TAMPA — As a rule, the third preseason game is the best for fans, with projected starters often playing into the third quarter. So as relative meaninglessness goes in August football, it's not too bad.
The Bucs' third game is tonight against the Browns, and jobs are on the line, especially in the second half. With initial roster cuts coming Tuesday — from 90 players to 75 — and the final cut to 53 next weekend, there will be urgency.
Here are five things to keep an eye on as the Bucs face the Browns and 2014 Tampa Bay quarterback Josh McCown, who is still seeking his first win as a starter in Raymond James Stadium.
1. Special teams free-for-all
The Bucs have brought in new challengers at kicker, punter and long snapper, so every punt and kick carries importance. Can starting kicker Patrick Murray (above) hold off newly signed Connor Barth in a rematch of last year's training camp battle? Can unproven punters Karl Schmitz and Jake Schum show enough to put Michael Koenen's job in jeopardy? Even long snapper Andrew DePaola must perform well, with newly signed Brandon Hartson getting a look.
2. Meet Chris Conte
The free agent signee was brought in as a potential starting safety, having played for coach Lovie Smith in Chicago. But a hamstring injury on the first day of training camp sidelined him three weeks, so he's just now making his Bucs debut. In the final two preseason games he needs to establish himself as healthy and to show he understands a familiar defensive scheme.
3. Bucs rookie Ali Marpet vs. Browns rookie Danny Shelton
Marpet (above), a guard, worked against Shelton, a nose tackle, in the Senior Bowl, and with his play, Marpet validated himself as a legitimate draft pick out of Division III Hobart College. Tonight is another good test for his preparation to be a rookie starter. Shelton, at 339 pounds, is "a big, strong dude," Marpet says.
4. More of those rookie receivers
Fifth-round draft pick Kenny Bell is out with a hamstring injury so expect even more of the other four rookie receivers. Kaelin Clay (above) needs to show something on returns; his longest of nine is just 23 yards. Adam Humphries converted three third downs with catches Monday against the Bengals, and Rannell Hall and Donteea Dye will get long looks. If you're Robert Herron, it's a good week to show up and make a play or two.
5. Can the Bucs add to their takeaways?
The team is tied for the NFL lead with six takeaways in two preseason games. CB Alterraun Verner (above) returned an interception for a touchdown against the Bengals on Monday. Three takeaways a game would bring 48 in the regular season. Lovie Smith's last Bears team had 44 in 2012 and 44 when he went to the Super Bowl in 2006. The therapeutic value for Bucs fans of seeing Bengals QB Josh McCown intercepted would be nearly incalculable.