By Evan Winter
Special to Sports Talk Florida
Round 2 of the preseason is on deck for the Bucs and the Tennessee Titans are the opponent this time around. Tampa Bay is coming off a rather poor performance against the Bengals, so it’ll look to make the necessary improvements in order to get to .500 on the preseason.
Bruce Arians said earlier in the week that the starters probably won’t play and after Thursday’s scrimmage, I’d expect that to hold true.
Therefore, this discussion will center primarily around backups, again. Hopefully we will get to talk starters next week when the Bucs take on the Texans.
But until then, let’s take a crack at the five Bucs to watch against the Titans on Saturday night.
5. OLB Elijah Ponder
Ponder’s name hasn’t been mentioned very often since the Bengals game and that’s a shame, because he played pretty well in that game. But that could change if the Bucs’ converted outside linebacker can build off last week and play even better against the Titans.
Per Pro Football Focus, Ponder led the Bucs with two pressures against the Bengals and also recorded a quarterback hit on the night. Benning Potoa’e was the only other Buc to record at least one pressure and one quarterback hit against the Bengals, so while Ponder’s stat line won’t blow you away, it was solid in terms of the production around him.
Ponder was also very good in run defense and didn’t miss any tackles. That’s impressive considering Arians specifically mentioned the Bucs’ poor tackling after the game. Those are more building blocks for Ponder going into this week’s game.
The Bucs are currently in flux when it comes to the OLB5 position on the roster (if they choose to carry five, of course). Cam Gill‘s injury misfortunes have opened the door for someone else to take the spot. Ponder played the second-most snaps at outside linebacker against the Bengals, so the coaches are giving him his shot.
A big game -or even another solid game- could spell good things for Ponder in the coming weeks.
4. T Brad Seaton
Nick Leverett was all the rage heading into last week’s game, but his situation cooled off quite a bit after a subpar performance against the Bengals. In fact, reports are that Leverett moved back inside to guard during the Bucs’ joint practices with the Titans.
Naturally, Seaton took back over as the team’s backup right tackle. The Bucs are still having issues with depth along the offensive line -especially the interior- so it’s still a toss-up as to what they’ll do for a ninth offensive lineman. However, Seaton has a great chance to make himself a front-runner for the job.
“Steady growth. It was really a struggle coming back. He obviously missed a year and the physicality of it and everything, he’s picking it back up,” Arians told reporters when asked about what he’s seen from Seaton so far. “This is a big game for him.”
3. TE Codey McElroy
Like Ponder, an injury may open up a roster spot for McElroy, who has shown plenty of ability throughout camp.
Tanner Hudson probably won’t play against the Titans, which is a big deal considering the competition going on for the fourth tight end position. Hudson has always impressed as a receiver, but Arians recently commented on how his run blocking has regressed. Now, things are really looking dire when you add in the recent wrist injury.
McElroy played the second-most snaps out of all skill players on offense against the Bengals, but only came away with one reception for two yards. He should receive plenty more opportunities on Saturday when you consider the fact that Hudson was on the field for 45% of the Bucs’ offensive snaps last week.
But don’t get it twisted: McElroy still has plenty of competition in fellow tight end Jerell Adams, who could also make a name for himself against the Titans. Either way, McElroy will get plenty of chances to jump Hudson and widen the gap between him and Adams on Saturday.
2. RB Giovani Bernard
So far, the Gio Bernard experiment is working as planned. You can tell that he’s going to have a big role in this offense just by watching Bucs practices. Per Arians, he’ll get some snaps on Saturday, much like he did against the Bengals.
Granted, he was on the field for just four snaps, but Bernard immediately made his presence felt. He finished the game with two receptions for 16 yards, but both receptions converted third downs into first downs. One third down was even a 3rd-and-8 scenario.
If the Bucs running back has a strong outing against the Titans, could he possibly put his name in the mix for the RB2 position? Ronald Jones II has his gig on lock – he’s easily the team’s best runner by a wide margin. But Leonard Fournette has had a relatively quiet camp. When you juxtapose Fournette’s and Bernard’s camps, then you can see why it’s feasible for Bernard to overtake the RB2 position.
“I would say more than ‘pretty good.’ I would say the best thing about him, he’s the ultimate pro,” Arians told reporters when asked about Bernard having a “pretty good” camp. “He’s super-prepared. He came every day in OTAs when he didn’t have to. He wanted to be a major part of the offense and he is already. He’ll play a little bit Saturday night just to continue to grow in this offense, but not much.”
Keep an eye on this one. It may lead to some surprising developments down the road.
1. S Javon Hagan
Hagan’s performance against the Bengals was the epitome of a rollercoaster ride, but man, did he flash some serious playmaking ability during that game.
Now, it’s about stacking performances and cutting the mental mistakes. He also needs to tackle better, which is something Arians specifically called out last week.
Hagan’s spot on the roster is far from finalized. Ross Cockrell has thrown a nice wrench into the safety room and could force Hagan into obscurity and the end of the day. However, the Bucs would be silly to let Hagan walk if he continues to make plays like he did against the Bengals.