An NFL training camp is an all out war where 90 full grown men are fighting every day to be one of the last 53 men standing. Each day is a battle. Each day there’s a different victor. And the men with the most victories will make the team or at least have the best chance to do so.
Recently, I wrote an article breaking down each position and noting how many spots were available for each and who could be in the running for those spots. Now, I’d like to break that down even further into what I think could turn out to be individual battles within some of those positions. NFL teams typically have a certain number of spots for each position group. That number could differ depending on schemes and team needs, however for the most part those numbers are usually the same across the board. That means that guys like Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter have to make some difficult decisions. Those decisions are mostly based on what they see each day over the course of training camp. The competitions can get heated. After all, most of these guys aren’t just fighting for a position, they’re fighting for their careers. Hence the term “battle”.
However, there are other factors that go into this decision making process. Age is considered. Experience is taken into account. And practice squad eligibility plays a big part. For those that aren’t familiar with the rules of an NFL practice squad, I’ll give you a brief synopsis. NFL practice squads were designed to allow teams to keep promising young players and develop them in their system. There are specific conditions that players must meet to be considered “eligible” for the 10-man practice squad roster. Of the ten players, four are allowed two accrued seasons, meaning full paid status on the active/inactive roster, the reserve/injured list or reserve/PUP list for six or more regular season games in a season. However, the other six players must have less than two seasons on the practice squad. In order for a season to count, a player must be on the practice squad for more than six games during a season. Now in order for a team to sign a player to their practice squad, they must first release that player and he must clear the 24-hour waiver period before they can officially sign him. That means that any team can sign that player for 24 hours. Once a player is signed to a practice squad, another team can sign them but it has to be to their 53-man active roster.
So you’re probably asking why I’m explaining all of this to you, right? Well, that’s because a player’s practice squad eligibility can have an effect on the decision to keep them on the 53-man, regular season roster. Let’s say a team really likes two players. “Player A” is eligible for the practice squad, but “Player B” is not. They might decide to keep “Player B” over “Player A” in hopes of keeping “Player A” on as a practice squad player. Make sense? Clear as mud, huh? It really is one of the deciding factors in whether a player makes the team or not. That being said, let’s take a look at some of these possible one-on-one matchups.
4TH RUNNING BACK:
#32 Jacquizz Rodgers vs #38 Shaun Wilson
The Bucs will be using a “running back by committee” system with the rookie Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber being the two main committee members. And the team just re-signed third down specialist Charles Sims to a one year/$1 million contract right before the 2018 NFL Draft. If the team does keep four backs, then those guys could have three of those spots filled already. That means that the fourth and final spot would be up for grabs between the remaining backs on the team. I think this final spot will come down to a decision between the veteran Jacquizz Rodgers and the undrafted free agent rookie Shaun Wilson from Duke.
Jacquizz Rodgers is 28 years-old, 5’6″/205lbs and headed into his 8th season, third with the Bucs. Other than 2016 when he finished with 560 yards, he hasn’t had more than 362 rushing yards in a season. He’s never been much of a receiving threat out of the backfield and he’s always played a supportive role throughout his career. He does have some experience returning kickoffs with other teams, but not much here in Tampa. The edge that he does have is that he spent some time with Koetter in Atlanta in addition to the two seasons under him here in Tampa, so he does have quite a bit of experience in this offense. He’s also having a pretty good camp so far.
Shaun Wilson is 22 years-old, 5’9″/185lbs and comes to the Buccaneers as an undrafted rookie free agent. He’s quick and he’s fast. In his four years at Duke University, he played in 49 games and finished with 2,463 rushing yards, 725 receiving yards and 24 total touchdowns. He also returned 67 kickoffs for 1,697 yards and a 25.3 yard average. He had two kickoff returns for touchdowns of 96 and 98 yards in his career, as well as a 76 yard return in his senior season. He had a 245 yard rushing game against Kansas as a freshman and a 176 yard rushing game against Baylor last season. He definitely has big play ability with a long run of 85 yards and a long reception of 89 yards.
PREDICTION: Quizz’s experience and familiarity with the system beat out Wilson’s youth and versatility. The Bucs go into the season with Ronald Jones, Peyton Barber, Charles Sims and Jacquizz Rodgers in the backfield. Wilson ends up as the RB on this year’s practice squad and the eventual replacement for Rodgers for the near future.
5TH WIDE RECEIVER:
#16 Freddie Martino vs #85 Bobo Wilson
Wide receiver is one of the strongest and deepest positions on this team. There are at least four of them that will obviously make the roster in Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Chris Godwin and Adam Humphries. But the Bucs have to decide how many more they’re keeping. Some teams keep five WR’s and some even keep six. With the depth this team has at the position, it wouldn’t surprise me if they do keep six. But just for the sake of this article, we’ll say they’re only keeping five. So what about the fifth WR spot?
