Buccaneers new and old got down to business on Tuesday during a heavily-attended voluntary workout
The college scouts were in town, 75 players were on the practice field and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were working to get dozens of new faces acclimated into their system. Did somebody skip a month on the schedule?
On Tuesday, in a scene reminiscent of a typical post-draft mini-camp, usually held on the last days of April and the first days of May, the Buccaneers held their first 'Organized Team Activity' day of 2004. On April 6.
It was a voluntary workout, yet virtually every player on the roster was at team headquarters, excluding those men playing overseas in the NFL Europe League. This kind of work is usually only possible for a team with a new head coach and thus an extra allotted mandatory mini-camp, but a busy March on the free agent market and an obviously dedicated veteran roster allowed Tampa Bay to get an early start on 2004.
"I'm very pleased," said Gruden at the end of Tuesday's 90-minute field session. "We've got a lot of guys here for this time of year, working hard, and we got a lot of good work done."
Cornerback Brian Kelly, recovering from a severe chest injury, kept pace with fullback Mike Alstott, coming off neck surgery. Joey Galloway, the Bucs' new speed receiver showed off his burst and quick cuts. An offensive line loaded with veteran talent, new and returning, began to sort itself out. There were encouraging sights all over the two fields flanking One Buc Place to the west.
Even before the draft, set for April 24-25, the Bucs have inflated their offseason roster to near its limit of 80 players, adding close to 20 new men through free agency and trades. The Bucs have commonly used all of their 'OTA' days in May and June, usually in successive weeks, but they chose to switch a handful of them to early April this season to take advantage of the brimming depth chart. By having these workouts before the draft, the Bucs can get a better idea of which holes they've managed to plug sufficiently and which will need attention on draft weekend.
"You can't have a practice like this before the draft unless you put coaches on the service squad, or whatever," said Gruden. "But when you've got three and four deep at certain positions, let's take them out here, let's get three good days before the draft, see what we have, see where we are and use the draft as another vehicle to address any needs we feel we have."
It's also safe to say that the Bucs are eager to put their new assemblage of talent on the field. Gruden was quick to point out on Tuesday that the Bucs still have a large percentage of the players that made up last year's roster, but they've admittedly augmented that talent base with an intriguing free-agent haul.
"Once again, we've got a lot of guys who do know each other," said the coach. "You either acquire 20 guys after the draft or 20 guys before the draft. I don't know that it's foreign that much to anybody. But to get these guys together this early is going to give us another month to prepare for training camp. Hopefully, we can get these guys on the screws in terms of their assignments so they can get in a rhythm and go out there and max out their abilities."
Many of the new Bucs have experience with either Gruden's system or a similar one, and that's not by accident.
"That's one of the reasons you acquire a veteran player sometimes," said Gruden. "It's a system intelligence, a background. Matt O'Dwyer has a system background with Bill Muir. Derrick Deese, in the 49er offense, has a system background, as does Charlie Garner. So that, obviously, is a part of our thought process in acquiring free agents, guys that fit your system. Their comfortable with what we're doing and hopefully it makes for an easier transition.
"I was really impressed with the way they processed information on the grass for the first time together."
Alstott in Great Shape
Even amid all the new faces, few sights were more encouraging on the Bucs' practice field Tuesday than that of Mike Alstott, apparently back in Pro Bowl form.
Alstott was picked for every Pro Bowl from 1997-2002, but a neck injury in September cut short his 2003 season and led to some speculation about his career being finished. Upon announcing his move to the injured reserve list last fall, Alstott vowed he would be back on the field for 2004, and he has worked hard to make good on that vow ever since.
After undergoing surgery, Alstott began his rehab program in November, and has hit it hard ever since. On Tuesday, he practiced without limitations after getting clearance from a team of medical experts.
"I know in my mind that I'm healthy, and I'll be able to play," said the Bucs' all-time leader in touchdowns. "Medical experts with experience with this injury have released me to play, and I feel great. If I didn't feel great, then even if the doctors told me I was released I'd be a little hesitant. But I have no symptoms, I feel like I can do everything, and I do everything.
"I can tell my body is normal now. I have no pain, I have no symptoms and I do everything the same as the other guys. Nothing's keeping me back from any of the drills, so I feel great."
Gruden said after the workout that Alstott looked sharp, not to mention highly motivated.
"This is football, and he loves football," said Gruden. "Loves it. I just think, deep down he can't wait to get started. He's just sorry we can't put the pads on, I think, or two-a-days. He's ready to go again tomorrow."
Alstott acknowledged that his neck injury was a bit frightening at the time, but he had no troubling symptoms prior to the ailment and he feels good as new now. He won't get to take a full-contact hit until training camp, and that's obviously the next hurdle, but Alstott isn't worried about holding up.
"I think it's just a matter of confidence, getting confidence back after taking that first hit," he said. "But I think I'll be fine. My neck and my body are in such great shape because I've been working since November. I won't have any worries."