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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 email@example.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.
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