Tryout Players Can Hit it Big

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Earlier this offseason, former Tampa Bay Buccaneers wideout Adam Humphries signed a lucrative new deal in free agency with the Tennessee Titans. The reaction to this development from Humphries former teammates in Tampa was nearly universal. In so many words: Hate to see him go, love to see him get what he deserves.

Humphries' journey from Clemson to his first really big NFL contract was atypical, and there's more on that below. The short version is that, immediately after the 2015 draft, he was in no-man's land. Not only had Humphries gone undrafted, but he also hadn't received an offer from any NFL team as a rookie free agent. He did, however, get an invite to try out in the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp – a tenuous NFL foothold indeed – and that's where it all began.

Humphries' story can serve as an inspiration for the several dozen young men who will take their first NFL steps in the exact same way this weekend. And he's not the only one. The Buccaneers bring in tryout players every year to flesh out the roster of their rookie camp, and just as importantly to see if there are any diamonds left in the draft's rough. And every year a couple of those players end up with spots on the 90-man roster. That was true last year for University of Indianapolis guard Ruben Holcomb, who currently holds a spot on the Bucs' 2019 roster, for example.

It remains to be seen if Holcomb's career will continue to progress the way Humphries' has, but the opportunity is there. Somebody will make the most of that opportunity, whether it be this year or the next. Last spring, we highlighted five players, including Humphries, who went from tryout status to prominent roles. Here they are again, listed in chronological order.

1. RB Clifton Smith, 2008

Despite putting up nearly 1,000 yards from scrimmage and averaging 6.3 yards per carry in his senior season at Fresno State, running back Clifton Smith was neither drafted nor immediately signed as a rookie in the spring of 2008. The reason was simple: He was perhaps generously listed at 5-8 and 190 pounds.

And, indeed, Smith never spent much time playing offense in the NFL. Over three seasons with the Buccaneers, Dolphins and Browns, he totaled 12 carries and six receptions. But Smith had one skill that definitely played in the NFL: He was an electric return man on both kickoffs and punts.

That same spring, the Buccaneers had used a second-round pick on Appalachian State wide receiver Dexter Jackson, in part to take advantage of his return skills. It would turn out to be one of the most unfortunate draft picks in franchise history – a second-rounder who played seven career NFL games – but Jackson did start the '08 season with the Bucs' return job in his possession.

Meanwhile, Smith started the season on Tampa Bay's practice squad, which was already a win for the former tryout player. After seven games, the Buccaneers gave up on the Jackson plan and promoted Smith to the active roster. Smith immediately took over the punt and kickoff jobs, and never looked back. In fact, by the end of the season he was in the Pro Bowl, becoming just the third undrafted rookie in league history to earn that honor.

In just his second NFL game, Smith took a kickoff back 97 yards for a touchdown in Kansas City. At the time, it was the longest kickoff return in franchise history (Sammie Stroughter tied that record a year later) and just the second one ever to find the end zone. Smith had 232 kickoff return yards in that game, helping spark the biggest comeback in franchise history. The Buccaneers were down 24-3 before his touchdown but would storm back to win, 30-27, in overtime.

Just two weeks later, Smith scored on a 70-yard punt return at Detroit. He would finish the season with stellar averages of 27.6 yards per kickoff return and 14.1 yards per punt return, and he would represent the NFC in the Pro Bowl, the first and only Buccaneer returner to do so.

Unfortunately, Smith took a brutal and illegal hit while trying to fair catch a punt against Carolina in 2008 and then again in 2009, resulting in a concussion and a knee injury. Though he had another good year in 2009, leading the league with an average of 29.1 yards per kickoff return, those hits took their toll and he finished his career with a final season split between Miami and Cleveland in 2010.

2. T Demar Dotson, 2009

Like Jimmy Graham and Antonio Gates, Dotson was primarily a basketball player in college. He played only one season and six games on the gridiron for Southern Miss, seeing action as a defensive tackle. Dotson didn't quite have the skill set to play tight end, like a lot of hoopsters-turned-NFL players, but the Buccaneers did like his combination of 6-9 size and nimble feet.

Dotson came to Tampa as a tryout player in the spring of '09 but it was quickly clear that his skill set was intriguing enough to keep him around a lot longer. He got signed to the active roster as an offensive tackle, went to training camp and earned a spot on the regular-season roster. Dotson was still raw as a football player, so he was inactive for half of his rookie season and a reserve for the other half. He landed on injured reserve in his second season, but the Buccaneers still signed him to a new contract in the spring of 2011.

After that, Dotson's career took off. He recorded his first two starts in 2011 as an extra lineman in jumbo packages, and shortly into 2012 he took over as the starting right tackle. Barring some time lost to injuries in 2015 and 2017, he has been there ever since. Before he lost the last five games of the 2017 campaign he was having one of his finest seasons yet, and he came back from that knee injury to start all but one game in 2018. As the Buccaneers approach Dotson's 11th year in the league, he is still slated to man the right tackle position.

3. DE George Johnson, 2010

Johnson has played for four different teams and has had to move around quite a bit, but seven seasons and 8.5 sacks is still much more of an NFL career than most tryout players produce. And Johnson isn't done; he signed a renegotiated contract with the Saints in March and is headed to training camp in New Orleans.

Johnson didn't get drafted or initially signed after recording 13 sacks and 31.5 tackles for loss in 51 games at Rutgers. He came to Tampa to try out and was quickly signed after excelling in the rookie camp at One Buccaneer Place. He started his rookie campaign on the Buccaneers' practice squad and was later promoted to the active roster in December, though he was inactive for the final three games.

