is returning soon — and doesn’t neen to be placed on IR — they obviously carry him on the 53-man along with Ndamukong Suh, William Gholston and Beau Allen. Given how coaches talk about them, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Rakeem Nunez-Roches are in as well. So what happens with seventh-rounder Terry Beckner, who is intriguing, but could probably pass through the waiver wire?
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard