TAMPA — Given a choice, Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Doug Martin likely would opt to play a few snaps in his team’s preseason finale tonight against the Redskins at Raymond James Stadium.
Martin won’t play a down, though. The Bucs already are familiar with the 2012 Pro Bowler’s skill set and know precisely what he can and cannot do for them.
The same cannot be said, however, of those vying for the right to be Martin’s backup.
Whether rookie Mike James, seven-year veteran Brian Leonard or eight-year veteran Peyton Hillis is Tampa Bay’s backup running back remains unsettled. And the Bucs are running out of time to settle it.
With the deadline for NFL rosters to be cut to the final 53-man limit coming Saturday at 6 p.m., the Bucs have little more than this game against Washington to use as an evaluation tool.
“It’s definitely a big game for me,’’ Leonard said. “I still have to prove every practice, every game, that I can make plays. It doesn’t matter what you did in the past, you have to perform now.’’
Leonard, James and Hillis aren’t the only ones who need to turn in good performances tonight. Players across the Bucs roster must do the same, either to keep a job, win a job or earn a roster spot.
At cornerback, undrafted rookie Rashaan Melvin was one the flashiest and most consistent players in training camp. He’s also been solid in preseason games, but admits he is nervous about what lies ahead.
“It’s a very nerve-wracking time, especially for an undrafted rookie like me,’’ Melvin said. “So, right now, I’m just concentrating on what I have to do. But I do feel confident that I have a chance to make this team.’’
Melvin’s confidence no doubt was boosted by recent developments within his position group, where Anthony Gaitor was lost for the season with a torn ACL and Danny Gorrer was lost for a few weeks to groin surgery. Those losses will almost certainly force the Bucs to keep some untested prospects such as Melvin or Deveron Carr on the roster.
Who will actually dress and play on game days is another matter.
The Bucs appear to have settled on Darrelle Revis and rookie Johnthan Banks as the starters at corner, but they still must decide on a third or nickel corner and the reserves.
“There’s a lot of thinking that has to go into it,’’ Bucs coach Greg Schiano said of the decisions yet to be made regarding roster spots and position battles. “And (this game) will factor into those decisions, sure it will.’’
That makes it a pretty big game for tight ends Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree, as well. Their battle for the starting spot also remains undecided.
“We’ll make a decision there soon, but with the way we play, there is going to be more than one tight end playing,’’ Schiano said. “But it is a big deal, because somebody is the starter and you compete to be the starter.’’
At strongside linebacker, the Bucs also have two candidates for the starting job: Jonathan Casillas and Dekoda Watson. Both likely will play depending on the game situation.
Likewise at defensive end, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim and Da’Quan Bowers will both get work this year. While it seems likely now that Te’o-Nesheim will win a starting job over Bowers, Schiano has yet to commit. Also in the mix is Steven Means, the rookie out of Buffalo the Bucs picked in the fifth round of the draft in April.
All three likely will see some action tonight.
“It’s going to be individual for everybody,’’ Schiano said. “But we’re not ready to discuss that. I think we’ll roll that plan out on Thursday night. But we will handle all that on an individual basis.’’
Several receivers will play tonight, and any one of them could make the team as a reserve behind starters Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams.
The same will happen at running back, where the abilities to run effectively, catch out of the backfield, block and protect the quarterback all will factor into the decision that lies ahead for Schiano.
How many running backs will Tampa Bay keep?
“That 53 is a non-negotiable number, so it’s a hard decision to make,” Schiano said. “They’re all hard decisions to make.’’