It would take a couple more years and a couple more teams for Johnson to get his career off the ground, and to eventually circle back to Tampa. He once again started on the Bucs' practice squad in 2011 and once again got promoted, this time seeing action in four games before landing on injured reserve. He split the 2012 campaign between Tampa Bay and Minnesota, totaling seven games played, was on the Vikings' roster for part of 2013 and then signed with Detroit in the spring of 2014.

It was with the Lions that Johnson finally broke out, playing in all 16 games for the first time and contributing six sacks. That piqued the Bucs' interest again – by this time, there was a new player personnel department, with Jason Licht now the general manager – and they attempted to sign Johnson as a restricted free agent. That eventually turned into a trade, with the Bucs sending a fifth-round pick to the Lions for Johnson and a seventh-round selection.

Johnson played in 11 games and made five starts for Tampa Bay in 2015, though he failed to record a sack and then spent 2016 on injured reserve. This past season, Johnson had a four-game stint back with the Lions and then was a late addition to a much-improved Saints defense during the playoff stretch run after New Orleans lost rookie end Trey Hendrickson to an injury. That proved to be a fortuitous signing for New Orleans, as Johnson had 2.5 sacks in just three games to close out the regular season. He then started both of the Saints' playoff contests. Johnson went back to training camp with the Saints last year but was released at the end of the preseason and did not play in the league in 2018.

4 and 5. WRs Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries, 2015

The Buccaneers drafted wide receivers Kenny Bell and Kaelin Clay in 2015 and added three other wideouts as undrafted rookies before their mini-camp. That squad also had Mike Evans coming off a brilliant rookie campaign, Vincent Jackson returning for his fourth season as a Buccaneer and productive veteran Louis Murphy. It didn't look like the ideal scenario for a young and unknown receiver to make the roster, but when you are given an opportunity to try out, you have to take it.

Dye, from noted football powerhouse Heidelberg, took it. So did Humphries, who played under brighter lights at Clemson but was generally overshadowed by pass-catching teammates (deep breath) Sammy Watkins, DeAndre Hopkins, Martavis Bryant, Mike Williams and Jaron Brown. Dye and Humphries performed well enough that, about a week, later, the Buccaneers decided to sign the two of them and release wide receivers Solomon Patton and Chandler Jones.

Both would play in the regular season, too, though they wouldn't be on the roster together until Week Seven. Humphries made the 53-man roster out of the gate, with Dye sliding onto the practice squad, then the Bucs switched those two in Week Five before bringing Humphries back up in Week Seven. They would end up playing a lot because Bell landed on injured reserve for the season, Clay didn't stick around long and those aforementioned veteran receivers – Evans, Jackson and Murphy – all ran into varying amounts of injury woes.

Dye ended up starting six games while Jackson was out, though Humphries was the more productive player, working out of the slot and catching 27 passes for 260 yards and a touchdown. And, as it turned out, Dye would only get into one more game in 2016 and not make the squad in 2017, while Humphries' share of the offense only continued to expand. He locked down that job in the slot, proved to be very good on quick screens and went on to rack up 219 receptions for 2,329 yards and nine touchdowns over four seasons.

Last year was Humphries' best yet, as he set career highs in every category with 76 receptions for 816 yards and five touchdowns. By the end of the 2018 campaign, he was recognized as one of the best slot receivers in the NFL and his value on the free agent market quickly became evident.

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Obviously, there have been many, many more players who came to One Buccaneer Place for a rookie mini-camp tryout but never visited again. Some of them eventually found success elsewhere, but there are countless names on previous Buccaneer tryout rosters that fail to ring a bell. Van Chew, Dedrick Poole (who hopefully now goes by Ded Poole), Bar'ee Boyd and Morkeith Brown, just to cherry-pick a few. Still, in addition to the guys above who made it, there are some interesting tryout-player notes from previous years. For instance:

- Florida State long-snapper Garrison Sanborn, who played his high school ball just a short walk from One Buc Place at Jesuit, was a tryout player for the Buccaneers in 2008. He was not signed by the Bucs that year, but the Buffalo Bills gave him a shot in 2009 and he won the job there and held onto it for nine years. The Buccaneers finally brought Sanborn home in 2017 and he handled all of the team's long-snapping duties the next two seasons.

- In 2007, the Bucs gave a spot in their rookie camp to Olympic sprinter Justin Gatlin, who was in the midst of a four-year doping ban. Gatlin had no football background beyond the 10th grade, but he tried out as a wide receiver that spring. The Buccaneers didn't bite, as it turned out, and Gatlin felt at the time that he was looked at by the coaches as a "track guy" and not a legitimate football player. As a track guy, he has had plenty of success, even after returning in 2010 from his ban.

- The Buccaneers gave a tryout to wide receiver Tim Brown…but not that wide receiver Tim Brown. The Brown that most NFL fans would recognize is the one who played 17 seasons in the NFL, almost all of it with the Raiders, and went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2015. That Tim Brown was also a Buccaneer, finishing his career with one season in Tampa in 2004 at the age of 38, in the process reuniting with his former Raiders coach, Jon Gruden. The second pass-catching Tim Brown to come through Buccaneer headquarters was a productive but diminutive wideout from Rutgers, one of the many Rutgers players who got a look during the Greg Schiano era (2012-13).

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