Freddie Martino is 26 years-old, 6’/195lbs and is entering his fourth NFL season and third straight with the Bucs. He’s been in Tampa for the past two seasons either on the practice squad or on the active roster. He’s a very good special team’s player and a solid receiver with the versatility to play all three receiver positions. I don’t believe that he’s practice squad eligible, so that may factor into this decision if that’s the case. However you have to think that he’s got the leg up in this competition, although he has missed a few days of camp with an injury.
Bobo Wilson is 23 years-old, 5’9″/186lbs and entering his second year with the team. He will be eligible for the practice squad. He played college ball with Winston at FSU so he does have that connection. He also has the ability to return punts. Jameis says that Bobo’s nickname at FSU was “Lil AB” (Antonio Brown). If that’s the case, and Wilson has even a fraction of that kind of potential, the team would be wise to hang on to him whether it’s on the 53-man roster or the practice squad.
PREDICTION: Bucs keep both players and roll into the regular season with six receivers. Fifth round pick rookie Justin Watson could be in that mix as well, but my feeling is that he’ll end up on the practice squad.
4TH TIGHT END:
#45 Alan Cross vs #86 Donnie Ernsberger
Another deep position on this team is at tight end. Cameron Brate, OJ Howard and Antony Auclair seem to have three of the spots locked up. The battle here will be for that fourth spot should the Bucs choose to keep four of them, which would be the logical scenario considering Koetter likes to run two tight end sets in his offense.
Alan Cross is 25 years-old, 6’1″/235lbs and entering his fourth year in Tampa. As much as I like him, he could be the odd man out if one of the new rookies impresses enough in camp. He is no longer eligible for the Bucs practice squad so that could be a plus for him if the team doesn’t want to lose him altogether. He has proven himself to be a solid backup at TE and a good special team’s player over the last three seasons.
Donnie Ernsberger is 21 years-old, 6’2″/235lbs and was signed as an undrafted free agent this year. He’s roughly the same size as Cross, but younger and a little faster. He spent his college career primarily as a blocking back. He will need to really impress the coaching staff on special teams to have a chance at beating out Cross for that spot.
PREDICTION: Cross keeps his job and the Bucs go into this season with the same group of four tight ends that finished the 2017 season. Ernsberger will have some competition from the other undrafted rookies Jason Reese and Tanner Hudson for a spot on the practice squad.
STARTING RIGHT GUARD:
Caleb Benenoch vs Alex Cappa
The Bucs are heading into this season with a new look interior offensive line. Ali Marpet is changing positions for the second year in a row moving from center to left guard, while free agent signee Ryan Jensen is taking over at center. The biggest question mark will be at the right guard position vacated by the recently departed JR Sweezy. There seems to be only two candidates for that position at this point in training camp.
Alex Cappa is 23 years old, 6’6″/305lbs and was selected in the third round of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Bucs. He’s a physical player with a nasty demeanor. He started at left tackle for all four years in college, but Jason Licht wanted him as the eventual replacement for the aging Demar Dotson at right tackle. For now, he’s competing for that starting right guard spot while also getting some practice reps in at center.
Caleb Benenoch is 23 years old, 6’5″/305lbs and heading into his fourth year with the team. He has experience playing multiple positions across the o-line, but I wonder if his experience and versatility could hurt him in this situation. If the battle between these two is tight, the team could choose to start Cappa which would allow Benenoch to be a quality reserve swing lineman since he has live game experience playing both guard and tackle positions.
PREDICTION: It’s a close race, but Benenoch wins the starting job for now and Cappa ends up as the reserve swing lineman.
Riley Bullough vs Cam Lynch
Linebacker will be another highly competitive position in training camp. There are currently ten LB’s on the roster and it’s likely the Bucs will only keep six on their active roster. Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander, Kendell Beckwith and Adarius Taylor seem to have their jobs secured. Devante Bond is probably considered the front runner for the fifth LB spot which leaves one final spot open and five more LB’s to compete for it. This battle could come down to the same two as last year. Will the same player win it again?
Riley Bullough is 24 years old, 6’2″/228lbs and heading into his second year with the Bucs. He became a fan favorite on Hard Knocks with his leadership skills, work ethic and positive attitude. However, he started out on the team’s practice squad due to his lack of coverage ability. He is having a good camp so far and looks much more confident and comfortable in Smith’s system this year. However, he is eligible for the practice squad for this season.
Cam Lynch is 25 years-old, 6’/230lbs and is entering his fourth year in the league. He spent 2015 with the Rams and 2016 with the Bucs. He started the 2017 season on Tampa’s 53-man roster but ended up being released and finished the season back with the Rams. He’s primarily played a reserve LB role during his young career and is a pretty good special team’s player. He is not eligible for the practice squad.
