Earlier this week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed to their 90-man roster three players who had participated in the previous weekend's mini-camp on a tryout basis. Micah Awe, Travis Britz and Kelby Johnson may not be familiar names to most Buc fans, but that could change in time.
A year ago, wide receivers Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye turned tryout invites into training camp spots and eventually a place on the Buccaneers' regular-season roster, as well as significant roles in the offense. Meanwhile, linebacker Josh Keyes, who had been signed by Tampa Bay as a rookie free agent right after the draft, also made the 53-man roster and became a regular on special teams. (A fourth undrafted rookie, cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah, saw playing time for the Bucs in 2015, but he wasn't signed until just before training camp.)
There are currently 18 undrafted rookies on Tampa Bay's 90-man roster, from Texas Tech linebacker Micah Awe to Missouri Western tackle Leonard Wester. That roster could get a tweak or two before the start of training camp, but most of those young players will get a chance to put on the pads and try to battle their way to a roster spot, like Humphries, Dye and Keyes did last year. It's a near certainty that somebody from that group will make it; it's nearly impossible at this point to guess who it will be.
We call the presence of an undrafted rookie or two on the regular-season roster a near certainty because it happens nearly every year. Before last year's quartet, it was Josh Allen, Cameron Brate and Solomon Patton in 2014. The year before that, Deveron Carr, Ka'Lial Glaud, Rashaan Melvin and Tim Wright all broke through to varying degrees. As is always the case, some of these players found their time in Tampa relatively brief, while some use that initial foothold to launch a longer Buc career. Some get their start in Tampa but break through elsewhere, as defensive end Ryan Delaire did with the Panthers last year.
Some even ended up as notable players in franchise history. Last year, we ran down our choices for the top 10 undrafted free agents in Buccaneer annals, a list that is topped by Shelton Quarles but also includes the likes of Donald Penn, Karl Williams and Earnest Graham.
Whether this year's breakthrough rookies have a short run like Carr, pique the Bucs' long-term interest like Brate or go down as franchise cornerstones like Quarles, somebody is going to get a chance to play. Who it is will not be obvious until well into training camp, but we can suggest a few players to keep an eye on, whether due to depth chart opportunity, a certain skill set or just a plain guess. Below are three choices – keep in mind that identifying these three is not meant to indicate any lesser of a chance for the other 15 undrafted rookies on the roster:
1. RB Russell Hansbrough, Missouri
Despite some pretty impressive numbers for Mizzou, including a 1,084-yard, 10-TD season as a junior in 2014, Hansbrough was not selected in the draft. That almost certainly was due to a different set of numbers, that being his 5-9, 195-pound stature. However, he definitely put himself on the Bucs' radar (and almost certainly other teams as well), with his 4.36 40-yard dash at the Missouri Pro Day in March.
The Buccaneers held their first rookie mini-camp practice at One Buc Place on Friday.
Late-round draft picks and rookie free agent signees are often coveted for one or two specific traits, even if they are not yet considered a fully-formed NFL prospect. An inexperienced big man with a basketball background – think Demar Dotson – might have the type of footwork that suggests a future at offensive tackle. A safety with limited range but a demonstrated ability to hit very hard might look like a future special teams ace. And a small running back with top-notch speed and quick moves might look a potential third-down back or return man.
Hansbrough showed big-play ability for the Tigers, as evidenced by a career mark of 5.0 yards per carry and big 68 and 78-yard runs in 2014. He caught a relatively modest 17 passes last year, but that was tops among Missouri's backs and perhaps a sign that he could do more. Hansbrough returned only one kickoff during his collegiate career, way back in his freshman season, but it did happen to be a 56-yarder. With his shiftiness and an extra gear in the open field, he might be an intriguing option in that regard.
Photos from day 2 of Rookie Mini-Camp.
