DT Anthony Bryant has looked like a new man in this year's training camp
A year ago, training camp was a one-dimensional struggle for then-rookie defensive tackle Anthony Bryant. A huge man whose roster listing of 336 pounds is probably a bit modest, Bryant struggled with his conditioning and quite often couldn't finish the team's two-hour practices. That stumbling block kept Bryant from realistically attacking any of the other challenges that usually face NFL rookies. His progress stalled.
In one of the more underrated success stories of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason, Bryant vastly improved his conditioning and stamina during the spring and summer – he now has a much more functional hugeness – and reported to camp ready to break out of last year's rut.
And so he has. With that one hurdle cleared, Bryant is now facing down each and every subsequent challenge – the heat, the playbook, the Bucs' deeper offensive line, the scrutiny of his coaches, the internal competition – and conquering them all. He is now a multi-dimensional prospect. You would be hard-pressed to find a player who has had a better first week of training camp than the personable second-year man from Alabama, and you simply cannot find a more improved player.
"I make it through a whole practice now with no problem, which helps me stay on top of things," said Bryant. "The heat's not a problem, nothing's a problem. It's just me now, putting it all together. I've put all of that together, and I'm working on it day-by-day, just getting better."
The Bucs weren't thrilled with Bryant's physical shape when he reported to Tampa after being drafted in the sixth round in 2005, and the rookie had problems even during the first rookie mini-camp. Still, the team obviously believed in Bryant's hidden well of talent because they made a spot for him on the 53-man roster and kept him there for the entire season. He was active for the first three games and saw a handful of reps but then was deactivated for 11 of the final 13 games, usually in favor of fellow defensive tackle Jon Bradley.
The Bucs' patience – a term we use in a relative sense, having seen the practice-field reaction to players who disappoint – appears to be paying off. Bryant is tearing it up on the Disney training camp fields and the coaching staff has noticed.
"I'm really happy with him," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Last year he wasn't able to go wire-to-wire in practices. He typically pulled himself out. He had a hard time with hydration, wasn't acclimated to the speed of practice and his endurance and stamina wasn't what it needed to be. He has very much talent. He's a load in there. He can move the pocket and he's a very good pass-rusher right now."
The improved conditioning is the most obvious change in Bryant, but he claims to have made major progress in another area: understanding the playbook.
"I've gotten into a whole lot better shape, dropped about 10 or 15 pounds and improved my stamina," he said. "But really the main thing is more mental. I know what's going on, I know the tempo and the speed. Last year, I didn't know what was going on, I was just put into the fire. This year, I know how to control it, how to handle myself. So this is a whole lot better.
"I think I've got the whole package physically, but now it's just mental."
The whole package? Bryant's self-assessment, uttered without any apparent cockiness, might be more accurate than you think. Obviously, with his sheer bulk and core strength – he owns several Alabama weightlifting records – he is correctly perceived as a defensive tackle who can occupy multiple blockers and plug the middle. His nickname is "Bear," which is the obvious product of going to Alabama and being named Bryant, but it suits his physical makeup as well.
What might not be so obvious, what was kept in a bottle last year by his conditioning problems, is Bryant's speed. Watch him in the bag drill during practice, as players weave in and out of four large dummies before lunging at the fifth one standing in as the quarterback, and you'll be stunned by his speed. That guy, the one who just flashed through those drills like a defensive end? That's Anthony Bryant?
"Yeah, I've got good agility from playing basketball," he said. "A lot of people don't realize how quick I am for my size. It's pretty good. I pride myself on my quickness."
So, size, strength and speed…what's missing? Only opportunity, and that could be Bryant's biggest obstacle, the one he will find most difficult to overcome this summer. The Bucs aren't exactly thin at defensive tackle, with Anthony McFarland and Chris Hovan starting and Ellis Wyms and Jon Bradley providing strong back-up. Buoyed by his strong camp, Bryant remains confident.
"I see myself playing," he said. "It's up to me to get in there more. I have to know my stuff so that I don't go out there and make a mental error. That's why I say it's more about the mental side for me right now, and that's going great for me right now. It's going to be a good season for me."
With McFarland and Hovan still in their primes, however, it's not currently clear how the team will get Bryant on the field. Fortunately, he sees it differently.
"I think they're going to have a hard time keeping me off the field," said Bryant.