Sat, 26 Sep 2020

S.S. Mailbag: Roster Battles

Buccaneers
07 Aug 2020, 19:26 GMT+10

Tampa Bay Buccaneers With the Bucs ramping up towards the start of real training camp practices, fans are starting to wonder how certain position battles are going to shake out

Earlier this week, Buccaneers Director of Broadcast Operations Jeff Ryan and I got together - on opposite ends of a very long conference table - to record our first Salty Dogs podcast in many months. If you happen to have enjoyed the podcast the last couple seasons, you'll probably be happy to know it's back and will once again be recorded on a weekly basis. You can check out our first one of the new season here.

As usual, we wrapped up the podcast by answering some questions that had been sent in by fans specifically for the podcast. (If you'd like to send in a question, do so at saltydogs@buccaneers.nfl.com.) One astute fan had asked us if we thought there could be an unprecedented amount of roster turnover in 2019 and, yes, we definitely think that's possible. There are certainly going to be a lot of players in the mix with the practice squad expanding to 16 players and some new rules in place regarding the promotion of such players and the eligibility of those who go on injured reserve.

At the time, I was not able to answer one part of the fan's question: In which of the Buccaneers' first 44 seasons did they use the most players overall? Since then, however, I've done the research, so I thought I would share it here.

The simple answer is 1992, during which 72 different players appeared in at least one regular-season game for the Buccaneers. What makes that particularly interesting is that the NFL roster limit in '92 was 48 players; the very next year it would expand to what it is now, 53 players, but the Bucs only used 61 different players in 1993. The Bucs used 24 more players than the season's roster limit in 1992, which is also the highest that number has ever been.

The next highest season total came in 2014, when 70 different players made it into at least one regular-season outing for Tampa Bay. The Bucs also used 68 players in both 2009 and 2012, and if you look closely you might start to see a pattern.

See, those four seasons - 1992, 2009, 2012 and 2014 - were all the first years of a new head coach's tenure. Specifically, it was the beginning of the Sam Wyche, Raheem Morris, Greg Schiano and Lovie Smith eras. This pattern holds true throughout team history. The Buccaneers used 64 players in their inaugural season, which was 21 more than that year's roster limit of 43. That's obviously unsurprising as the 1976 expansion team was desperately running through a crowd of rookies and discarded veterans to try to field a semi-competitive team.

That was also John McKay's first season as the head coach, obviously. The Bucs also got a new head coach in 1985 - Leeman Bennett - and that year they used 12 more players than the roster limit at the time. Ray Perkins was next at the helm in 1987 but we have to discount that year because it included the three games using replacement players during a strike and that artificially shot the number of players used through the roof. In 1988, Perkins and the Bus still used 13 more players than the roster limit.

It's reasonable to expect more churning of the roster when a new coaching staff is in town and trying to find the players it wants. Some of that turnover will happen in the offseason leading up to that new coach's first season, of course, but it often continues into the season. Think of Vernon Hargreaves last year in Bruce Arians' first year.

The Bucs also used 67 players in Dirk Koetter's first season of 2016, 14 more than the limit, and 66 last year in Arians' debut campaign. In that cases, though, there was a bigger trend at work. There is simply more roster turnover in today's NFL than there was even 15 years ago. The Buccaneers have used 66 or more players - at least 13 more than the roster limit - in 10 of the last 11 seasons. In contrast, they didn't go more than 10 over the limit once in 10 seasons from 1993 through 2002.

On the other end of that spectrum is the 1979 Buccaneers team, which was the first to qualify for the playoffs. That squad only saw 46 players appear in a regular-season game, the fewest in any season in team history. That was just one over the roster limit of 45 at the time. Either those guys were really tough or they were really lucky in the injury department because 33 different players appeared in all 16 games that year and 43 of the 46 played in 12 or more contests. In contrast, last year's team only had 18 players who appeared in all 16 games.

The 2005 team might be even more remarkable in its conservative roster movement. That Jon Gruden-led squad only used 51 players in a season in which the roster limit was 53. That's partially because eight different players spent all or part of the season on the active roster without appearing in a single contest: Offensive linemen Chris Colmer, Matt Stinchcomb and Scott Jackson, tight end Will Heller, wide receivers J.R. Russell and Paris Warren, and quarterbacks Luke McCown and Tim Rattay.

There probably isn't going to be a season like that 2005 campaign again, and almost certainly not in 2020. The last time the Buccaneers used less than 60 different players in a single season was 2008.

Now on to your questions for this week.

A reminder that you can send questions to me anytime you want on Twitter (@ScottSBucs) and they're easier to find if you include the hashtag #SSMailbagBucs. We are also now soliciting questions each week on our Instagram page; look for that story on Wednesdays. As always, if you want to get a longer question into the mailbag and would prefer to email your question, you can do so to

tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com.

Cyril Grayson - What are his chance of making the 53 man roster?

