G Russ Hochstein, the Bucs' fifth-round selection in April, was one of four draft picks to agree to contract terms on Monday afternoon
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have nearly twice as many draft picks to deal with this year as they did in the summer of 2000 but, apparently, that won't slow down the process of getting them signed.
In late April, the Bucs added nine draft picks to their roster; just this week, the negotiations began to get these players under contract before training camp, which opens on July 29. The results were immediate.
Late Monday afternoon, the Buccaneers announced that they have agreed to terms with four of those draft picks: fifth-round guard Russ Hochstein, sixth-round fullback Jameel Cook, sixth-round defensive end Ellis Wyms and seventh-round safety Than Merrill. All four agreed to three-year contracts, the terms of which were not released, as is team policy.
That leaves five players still unsigned, but indications from One Buccaneer Place are that additional deals could follow quickly. In fact, General Manager Rich McKay, who heads up the team's contract negotiations with all players, appeared confident that the entire draft class will be signed expediently.
"Signing the draft picks is the final step in the process before training camp," said General Manager Rich McKay. "The sooner it is behind us the better, and this is one process that should go relatively quickly. The first-round pick always presents unique issues, but plenty of time remains to get that player signed before camp."
Still unsigned are first-round offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker, third-round cornerback Dwight Smith, fourth-round safety John Howell and a pair of seventh-round selections, tight end Dauntae' Finger and defensive end Joe Tafoya.
The team seems optimistic that the eight players other than Walker will be under contract by the end of this week, which would leave an additional week for the pursuit of a deal for the draft's 14th overall pick. Even that negotiation could go smoothly if the Bucs' recent history is any indication.
Players may attend offseason workouts and mini-camps if they are unsigned but may not report to training camp until they are under contract. Tampa Bay had all five of its 2000 draft picks in camp on time, which was certainly helped by the lack of first-round picks that year. The team's 1999 first-rounder, DT Anthony McFarland, missed just the first few days of camp. The team's last extended holdout into training camp time was QB Trent Dilfer in 1994.
Hochstein (6-4, 300) was drafted 151st overall in April after a standout career at that noted offensive powerhouse, Nebraska. He won All-Big 12 honors for three consecutive seasons and was considered a strong run blocker. He had impressed Buccaneer coaches with his athleticism in summer workouts before being sidelined with a stress fracture in his left foot, an injury that is expected to be healed by training camp.
Cook (5-10, 237) was taken 174th overall out of Illinois. As a collegian, he was considered a solid blocker with very well-developed pass-catching skills. Last fall for the Illini, Cook rushed for 215 yards on just 49 carries (4.4-yard average) and added 34 receptions for 218 yards. Cook also sustained a slight hamstring injury near the end of the summer workouts but will not be slowed for training camp.
Wyms (6-3, 279), taken 183rd overall, impressed Buccaneer coaches early with his inside-outside versatility, showing the potential to possibly fill a Tyoka Jackson-like swing role on the defensive line. A gifted pass-rusher, he collected 10 sacks in 40 career games at Mississippi State.
Merrill (6-3, 220) was the draft's 223rd selection overall and, as a Yale product, was one of three Ivy Leaguers taken on draft weekend. Cut from John Lynch cloth, Merrill is a heavy hitter who played both strong and free safety at Yale after transferring from Stanford. A first-team All-Ivy pick, he totaled 202 tackles and seven interceptions in 30 career games.