Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A Tight Spot

Like an early presidential primary, the Bucs’ tight end situation has a lot of candidates and no obvious consensus

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TE Dave Moore may be catching a lot of passes in 2000

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line underwent a fairly major renovation early this spring. The team's receiving corps was instantly transformed by the addition of one man. The linebacking crew is almost intact, but Jamie Duncan's insertion into the spot vacated by Hardy Nickerson is an obvious change for the defense.

All of these unit overhauls are significant, but they occurred long enough ago that the team has adjusted and accepted them. In contrast, two weeks into training camp, the team's tight end situation seems unresolved.

Mind you, this uncertainty is not a negative thing. The Bucs' tight end corps is in flux in part because there is a new offense being installed that, many suspect, will take more advantage of that position. Just as importantly, there is a long list of qualified candidates.

There are seven tight ends currently on the Buccaneer roster. Unless you're a fly on the wall in the coaches' conference room, you're probably no closer after Friday's game to knowing which three, or possibly four, will comprise the final unit.

"All those guys need to show that they can be physical, be contact players, be good cover guys on special teams because they can all get open and catch the ball," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy, not willing to name any frontrunners.

Dungy's contention was borne out in the Redskins game, as a variety of Buccaneer tight ends combined to snare eight catches for 92 yards and one touchdown. Four different tight ends caught exactly two passes. Another was a surprise addition to the starting lineup while yet another was a last-minute scratch. Got all that? Maybe we need to be a little more specific.

A recap of the principles in this play give you an idea of what an unusual mix of players and situations the team has to sort through.

The starter remains Dave Moore, and some wonder if he has a career year in front of him. Noting his reputation for soft hands and the active role tight ends played in Steckel's offense in Tennessee, some observers think Moore could see the type of numbers recently put up by Titan tight end Frank Wycheck. Helping Moore is his dual ability to catch and block, a collection of talents that should keep him on the field.

Validating this idea was Moore's visible role in the offense in the preseason opener, when he caught two passes for 23 yards despite being in for only about a quarter of the game. Moore's two receptions came on back-to-back snaps, but on plays that took him to very different areas of the field.

Where to go next on the list is the difficult question. The incumbent number two is Patrick Hape, a rugged blocker, one of the team's best supporters in the running game in recent years. The problem is, Hape has yet to play or practice regularly in Steckel's system due to a foot fracture that is just now approaching full healing. Hape was cleared to play on Friday but experience soreness in pregame warm-ups and was held out at the last minute. He hopes to play in Miami on Thursday.

The Bucs' number-three of a year ago, John Davis, is no longer with the team. Davis was mostly a pass-catcher, but the two veterans the team brought on in the offseason are more well-rounded in their resumes. Fifth-year player Lovett Purnell took many of the first-team snaps during the spring and early summer when both Hape and Moore were sitting out, and he showed an ability to get open and catch the ball. Purnell is already familiar with the role of bookend to a prolific receiving tight end, having adopted that position opposite Ben Coates in New England for two years. Purnell caught two passes for five yards against the Redskins.

The other veteran on board is Henry Lusk, who proved he could put up receiving numbers as a rookie in New Orleans in 1996. Lusk caught 27 passes for the Saints that year, which just happens to equal Dave Moore's career high, set that same year. How is Lusk's blocking? Well, he's a compact 250 pounds, and he was in on the Bucs' first play from scrimmage against the Redskins in a two-tight end, one-back formation. That's the role Hape has played in the last few seasons, and a good indication that the team likes Lusk's work in the running game. He is also a gamer, having suffered a fracture in his right hand last week but returning to practice two days later wearing a cast.

From there, you go to the rookies and first-year players, and that's where it got interesting Friday night. Todd Yoder certainly helped his name recognition by catching the game-winning touchdown pass on a fourth-down pass from Joe Hamilton in the game's final minutes. Did he help his roster chances at the same time? Perhaps, but he likely did himself more good on special teams, where he was the only Buc credited with two kick-coverage tackles.

"We've got different types of players, so it's going to come down to special teams and who can shine out of that group," Dungy said about the competition.

James Whalen has already enjoyed good name recognition in Tampa after being drafted in the fifth round out of the University of Kentucky this past April. Whalen was a pure pass-catching tight end for the Wildcats, hauling in 90 balls as a senior last year to set a new NCAA record for his position. Those numbers intrigued Buc fans after the draft, considering the word about the tight ends' role in Steckel's attack.

Unfortunately for Whalen and Buc fans, a hamstring injury early in camp has kept him on the sideline for the past two weeks. "James Whalen hasn't practiced really at all and we're still wanting to see him," said Dungy. "We feel like he can catch the ball and do some things in the passing game"

Rounding out the Bucs' young trio is Jason Freeman, a first-year player just back from a nice stint in the NFL Europe League. The team liked Freeman last year when he showed promise as a rookie free agent in training camp. That prompted the team to re-sign the former Oklahoma Sooner after the 1999 season and send him overseas. He proceeded to catch 19 passes for the Berlin Thunder and also stand out on special teams.

Friday, Freeman saw extensive action in the second half and was able to haul in two passes for 24 yards. Like the other rookies, he is considered a strong pass catcher.

"We have a lot of guys that can contribute and do different things," said Dungy. "We'll play Dave just a little bit, and Patrick (in Miami) – those two are our best blockers. We haven't had them much in combination too much this year. But the other guys can all do different things. They're going to be kind of specialists and see who rises to the top. Todd Yoder stepped up and did well. Jason Freeman had a good night (against Washington), getting open and catching the ball once he settled down a little bit. Our two veteran guys – Henry Lusk and (Lovett) Purnell – can do some things as well."

This is, as they say, 'a nice problem to have.' The Bucs have gone into and out of the last few training camps with no real mystery about what players will form the tight end unit. Moore, of course, expects there to be no real turnover in the starting lineup, but it appears quite possible that the crew as a whole will have a new look and a higher profile in the attack.

Two weeks into camp, and it's still a mystery, at least from the outside looking in. Stay tuned on Thursday for the latest polls.

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