Mwilson204 (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

Well, the good news, if you're hoping for the very speedy Grayson to crack the roster, is that Head Coach Bruce Arians brought him up during a Zoom call with the media on Wednesday. When asked how the Bucs' receiving corps might shake out behind the incredible starting duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, Arians said this:

"Scotty [Miller] added about 10 pounds - he looks great. Justin [Watson] finished the season playing really well. He's running as fast as I've ever seen him right now, running and playing. 'Mitch' [Bryant Mitchell] got hurt last year. The young guys are going to have to get in shape. Tyler [Johnson] has a little bit of an injury right now, so he's missing some time. I think John Franklin and Cyril Grayson, some of the guys that were here, have a lot of athletic ability and speed, so they're looking for their roles. Again, it's that three, four and five - maybe six - and on special teams where Justin led our team in tackles last year on special teams, so he has his niche."

In this particular case, Grayson was just one of six names that came out of Arians' mouth, but it's still interesting that he ranks as a candidate worth highlighting without much prompting. For any Bucs fans who are unaware, Grayson joined the team in December and played in the last two games, catching one pass for three yards. The former champion sprinter in college, Grayson was among a handful of receivers the team picked up near the end after injuries prematurely ended the season for Evans, Godwin and Miller. He had previously tried to make NFL rosters in Seattle, Houston and Chicago. He's fast.

I think Grayson's chances of making the Bucs' 53-man roster are higher if you allow me to add "at some point in 2020" on the end of your question. The Bucs will have a 16-man practice squad this year and a bunch of those spots can be used on players with any amount of accrued NFL seasons, though that's not an issue for Grayson. It's almost certain that at least a couple of those spots will go to receivers. If the Buccaneers' receiver room is beset at any point by injury or illness - which seems more likely in 2020 than most seasons - those guys are likely to be promoted. In fact, there's a new rule in place this year that allows a team to promote two guys directly from the practice squad to appear in a single game, after which they revert directly back to that practice squad.

As for Grayson's efforts to make the roster right out of the gate, that's tougher but he certainly has a chance. If the Buccaneers keep five receivers, then you're going to have a handful of guys fighting for three of them. I personally think Miller is a near-lock, and Watson's strong contributions on special teams plus his good finish to 2019 probably give him an edge. It also seems likely that fifth-round pick Tyler Johnson will make it onto the roster, and if all that happens than some good receivers like Grayson might be on the outside looking in, at least in terms of the active roster. If the Buccaneers keep six receivers, than things get really interesting. I could see Bruce Arians wanting to keep a player like Grayson or Franklin around because of the unique things they can add to the roster - elite speed in Grayson's case and a lot of versatility in Franklin's case.

With the loss of 3 choices for running back, whom do you think will be chosen?

- Gloria Caulfield, (via email to tbbsocial@buccaneers.nfl.com)

...and...

Is McCoy going to start?

- @shadytylermccoy, via Instagram

...and...

How will McCoy be utilized in this offense?

- @joshuawojteczko, via Instagram

I lumped these all together as they are basically all the same topic, although I received the first one before the LeSean McCoy signing and the last two after it, obviously. I would say the middle questioner is probably most invested in this topic, given his Instagram handle.

So, let's start at the top. Right away, I have to argue with your choice of words, Gloria. The Buccaneers currently have three running backs on the reserve/COVID-19 list - Aca'Cedric Ware and 2020 draftees Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Raymond Calais. That doesn't mean those players have been "lost." All three of those players could be activated from that list at any time, and the Buccaneers don't begin true padded practices until August 17. They could conceivably all be back in action by then.

Here I need to clarify something about the reserve/COVID-19 list: A player must be placed on that list if he tests positive for COVID-19 or if he has been quarantined after having been in close contact with an infected person or persons. The team is not allowed to report which reason it is that the player had to go on the list. Presumably, a player could later reveal that himself if he chooses to, though he obviously wouldn't be required to do so.

So let's put Ware, Vaughn and Calais back in the mix along with the other backs on the roster: Ronald Jones, Dare Ogunbowale, T.J. Logan and the recently-added McCoy. It is definitely fair to wonder if the lost time for Vaughn and Calais in already extremely-compressed offseason will make it harder for them to make the team and/or carve out significant roles. That said, it is also extremely rare for a third-round pick not to make the team. The only time it has happened in Bucs history was with a linebacker named Steve Maughan in 1976. So strictly in terms of being "chosen," as you put it Gloria, that's probably a bigger issue for Calais.

So there are seven candidates for the 53-man roster, and the first question we have to answer is whether the Bucs will keep three or four running backs. They rolled with four for three-fourths of the season until Logan broke his thumb in practice. After he went to injured reserve, the Bucs did not sign a new back to get back to four, probably because the injury situation at wide receiver was becoming dire and the spots were needed for reinforcements there. Of course, Logan didn't really have a role in the offense so a fourth back wasn't really necessary as long as someone else could handle the return duties.

