TAMPA – Given the way his first-team offense has performed inside the red zone this preseason (it’s 1-for-6), Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter probably wouldn’t mind seeing his starters take a few snaps once the Bucs move the ball inside the 20s tonight.
He won’t, though.
As much as the Bucs offense needs the work inside the 20s and as much as their defense needs to work on putting more pressure on the quarterback, Koetter will stick to his plan to leave this game mostly in the hands of those who may never play another NFL game ever.
With 90 players still on the roster, Koetter could sit almost every starter and backup on both sides of the ball tonight and he very well may. The objective after all is to get one last good look at those players fighting for the last few roster spots.
With that in mind here’s a look at three players or specific areas of play that will be worth watching tonight as the Bucs wrap up the preseason and prepare to finally cut their roster down to the 53-man limit on Saturday.
Running back Jeremy McNichols
In the days immediately after he was drafted last spring, there were many who thought McNichols might jump immediately into the Bucs starting lineup and make fellow Boise State alum Doug Martin expendable. That certainly isn’t the case anymore. While Martin has proved yet again to be by far the most talented and dynamic back on the Bucs roster, McNichols has struggled through a difficult adjustment to the NFL. He hasn’t run the ball particularly well (14 carries, 43 yards, 3.1 average); he has yet to catch a pass and he has graded out poorly as a pass protector. McNichols in fact was benched after just 2 plays last week by Koetter after he missed a blocking assignment that led to a sack. As a result he may only have this “one final chance’’ as Koetter put it to prove he’s worth keeping around. McNichols status as a fifth-round draft pick may give him a little bit of leverage in his fight for a roster spot, but Bucs general manager Jason Licht has cut draft picks before and he may not hesitate to cut this one if needs elsewhere dictate that such a move is necessary.
The fifth wide receiver candidates
In praising the four-catch, 56-yard effort he turned in while starting in place of Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson last week, Koetter referred to rookie Chris Godwin as “a No. 4 receiver who played like a No. 1.’’ That suggests Godwin has not only made the team but sewn up the fourth receiver spot behind Evans, Jackson and Adam Humphries. That may only leave one spot open as it appears the Bucs are going to keep just five receivers this year. The top candidates are Freddy Martino, Josh Huff and Donteea Dye, all of whom have had solid, though not necessarily spectacular training camps and preseasons. The most impressive has probably been Reedy, who has caught six passes for 65 yards and returned six punts for an average of 9.5-yards per return. The winner of this job is going to have to play special teams somewhere and all three can do that, so how they perform on fourth down and on kickoffs may do as much to determine the winner here as anything.
The defensive ends
As we noted earlier, the Bucs have not done a very good job of rushing the passer this preseason. Of those who are expected to start along the front seven, only linebacker Lavonte David has a sack. Further worsening the situation is the absence of defensive ends Jacquies Smith and DaVonte Lambert, both of whom will miss the start of the season with injuries. The Bucs really need someone to step up and make their pass rush viable and for their zone based scheme to work right it really needs to be a lineman. George Johnson has had success in the past but he’s had trouble staying healthy since he came back to the Bucs so there’s at least one job there for the taking. Keep a close eye tonight on the likes of Ryan Russell, Tavaris Barnes and Sterling Bailey as well as newcomers Medi Abdesmad and Hendrick Ekpe. If any of those players flashes tonight they could secure a place as either the fourth or fifth end for a team that still seems far too thin at that position.