Last year, a mid-August hamstring injury turned what appeared to be a promising rookie campaign into four months on the sideline for Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Kenny Bell, but it was hardly a "lost season." The Buccaneers' coaching staff made a point of keeping Bell involved in the team's day-to-day activity, even taking him on every road trip despite his injured-reserve status. The fifth-round pick out of Nebraska was all too eager to take advantage of that opportunity, and he kept himself in Dirk Koetter's playbook right along with his active teammates.
"I couldn't have gotten more involved with the team than last year in terms of everything we did," said Bell. "I was at meetings every morning, I was at practice, I attended everything that we did and I was blessed that they took me on the road, so that part is very comfortable, very familiar with me, so now it's getting out there and starting to make plays."
Photos from the second day of voluntary veteran mini-camp for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
That's what Bell never got a chance to do, past the point he hurt his hamstring: put what he was learning into action on the field. That missed opportunity has him eager to make up lost ground this spring.
"Going through camp and going through everything I was pretty familiar with the offense," said Bell. "So the playbook has never been too big of an issue. What I'm more focused on is the reps. That's where you garner respect in this game. The guys I'm sure enjoy having me around, I like to think I'm a good guy and I like to have fun, but the way you really garner respect from the team, from coaches, from guys that play this game, is playing on Sundays."
Bell looked like he had a shot to do that last season after turning heads in the offseason program not long after he was drafted. He was declared a "steal" by multiple draft analysts and considered a real competitor for the third-receiver spot behind the starting tandem of Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. The Bucs thought the big-play ability he showed off at Nebraska might translate to the NFL and add a new dimension to their attack.
Instead, veteran Louis Murphy was the early-season complement to Evans and Jackson and, truthfully, Murphy might have won that job even with a healthy Bell on hand. But then Murphy went down with a season-ending knee injury of his own and that opened up sizeable opportunities for Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye, a pair of undrafted rookies.
The Buccaneers began their 2016 offseason program in mid-April, and this week they're conducting the extra voluntary mini-camp they are afforded thanks to a new head coach. Bell, now recovered from his injury, is back in action on the field, as are Humphries and Dye. With Murphy likely still sidelined until training camp, those would appear to be the primary competitors for the slot assignment during the spring. Bell, however, feels as if he's competing with – and working alongside – more than just those two fellow second-year wideouts.
"Any time you talk about stepping out here and competing with guys of this caliber, that's not just Hump and DD, that's everybody that's on the field," he said. "I'm trying to make this team, whether it's playing wide receiver, returning kicks or playing gunner – really anything I can do to get on the field and help this organization, that's what I'm interested in doing. So it's hard for me to say, 'Yeah, DD and Hump are my competition.' Those guys are in my room, so we're going to compete hard against each other regardless. But really I'm just interested in making this team and making us a better organization."
Bell manned the gunner position on punt-coverage units during his four years with the Cornhuskers, and he also returned kicks. Koetter mentioned earlier in the spring that Bell would be a candidate for the Bucs' wide-open kickoff return job. Bell did not cover kickoffs at Nebraska, but he's clearly willing, and this week he's been involved in the special teams portion of practice.
At the core of it, Bell is just thrilled to be back on the field. He got everything he could out of his 'redshirt' rookie season at One Buccaneer Place, but he knows he hasn't proven anything on the field yet. That's why he's approaching his second NFL offseason with even more intensity and determination.
"I couldn't be more thankful to be out here," said Bell. "I'm just excited anxious with how much time really passed before I got to strap a lid on and get after it. I mean, it felt good to be back out here. As far as understanding the system and how things work it's a whole new level as far as comprehending everything that's going on just because you know, I was lucky I was kept around last year. But mentality-wise, as far as attacking the game and trying to make this team, it might multiply ten-fold."