Rookie guard Shane Grice impressed during training camp but was squeezed out by the team's injury situation at center
It would not be a stretch to say that Jeff Christy's preseason knee injury in Cleveland kept at least two Buccaneers from playing for the next month.
As much as Christy's MCL sprain was frustrating for the established veteran, it was also an indirect blow to the roster hopes of rookie guard Shane Grice.
During camp, Grice had stood out among the team's long list of undrafted free agents and appeared to have a good shot at some continuing role with the team, whether it be on the active roster or on the practice squad. However, Christy's injury forced the team to place more emphasis on depth at center, and Grice had spent camp learning the guard positions. On August 27, Grice was released.
But now the former Mississippi standout is back in Tampa, after a three-week stay in Chicago on the Bears' practice squad.
On Wednesday, the Buccaneers announced the signing of Grice to a two-year contract. He flew in from Chicago in the morning, donned his previous #68 jersey and joined the team at practice in the afternoon. To make room for Grice on the 53-man roster, the team waived center Leon Hires.
"Shane's guy that was doing well and we liked in camp," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "It was just the injury situation with Jeff that forced our hand. Fortunately, now we've got some time off and we're rested and pretty healthy, so now we can go back to that plan."
The altered plan eventually led the Bucs to add Hires, another undrafted rookie, to the active roster shortly after the final cut down to 53. The team also brought in first-year free agent Eric Thomas to the practice squad because he was capable of playing either guard or center.
After more than a month of recovery from his knee injury, Christy has been cleared to play against Minnesota on Sunday. That puts super-sub Todd Washington back into his valuable role of supporting center and both guard spots. The team's other backup guard is rookie fifth-rounder Russ Hochstein, but Hochstein is still recovering from a fracture in his left foot. Though the former Nebraska start was cleared to practice this week, he experienced swelling in his foot after Monday's workout and has been added back to the injury report as 'questionable.'
That flip-flop in health status between center and guard put Grice back into the mix as a more suitable fit.
"He gives us more guard play," said Dungy. "With Russ Hochstein still being a little bit limited, we just felt that was a better way to go, now that we've got Jeff and Todd back healthy. It just helps our rotation. So we're going to be working Shane mostly at guard."
However, Offensive Line Coach Chris Foerster could see Grice also developing into that swing role on the interior line, given enough time.
"Shane brings an ability to play guard or center," said Foerster. "He's much like Todd and Kevin Dogins before him. He's a guy we think has a future at center as well as guard. He can come in right now and be trained at both positions. It's a luxury, being the ninth or tenth lineman, to have the opportunity to work behind Jeff, work behind Todd, behind Randall and Cosey. It's a chance to see what the best do and learn from them, and hopefully put himself in a position later in the year or next year to step up and be a factor in the rotation."
After Grice was released by the Buccaneers, Chicago claimed him off waivers when the teams were still working on 60-player roster limits. A few days later, when the league mandated a cut to 53, Grice was cut from the Bears' active roster but convinced to stay on as part of the practice squad.
However, players on all practice squads retain their free agent rights to sign with another team's active roster, which is how the Bucs reacquired Grice. As an example, that's the same method the team used to snare S Damien Robinson, an eventual starter at free safety, from Philadelphia in 1997.
Grice's entire Chicago-Tampa shuttle might have been avoided had Christy not gone down in Cleveland.
"Yes, the injury situation did play into the fact that Shane didn't have as much of an opportunity to make the team (in August)," said Foerster. "Now that Jeff's healthy, we've re-evaluated and we still have an ability to pick up Shane, so we did."