First Cuts Can Be Deepest

Tonight's game versus Dolphins could be last chance for fringe players to impress Bucs coaches

By Jeff Berlinicke

TAMPA – Tonight's game against the Miami Dolphins will be long forgotten by October. It's a meaningless exhibition game that allows the NFL to graciously extend an opportunity for a family of four to shell out about $300 for an exhibition.

In reality, there are some players on the Bucs roster for whom this game is life and death. Going into Saturday's game, there were 92 players on the Bucs roster. About 30 of them have spots lined up and are merely going through formalities.

A lot of them will be wearing an NFL uniform for the last time tonight, glorified practice dummies brought in to let the veterans have someone to beat up on. The Bucs even have two players – defensive tackles Brian Save and Sam Wilder – who share the same uniform numbers. For those players, it was a nice trip while it lasted and they have film of themselves to show other NFL teams when asking for a chance.

No, tonight comes down to the key battle states, such as running back. For instance, coach Jon Gruden will likely carry three, possibly four tailbacks. Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman are givens. Charlie Garner is up in the air as he recuperates from a serious injury. That leaves Derek Watson, Ian Smith and Earnest Graham battling for the last spot. All have put up impressive numbers this summer and have looked solid in practice, but at least two of them will likely be gone before opening day.

Watson and Graham are a virtual dead heat with Smith just behind. Graham played for the Bucs last season and is a special teams stud, but Watson is probably the player with the best raw skills. Smith works hard, but knows he's likely the odd man out, especially since Williams will probably get a significant amount of carries tonight, and Pittman hasn't even played at all yet.

Next Thursday, the Bucs host Houston and will likely rest the starters, so Watson, Graham, and Smart will probably get some carries, but their chances to earn coaching approval is running out.

At wide receiver, Michael Clayton, Joey Galloway, and Ike Hilliard are locks, so Gruden will likely keep only two of the remaining receivers. Larry Brackens is raw, but the Bucs spent a draft pick on him, and DeAndrew Rubin is a strong kick returner, which could lead to the release of Kevin Youngblood who has been impressive in camp but hasn't caught a pass in either of the first two games.

On the defensive line, Delbert Cowsette is a physical specimen, but could be the odd man out of a stacked line if he doesn't turn on the charm.

The key battle, which will no doubt extend to next week, is the intriguing battle for kicker. Todd France may hold a slight edge on Matt Bryant, but it's too close to call. The Bucs are known to be scanning the waiver wires furiously to keep their options open.

The job of second-string quarterback is also up in the air. Luke McCown looked good in a 20-17 loss to the Jaguars last week, but also threw a key interception late in the game with the Bucs driving to the end zone. Chris Simms hasn't looked good and seems to be spiraling backwards, but he knows the offense. Incumbent Brian Griese will likely play into the third quarter leaving Simms and McCown to show off in limited opportunities. Simms has been the first one off the bench in both preseason games, so McCown might get a chance tonight.

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