The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFL’s first preseason game of the year tonight. Both teams have new head coaches, underwent significant changes in personnel and coaching staff, and have young quarterbacks who need to continue to develop — though the Eagles’ Carson Wentz isn’t going to be starting this season.
In other words: this is the first glimpse we’ll get of two entirely new teams. So let’s talk about a few of the players you could focus on tonight. I’ll pick a few from the first, second and third team, but we’re likely to see the second- and third-team players the most throughout the night. Traditionally, the starters play at most a quarter in the first preseason game.
QB Jameis Winston
Obviously, this is the player everything on offense revolves around. Not only will he be the team’s starting quarterback, he also needs to take a few crucial steps to improve on last-year’s already impressive outing.
Winston has spent the offense honing every aspect of his game, but his footwork, mechanics and resulting accuracy, especially on the deep ball, have been a particular focus for the second-year quarterback. Those aspects should also be fairly easy to evaluate, with one caveat: Winston has had a tendency to look terrible in ‘first’ games. He was awful in his first preseason game last year, and awful in his first regular season game. If he looks awful this preseason game, don’t panic: that may be perfectly normal for him.
TE Cameron Brate
Brate’s been the talk of the town for the past weeks, being elevated to starter ahead of Austin Seferian-Jenkins. He’ll get to show he actually earned that elevation this week — preseason games are always a step up from training camp, after all. Can he be a little more explosive than he was last year? And can he block now? If he can, he may actually hold on to this starting spot.
TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins
Seferian-Jenkins got bumped by Brate, and that may have lit a small fire in the third-year tight end. He’s a much more talented player than Brate, but injuries and inconsistent play have prevented him from actually making an impact so far. A few big catches from Mike Glennon could go a long way toward getting him more playing time with the first team, or even earning that starting spot again.
WR Kenny Bell
It’s a skill-player heavy kind of camp, with most of the offensive line already set. Kenny Bell was supposed to make an impact last season, but the fifth-round pick spent the entire season on injured reserve after failing to notch a catch in the preseason. He looked good this offseason, but more or less disappeared when the pads came on. An impact on special teams and as a receiver will probably be necessary for him to earn a roster spot, even though he has the speed and size to make it as an NFL receiver.
RB Mike James and Peyton Barber
These two are likely to show up as second-team backs, too, and they’ll be battling for a third roster spot at running back, assuming the Bucs don’t want to carry four. James looked like a solid running back as a rookie, but hasn’t gotten on the field much in the three years since then. Meanwhile, Barber didn’t have the most productive college career, but entered the draft early to help out his more-or-less homeless mother. Both of these players are pretty similar: big, bruising, downhill backs who probably can’t carry a running game, but can certainly rack up yards and be useful change-of-pace runners as well as special teamers.
QB Ryan Griffin
The heir apparent to Mike Glennon. The Bucs liked him enough to keep him on the roster all of last season in an era when most teams don’t carry a third quarterback outside of the practice squad. However, we really have no idea what kind of quarterback he is, what his strengths and weaknesses are, and how he’ll do in a preseason game, let alone an actual one. It’ll be interesting to see, because he’s likely to be the team’s backup Jameis Winston after this season, when Mike Glennon’s contract expires.