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Bucs’ 53-man roster projection: Loaded around Tom Brady, still not done adding

They’re not done yet.

That’s how we’ll preface this initial projection of the Bucs’ 53-man roster, as Tampa Bay chases another Super Bowl in what really, truly could be quarterback Tom Brady’s final NFL season.

Tampa Bay has borrowed heavily from future cap space to surround Brady with as many talented players as possible under this year’s cap, but they also still have about $12 million in cap space, far more than they need to sign their last two draft picks and for operational expenses (like the practice squad) during the season.

Some of that money would have been — and at some point still might be — for tight end Rob Gronkowski, who announced his retirement this week, having already unretired two years ago to rejoin Brady in Tampa. Some of it will likely go to a veteran tight end to replace Gronk and give Brady another reliable target. Expect more depth help on defense as well.

In the meantime, we’re projecting the Bucs’ initial 53-man roster, which sets up tough decisions not only in who to keep at each position, but where to best allocate depth for those last few jobs.

Quarterback (3)

This is the easiest position of all. Brady, he of the seven Super Bowl rings and turning 45 in August, is your starter. Veteran Blaine Gabbert is likely the top backup and will dress on Sundays, much to the disappointment of Gators fans wanting to see Kyle Trask, last year’s second-round pick and definitely the third quarterback on the 53. Could Trask show enough progress that he dresses as the No. 2 at some point in the season? Perhaps, but quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen certainly didn’t see that. So it’s Brady, Gabbert, Trask, with ageless backup Ryan Griffin back on the practice squad as a fourth quarterback.

Running back (4)

They’ll keep four, right? There’s a temptation, in piecing together this 53, to wonder if it’s possible that Todd Bowles will see how much Leonard Fournette is able to do as a three-down back, anticipate he might only dress three backs on Sunday anyway due to limited special-teams value from the backups, and keep only three. It offers little insulation against injury, which is a real risk, but it seems possible.

We know Fournette is the primary back, and we keep saying it makes sense to ease the workload on Brady’s arm and run the ball more by design. Third-round pick Rachaad White is a lock to make the cut, but has a chance to really prove himself to coaches (and to Brady) in the pass-protection department as someone who won’t miss a blitz pickup and get the quarterback hit, or hurt. If he does that, he can move ahead of third-year pro Ke’Shawn Vaughn and veteran Gio Bernard in the pecking order. That might be something that doesn’t happen until later in the year.

For now, we’ll go with the likely move and have the Bucs keeping all four backs: Fournette, White, Vaughn and Bernard, with Kenjon Barner likely on the practice squad.

Wide receiver (6)

This is the Bucs’ deepest position, enough so that guys being cut here could be claimed off waivers and land on another team’s 53, perhaps even making an impact. The top three spots are set: Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage. Godwin is coming off ACL surgery, so we don’t know yet whether he’ll be able to practice in training camp and be ready to go in Week 1, or need more time and even potentially start the year on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, which would allow the Bucs to carry a seventh receiver since he wouldn’t count toward the 53.

The competition for the remaining three or four spots is arguably six wide, loaded with recent draft picks: 2020 fifth-rounder Tyler Johnson, 2021 fourth-rounder Jaelon Darden and 2019 sixth-rounder Scotty Miller, plus three wild cards: veteran Breshad Perriman, former sprinter Cyril Grayson and undrafted rookie Deven Thompkins. There are four other receivers on the roster, most notably former Jets receiver Vyncint Smith, but they’re more likely to battle for practice-squad jobs.

We continue to pencil in Johnson as the fourth receiver, just knowing he played so much more last year than the others. He underperformed, but should have the right to get the same looks this fall and do more with the opportunity. The next might be Grayson, who had a great run at the end of the regular season, catching a game-winning touchdown against the Jets after getting a score against the Saints and a huge catch against the Panthers. If he avoids injury, it’s fun to think what a postseason he could have had amid so many other receiver injuries.

The sixth spot? Darden and Thompkins are essentially competing for the same job, handling returns and as undersized speed threats on offense. Darden showed very little as a rookie, but was making the leap from North Texas to the NFL, so it’s crucial for him to have a solid camp and not create a window for Thompkins, who impressed in OTAs and minicamp.

Could the Bucs get a late-round pick for Miller? He didn’t have much of a role last season, even after he returned from injury, so he’s the biggest X-factor here, capable of grabbing the No. 4 spot if he looks like he did in 2020, or not making the cut. Perriman had a huge catch to win in overtime against the Bills, but couldn’t get on the field with other teams for much of 2021 and could be on the outside looking in.

