Former Heisman Trophy winner Danny Wuerffel was among a handful of players working out for the Buccaneers on Wednesday
The beauty of the NFL offseason in Tampa is that you can hold a workout most any day, no roof necessary. That came in handy on Wednesday, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers paired two free agent quarterbacks with a trio of free agent receivers to conduct a series of passing drills. The gathering allowed the Bucs to get a long look at QBs Alex Van Pelt and Danny Wuerffel and WRs Willie Jackson, Chris Penn, and James Roe.
Under a light blue sky in pleasant high-70s weather, the Buccaneers looked at possible solutions for their search for a third-string signal-caller. As a former Heisman Trophy winner at Florida, Wuerffel was the more familiar name for Buccaneer fans, but he and Van Pelt have spent the most recent seasons in similar third-QB roles, Wuerffel with the New Orleans Saints from 1997-99 and Van Pelt with Buffalo from 1995-99.
Wuerffel, who grew up in Fort Walton Beach in the Florida panhandle, spoke to a small assemblage of local press about the possibility of playing in Tampa and his home state. "In terms of an opportunity, this is a great place to be, great team, great people," he said. "It's a great, great opportunity, and that's why we're all here trying to get on board.
"I still feel that there's a chance (to become a starter). I feel comfortable, and I think I've gotten a lot better, even in the last couple of months. You just look to improve…you never know what's going to happen but you just do the best you can. You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right people. I was so blessed in college to be in that situation … and I had some great times. That's all we all hope for, to do the best we can and be somewhere where it works out.
Some of those people surrounding Wuerffel at Florida are now with the Bucs, most notably wide receivers Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green. Green and Anthony finished first and second, respectively, in receptions among Tampa Bay wideouts in 1999.
In three seasons with the Saints, Wuerffel appeared in 16 games and made 12 starts, completing 126 of 258 passes (48.8%) for 1,404 yards, nine touchdowns and 16 interceptions. He appeared in just four games last season, throwing 48 passes, but saw his most extensive action in 1998. That season, Wuerffel stepped into the lineup in the second game of the season after an injury to Billy Joe Hobert and immediately led the Saints to two consecutive victories. Before Hobert's return, Wuerffel started four contests, en route to 62 completions in 119 attempts (52.1%) for 695 yards, five touchdowns and five interceptions.
The Saints drafted Wuerffel in the fourth round in 1997 after he had one the NCAA's Heisman Trophy the year before at Florida. Wuerffel's Gators rolled to the national championship in '96 as the he pushed his career college touchdown pass total to 114, just seven off the NCAA record.
Van Pelt first entered the NFL as an eighth-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers in 1993. However, after one training camp with the Steelers and two years of off-and-on duty with the Kansas City Chiefs, the former Pitt standout found a home in Buffalo. He has been the Bills third quarterback for each of the last five seasons, seeing extensive action only in 1997. Of his 16 games and three starts, half of those appearances and all three starts came in '97, when he started the season as the third-stringer but ended up starting when Todd Collins suffered an injury and Hobert, then a Bill, was released. Like Wuerffel, Van Pelt turned his first career start into a victory, passing Buffalo to a win over archrival Miami on November 2. In all, Van Pelt completed 60 of 124 passes for 684 yards, two touchdowns and 10 interceptions in 1997.
As a sixth-year veteran, Van Pelt has found his 2000 opportunities somewhat limited, but he hopes the situation might be different in Tampa. "It's tough trying to find a team that has the ability to keep an older guy or a vested guy and to have two or three of them in camp," said Van Pelt, referring to the contract minimums veteran NFL players are guaranteed. "This is one of the places where I think they're going to do that. I got a chance to talk to (Quarterbacks Coach) Clyde (Christensen) a little bit and find out what they're looking to do in the future. This is one of the places, with a young starter, that they'll keep some older guys around to back him up."
Christensen agreed that recent experience has led to a possible redefinition of the team's third quarterback role. Shaun King's debut for the Buccaneers in 1999 was impressive, but it was ahead of the team's planned schedule and necessitated by a pair of injuries to Trent Dilfer and Eric Zeier. "It does sober you," said Christensen. "You're thinking that that third is not going to happen, then… We played those first three years and Trent never missed a snap, then all of a sudden in our fourth year, you have to go down the stretch and play two playoff games with your third. So, yes, it does sober you, and that's why I think we are not ruling out signing a veteran for that spot even though, cap-wise, it's a little bit more."
To audition for that spot, Wuerffel and Van Pelt distributed passes on Wednesday to the sure-handed trio of Jackson, Penn and Roe. All three wideouts have excellent size, with Jackson listed at 6'-1" and 212 pounds, Penn at 6'-0"-198, and Roe at 6'1"-187, and all three have NFL starting experience. The Buccaneers currently have seven receivers on the roster – Anthony, Bert Emanuel, Green, Darnell McDonald, Yo Murphy, Drew O'Connor and Karl Williams – all of whom are under contract for the 2000 season.
Of the trio of free agents in Tampa on Wednesday, Jackson saw the most action in 1999, playing in all 16 Bengals games with two starts and catching 31 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns. Jackson also helped out in the return game, running back six kickoffs for 179 yards, with a long of 46, and two punts for six yards. He spent the last two seasons in Cincinnati after three years with Jacksonville, the team that selected him off Dallas' roster in the 1995 expansion draft.
Jackson started 13 games and played in all but two contests over his three-year stint in North Florida, catching a career-high 53 passes for 589 yards and five touchdowns in 1995. His career totals include 141 receptions for 1,815 yards and 12 touchdowns. Another former Gator standout, Jackson was drafted by Dallas in the fourth round in 1994 but did not get into a game as a rookie.
Penn played for the San Diego Chargers in '99 after being waived by Chicago in training camp and signed by the Chargers in early September. He went on to catch 17 passes for 257 yards and one touchdown and also assumed much of the team's punt return duties. Penn brought back 21 punts for 148 yards for the Chargers, averaging 7.0 yards per return.
A two-year star at Tulsa, Penn came into the league as a third-round draft pick of the Kansas City Chiefs in 1994. After playing sparingly his first two seasons, Penn emerged as the Chiefs' leading receiver in 1996, hauling in 49 passes for 628 yards and five touchdowns. The following season, he was traded to Chicago for a fifth-round draft pick and went on to virtually duplicate his '96 numbers in a Bears uniform, grabbing 47 passes for 576 yards and three scores. In all Penn has 148 career catches for 1,945 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Roe spent three seasons with the Baltimore Ravens (1996-98) after being drafted in the sixth round in '96. After appearing in just one games as rookie, he went on to start four games and play in 12 in 1997, pitching in with seven receptions for 124 yards. His 1998 numbers were similar – 8-115-1 touchdown – but he was waived near the end of last year's training camp and did not play in the NFL in 1999.
Roe dominated on the collegiate level at the Division II school of Norfolk State, racking up 239 receptions for 4,468 yards and 46 touchdowns. Those stats represent the second-best yardage total in NCAA history, the third-best receptions mark and the fourth-best touchdowns tally.
The Buccaneers did not immediately sign any of the free agents who visited One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday, and will not indicate their intentions whether or not to do so. Such early-spring workouts are actually quite common around the NFL, even if Tampa's weather isn't.