The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will take on the Miami Dolphins this evening, and they’ll get to see their starters play for an extended period for the first time this season. That means Josh Freeman, Vincent Jackson, Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David will see more than the 5-10 meaningful snaps they have seen in the past few games.
So what are the players to watch? Who will have the most to gain with a good performance this evening, and who could fall off with a disappointing game?
Johnthan Banks, Cornerback
The Buccaneers first pick in the 2013 NFL Draft has impressed in camp and preseason, but has yet to truly be put to the test in the air. Tonight, the Miami Dolphins will offer a variety of wide receivers for Banks to cover, as big play Mike Wallace and shifty possession receiver Brian Hartline will both be intriguing matchups for Banks.
The rookie figures to be a starter in 2013, but there is still a bit of uncertainty about how well he can do. He’ll be targeted heavily as the corner across from Darrelle Revis, so tonight is his chance to prove he’s worthy of the trust of his coaches and fellow players.
Josh Freeman, Quarterback
I think Josh Freeman has had an extremely good preseason so far, but this is the true test.
He’ll be going against a team with a solid pass rush, and that has always been one of his biggest areas of concern. If he can handle the pressure and make good decisions against the Dolphins, he should fare very well against most of the NFL’s front sevens.
But if he throws off his back foot and tries to force late throws over the middle, he’ll have shown no offseason progress.
I have faith in Freeman’s progression this offseason being more than a mirage, but for a player who has more mental hangups than physical, the pressure of a “real game” will put his alleged improvement to the test.
Tom Crabtree, Tight end
The Buccaneers failed to add any rock solid starters to the tight end position this offseason, opting instead to add Crabtree and hope that either he or Luke Stocker could emerge as a pass-catching threat.
Crabtree has proven to be a very reliable option in camp so far, but he seems to get open by accident sometimes. Tonight will be another chance for him to show what he can do, and there’s a potential opportunity tonight to earn himself brownie points with head coach Greg Schiano.
With Erik Lorig likely to be on the bench with continued injury concerns, Crabtree will have a chance to play an H-Back type of role and see plays in the backfield. If he can prove to be a worthwhile player at this position, it will greatly increase his value to the team and will earn him a lot more snaps.
Gabe Carimi, Tackle/Guard
I have a sneaking suspicion that we might see Gabe Carimi starting for the Buccaneers in the near future, and not at the position you think.
There has been plenty of discussion about Gabe pressuring Demar Dotson for the starting right tackle position, but I doubt that he’s going to have any chance to unseat Demar, who has proven to be a promising prospect at right tackle.
But Carimi will get his chance to earn playing time at guard, where the Buccaneers may need a replacement for sidelined guard Carl Nicks. Carimi is a very versatile player who can play multiple positions, so don’t be surprised if you see him lined up to the immediate left of center this evening.
Mason Foster, Linebacker
Mason is quite the enigmatic player, as he is terrific as a downhill, run stopping linebacker, but he’s got some serious concerns going back as a pass defender. He’s fully capable, but it seems like there are many plays where he turns out to be a liability in coverage.
Mason will have a chance tonight to set himself apart and prove he’s worthy of being the long-term starter at the position. I have seen Mason do some great things at middle linebacker for the Buccaneers, but I have also seen huge spaces in the middle of the field that he theoretically should have been covering.
The “Mike” job is his this season, but the Buccaneers may consider upgrading in the 2014 offseason if Mason isn’t strong in 2013. So Foster’s audition for his future at MLB starts tonight, in the dress rehearsal game for a very important year in the Buccaneers’ progression away from the mess left after the Raheem Morris era.