Roster rundown: Defensive pressure priority for Buccaneers

The Buccaneers have six defensive ends on their roster.

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TAMPA, Fla. — After an offseason of evolution, after trades and early cuts and strategies formed for the future since January, coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht have shaped their first roster as the men leading the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Final cuts made Friday and Saturday produced few surprises, aside from the team parting ways with veteran kicker Connor Barth and rookie wide receiver Solomon Patton. The names left provide intrigue to see how the Bucs will try to improve on a 4-12 record last season.

The Bucs, as their 53-man roster suggests, will rely on defensive strengths. Six defensive ends on roster show Smith’s preference for edge rushers and how important line pressure will be for Tampa Bay’s plans.

"This day every year is, of course, a day you look forward to on a couple of different fronts," Smith said Friday. "The good part of it is that preseason is over and the regular season is right around the corner. A lot of the questions you had going into training camp you’ve gotten answered. On the other side, it’s also the day where, as a head football coach, it’s one of my hardest days."

The hard part is over. Decisions have been made. Now, everyone will learn how the choices shape the Bucs’ identity.

Let’s take a look at how Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster has shaped up:

QUARTERBACKS

Starter: Josh McCown

Backup: Mike Glennon

With the Bucs cutting Mike Kafka on Saturday, Glennon will be McCown’s lone backup for now. Of course, this will be McCown’s team early in the season. If he stays healthy and performs well, it will remain that way throughout the fall. However, don’t be surprised to see Glennon Era 2.0 begin sometime this season. McCown performed well with the Chicago Bears last year in Jay Cutler’s absence, but the 35-year-old veteran hasn’t played more than nine games in a regular season since appearing in 14 for the Arizona Cardinals in 2004. Questions about whether he can last an entire fall, especially behind a work-in-progress offensive line, are legitimate.

Logan Mankins still in transition with intro to Buccaneers

RUNNING BACKS

Starter: Doug Martin  

Backups: Bobby Rainey, Mike James, Charles Sims

Fullback: Jorvorskie Lane

Martin will be the top option here, but offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford has said he believes in using multiple running backs often. The Bucs were high on Sims, a rookie drafted in the third round, before it was announced that the young player will miss 12-14 weeks because of surgery on his right ankle. Martin, held to 456 yards rushing last year before going on injured reserve, has plenty to prove this season. Expect him to grow as a pass-catching threat. Rainey and James, meanwhile, showed their ability at times last year in Martin’s absence. But the Bucs will be better off if Martin shows shades of his Pro Bowl rookie season.

WIDE RECEIVERS

Starters: Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans

Backups: Louis Murphy, Robert Herron, Russell Shepard, Chris Owusu

Jackson will be the Bucs’ biggest home-run threat, and Evans could become a deep-field option as their No. 2 wide receiver. But who will grow into Tampa Bay’s No. 3 wide receiver? It’s unknown now. Murphy led the Bucs in the preseason with eight catches for 99 yards. Patton seemingly had established himself as a strong return man, but with him being cut, someone from this group likely must take on larger special-teams duties. Meanwhile, don’t be surprised to see one of the Bucs’ tight ends become a de-facto No. 3 wide receiver. After Jackson and Evans, much remains to be learned in this area.

TIGHT ENDS

Starters: Brandon Myers

Backups: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, Luke Stocker

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Myers, one of the Bucs’ early free-agent pickups, figures to get the starting nod. But rookie Seferian-Jenkins should make a large impact as the season progresses. The Washington product made a big impression in training camp, and he has the mental and physical tools to be successful. Tim Wright’s trade to the New England Patriots secured Stocker’s future, but Stocker should be the third tight end in this three-player race by season’s end. Expect all to see the field often as the Bucs show a variety of offensive looks.

