Donald Penn signed a new long-term deal just before training camp a year ago, a contract he immediately justified with a Pro Bowl season in 2010. That was obviously good news for the player and the team, but you can't help wondering if, right about now, Penn is looking over at linemates Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood on the sideline and deciding his timing was off by a year.
Joseph and Trueblood became unrestricted free agents a little over a week ago when the new CBA was signed into existence. They re-signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as quickly as they could, but they couldn't immediately hit the practice field. All players who have signed new contracts since last Tuesday have had to wait until the CBA was ratified by the NFLPA before they could take part in practice. That is expected to take place on Thursday.
So Joseph and Trueblood watch as Penn sweats out what may have been the most competitive practice week of his life. That's all due to the arrival of Adrian Clayborn, the Iowa defensive end chosen 19th overall by the Buccaneers this past April. The Clayborn-Penn matchup has been a pitched battle from Day One, and it pits two supremely talented and willful players against each other. It's the kind of work that can't help but make both players much better, even if it's not a ton of fun at the time.
"Penn has never worked this hard in his life in practice," laughed Head Coach Raheem Morris on Wednesday, following an afternoon practice in which his rookie end once again hustled all over the field. "[Penn] is absolutely earning his practice money. He's mentoring Clayborn a little bit, telling him what he's doing well, telling him what he can work on, helping him out. And Clayborn is helping him too, because having to work this hard in practice every day is something new for Mr. Penn."
There was no post-contract letdown year for Penn because the big lineman badly wants to win every battle, and he seriously wants to be thought of as one of the best in the game. Right now, his biggest challenge is Clayborn, and he's taking it as seriously as he does an upcoming battle with John Abraham or Will Smith. Morris told a story of Penn asking permission to miss a morning walk-through on Monday because he wanted to conserve his energy for his first full-pads battle with Clayborn. The request wasn't honored (and may not have been totally serious in the first place) but the point was made.
"We all know he's a big-time performer in games," said Morris. "But when he looks across [the line in practice] and sees number 94 with that hair hanging out of his helmet, I notice his stance gets a little bit lower, with more knee bend, more strike. It's a little more of a game-day attitude out of Penn then I normally would get and that's been fun. It's been fun watching those two."
Trueblood and Lee are going to have a similar experience on the right side when they return on Friday, because rookie Da'Quan Bowers and third-year man Kyle Moore have been bringing the heat, as well. Clayborn seems like the clear front-runner at right end, but the starting spot on the other end is still up for grabs. That means even more intense competition at that position, with Moore digging in and trying to take back the position he had at the start of 2010.
"It's awesome, man," said Morris. "It's reinvigorating, that battle, that competition. It's amazing. [Moore] came back off an injury and he's getting his punch back. It'll be determined in pads what he can do. They have a nice little fight on their hands. I look forward to watching it when the pads go and we get a chance to play Kansas City that first week."
Catching On in the Passing Game
Last year, running back LeGarrette Blount took over the starting job in Week Seven, perhaps a week or three after the hue and cry arose for just that move. The Buccaneers were a little slower to push Blount past Cadillac Williams on the depth chart than some wanted, but they had a very good reason.
That reason wears jersey #5. Blount only joined the team on September 6, as a waiver claim from Tennessee, and his knowledge of the Bucs' protection scheme was a work in progress. A missed assignment in the backfield on Blount's part, and Josh Freeman could take a hard hit he otherwise would have avoided. Especially in comparison to Williams, who was an outstanding pass protector, Blount had a ways to go in that area of his game.
Obviously, the move did come eventually and Freeman survived the season, and in fact thrived. Still, Williams came into the game on most of the team's third downs, when a pass was likely, in order to provide that protection as well as a nice outlet receiver out of the backfield.
Blount has had much more time now to get the protection schemes down, though the work stoppage kept him from getting any offseason tutelage. He's improved in that regard, and he's working on getting even better so he can be on the field for a greater percentage of the Bucs' plays.
"With LeGarrette, we'd like to make him more of an every-down back as opposed to just a first-down back," said Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson. "He's learning protections, he's learning the route concepts and where he's going to be when he gets out in a route. The expansion of [his] knowledge of the offense should help us considerably."
And if he plays on more third downs, he inevitably will find himself leaving the backfield at times. Olson thinks Blount can be much more than a decoy as a pass-receiver, and that he can go well past the five catches for 14 yards he had in 2010.
"We think so," said Olson. "We like what he's shown us thus far. I think it's always an ongoing process with LeGarrette. He's real-self motivated, he's got a passion about the way he plays, and he works at it. So I don't think there's any reason to think he can't get better as a pass receiver."
Good Health, and Reinforcements Arriving
The Buccaneers have been practicing for almost an entire week at this point but their training camp injury report remains mercifully short. Obviously, that can be attributed, at least in part, to the lighter practice schedule mandated by the new CBA. Certainly, the Buccaneers have seen far worse injury lists at the end of the first week of camp in previous years.
The team's distinct youth probably plays a factor in the avoidance of injuries as well. Whatever the reasons, the Buccaneers will take it. On Wednesday, the only players who missed all or part of practice due to physical concerns were tight end Luke Stocker, fullback Erik Lorig, defensive tackle Brian Price and defensive end Da'Quan Bowers.
Price and Bowers aren't suffering from any new injuries of note, though Price did take a helmet to the thigh on Monday. Rather, they are following cautious plans to make sure their recoveries from pre-existing injuries remain on track. Morris said the Buccaneers are simply limiting Bowers' snaps in subtle ways here and there, such as giving him only one rep in the one-on-ones with offensive linemen instead of the customary two in rapid succession. Price has more stiffness and soreness to work through regarding his previous hip injury, but Morris has been extremely impressed with the young player's toughness.
"It's going to take some time to see what an injury does to a player," said Morris, who couldn't closely follow Price's progress during the work stoppage that took up most of the offseason. "It reveals and it builds your character and for him get ready to come into camp and be ready to actually put on pads and play, he deserves a lot of credit for that. I don't' know if any of us can do that."
Stocker sustained his hip injury on the first day of training camp and Lorig his foot injury the next afternoon. Stocker's is the more serious of the two, and he was been termed "week-to-week," but Morris said on Wednesday that the rookie tight end was "a lot better than everyone else thought" he would be at this point.
"He is week to week," said Morris of Stocker. "So we are going to get him back in a couple of weeks. It's going to be a pain tolerance thing here in a bit. So that's encouraging for us."
The reduced practice load will get even a little bit lighter at some positions in the coming days with the return to work of the team's re-signed free agents. That group includes guard Davin Joseph, tackles Jeremy Trueblood, James Lee and Demar Dotson, linebackers Quincy Black and Adam Hayward, kicker Connor Barth, safety Corey Lynch, cornerback Elbert Mack, defensive tackle Frank Okam, wide receiver Micheal Spurlock, quarterback Rudy Carpenter and defensive end Michael Bennett.
Assuming the NFLPA ratifies the CBA, those players will all be eligible to practice at 4:00 p.m. on Thursday, but the Buccaneers have a special teams-only workout scheduled for that afternoon. The team will finally be fully intact on the practice field on Friday.
"We'll have a special teams practice tomorrow afternoon so Davin and Trueblood will have another day off," said Morris. "We'll get those guys back. When they get back we'll get them out there and let them play."