Yes, I know there’s a fourth preseason game next week. But maybe if we all ignore it, it’ll just go away...
Anyway, enough funny business. Friday night’s game was a drag, for the most part. Tampa Bay’s first-team offense played the entire first half, scoring zero points while totaling 78 yards. Jameis Winston was sacked five times, and whenever he did have time to throw, he was missing receivers. On the flip side, the Bucs’ first-team defense was lights-out. Granted, Nick Chubb, Odell Beckham Jr., Jarvis Landry and David Njoku weren’t in there, but Baker Mayfield was. And Mayfield finished his night 10-of-26 for 72 yards and an interception in two quarters of play.
The Bucs trailed 9-0 at halftime before outscoring the Browns 10-0 in the third quarter. A field goal gave Cleveland a 12-10 lead in the fourth quarter, but a long drive set up a game-winning 21-yard field goal by Matt Gay with 15 seconds to go.
With the starters playing significantly more than they did in the first two weeks of the preseason, this stock report has a bit of a different look. Regardless, there were some second and third-team guys who snuck their way in here as well. Let’s get on with the post-preseason Week 3 stock report.
Stock Up #1: Jordan Whitehead
It’s looking more and more like second-year safety Jordan Whitehead has a starting role locked up. He was the player of the game for the first two quarters, leading the secondary in what was a strong night for the group. In the first half, he totaled four tackles (two solo) and picked up two passes defended, including a half-closing interception of Baker Mayfield. His first pass defended came earlier in the end zone on a third down, forcing the Browns to settle for a field goal. The Pitt product looked comfortable and confident in coverage, and he was effective against the run.
With Justin Evans’ lingering injury and the continued absence of rookie Mike Edwards due to injury, the starting safety slots have looked wide open for Week 1. They don’t look so open anymore. Whitehead should have one of them in the bag, with the other probably (?) going to Edwards if he makes it back in time for the regular season. Whitehead showed flashes of potential last year as a rookie, but he seems poised to take a step forward in year two.
Stock Up #2: Rakeem Nunez-Roches
The Bucs spent a lot of the first half getting to Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield, but no one could finish him off for a sack. When someone finally did, it wasn’t Ndamukong Suh or Carl Nassib. It was Rakeem Nunez-Roches. With Cleveland inside the five, “Nacho” dropped Mayfield for a loss of eight. The Browns eventually had to settle for a field goal. Preseason play isn’t good for much, but it is good for situational reps. And when Tampa Bay’s defense needed a big play, Nunez-Roches delivered. He later added a second sack in the fourth quarter to force a punt.
With injuries along the defensive line, Nunez-Roches has seen some more opportunities to get involved. Rotating in with the first-team defense, he doesn’t look out of place, not by any stretch. He has made the most of his snaps throughout this preseason, proving that he could be a valuable piece to have on the 53-man roster come time for the regular season. With depth being pretty thin up front, getting some production from the Southern Mississippi product would be huge.
Stock Up #3: M.J. Stewart
Whitehead, M.J. Stewart, Carlton Davis, Vernon Hargreaves III and Darian Stewart all could have realistically made this list as guys who helped their stock. Alas, there are only so many spots. So, it’s Stewart that joins Whitehead from the secondary. The corner out of North Carolina came up with three solo tackles on Friday night to go along with a beautiful diving pass breakup on a third down in the first quarter. He was solid in coverage all night, forcing incompletions and overthrows from Baker Mayfield throughout the opening half.
The 2018 second-rounder has very quietly had a strong camp/preseason. He’s made a good case to be the starting nickel corner, especially with rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting failing to translate his camp performance to game action. Even if Murphy-Bunting ultimately gets the benefit of the doubt and starts, Stewart has more than proved that he has a significant role on this team going forward.
Stock Up #4: Ryan Griffin
For the third straight week, Ryan Griffin quarterbacked the Bucs to a second-half comeback effort. For the second straight week, it was a successful effort. After throwing for 330 yards in Pittsburgh on Aug. 9 and leading the offense down the field in 28 seconds to set up a game-winning field goal last week, Griffin impressed again Friday night. He threw the game’s only touchdown in the third quarter, but the Browns came back to take a two-point lead midway through the fourth. No matter, though, as Griffin led a 17-play, 72-yard drive that ate up 7:17 and ended with a go-ahead field goal from Matt Gay with 15 seconds left.
Griffin finished the night 11-of-17 for 121 yards and a touchdown, once again looking crisp. He’s been overlooked in the past. He’s also had some bad injury luck. But Friday night, it was someone else’s injury that may have opened a door. It goes without saying that injuries are never a good thing. But the fact of the matter is, Blaine Gabbert going down with a dislocated shoulder might have given Griffin a chance to stick around. He might even figure in as Tampa Bay’s No. 2, depending on how long Gabbert is sidelined.
