Is Leaf A Candidate For Injured Reserve?

August 29 - One of the toughest decisions the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will make during roster cutdowns will be at the QB position. Is there a way to keep both Ryan Leaf and Joe Hamilton on the team?

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are trying to figure out how to keep their quarterback surplus intact heading into the season. Keeping four quarterbacks is an option, but not a likely one considering how difficult it is to whittle a roster down to a 53-man unit on opening day and still maintain a proper number of backups at each position.

The team will obviously start free agent acquisition Brad Johnson and slot Shaun King, last year's starter, at No. 2. But what will they do regarding Ryan Leaf and Joe Hamilton and the No. 3 QB spot?

Hamilton outperformed Leaf in the first two preseason games, only to see Leaf rally in the third preseason game with a 3-of-5 passing night for 49 yards against New England. Leaf's two incompletions were drops, including a possible touchdown by Pepe Pearson in the end zone. Hamilton did not play against the Patriots, which may have hurt his cause.

Look for both Hamilton and Leaf to stick around until the final cutdowns, when the team must be forced to make a difficult decision, and here are their options and the possible rationale for each move:

If the Bucs feel they have adequate depth at all positions and can afford to risk losing a spot for another reserve/special teamer at the expense of four quarterbacks, then they may bite the bullet and keep four passers. The Bucs know that Leaf (and perhaps King, but that is unlikely) could be traded in the offseason for a draft pick, and they want to keep Hamilton around as the No. 3 quarterback for the 2002 season.

The team knows Leaf has more physical talent and more playing experience as a starter in the NFL. The Bucs had to play their third-string quarterback in the NFC Championship Game in 1999, and Leaf might give them a better shot at winning if faced with that scenario again. The Bucs have interest in Hamilton, and would then likely attempt to re-sign him to the practice squad - if he cleared waivers. Because the NFL's overall depth at quarterback is less than stellar, there is a fair chance another club may claim Hamilton off of waivers. And no, the team couldn't trade Hamilton because he has no trade value. If the Bears traded former first-rounder Cade McNown to Miami for a sixth- and a seventh-round draft pick, you know Hamilton, a seventh-round pick who has never thrown a pass with the offensive starters, is un-tradeable.

Hamilton was one of Tony Dungy's draft picks, albeit a seventh-rounder, and he is a favorite amongst the players and the coaching staff. Cutting Hamilton and keeping Leaf may not bode well for team chemistry, but the Bucs have cut popular players like Lorenzo Neal and Brad Culpepper before. But in this scenario, Leaf gets cut for salary cap reasons. A third-string QB making over a million is a pretty pricey. Leaf could possibly be traded to a team like Dallas for a low-round draft pick, probably a seventh-rounder due to his now cap-friendly contract. But teams like the Cowboys would just as soon wait until he's cut. Hamilton sticks around because of his intangibles, knack for clutch performances, knowledge of the offense, lower salary and better performance in the preseason.

Bucs insiders have told Buccaneer Magazine that the team has mentioned placing Leaf on injured reserve as a last-ditch way to keep four quarterbacks around. Leaf has the lingering effects of a wrist injury he suffered last year in San Diego and has mentioned the possibility of offseason surgery. The good news is that neither Leaf nor Hamilton has to be cut and that they can save a roster spot this way. However, Leaf would likely not favor this approach and he would not be able to practice with the team this year. But it would give him an entire year to learn the new offense and another round of mini-camps and training camps, not to mention time to get his wrist surgery taken care of. Also, the Bucs would be forced to use Hamilton as the No. 3 quarterback.

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