Backyard Game: For the second year in a row, the very useful East-West Shrine Game, featuring dozens of draft-eligible college all-stars, will be held practically in the Buccaneers’ backyard.
This year will be the 87th Shrine Game, which has been going strong since 1925, raising funds for Shriners Hospitals for Children. It was staged annually in California for eight decades before spending four years in Houston and two in Orlando. Finally, last year, the game was relocated to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, not far from the Shriners’ headquarters in Tampa.
And not far from One Buccaneer Place, which means the team’s array of scouts can cover the game with just a short car ride across the bay. More important even than the game is the week of practice that leads up to the actual contest on Saturday, January 19. Last year, Buccaneers’ Director of Player Personnel Dennis Hickey called it the perfect chance to get an up-close look at some intriguing prospects. “You get an opportunity to evaluate over 80 players from across the country, getting NFL coaching in an NFL setting, running NFL offenses and getting to compete against some of the top players in the country,” said Hickey.
Sure enough, the Buccaneers ended up drafting two players who took part in last year’s East-West Shrine Game, the West Virginia duo of LB Najee Goode and DB Keith Tandy.
Pro Bowl Hopes: On the DT Gerald McCoy was revealed as a Pro Bowler for the first time in his young career, the Buccaneers also learned that three of their other standout performers were chosen as alternates for the NFC squad in this month’s league all-star game.
In fact, WR Vincent Jackson and RB Doug Martin were identified as first alternates, which means they will become Pro Bowlers if even one of the players chosen in front of them is unavailable to attend the game for any reason. The two most common reasons for a player pulling out of the Pro Bowl are obvious: Either he has some sort of injury or he is still, you know, a little busy trying to win the Super Bowl. This year’s Pro Bowl will be played on the weekend between the conference championship games and Super Bowl XLVII, so any player whose team makes it to the final game obviously won’t be headed to Hawaii. It’s even possible that a member of a losing team in one of the conference championship games won’t want to make that quick of a turnaround to head to the Pro Bowl, especially if he got banged up in that last game that counted.
So, what does that currently mean for Jackson and Martin? Based simply on which teams are still alive in the playoffs, the picture is a bit more promising for Martin, the rookie running back sensation. The three players ahead of him on the Pro Bowl list are Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, Seattle’s Marshawn Lynch and San Francisco’s Frank Gore. Peterson’s Vikings were eliminated by Green Bay this past Saturday, but Lynch’s Seahawks won on Sunday while Gore’s 49ers enjoyed a bye.
Moreover, there is one scenario that would essentially punch Martin’s ticket to Honolulu. If San Francisco holds off Green Bay at home on Saturday and Seattle gets another road win in Atlanta on Sunday, the NFC Championship Game would pit the 49ers and the Seahawks. If that happened, Martin would be guaranteed a Pro Bowl spot because either Gore or Lynch would definitely be going to the Super Bowl.
On the other hand, an Atlanta victory in Sunday’s game would get Jackson a bit closer to Hawaii. Of the four receivers ahead of Jackson in the NFC, only Atlanta’s Julio Jones is still in the Super Bowl hunt. In fact, the other three – Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, Chicago’s Brandon Marshall and the New York Giants’ Victor Cruz – all missed the postseason.
Room to Maneuver: In the lead-in to his mailbag on ESPN.com on Tuesday, NFL analyst John Clayton took a look at how much cap space each team is expected to have when free agency starts in March, and how the decision to carry over unused space from 2012 by various teams will affect the market.
Clayton calculates the overall available cap space shared by the 32 teams at $350.7 million…but here’s the interesting part: Eight teams account for 79% of that total. Yes, the Buccaneers are one of those eight teams.
On Clayton’s list, the Buccaneers rank fifth in available cap space, with $31.3 million. That total includes $8.5 million in carryover space; the Bucs had far less of this than they did last year after spending heavily in free agency to get Jackson, Carl Nicks and Eric Wright. However, as General Manager Mark Dominik recently pointed out, the Bucs’ available space was helped significantly by the decision to restructure contracts for Jackson and Nicks. Dominik said the resulting cap space will allow the team to dive into free agency again if such a move would help but also to work on keeping the talented nucleus of the existing roster intact.