Stock Up #5: Dare Ogunbowale
While he didn’t match what he did in the first two weeks of preseason play, Dare Ogunbowale continued to help himself against Cleveland. He ran for 22 yards on seven carries and caught two passes for 19 yards, but he did the smaller, easier-to-miss things to strengthen his RB3 case. He was especially effective on blitz pick-ups, which is something he needed to improve on to make him a more complete back. On Ryan Griffin’s touchdown pass to Jordan Leggett, Ogunbowale picked up a blitz perfectly to allow the play to happen.
With his running ability and skills as a receiver, Ogunbowale already had the makings of an effective third-down running back. But he needed to get those blitz pick-ups down. Friday was a good step. If he continues to improve that blocking ability, he’ll have a huge role in this offense.
Stock Down #1: The first-team offensive line
BY FAR the biggest disappointment in Friday’s win over the Browns was the play of the first-team offensive line. Jameis Winston was knocked down repeatedly in the first half of the game, getting sacked five times officially. The Browns finished the game with a total of 12 quarterback hits, and a good number of those came in the first 30 minutes of play. Demar Dotson had an awful time out there, Donovan Smith struggled and Alex Cappa, well.... We’ll get to him in a minute.
It was a huge letdown for the Buccaneer o-line to perform like this in week three of the preseason. In the unit’s longest stretch of playing time thus far, glaring weaknesses popped up. Remember, Cleveland’s defensive front was the best Tampa Bay has seen to this point. And if that’s how they’re going to hold up against top-line defenses, someone needs to get Jameis Winston another pair of shoulder pads, some armor, a shield and a little bit of bubble wrap.
Stock Down #2: Alex Cappa
If the entire offensive line’s stock went down and your name STILL shows up as a separate entry, that’s probably not great. Alex Cappa, by all accounts, has a stranglehold on the right guard position. It’s been him in there with the first team in practice and the preseason, with veteran Earl Watford on the second team. And you know what? In the little bit we saw of Cappa in the first two preseason games, he looked good! No complaints at all, really.
But then there was Friday. Cappa allowed two sacks and looked lost in the process. That’s not a great showing for a game that’s considered a “dress rehearsal” for the regular season. Maybe it was just a bad matchup. Maybe the sky isn’t falling. Cappa is young and he’s still inexperienced. The coaches will get with him, look at the film and correct what they can. Everyone else, however, will just have to hope that the Alex Cappa of Friday night doesn’t show up on Sept. 8 against the 49ers.
Stock Down #3: Anyone fighting for the WR4/WR5 spots
I don’t like to put entire groups of players on these lists one way or the other. But when it’s warranted, it’s warranted, ya know? The battle for the depth wide receiver spots (WR4 and WR5) was one of the things I was looking forward to most about this preseason. There’s so much talent on the roster that we talked about the team potentially carrying six receivers into the season. Why not? With Justin Watson, Scotty Miller, Bobo Wilson, Anthony Johnson and DaMarkus Lodge, among others, on the roster fighting for limited roster spots, it was primed to be a heck of a competition.
Instead, we haven’t seen a lot. Watson has been inconsistent, Johnson hasn’t been getting a ton of looks and we haven’t seen much of Lodge at all. Miller just got on the field for the first time against the Browns. Wilson has probably been the most consistent of all of them. Spencer Schnell was the most impressive receiver in Week 1 of the preseason, and maybe the Bucs have been kind of shielding him the last two weeks. But the overall point is, we haven’t seen a lot out of this group. I can’t really tell you who WR4 and WR5 are right now, and that’s not a comforting reality with only one more exhibition game to go.
Stock Down #4: Bradley Pinion
When the Bucs released Bryan Anger in the offseason, it was a tough blow. The veteran might not have been as good in 2018 as he was when he first arrived in Tampa, but he was still effective. Bradley Pinion was brought in to replace him, and he hasn’t shown a ton to this point. In the early part of the win over the Browns, he was downright bad. In the first half, Cleveland’s average starting field position was its own 43-yard line. On two separate drives, the offense only needed 18 yards to get into field goal range. Field position is so important, and Pinion wasn’t helping the Bucs in that aspect of the game early on.
By the time it was all said and done, things didn’t look as bad for him. He finished with an average of 41.9 yards per punt and a long of 53. That doesn’t erase the fact that he had a 25-yard punt and one more in the 30s, but he should get the benefit of the doubt. His stock isn’t really affected that much, truthfully. The first few punts were just a little disheartening.
Stock Down #5: Matt Gay
It might even be a stretch to include rookie kicker Matt Gay here, considering he delivered on a 21-yard field goal to win the game late — his second consecutive game-winner. But he did get the first kick of the night — from 37 yards out — and missed it off the post. Gay has a strong leg. He’s proven that with his kicks from 50 and 60-plus yards in the last month. But he has to be reliable from 40 yards and in as well, and missing a 37-yarder in a regular season game would be inexcusable. He knows that.
Gay eventually made up for the miss with a successful extra point and the game-winner, but that first-quarter miss lands him a spot here. The collective unrest and panic from the fans inside Raymond James Stadium and those on social media after the miss was all-too-familiar. Everyone wants Gay to separate himself from the kicking woes of the past several years. It looks like he’ll get the chance to heading into the regular season.