PREDICTION: This could be a situation where a third player’s performance in training camp could possibly effect this position battle. In this year’s draft, the Bucs selected LB Jack Cichy in the fifth round. If he has a solid camp (and it sounds like he is), it could sway the team’s decision. They already have one LB on the practice squad in second year player Eric Nzeocha and unless Cichy just blows the coaching staff away in camp, he will likely end up there as well. I don’t see the Bucs using three of their eleven practice squad spots on linebackers, which means the team could have another tough decision within this position. They could release Nzeocha which would free up a LB spot on the practice squad. If they don’t, then Bullough would either have to make the 53-man or be released altogether if the Bucs don’t want three LB’s on that practice squad. If Cichy proves that he has the ability to play multiple LB positions, then I think the team keeps Bullough on the 53-man roster. Then Cichy is added to the practice squad and Lynch is released.
Ryan Smith vs Javien Elliott
This one is tricky. With nine cornerbacks on the current roster and only six likely spots to fill, there will be at least three of these players hitting the road. Obviously Brent Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves, Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart have four of the six spots locked up. The question in this group is, what will the Bucs do with special teams superstar Josh Robinson? He is 27 years-old and heading into his seventh NFL season and third with Tampa. If the team chooses to move on from him, then that leaves two CB spots open and this battle is a non-issue. However, if they keep him, there’s only one spot and these two should be fighting for it.
Ryan Smith is 24 years-old, 5’11″/190lbs and entering his third year with Tampa. He was originally drafted to play safety, but in 2017 he was thrusted into a starting cornerback role opposite the veteran Grimes. His performance was up and down for most of the season to say the least, though he has been one of the standouts on special teams as a gunner during his time here. However with the additions of rookies Carlton Davis and MJ Stewart in this year’s draft, his role on this team should change dramatically.
Javien Elliott is 25 years-old, 5’11″/176lbs and entering his third year with the Bucs. He started on the practice squad in 2016 and worked his way on to the active roster as a reserve corner and a key special team’s contributor. The coaching staff has always said that he’s a playmaker in practice and is always around the ball, but it has yet to translate to the field on Sundays.
PREDICTION: Smith wins the final CB spot and Elliott is waived.
Keith Tandy vs Godwin Igwebuike
This may be one of the toughest decisions that Jason Licht and Dirk Koetter will have to make this training camp. Chris Conte, Justin Evans and fourth round draft pick Jordan Whitehead aren’t likely going anywhere. So the Bucs staff will have to make a choice between keeping a proven, reliable veteran or an unproven rookie with tremendous upside.
Keith Tandy is 29 years-old, 5’10″/205lbs and entering his 7th season with the Bucs. Every year he seems to be “battling” for a roster spot, and every year he ends up on the 53-man roster. Over the first few years of his career, he mostly played a key role on special teams. However over the last couple of seasons, he’s taken on a more substantial role at safety. Now he’s one of the “old guys” on an otherwise young roster. The question is, will his age help him or hurt him in making this team?
Godwin Igwebuike is 23 years-old, 5’11″/213lbs and came to the Bucs as one of the most sought after undrafted free agents on the market. He ran a 4.44 forty at this year’s NFL Combine so he has some speed. He finished his four year college career at Northwestern with 324 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 7 interceptions primarily as a safety. He also displayed versatility by playing both safety positions as well as some nickel corner. He was actually ranked 8th out of the 88 safeties available in the 2018 Draft and was projected as a late Day 2 or Day 3 prospect. Somehow he slipped through and luckily landed in Tampa thanks to a sizeable $20,000 signing bonus and a guaranteed $85,000 contract for this season.
PREDICTION: If Igwebuike has a good camp and turns out to be the safety that they thought he could be, they’ll want to keep him around. The question will be, do they roll the dice and release him in order to place him on the practice squad? By doing that, they take a huge risk in losing him to another team on the waiver wire. I like Tandy and obviously the Bucs do too. With Evans and Whitehead already in place as the safety tandem of the future, Licht may feel comfortable enough to risk releasing the rookie and keeping the crafty vet on as a reliable backup. Tandy makes the 53-man roster and hopefully Igwebuike ends up on the practice squad instead of some other team’s roster.
I know it’s still early in camp, but those are my thoughts on some of the things to watch out for over the next few weeks. My advice for those of you fortunate enough to live close to Tampa and actually able to visit One Buc, don’t just go out there for pictures and autographs. Grab a roster. Learn their numbers. Watch the new players. Check out the rookies. Pay attention to the matchups. I promise that the more invested you are in this process, the more you’ll learn. The more you learn, the more you’ll know about this team. And the more you know about this team, the more you’ll love this team. So, have fun at camp and I’ll see you out there!
But until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!