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With final cuts looming, we project the Bucs’ 53-player roster

NFL teams must reduce their rosters to the 53-player limit by 4 p.m. Tuesday.
Though rookie wide receiver Jaelon Darden's (1) spot on the 53-man roster seems secure, a splash play or two in Saturday's preseason finale against the Texans certainly wouldn't hurt his cause.
Though rookie wide receiver Jaelon Darden's (1) spot on the 53-man roster seems secure, a splash play or two in Saturday's preseason finale against the Texans certainly wouldn't hurt his cause. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Aug. 26

TAMPA — Upon their return from Houston in Sunday’s wee hours, the Bucs begin the unforgiving, unenviable and mostly unpleasant process of trimming their roster from 80 to 53 players.

The final paring must be finished by Tuesday at 4 p.m. Considering all 25 starters (including the three primary specialists) returned from Super Bowl 55, the process isn’t as arduous as normal. Still, some painstaking decisions must be made, and Coach Bruce Arians has reiterated special teams performances could determine the final spots.

Which makes Saturday night’s contest against the Texans critical for those on the 53-man bubble.

“I know what the top 35 guys can do,” said Arians, who intends to play his starters for most — if not all — of the first half Saturday. “That fourth quarter will be very important in this game for some other guys to show that they have improved.”

With one crucial audition remaining, we’ve taken a crack at projecting the finalized roster, offering a brief rationale for each position.

Quarterback

Bucs quarterback Tom Brady is expected to play most (if not all) of the first half Saturday against the Texans after not suiting up for last weekend's preseason contest against the Titans.
Bucs quarterback Tom Brady is expected to play most (if not all) of the first half Saturday against the Texans after not suiting up for last weekend's preseason contest against the Titans. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Tom Brady

Blaine Gabbert

Kyle Trask

Before you ask, Kyle Trask is not a practice squad candidate. Why? Because the Bucs first would have to put him on waivers, where someone certainly would pick up the record-setting Gators quarterback, giving Tampa Bay nothing in return for a second-round pick. Trask is on the team, though he may not be on the 48-player active roster most Sundays.

Running back

Bucs running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn (21) runs a play as quarterbacks Tom Brady (12), Blaine Gabbert (11) and Ryan Griffin (4) look on during last week's joint practice with the Titans at AdventHealth Training Center.
Bucs running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn (21) runs a play as quarterbacks Tom Brady (12), Blaine Gabbert (11) and Ryan Griffin (4) look on during last week's joint practice with the Titans at AdventHealth Training Center. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Giovani Bernard

Leonard Fournette

Ronald Jones

Ke’Shawn Vaughn

Vaughn, a second-year guy who played sparingly as a rookie, makes the team based on the prerequisite (special teams play) Arians spelled out clearly. He has shown burst as a gunner and adequacy as a kick returner. Moreover, he has caught three of the four passes targeted to him in the preseason.

Offensive line

Bucs second-year right tackle Tristan Wirfs could be hard-pressed to match his sparkling rookie season.
Bucs second-year right tackle Tristan Wirfs could be hard-pressed to match his sparkling rookie season. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Alex Cappa

Robert Hainsey

Ryan Jensen

Nick Leverett

Ali Marpet

Donovan Smith

Aaron Stinnie

Josh Wells

Tristan Wirfs

On the bubble: Earl Watford

A practice-squad guy nearly all of 2020, Leverett has brandished versatility this preseason, highlighted by making all 63 offensive snaps in the first game of his life as a center against the Titans. Hainsey, the team’s third-round pick, was sidelined by an unspecified injury for more than two weeks but is being groomed as Jensen’s heir at center.

Tight end

Though sidelined most of the preseason, veteran tight end Cameron Brate (84) is expected to make the Bucs' final 53-player roster.
Though sidelined most of the preseason, veteran tight end Cameron Brate (84) is expected to make the Bucs' final 53-player roster. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Cameron Brate

Rob Gronkowski

O.J. Howard

Tanner Hudson

On the bubble: Hudson, Codey McElroy

As we’ve documented, Hudson might lead the team in public scoldings from Arians this preseason, which only means Arians cares enough to scold in the first place. The fourth-year veteran’s hands never have been an issue, and one must presume he has gotten Arians’ clear message on improving as a blocker.

Wide receiver

Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) leaps to make a catch against Titans defensive back Chris Jones (23) during a joint practice with the Titans last week in Tampa.
Bucs wide receiver Antonio Brown (81) leaps to make a catch against Titans defensive back Chris Jones (23) during a joint practice with the Titans last week in Tampa. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

Antonio Brown

Jaelon Darden

Mike Evans

Chris Godwin

Tyler Johnson

Scotty Miller

On the bubble: Jaydon Mickens

Though Darden’s next splash play in a preseason game will be his first, Arians and the staff clearly remain enamored with his speed and upside, as evidenced by their tough-love approach in coaching him. Mickens has considerable experience as a returner, so it would behoove Darden — a Houston native — to show out in his de facto homecoming.