We’ll be optimistic about Godwin and put him on the opening 53 (though not necessarily ready to play in Week 1). So our six are Evans, Godwin, Gage, Johnson, Grayson and Darden. That means Perriman and Miller are choosing between the practice squad here or another 53, with Thompkins, Smith and Jerreth Sterns among the best developmental types for the practice squad.

Tight ends (4)

There’s no Gronk here, which is a huge loss for Brady and the offense, but we’re confident they’ll sign a reliable veteran (maybe Kyle Rudolph) in the next month to add experience to the room. Like running back, this is a position where they might have carried only three had one been as good as Gronkowski, but without him, they might need a fourth for depth.

Cameron Brate is the only established presence here, with 33 touchdowns in his nine years with the Bucs. Could he resurface as a solid No. 1, turning 31 next week? He had 20 touchdowns from 2016-18 before he was limited by injuries and the arrival of O.J. Howard and then Gronkowski. He’ll continue to be a trusted red-zone threat for Brady.

The rest are basically rookies — fourth-round pick Cade Otton is a lock to stick, and it’ll be fun to see whether sixth-round pick Ko Kieft can prove his value on special teams and hang around as the fourth (anticipating a veteran signing). The rest are long shots, from multi-sport project Codey McElroy, with one catch in three seasons here, and undrafted rookies J.J. Howland and Bo Beise.

We’ll go with four here: Brate, (insert veteran here), Otton and Kieft. If they somehow don’t sign a veteran and trust an extremely young group, we’ll take Yale grad Howland as the fourth. He’ll go on the practice squad if not.

Offensive line (9)

To keep four backs and four tight ends and still carry nine offensive linemen, we’re going with an offensive tilt here — 26 guys on offense, 24 on defense on the initial 53, instead of the normal 25-25 split. There’s still really good competition for that ninth spot on the offensive line.

Seven spots are fairly easy to fill — left tackle Donovan Smith, center Ryan Jensen, right guard Shaq Mason and right tackle Tristan Wirfs are firmly entrenched starters. Add in two more for the competition at left guard, where veteran Aaron Stinnie is trying to hold off second-round rookie Luke Goedeke. We’ll also pencil in second-year pro Robert Hainsey as the backup center.

That leaves one or two spots, and arguably three backups in best position to grab them: veteran tackle Josh Wells, versatile young Nick Leverett and newcomer Fred Johnson, signed from the Bengals. Wells is 31 and has been the swing tackle and “jumbo” tight end when they use a sixth lineman, but Leverett has more flexibility to help at guard as well. Johnson, still only 25, is less proven than Wells but offers some upside and guard/tackle versatility.

There are developmental types here like Sadarius Hutcherson, Brandon Walton and undrafted rookie Dylan Cook, but they’re more likely to land on the practice squad. We’ll stick with nine on the line: Smith, Goedeke, Jensen, Mason, Wirfs, Stinnie, Hainsey, Leverett and Johnson, with the Bucs hoping to get Wells on the practice squad.

Defensive line (6)

A crucial position with significant turnover here, with Akiem Hicks taking over for Ndamukong Suh and the Bucs using their top draft pick on Houston’s Logan Hall, who will play a prominent role in the rotation. Five spots are fairly easy to see, with Vita Vea and Will Gholston back and ready for starter-level snaps, and Rakeem Nunez-Roches back as the top reserve.

Those five should get most of the defensive line reps, but the sixth is also valuable in Pat O’Connor, who led the team in special-teams snaps last year despite missing the end of the season with a knee injury. He played 93 percent of the special-teams snaps when healthy, a really impressive number, and can continue to make the most of spot duty on defense, with 1 1/2 sacks in 107 defensive snaps over the last two years.

So there isn’t much drama here: Vea, Gholston, Hicks, Hall, Nunez-Roches and O’Connor are the six, with undrafted rookie Mike Greene a good bet for the practice squad.

Outside linebacker (5)

Where the Bucs keep their depth on defense is a tough call — is it a fifth at outside or inside linebacker, or a 10th defensive back? If they’re heavy on offense, they’ll have difficult decisions on defense, making calculated gambles on which waived players might be able to sneak through waivers and come back on the practice squad, where they can be elevated on game days as needed.

Shaq Barrett and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka will be the starters and primary pass rushers after the decision not to re-sign veteran Jason Pierre-Paul, the lone Pro Bowl selection from the Bucs’ Super Bowl season in 2020. The third OLB and top backup is Anthony Nelson, in the final year of his rookie contract and hoping to build on a breakout 2021 season when he had five sacks after totaling just one in his first two years.

