Luke Stocker was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on April 30, 2011. He didn't take the practice field as a Buccaneer until July 29, however, and about 30 minutes into that first NFL workout, he suffered a hip injury that would cost him much of his rookie training camp.
It's fair to say that Stocker is enjoying his second NFL offseason much more than his first.
Like all of last year's rookies, the former University of Tennessee tight end entered the NFL at a rather awkward moment, with a labor impasse in full swing. There was essentially no offseason – the eventual CBA agreement didn't come until the eve of training camp – and league newcomers couldn't even set foot in their new facilities or browse through a playbook.
The NFL's 32 training camps became hit-the-ground-running, learn-as-you-go cram sessions for the 2011 rookies, and it wasn't easy for them. This year, Stocker can gaze across the practice fields behind One Buccaneer Place in late May and know that he's already put in two valuable months of work.
"It's amazing to me that rookies were able to come in last year and catch up in time to even contribute," he said on Tuesday, following another of the Buccaneers' "organized team activity" days, or OTAs. "We're going through it this year with OTAs and seeing how valuable they can be. I can't wait to get to camp and see how far along I am mentally compared to last year."
Stocker's opening-day injury in training camp last year was a fluke thing, but one that turned into a significant setback. He watched for weeks as his fellow rookies worked hard to get into the flow, and only appeared in one of the four preseason games. He also struggled just to get back to his initial level of movement, a struggle that lasted into the season.
"Suffering the hip injury in camp, I missed pretty much the whole camp," Stocker recalled. "That's a very important part of the body in football. Your hip is involved in every aspect. I never was at full strength last year. In the middle of the season you can't strength-train at the level you need to to get to where you want to be. I think I'm finally getting back to that point where I'm equally strong on both sides, and I'm feeling better out here on the field."
The Bucs aggressively traded up in the fourth round to get Stocker 13 months ago, giving up a 2012 fourth-round pick to do it because they believed he could help them immediately and well into the future. Stocker has the size (6-6, 253 pounds) and the smooth pass-catching abilities to be that all-around tight end that teams covet highly, one that can block effectively but still be a threat when he goes out on pass patterns. The Bucs envisioned making great use of two-TE sets and giving opposing teams a lot to consider with both Stocker and Kellen Winslow as potential targets.
"If you look at our roster, I'm one of the biggest tight ends we've got and one that has a little bit of experience blocking in this league," he said. "I got some last year, so they're definitely looking at me to be the guy that lines up and blocks the power and those kinds of things.
However, Stocker's practice-field misfortune and a general downturn for the Bucs' offense kept that plan from fully materializing in his rookie season. He finished the season with just 12 catches for 92 yards and he also missed two midseason games due to injury. However, the Bucs still view the 23-year-old tight end the same way they did on draft weekend last year, and they believe a full offseason will help bring out Stocker's potential.
"I understand I was drafted by this team and they want me to become the tight end here of the future," he said. "I hold myself to a higher standard than everybody, and I want to get to where they want me to be. That's what I'm working for every day."
Stocker ended up getting some extra time in the film room last year while he was sidelined, as he would often watch tape while the other players were going through individual drills, then come out and take "mental reps" during the full-team periods. One might think that would put him ahead of the game in terms of absorbing the defense, but he quickly found out that there was no substitute for actually being on the field.
"Last year, the hardest thing was getting in and hearing it in the huddle," said Stocker. "I could see it on the board because I had all the classroom time. So I had all the board work, but when you get in the huddle and the live bullets are coming it's completely different."
Stocker's right in the mix of things this offseason, to his delight. He also has a new running partner, as the team signed veteran tight end earlier this week and traded Winslow to Seattle. Stocker said he enjoyed learning all he could from Winslow and plans to do the same with Clark, but he didn't view the move as any statement regarding his role with the team.
"I didn't look at it is anything personal for myself," he said. "I was just seeing what was next for the team. They brought in a veteran in Dallas Clark and I'm looking forward to working with him. I had a great time with Kellen, too."
If things go well this offseason – and they are already going far better than last year simply because they're going – Stocker may just end up in the middle of that envisioned two-TE attack with Clark, a proven NFL pass-catcher. He thinks it's just a matter of putting in the work, and he's thrilled that he has the opportunity to do so this time around.
"[The tight ends' role] can be anywhere from a whole, whole lot to very little," said Stocker of the Bucs' developing new offense. "It's football, you know what I mean? It's up to the players, the guys that can show it. They're the ones that will be on the field and can make the plays. Those are the guys that are going to get the looks."