Related: Bucs rookie receiver Jaelon Darden knows a thing or two about tough routes

Specialists

Bucs veteran kicker Ryan Succop (3) currently is on the reserve/COVID-19 list after testing positive earlier this week.
Bucs veteran kicker Ryan Succop (3) currently is on the reserve/COVID-19 list after testing positive earlier this week. [ MARTHA ASENCIO-RHINE | Times ]

Ryan Succop

Bradley Pinion

Zach Triner

While Succop hasn’t exactly sparkled this preseason, he signed a new three-year deal in March that includes $6.25 million in guaranteed money, making him essentially uncuttable from a salary-cap standpoint. Bucs fans must hope the veteran recaptures his groove of 2020, when he hit 28 of 31 field goals in the regular season and went 9-for-9 in the playoffs.

Defensive line

Bucs defensive end Patrick O'Connor (79) celebrates a sack on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during the fourth quarter of last December's game, a 26-14 Bucs triumph, at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs defensive end Patrick O'Connor (79) celebrates a sack on Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins (8) during the fourth quarter of last December's game, a 26-14 Bucs triumph, at Raymond James Stadium. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

William Gholston

Steve McLendon

Rakeem Nunez-Roches

Patrick O’Connor

Ndamukong Suh

Vita Vea

Khalil Davis

On the bubble: Davis

Big question here is, do the Bucs feel comfortable going with six defensive linemen (for a 3-4 base) when three of them are 30 or over? Waive Davis, a sixth-round pick in 2020, and another team likely picks him up. We see the Bucs keeping Davis in case an elder statesman gets injured early on.

Outside linebacker

Bucs rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (9) is expected to be a regular in the outside linebacker rotation when the team kicks off the regular season at home against the Cowboys on Sept. 9.
Bucs rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (9) is expected to be a regular in the outside linebacker rotation when the team kicks off the regular season at home against the Cowboys on Sept. 9. [ MARK LOMOGLIO | AP ]

Shaquil Barrett

Anthony Nelson

Jason Pierre-Paul

Joe Tryon-Shoyinka

On the bubble: Cam Gill

Tryon-Shoyinka, selected by the Bucs with the 32nd overall pick in April, is shaping up as a draft steal for this franchise. Gill has been sidelined most of the preseason, but in a little roster maneuvering he ultimately could be placed on injured reserve at the regular season’s outset, allowing the Bucs to promote a practice-squad guy.

Inside linebacker

Bucs wide receiver Cyril Grayson (15) tries to get free from linebacker Grant Stuard (48) during the special teams portion of Wednesday's practice in the AdventHealth Training Center's indoor facility.
Bucs wide receiver Cyril Grayson (15) tries to get free from linebacker Grant Stuard (48) during the special teams portion of Wednesday's practice in the AdventHealth Training Center's indoor facility. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]

K.J. Britt

Lavonte David

Kevin Minter

Devin White

Grant Stuard

On the bubble: Joe Jones, Stuard

In our projections, the last guy taken in the 2021 draft (Stuard) is also the last guy to make the roster. While Stuard appears to lack the lateral speed necessary for an inside ‘backer, he’s a downfield burner (who ran anchor on a state-placing 4x400-meter relay team in high school). On Thursday, he was lining up with the first-team kickoff coverage unit.

Cornerback

Bucs cornerback Antonio Hamilton (22) stops Titans wide receiver Chester Rogers (80) after a catch during the first half of last weekend's preseason game at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs cornerback Antonio Hamilton (22) stops Titans wide receiver Chester Rogers (80) after a catch during the first half of last weekend's preseason game at Raymond James Stadium. [ JASON BEHNKEN | AP ]

Carlton Davis

Jamel Dean

Sean Murphy-Bunting

Antonio Hamilton

On the bubble: Hamilton, Dee Delaney, Herb Miller

Hamilton, who has delivered two solid defensive performances (11 tackles, two tackles for loss, forced fumble) this preseason, possesses the most special teams savvy of any bubble guy. He played the second-most special teams snaps (330) for the Chiefs last season, then signed with the Bucs after a tryout at their rookie minicamp in May.

Safety

After mostly flourishing at cornerback in 2020, Bucs veteran Ross Cockrell has trained almost exclusively at safety this summer.
After mostly flourishing at cornerback in 2020, Bucs veteran Ross Cockrell has trained almost exclusively at safety this summer. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Ross Cockrell

Mike Edwards

Jordan Whitehead

Antoine Winfield Jr.

On the bubble: Javon Hagan

In terms of depth, Cockrell’s versatility (he played both outside and slot cornerback in 2020) essentially gives the Bucs two defensive backs in one body, possibly freeing up a roster spot for another special teams ace elsewhere. Cockrell has trained at safety all summer, but in a pinch can move to corner, where he played 16 games last season.

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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