Unless the Bucs sign a veteran for more established depth here — we’ve mentioned a reunion with Carl Nassib as a smart fit — then the fourth would be Cam Gill, who has played 200-plus special-teams snaps in each of his first two seasons and came up with 1 1/2 sacks last season in his 100 snaps on defense. It’s no lock they keep a fifth outside linebacker, but if they do, the best bet is seventh-round pick Andre Anthony, who missed most of last year at LSU with a torn ACL.

Anthony vs. a 10th defensive back is probably the last spot on the 53 as we see it. For now, we’re going to give him the job, so they carry five outside linebackers: Barrett, Tryon-Shoyinka, Nelson, Gill and Anthony. It’s close enough that a single short-term injury at another position could push him onto the other side of the bubble.

Inside linebacker (4)

This is another position where there’s no experienced depth behind the starters — Devin White and Lavonte David have both missed games in recent years, and the backup who stepped in, Kevin Minter, wasn’t re-signed, so second-year pro K.J. Britt now takes on that role, playing only 28 defensive snaps as a rookie.

So the Bucs could add an unsigned veteran here, choosing a more known commodity over the upside of Britt and another 2021 draft pick, seventh-rounder Grant Stuard, who led the team in special-teams tackles. Trusting those two as the lone backups isn’t much in the way of insulation against injury, but we’ll see how August unfolds. The wild cards here are even less experienced in undrafted rookies Olakunle Fatukasi and J.J. Russell, who got extra reps this spring with veterans not attending OTA workouts.

Those two are prime practice-squad guys unless one convinces Bowles to carry a fifth ILB. For now, we’ll stick with four: David, White, Britt and Stuard.

Cornerback (5)

The top three from last season — Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting — are back from last season, and the Bucs hope they’re much healthier this time around. Davis and Dean should be every-down players, though we’ll see if one of the safeties can crib into Murphy-Bunting’s role in the nickel defense and other sub packages. The newcomer is rookie Zyon McCollum, whose impact is most likely just as a gunner on special teams this season, but he has great size and speed.

The fifth corner spot is very much a special-teams battle — Ross Cockrell and Rashard Robinson against Dee Delaney, who saw his first significant NFL action last year, with 200-plus snaps on defense and special teams. Undrafted rookies Don Gardner and Kyler McMichael will get looks as well, but the three veterans all have good experience on special teams.

We’ll go with five corners: Davis, Dean, Murphy-Bunting, McCollum and Delaney, with Cockrell’s versatility getting him a veteran’s spot on the practice squad.

Safety (4)

This is a bit thin, but the Bucs have four solid safeties, starting with Antoine Winfield, poised to break out after making his first Pro Bowl last year. Jordan Whitehead signed with the Jets, so the best in-house option is Mike Edwards, who had two pick-sixes in one quarter last year against the Falcons, showing promise in limited playing time.

Two veterans join the mix in Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal, both former starters who bring leadership to a young group of defensive backs. The fun will be in seeing how Bowles utilizes them — his defenses with the Jets sometimes had six or even seven defensive backs on the field at once, and Neal’s time as a linebacker in Dallas sets him up for use as a dime linebacker and blitzer in what could be several different sub packages. Ryan could help at nickel as well and his flexibility makes it easier to get by with only nine defensive backs.

There are young safeties with promise who could complicate this — second-year pro Troy Warner, rookie Nolan Turner and special-teams ace Chris Cooper, but for now, we have them on the outside looking in and competing for practice-squad jobs. Four safeties make the initial 53 as we see it: Winfield, Edwards, Ryan and Neal.

Special teams (3)

It’s possible — and a wild gamble if so — that Brady will be 20 years older than his punter and his kicker this fall. The Bucs took Georgia punter Jake Camarda in the fourth round, leading to the release this week of three-year starter Bradley Pinion, so they’ve already swapped out a proven if lackluster veteran for the promise of an uncertain but exciting young specialist.

Will they do the same at kicker? Ryan Succop was a reliable presence on the Super Bowl team, but not as consistent last year, and his range is a limiting factor. Would you rather know Brady has to get the ball to the 30 to be in field-goal range or take the risk of going with Jose Borregales, who has never kicked in a regular-season game? Borregales spent all of last year on the practice squad, and it might be the best competition in preseason as he goes after the 35-year-old Succop.

The long-snapper job is an easy call: Zach Triner is back for a fourth season and the only one on the roster. We’ll go with the youth movement and project Borregales, Camarda and Triner as the three specialists on the 53.

(Top photo of Tom Brady: Nathan Ray Seebeck / USA Today)

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