New Buc K Xavier Beitia, a Tampa native, honed his skills in-state at Florida State
Raymond James Stadium is no more than a brisk jog from Jesuit High School in Tampa; you don't even have to leave Himes Avenue to travel from one to the other. Xavier Beitia, however, took a less direct route.
A standout prep kicker at Jesuit during a time when Martin Gramatica was establishing his Pro Bowl credentials down the road in Raymond James, Beitia first went to Florida State to hone his skills. After establishing himself as one of the nation's best kickers in Tallahassee, he then got his initial crack at the NFL in New York, going to camp with the Jets last summer.
And, since the term "rookie kicker" tends to send chills down the spine of any NFL head coach, Beitia suffered the same fate as 95% of young men in his position. He was waived at the end of camp after losing the Jets' placekicking battle to another rookie, Mike Nugent. Actually, "losing" is a strong word; Beitia reportedly kicked well in practice but the Jets were understandably interested in seeing Nugent, their second-round draft pick, in action and the latter got all of the live placekicking opportunities during preseason games.
Also like most young kickers with promise, Beitia was only at the beginning of his NFL opportunities. The next one would come at home.
Beitia's hometown team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, gave him a tryout during the fall, one of two teams to do so, then signed him to a reserve/future contract in January. Team headquarters, the site of Beitia's tryout, is actually another small hop from those key locations on Himes, but now at least he has a chance at ending up in Raymond James Stadium.
Ah, but not before a few more travels. After signing Beitia, the Bucs made him one of 11 players allocated to NFL Europe for its 2006 season. Tampa Bay actually signed two young kickers in January, also picking up Mike Shafer, and is sending both overseas for the spring. Shafer, a Syracuse product, came into the league two years before Beitia and has had preseason stints in St. Louis and Buffalo. He, too, would like an opportunity to kick for the hometown team, as he is a native of nearby Sarasota.
Nugent went on to make 22 of 28 field goal tries for the Jets in his rookie campaign and probably will have a lock on that job for some time. Similarly, Gramatica was expected to hold onto the Bucs' placekicking job for many years after being drafted in the third round, and he emerged as the franchise's all-time leading scorer before running into problems in 2003-04.
Many of the league's successful placekickers, however, start out as Beitia and Shafer did, battling for a shot in a series of training camps. That is the opportunity both of these young men are after this spring, an opportunity made sweeter by the proximity to home. And there are certainly question marks regarding the Bucs' placekicking situation. Matt Bryant had an outstanding season in his first year with Tampa Bay, but he is also due to become a free agent if he is not re-signed before March 3.
The Bucs' pair of new kickers is part of a larger group of free agents the team signed last month in its annual effort to pump the roster back to 80 men during the offseason. The team has inked 32 new players since the end of the 2005 sign, all to the reserve/future contracts that will take effect when the new league season starts in March.
Half of those 32 players are new or relatively new to the Buccaneers, and we began taking a closer look at the newcomers last week. On Thursday, we provided brief introductions for TE Mark Anelli, G Phil Bogle, CB Jonte Buhl, S Steve Cargile, WR Jonathan Carter, WR Chas Gessner, WR B.J. Johnson and T Todd Williams.
Now we'll look at the other eight: Beitia, Shafer, FBs Carey Davis and Robert Douglas, CB Dwight Ellick, G Jason Nerys and WR Terrence Stubbs.
Beitia is the son of a former professional jai alai player in Argentina who moved to Tampa in 1974. Not surprisingly, the younger Beitia picked up soccer first, but he quickly stood out due to his strong right leg. He took up an interest in placekicking at a young age, practicing by booting a football over his basketball hoop, and quickly decided that was the occupation he wanted to pursue.
After a strong senior season at Jesuit, the Seminoles gave him a scholarship and he won FSU job as a freshman. The results were outstanding from day one, as he made 13 of 14 field goal tries in his first year, including all nine from within 40 yards. He went on to lead the team in scoring for four straight years, racking up 108 points as a sophomore and 107 as a senior. Overall, Beitia made 173 of 177 extra point attempts and 67 of 92 field goal tries over his four collegiate seasons.
Beitia (5-10, 198) signed with the Jets on the day after last year's draft. His subsequent NFL transactions are described above.
Shafer, too, entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, first hooking on with the Rams in June of 2003. That first opportunity didn't pan out for the former first-team All-Florida prep star, as he was released before the start of training camp.
However, he did get a more extensive look the following summer from the Bills, who signed him just after the 2003 season and then allocated him to the NFLEL. The 5-10, 180-pound kicker ended up with the Rhein Fire and shared the team's kicking duties with a "national" player Ingo Anderbrugge, a native of Germany. Anderbrugge handled all of the PATs, but Shafer was given 12 field goal tries and he made six of them, with a long of 48.
Shafer then went to training camp with the Bills in the summer of 2004 but was unable to unseat incumbent Ryan Lindell, a kicker with a nearly 80% career success rate. Buffalo waived Shafer on August 31 and he did not reappear in the league that season or during 2005. Now he's headed back for another shot in Europe, though neither he nor Beitia has yet been placed with a specific team.
Cash actually spent much of the second half of the 2005 season on the Bucs' practice squad, but he could have played against Tampa Bay as a rookie if the intra-division schedule hadn't been so backloaded.
Cash, a 6-1, 223-pound linebacker out of Southern Miss who has the skills to excel on special teams, began his rookie year with the Falcons. Atlanta signed him after the draft and saw enough in training camp to keep him among their 53 players for the regular season. He stayed on the active roster in Atlanta for most of the first half of the season before being waived on November 2. The Bucs gladly picked him up for their practice squad a week later.
