The Buccaneers' 2016 rookie class arrived at team facilities on Thursday afternoon.
For 51 young hopefuls gathered at One Buccaneer Place this weekend, a journey begins on Friday afternoon, one they hope will lead to a lasting spot in the NFL.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will hold the first practice of their three-day rookie mini-camp on Friday, with the 51 participants facing different odds in that quest for a regular-season roster spot. Of those players, seven were chosen by the Buccaneers in last weekend's draft, 18 are additional rookies who were signed after the draft, three are first-year players from the team's pre-draft roster, and 23 are young men in town to participate on tryout contracts.
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and defensive end Noah Spence headline the show; the team's first two picks in the 2016 draft, Hargreaves and Spence are expected to be major contributors to a defense now run by new coordinator Mike Smith. Roberto Aguayo, a second-rounder who was chosen higher in the draft than any other kicker in franchise history, will also get his first opportunity to show off his leg at Buccaneer headquarters.
Though they were not selected during the draft's seven rounds, the 18 rookies signed by the Bucs shortly after the last pick will find an equal playing ground as they begin their pursuit of a roster spot. Auburn running back Peyton Barber, Notre Dame safety Elijah Shumate and West Georgia guard Dominique Robertson are some of the well-regarded prospects who will try to prove they should have been drafted after all.
But the three-day camp may be most critical for the 23 tryout participants, all of whom are hoping to take the next step and earn a spot on the Bucs' 90-man training camp roster. Even those who do not remain in Tampa after the weekend will have created video for scouts around the rest of the NFL, possibly creating another opportunity down the road. Last year, wide receivers Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries came to the Bucs' rookie camp on tryout contracts, which not only led to training camp invites but, eventually, regular-season roster spots and significant roles in the offense.
A look at the Buccaneers' complete rookie class.
Among this year's tryout players is Toledo quarterback Phillip Ely, who was a Tampa prep star at Plant High School before heading to Alabama. Ely transferred to Toledo after two seasons and got his first chance to start last fall, throwing for 2,695 yards and 23 touchdowns. University of South Florida quarterback Steven Bench will also get a look this weekend, as will two of his former Bulls blockers, guard Thor Jozwiak and center Brynjar Gudmunsson.
While many of this year's tryout players are rookies looking for their first exposure, like Dye and Humphries last year, there are also a few participants who have been in NFL camps before. Mike Thomas, a fourth-round pick by Jacksonville in 2009, caught 176 passes for 1,796 yards and seven touchdowns for the Jaguars and Lions from 2009-12. Much of that came under the guidance of Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter, who was the Jaguars' offensive coordinator during Thomas' first three seasons.
Justin Shirk's story might be even more intriguing. This is the second year that he has tried out during the Bucs' rookie camp, but the first time he's done so as an offensive player. As a rookie last year, Shirk came to Tampa as a linebacker out of Bloomsburg, and that exposure eventually led to him going to training camp with the Indianapolis Colts. This year, Shirk will try his hand as a tight end, most likely in the same sort of combination H-back role the team is planning for sixth-round draft pick Danny Vitale
Here's the complete roster for this weekend's rookie mini-camp at One Buccaneer Place: