TAMPA — If the Bucs’ marketing folks are struggling to generate interest in Saturday’s preseason contest, expected to be mostly bereft of starters, we’ve got a suggestion on how to bill it.
The Bubble Bowl.
While nearly every Bucs first-teamer is expected to remain in a ball cap for this exhibition against the Titans, others will be fighting to hold on to their helmets for another week. The roster must be trimmed to 80 players by Tuesday afternoon, then to its final 53-player regular season limit a week later.
Meantime, competition remains furious at a number of positions, where several are competing for only one or two available depth-chart spots. Saturday’s contest remains an opportunity to play one’s way off the roster bubble.
Here are five positions where the roster competition remains keen. They’ll be worth monitoring Saturday night.
The Bucs generally carried four tight ends last season, and three of those spots are locked up between Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.
That leaves third-year guy Tanner Hudson (who appeared in 11 games in 2020) vying with 28-year-old Codey McElroy, whose bizarre athletic odyssey includes a stint in pro baseball and one season as a basketball walk-on at Oklahoma State. Hudson had a team-best four catches (for 48 yards) in the preseason opener, but coach Bruce Arians has sharply criticized his blocking. Additionally, Hudson has missed the last few practices with an apparent wrist injury.
When asked Wednesday if Hudson’s injury could linger into the regular season, Arians said, “He’s still got to make the team to get to the regular season. ... He’s one of those bubble guys.”
Veteran Ross Cockrell’s seemingly sparkling transition to safety gives the Bucs the luxury of a utility player (corner or safety) in the secondary. With that in mind, expect them to keep four or five other pure corners.
Carlton Davis III, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean are locks; and five guys are vying for the other spots. Florida Atlantic alumnus Herb Miller was solid (interception, pass deflection) in four games last year, but veteran Antonio Hamilton — signed as a free agent in the offseason — had a team-high seven tackles (one for loss) and forced fumble in the preseason opener against the Bengals.
The wild card could be Dee Delaney, a two-time all-conference player at The Citadel who played his final college season at Miami. Delaney had a third-quarter pick nullified by an interference flag against Cincinnati and was one of the few players lauded by Arians for his work on special teams, a prerequisite for any reserve corner hoping to make the roster.
In addition to five returning starters, the Bucs re-signed backups Aaron Stinnie and Josh Wells, and drafted Notre Dame’s Robert Hainsey (being groomed as a center) in the third round.
Presuming they’ll carry nine linemen on the 53-man roster, that leaves seven other guys vying for one spot. One can reasonably count out Earl Watford, Jake Benzinger and Seminole High alumnus Brandon Walton, all of whom were signed in the last week for practice depth when injuries mounted.
The best bet is 2020 practice squad alumnus Nick Leverett, who has had a solid camp while training at nearly every position up front. With Hainsey still sidelined with an undisclosed ailment, Leverett could start at center Saturday.
The fallout of this position appeared intriguing entering training camp, where the logjam for the fourth and final roster spot (behind Devin White, Lavonte David and Kevin Minter) featured draftees K.J. Britt and Grant Stuard and veteran Joe Jones.
But Britt has shined in camp and had a nice preseason debut (three tackles, fumble recovery) against the Bengals. Moreover, he has embraced the special teams requirement that comes with the job.
Stuard, a special teams terror at the University of Houston, has had his moments but doesn’t quite possess the lateral speed essential for the inside spot. Jones returned an interception for a touchdown against the Bengals but could be the victim of a numbers game.
Depth is especially critical here, considering three fixtures in the rotation (Ndamukong Suh, Steve McLendon, William Gholston) are 30 or over.
Ten linemen currently are in camp, but five are assured of jobs. If the Bucs keep seven on the roster, third-year end Patrick O’Connor and second-year tackle Khalil Davis appear the front-runners. Davis is a project on special teams, but his upside as a pass rusher can’t be ignored.
“We know he’s a fast-twitch guy in the passing game,” Arians said following the Bengals loss. “He’s learning on the run for special teams. It’s probably the first time he’s played that much special teams, so it looked like a guy that was learning on the run, and hopefully he can get better this week.”
These three positions are set
Okay, we believe they’re set (barring injury):
Ronald Jones II
Contact Joey Knight at email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls
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