During Tom Crabtree's three years in Green Bay, the teams he played on compiled a 36-12 record in the regular season and won five playoff games, including Super Bowl XLV in February of 2011. Crabtree, who played in 46 of those 48 regular-season games and made 16 starts, obviously knows what it is like to be part of a talented roster.
After three years as a Packer, Crabtree has been a Tampa Bay Buccaneer for roughly two months, having signed with the team in March as a free agent. And even though the Bucs have just one winning season in the same three-year span, it's clear to the former Miami of Ohio standout that his current group of teammates is just as talent-laden as the one he left.
"Being here for a month, these are some of the best, most gifted athletes I've been around," said Crabtree after a recent organized team activity day (OTA) practice at One Buccaneer Place. "That's not taking anything away from Green Bay; they obviously have talented guys as well. But coming here there was no drop-off as far as the athleticism and talent of the guys."
It is on this apparently loaded roster that he will now try to carve out a more expansive role than the one he had in Green Bay. It wasn't necessarily Crabtree's idea to move on from the Packers – he wasn't extended the tender offer that would have in all likelihood kept him in Green Bay for at least one more year – but he's pleased with the result. While the Packers were loaded with tight ends and were fronted by proven pass-catcher Jermichael Finley (who got a $3 million roster bonus in March and will remain the team's starter), the Buccaneers have a tight end depth chart that has still to shake out.
After three years with Kellen Winslow and one with Dallas Clark as the starter and most obvious tight end target in the passing game, the Buccaneers currently have nobody on the depth chart at that position who has caught more than 16 passes in a season or played more than three full NFL campaigns. That makes for some uncertainty heading into training camp, but also for a very real opportunity for the likes of Crabtree and incumbent Luke Stocker, the team's fourth-round draft pick in 2010.
"Yeah, that is exciting," said Crabtree of the possibility of being more of a primary target in the passing attack. "Being a competitor, being a competitive guy, that's what you want. You want to challenge yourself. You want to show people what you do. You don't want to be afraid to take chances. That's kind of how I'm looking at it."
That being said, Crabtree is bringing a very simple approach to the beginning of his second NFL chapter. He made good use of some limited opportunities in Green Bay, most notably averaging 25.4 yards on eight catches last year and proving himself a very strong blocker, and he'll try to do the same with his new role in Tampa…whatever that proves to be.
"Make the team – that's my goal," said Crabtree. "I'm not going to sit here and say, 'I'm coming in and I want to the starter…I want to come in and be the number two guy.' Nothing like that. I want to come in…and if my role on this team is being on kick returns, if my role on the team is catching a bunch of balls…whatever it is, I want to do that and find a way to help the team win. Make the roster."
The Bucs were immediately interested when the Packers non-tendered Crabtree in March, essentially making him an unrestricted free agent one year earlier than expected. They knew the crowded tight end situation and salary cap issues in Green Bay had created the opportunity to grab a young player who could be on the rise. They had to study a little harder than on some free agents to find evidence of this possibility, but find it they did.
"Well, I think they had so many tight ends there," said Crabtree's new head coach, Greg Schiano. "He just didn't get the opportunity but you saw it when you studied him on tape. You had to dig a little bit but when he got the opportunity, he made plays. To me, there's physical traits and there's production."
It may be that the Buccaneers plan to combine the strengths of a handful of their various tight ends to get the production they want at the position. Crabtree may have untapped receiving potential and, at 6-5 and 244 pounds, is almost sure to help out with his blocking. Stocker is also considered a two-way player with room to grow into, perhaps, a number-one tight end in the NFL. Danny Noble, an undrafted player the Bucs grew to like a lot last summer, is back after spending much of his rookie season on injured reserve. Nate Byham and Zach Miller have more than a little NFL experience.
"Sometimes, you don't get a full page of production because there are other people there, but the physical traits lend you to believe that that production could be consistent if given the opportunity," said Schiano of Crabtree, in particular. "We feel that way but even saying that, I felt that Luke Stocker physically has developed himself more, practicing today at a higher level. I like that we're building quality depth there at that position."