Cash did play in three games for the Falcons before being released, and he used that limited action to make two special teams tackles.
As a senior at Southern Miss, Cash finished third on the team with 95 tackles. He was a two-way star during his prep career in Rolling Fork, Mississippi, playing linebacker and also rushing for 1,378 yards as a senior.
Two of the Bucs' newcomers, Davis and Douglas, are fullbacks, and that could be a position in transition for the Buccaneers. Mike Alstott, the starter since 1996, could be contemplating retirement and Jameel Cook, a Buc for five years, is due to become a free agent in March.
Davis actually had a cameo appearance in Tampa last fall, spending three seasons on the Bucs' practice squad early in the fall. The 5-10, 225-pound blocker was signed on September 20 and released on October 12 after spending the summer in the Atlanta Falcons' training camp.
Davis, like Cook a product of the University of Illinois, is trying to make it back into the league after seeing action with the Falcons in 2004, but at the moment he has an unusual participation record. He has never appeared in a regular season game but he has played in the playoffs.
The St. Louis native entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the Indianapolis Colts in 2004. He briefly appeared on the Colts' active roster during his rookie season but did not get into a game. After the Colts waived him, Davis landed in Atlanta on the Falcons' practice squad. The Falcons then promoted him just in time for the postseason and he played in the Divisional Round win over St. Louis and the NFC Championship Game loss at Philadelphia.
Davis proved during that short stint that he could be effective on special teams, just as Cook was for the Buccaneers last year. He made three kick-coverage tackles in that pair of contests, including two in the championship game. Scouts, in fact, considered Davis to be a very similar prospect to Cook before the 2004 draft. Though primarily a blocker, he proved to be a capable runner and receiver. In 2001, for instance, Davis rushed 108 times for 474 yards and caught 39 passes for 274 yards.
Douglas is in the taller mold of fullbacks, standing 6-2 and weighing 240 pounds. He broke into the league last year as an undrafted free agent with the Tennessee Titans, a natural destination for a collegiate standout at Memphis.
Douglas caught a bit of misfortune early, however, fracturing his left fibula in June, a month before the Titans would report to camp. That prompted the Titans to put him on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list as camp opened, and they later released him on September 4.
Douglas was back to health by then, though, and the Titans quickly signed him back to their practice squad. He stayed on that unit for two months before being released on November 1. Several teams, including the Buccaneers in late November, took the opportunity to bring Douglas in for a tryout after he was let go by Tennessee, and the Houston Texans eventually added him to their practice squad for the last two weeks of the season. Of course, practice squad contracts expire at the end of the season, and when he became a free agent he quickly hooked on with the Buccaneers.
Douglas doesn't have the Illinois connection with Davis and Cook, but he is a St. Louis native, like Davis. Douglas was actually a linebacker when he started his career at Memphis, however, only switching over to offense halfway through his junior campaign. Over the next season and a half he would rush 16 times for 65 yards and catch nine passes for 121 yards. Douglas was actually switched to fullback in the middle of a game against Southern Miss in 2003.
Like Beitia, Ellick signed on with his hometown team, too, though Tampa has only been Ellick's home for about six years. Born in Syracuse, New York, he and his family moved to the Bay area in the summer of 2000 and he went on to play his senior prep football season at Wharton High School.
He played it well, too, earning a scholarship to play for Notre Dame, where he also ran track. Ellick earned four letters on the gridiron and two more on the track and was a starter during his last two seasons on the Irish football team. As a senior, Ellick rang up 44 tackles and two interceptions.
Ellick had been a standout running back in New York but he switched to receiver and cornerback at Wharton, where he played under former Buccaneers linebacker Richard "Batman" Wood. He did bring his track success down from New York, winning the state title in the 100-meter and 200-meter runs as a senior.
Like Davis, Nerys had a quick stop with the Bucs' practice squad, but in 2004, not 2005. He's actually had brief periods as a Buccaneer, a Texan and a Redskins, but the majority of his time in the NFL has been spent with the New York Jets.
It was the Jets who originally signed the 6-4, 310-pound guard as an undrafted free agent out of Delaware in 2004. New York didn't clear a spot on the 53-man roster for him as a rookie, but they did put him on the practice squad to start the season. He was released again in mid-September, then brought back for another short stay on the practice squad in October.
After being waived again by the Jets, Nerys came to Tampa in late November of his rookie season, signing with the practice squad on November 30. The Bucs let him go a week later, however, and he went back to the Jets to finish out the season on their practice squad.
The Jets re-signed Nerys for 2005 and brought him to training camp again, but he was waived on the final cutdown. This time he followed with short practice squad stints in Washington and Houston before signing with the Buccaneers after the season.
Nerys was dominant at Delaware, earning first-team All-America honors from a variety of sources, including the Associated Press. He earned four letters for the Blue Hens and was a starter in each of his last three campaigns.
Nerys and Stubbs got their welcome-to-the-NFL calls from the same team on the same day. The Temple wide receiver was also an undrafted free agent signee with the Jets, agreeing to a deal on April 30, like Nerys.
Stubbs also started his rookie season on the Jets' practice squad alongside the Delaware guard, but he had a less eventful fall, travel-wise. The Jets kept the 5-11, 190-pound pass-catcher on the practice squad all year, then sent him over to NFL Europe last spring. Stubbs ended up with the Berlin Thunder, for whom he caught 15 passes for 149 yards and one touchdown.
Another Jets camp followed, and this time Stubbs was released on the final roster cutdown. He did not land on any team's practice squad in 2005, but he did receive a string of tryouts, including one with the Buccaneers in late October.