OFFENSIVE LINE

Starters: T Anthony Collins, C Evan Dietrich-Smith, G Logan Mankins, G Patrick Omameh, T Demar Dotson

Backups: T Kevin Pamphile, G Oniel Cousins, G Kadeem Edwards, G Rishaw Johnson, C Josh Allen

Mankins’ addition was a huge development for the Bucs’ greatest area of weakness. The veteran, formerly of the Patriots, offers instant credibility as a six-time Pro Bowl player. Questions remain about what will become of Tampa Bay’s right-guard spot, with Mankins presumably taking over starting duties at left guard. Omameh handled the position throughout the preseason, and perhaps he’ll continue in that role throughout the early part of the regular season. The line remains a work in progress, and don’t be surprised to see a young face like Johnson receive more looks as the season goes on if Omameh struggles. So much rides on the line’s success, and this group must come together quickly.

DEFENSIVE LINE

Starters: DE Michael Johnson, DT Gerald McCoy, DT Clinton McDonald, DE Adrian Clayborn

Backups: DT Akeem Spence, DE Da’Quan Bowers, DE William Gholston, DE Steven Means, DE Scott Solomon

This should be an area of strength for the Bucs — for good reason, too, with Smith-s emphasis on defensive line pressure. McCoy will be a star, and he’ll become more effective if Johnson, McDonald and Clayborn make impacts as well. Spence’s progress has pleased Smith, and Means could become part of the mix often. Bowers, a bubble player before the deadline, could receive time at defensive tackle as well as his usual end spot. This will be a successful year for the line if at least one player earns double-digit sacks.

LINEBACKERS

Starters: Lavonte David, Mason Foster, Jonathan Casillas

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Backups: Dane Fletcher, Danny Lansanah

Expect more growth from David, an All-Pro last year, who should be a star again this season. Foster had a solid preseason with 10 tackles, and Lansanah became a standout with 16. Casillas had an odd internal incident that kept him from playing in the Bucs’ victory over the Buffalo Bills in the third preseason game, but the coaching staff considers the matter closed. Overall, David will lead this group. Along with McCoy, he has a chance to reach an elite level within Smith’s scheme.

SECONDARY

Starters: CB Alterraun Verner, CB Johnthan Banks, CB Leonard Johnson, SS Mark Barron, FS Dashon Goldson

Backups: CB Rashaan Melvin, CB Mike Jenkins, CB Quinton Pointer, FS Keith Tandy, SS Bradley McDougald

Hamstring injuries have hampered Verner and Jenkins throughout most of the past month, so there remains much to be learned about both. Banks, who started last year as a rookie, performed well in Jenkins’ absence. If Jenkins is unable to go in Week 1, Banks should be able to fill in well. Barron and Goldson should have plenty of motivation to lift their games after underwhelming seasons last year. Verner, a bargain signing in free agency, should be a strong fit within Smith’s zone-coverage plans.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Starters: P Michael Koenen, K Patrick Murray, LS Andrew DePaola, KR/PR Bobby Rainey, KR/PR Russell Shepard

Patton figured to be the Bucs’ primary return man, but his cut Saturday represents the largest surprise of the late decisions. He led the team with 14 returns in the preseason. He averaged 8.2 yards on six punt returns and 27 yards on eight kickoff returns. Perhaps Rainey will be the Bucs’ return man, though he had just three punt returns in the preseason and averaged 10 yards on each attempt. Meanwhile, he had one kickoff return for 19 yards. Shepard also could fill the role, though he had no experience at the spot in the preseason. There remain questions here. Meanwhile, the Bucs chose youth over experience in selecting Murray as their kicker.

FINAL THOUGHT

Defense will be the Bucs’ strength. Preseason results were a reliable indicator that McCoy should have a big year, and David should follow up his All-Pro season with more growth. Still, questions remain about how well the offensive line will mesh. Mankins must adjust quickly, presumably as Tampa Bay’s answer at left guard, and it remains to be seen how the Bucs will handle their situation at right guard. Smith and Licht haven’t closed the door on the Richie Incognito option, so it will be curious to see if they go that route at some point if tempted.

The good news for the Bucs is this: Starters showed marked improvement on both sides of the ball in each of their first three preseason games. Expect them to be a dominant defensive team that hopes to complement that strength with solid special teams and good-enough offense. It’s surprising they chose Murray over Barth for kicking duties, but other than that development, there weren’t too many surprises in the trim to the 53-man roster. There’s little room for error in the NFC South. Urgency should exist now.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.