Over the past two offseasons, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have invested two first-round picks and two-second round picks on defensive linemen. Obviously, there is reason for excitement regarding the future of that crew.
In the present – on the first day of Training Camp 2011 – there is also reason for scrutiny, as two of those four players arrive with health concerns that, collectively, rank as one of the top storylines of camp.
The top sack artist in the college ranks last year, Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, slid to the Buccaneers at pick #51 due to the knee surgery he required following his 2010 season. And Tampa Bay's second-round pick in 2010, UCLA defensive tackle Brian Price, played only five games as a rookie and underwent hip surgery during the offseason.
It was clearly one of the most encouraging sights of Day One at Bucs camp, then, when both Bowers and Price practiced with the rest of the team and potentially exceeded expectations.
While many teams saw too much uncertainty in Bowers' situation to gamble on him in April, the Buccaneers' research told them he was a good bet to make an impact, not only in the future but in the early going of 2011. Bowers insisted on Thursday, reporting day for Buc players, that he was fully ready for the start of camp and that he intended to participate in every practice and be on the field for opening day.
Tampa Bay's coaching staff might be feeling more optimistic than ever after their first up-close look at the rookie pass-rusher in a Bucs uniform. In a normal offseason, they would have had the team's training staff walking Bowers through every step of his rehabilitation. Without that advantage, there was a chance that the team would have to play catch-up when Bowers reported, but it appears the young defender has progressed rather well on his own.
"He was a guy that was going to come in and get better, and get better fast," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We knew he was going to be one of those guys, but we didn't quite know the plan and we'd have to figure it out here in camp. Without having the ability to develop that plan and go out and execute it in order to get him ready for he first game, I feel pretty good about it."
There were conflicting reports on Price's progress during the work stoppage, leading some to believe that the second-year lineman would have to open training camp on the physically unable to perform list (PUP). Instead, Price was right there in the mix with the rest of the Bucs' defensive line corps to start the first day of workouts.
"You're talking about a guy who went through offseason surgery, so I give him a lot of credit for having the ability and the strength to come back and be able to practice," said Morris. "Most people who go through those types of surgeries, they've got to go through all different types of plans to get prepared and be ready. I'm pretty excited about where he's going to be, looking at his short-space explosion. Getting him into better shape, being around this football team, being around his coaches – I'm really excited about where he's going to come and what he's going to bring to us. He's got the mentality I've talked about – don't worry about what your critics say. He's developed that over the last year. He's excited and I'm looking forward to seeing him be productive, and not just at 60% or 70% or whatever he was last year."
New Defensive Line Coach Keith Millard is getting his first opportunity to work with Price after joining the Bucs' staff this past winter. Millard is seeing what Buccaneer fans saw during Price's brief time on the field in 2010 before his season was undercut by injuries. For a big man, price is very quick off the line.
"He's doing really well, now, he's doing really well," said Millard. "He's coming off that ball and he's clubbing those bags and showing violence. He's just got to fight through his soreness, just like everybody.
"He's getting close. The thing that really surprised me, considering the surgery that he had, is how explosive he is off the ball. This guy is quick, now. He's explosive, very violent. He showed that from the get-go. Now we've just to get him moving around a little bit, doing some other things, getting him comfortable in his body again. He's going to be awesome."
Price still has work to do, but Morris insists that he will be a factor in 2011, in a manner that could apply just as easily to Bowers.
"Oh, he's going to help," said Morris. "The capacity of how much he's going to help is going to be determined by him. It's no different from a lot of our guys and a lot of our draft picks. They're going to help, but the amount of what they can do is going to be determined by how hard they work in training camp."
A Battle in the Middle
Second-year player Tyrone McKenzie, the former University of South Florida standout, was the first player into the rotation at middle linebacker as the Bucs started practice on Friday. That position has belonged to Barrett Ruud since 2007 but Ruud is currently an unrestricted free agent.