So I'm going to guess that the Buccaneers run with four running backs again, and it's entirely possible that it could be the same situation, with three backs involved in the offense and a fourth primarily to return kicks. All of this will also assume that none of the backs get injured or have to go on the COVID list.

Ronald Jones is a lock after Arians said on Wednesday that he was the "main guy" in the Bucs' backfield and would "carry the load." His spot was never really in doubt anyway after he showed vast improvement in 2019 and took the starting job away from the since-departed Peyton Barber at midseason. I also think Vaughn is a virtual lock based on what I wrote above. No third-round pick is a sure thing, but they virtually always get at least a season or two to prove themselves. I don't think that's going to be an issue with Vaughn, who was a big-play machine at Vanderbilt, but I don't think he has to set the world on fire over the next couple of weeks to make the team.

I would expect McCoy to make the team, as well. I'm not sure yet what his role will look like, and neither is he, as he said on Tuesday. But one way to look at him is insurance for both the main ballcarrier and the main third-down back, whoever that proves to be. The Bucs would feel better about their depth with McCoy in the mix in the case that either Jones or Vaughn are unavailable for some period of time.

So that leaves four guys for one more spot if we stick with four running backs on the roster. Ware would seem to be the longest shot as he has so far only been on the practice squad. Ogunbowale has the advantage of being a trusted pass-protector, which is how he nailed down the majority of the third-down role last year. McCoy could battle him for that role. For both Logan and Calais, their best chance of sticking depends on them earning one or both of the return jobs, and I doubt there would be room to keep both of them on the 53-man roster.

I'm not prepared to make the call yet on that fourth spot. First I want to see how quickly the players on the COVID list return, and then I'd like to see at least a week or two of real practices to see how close the young guys look to grabbing roles in the offense.

The second question above has already been answered: The Bucs' starting back will be Jones and not McCoy, though I've argued many times that who actually takes the first snap is not really that critical. Last year, the Bucs most often went with whoever had the hot hand, regardless of who started. As for the third question, as I noted, McCoy said he doesn't yet know what his role will be so it's impossible for any of us to know yet. Arians said that McCoy would "find his niche easily," which suggest that there will be some role for him in the offense. It could be as a guy who gets four or five carries a game, or it could be a more expanded role that includes some third-down duties. We'll know soon enough because the season is right around the corner, amazingly.

Any word on two and three TE sets with all the weapons at TE?

- @the.gingerbeard.man

Man, we don't have any word on anything yet. It's not like a normal offseason/start-of-camp and information has come at a trickle so far. The Bucs have started throwing some passes every day along with their strength and conditioning work, but as Tom Brady said on Thursday, it hasn't been anything like a real practice yet.

What we can go on is what Arians said earlier in the offseason, after the trade that brought Rob Gronkowski to town and added him to a tight end room that already had O.J. Howard and Cam Brate. That, of course, is why Mr. Gingerbread is asking this question. All three of those guys can put up big numbers in the passing game and provide adequate to great blocking, which leads one to dream about two or three of them being on the field at once and keeping the offense guessing as to what is to come.

This is what Arians said when he was asked how the addition of Gronkowski would impact Howard and Brate:

"I like both those guys, and we'll use three tight ends in our sets sometimes. Each and every one has a redeeming quality that helps us win. I think it's a great room."

As I've mentioned before this offseason, the Buccaneers put two tights on the field more frequently than the average team under Arians last year. Like most teams, their most common personnel grouping was "11," which features one tight end, one back and three receivers. The Bucs used that on 59.8% of their plays. However, the next most common package was "12," which uses one back, two receivers and two tight ends. That accounted for 20.0% of their plays; no other grouping was used more than 5.5% of the time. The Bucs ranked 13th in the NFL in terms of frequency of using 12 personnel.

Earlier in the offseason, Arians joked about how the team was definitely well-positioned to utilize the 12 grouping this year. I think there's a very good chance that the Bucs up their frequency of usage of that package into the mid to high 20 percent range. While Arians said they would also use some three-tight end sets, I wouldn't expect that to become particularly common other than in short-yardage and goal-line situations. The Bucs only ran 59 plays with three tights on the field last year. More likely you will see different combinations of those three tight ends utilized in 12 personnel.

The other factor here is that the Bucs' best option for the "Y" position may be a tight end rather than a receiver or running back. The Bucs use "Y" to refer to whoever joins the "X" and "Z" outside receivers and the tight end on the field. Often, that is a third receiver but sometimes it is a second tight end or a running back who splits out. The Buccaneers have some intriguing options to take over from Breshad Perriman as the third receiver, but none of them are particularly proven yet. Meanwhile, the Bucs already know what they have in Gronkowski, Howard and Brate. The third receiver will still get more snaps than the second tight end, but I think that that gap will close in 2020.

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