There does appear to be some measure of opportunity in Tampa for Hansbrough, too, which may have influenced his decision when teams came calling after the draft. The Buccaneers' depth chart at running back last year started with Doug Martin and Charles Sims, with Bobby Rainey third and Mike James on and off the practice squad. James is still around but Rainey is now a New York Giant. The Buccaneers signed former Jaguar Storm Johnson in May, and he is probably considered the front-runner to replace Rainey. The team also picked up Auburn's Peyton Barber as an undrafted free agent, and he's certainly another rookie to keep an eye on. In this context, though, Hansbrough's size and skill set might actually work in his favor. Johnson and Barber are both bigger backs; Hansbrough is really the only player of his type in the current running back stable.
A good NFL comparison, as a best-case scenario, might be former Cal back Shane Vereen, who is listed at 5-10 and 200 pounds. Vereen, who was actually a second-round pick and thus obviously a player with higher expectations around him than Hansbrough, has carved out a good career as a pass-catching, change-of-pace back for the Patriots and Giants.
2. DT Travis Britz, Kansas State
We had to include one of the tryout players to honor the Dye and Humphries theme, so let's go with this K-State product who plays a position that has seen some subtractions since 2015 but no additions through free agency or the draft. That defensive tackle position was also ludicrously deep in this year's draft, which would lead one to believe that a few players with what would normally be late-round grades made it through to free agency.
The best photos from the Buccaneers' 2016 rookie mini-camp.
The 6-4, 293 Britz was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine, but he did appear on a list of late-round senior prospects to watch that NFL.com's Chad Reuter put together before last season. He's a hard-working, physical lineman with a lot of starting experience and the respect of his Wildcat teammates, who made him a team captain last year. Britz is considered a good run-stopper but also had at least three sacks in each of the last three seasons, as well as 24.5 career tackles for loss.
There are also a couple of numbers in Britz's stat table that suggest a good leaping ability and the instincts to use it at the right time. That would be nine career passes defensed and a school-record five blocked kicks. That latter ability may or may not be something he can transfer to the NFL, but making an early impact on special teams is a great way for a young roster hopeful to get his foot in the door.
And, again, one has to consider the opportunity in front of Britz, as well as a fellow undrafted defensive tackle out of Auburn, DaVonte Lambert. The Buccaneers' DT corps obviously starts with four-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, and the projected starter next to him would be well-respected veteran Clinton McDonald. Akeem Spence, who has played extensively in his first three NFL seasons, would also appear to be a key part of the rotation. However, Tony McDaniel, Henry Melton and Da'Quan Bowers have all departed from last year's roster, which would seem to open up some potential spots on the depth chart.
The Bucs have some versatile outside-inside guys like George Johnson and free agent acquisition Robert Ayers, but the other players on the roster listed specifically as defensive tackles are Davon Coleman and Cliff Matthews, who have 36 NFL games and one start between them.
3. LB Cassanova McKinzy, Auburn
McKinzy is one of three linebackers added by the Bucs after the draft, along with Awe and William & Mary's Luke Rhodes. Tampa Bay also used a sixth-round pick on Oklahoma linebacker Devante Bond and, unlike at DT, did not have a mass departure at that position after 2015. Part-time starter Bruce Carter was let go, but reserves and special teams contributors like Keyes, Jeremiah George and Adarius Glanton are back to fight for spots again.
Still, McKinzy is an interesting prospect in that he played extensively in several different positions at a big-time program, and at 6-3 and 253 pounds he's a bigger body than those other linebackers fighting for backup spots. McKinzy started at both middle and outside linebacker for Auburn and last year moved into the Tigers' "buck" position, which is something of an LB/DE hybrid.
As a middle linebacker in 2014, McKinzy proved very good at stopping opposing rushers, coming downhill to deliver hard hits consistently. After switching to buck he also showed off some pass-rushing skills with five sacks and 20 quarterback hurries. The Buccaneers won't publish a depth chart until the first week of the preseason, but at some point they'll be looking to slot somebody in at middle linebacker behind Kwon Alexander. Last year, that was Carter, and then the 230-pound Glanton. Perhaps that will be an opportunity for McKinzy, or perhaps he'll use his size and hitting ability to carve out a role on special teams, as most reserve linebackers have to do.