Teams may begin officially signing and re-signing unrestricted free agents on Friday evening, but even if signed those players cannot participate in on-field workouts until next Thursday, August 4. As such, McKenzie and two rookies – third-round pick Mason Foster and undrafted free agent Derrell Smith – are going to be taking the reps in the middle for at least a week.
Morris did not dismiss the possibility of Ruud returning to the Buccaneers but, as usual, he preferred to discuss those players he is currently able to coach on the field.
"You never close the door on anything," said Morris. "All those guys are always in negotiations. With everything being this close together, it's a little bit different than it's ever been. I'm optimistic. I'm going to coach. Whoever's in those seats is who I'm going to coach."
The Buccaneers drafted Foster out of Washington believing he could be as productive in the NFL as he was a Husker, where he racked up 378 tackles in his career and had 6.5 sacks as a senior. At the moment, however, McKenzie gets the first crack as he has been impressing Buccaneers coaches since his arrival midway through last season.
"McKenzie's a thumper," said Morris. "He's a big individual that's very good in the box. He has a demanding Mike-linebacker type of attitude. He's a no-nonsense type of guy. There are a lot of similarities to what Foster brings. Foster was a very active guy in college; we look to get that same active guy in the pros. Hopefully he can bring some of that nasty type of thump and swagger that you can get from different types of linebackers.
"There's a bunch of people there. There's Derrell Smith, there's Foster, there's McKenzie right now. Those are the guys in the seats. I'm excited. A new challenge, a new day, things you can do. You never know what's going to happen. Right now, everything has kind of gotten lumped together with free agency and the people coming in. We'll have a little bit of competition here in camp and it will be a lot of fun. At all positions - not just Mike 'backer."
McKenzie was drafted by the Patriots in the third round in 2009 but he missed his rookie season after sustaining a knee injury in New England's first mini-camp. He spent the first half of the 2010 season on New England's practice squad, but when the Patriots waived him the Buccaneers quickly snapped him up. A former Riverview High School prep star, he started his collegiate career at Michigan State but later transferred to USF on a hardship waiver in order to help out his family during a difficult time.
So that's twice McKenzie has returned to the Bay area to play. Looks like this is home. And now he's trying to make a home in the middle of the Bucs' defense.
"Tyrone was always interesting," said Morris. "He came here the middle of last year. He's a serious young individual that's a local homegrown talent that we kind of liked a lot. He chose to come here from New England. To bring in a guy like Foster, another serious-demeanor kid whose going to play a lot of positions – he's been playing for a long time and really has the mental capacity to play the Mike position – it's exciting. It's no different from Derrell Smith and some of the other guys that we have in that room. It's a great challenge for me as a defensive coordinator and as a head coach. I look at it as it's exciting and a challenge for these young men to go out there and compete and I think they look at it the same way. I think they look at it as an opportunity to go out there and play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."
A Valuable Head Start
There was no way for the Buccaneers' coaching staff to know if the offsite practices organized by quarterback Josh Freeman during the work stoppage would be of any real help. On Friday, Morris said he still wasn't sure, because he believed his roster was stacked with young players who would have prepared themselves anyway, but he appreciated the leadership skills Freeman showed in putting the workouts together.
According to second-year wide receiver Mike Williams, however, the value of those workouts was evident on the first day of training camp. Had it not been for Freeman's camp, the quarterback and his receivers might have been as mixed-up as they were a few weeks ago.
"Our first workout together, a lot of people it was like we forgot half of the playbook," said Williams. "We were out there thinking, 'What've I got on this?' Having those workouts let us come out here and execute today."
Williams quickly got back on track during Freeman's workouts, so he was able to hit the ground running on Friday. Of course, he proved to be an extraordinarily fast learner last offseason – he had a lock on a starting job by the start of training camp – so that shouldn't come as too much of a surprise. What's even more encouraging is that Williams now has that entire first season, in which he led all rookie receivers in catches and broke the Bucs' touchdown receptions record, to use as a base.
"I'm coming in and I'm knowing what I'm doing now," he said. "Last year, I was learning on the move. I had to learn while I was out there. Now I know what I'm doing, I know the adjustments and I just go out there and play."