TE Will Heller has proven to be more than just a blocker in his two seasons with the Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have paid a lot of attention to the tight end position this offseason.
Former Jet Anthony Becht, a five-year starter, was the team's first big free-agent acquisition of the spring. Two weeks ago, during the 2005 NFL Draft, the Bucs used a high third-round pick to snare downfield threat Alex Smith of Stanford. Now the team has taken care of in-house tight end business, too, re-signing exclusive rights free agent Will Heller.
Heller, a physical 6-6, 250-pound blocker with good hands, has made the most of a modest NFL beginning. The only undrafted rookie to make the Bucs' opening-day roster in 2003, he held onto his roster spot last year and has appeared in a total of 19 games with three starts. His career totals include 14 receptions for 113 yards and two touchdowns.
Heller saw his role increase in his second season, as he went from two receptions as a rookie to 12 in 2004. He saw action in 10 games last year, starting two, and made his biggest impact in a Monday night game at St. Louis, catching three passes for 21 yards and a score.
With the continued free agent status of Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley and the recent release of Billy Baber, Heller is now one of six tight ends on the Bucs' roster. In addition to Becht and Smith, the team also has long-time veteran Dave Moore, who spent most of his time at long-snapper last season, and first-year men Nate Lawrie and Robert Johnson.
Tampa Bay entered the offseason with three exclusive free agents and has now completed the business of re-signing that group. Exclusive free agents are players with two or fewer accrued seasons whose contracts have expired; if extended the necessary tender offers before the start of free agency, they may only negotiate with their current teams. The Bucs other two exclusive free agents were tackle Anthony Davis and wide receiver Edell Shepherd.
Levy Restaurants to Serve Fans at Raymond James Stadium
When the Buccaneers were searching for a company to manage the food and beverage operations at Raymond James Stadium, they drew upon their experiences at other venues around the NFL. Having seen and sampled the work of Levy Restaurants in such places as ALLTEL Stadium in Jacksonville, Ford Field in Detroit and the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis, the choice for Tampa was obvious.
"We are excited to be working with Levy Restaurants," said Buccaneers Senior Director of Business Administration Mike Newquist. "As we went around the country and toured stadiums, we discovered that the food and hospitality they provided their guests is second to none. They are a perfect fit for what we want to provide for our fans. We're excited to enter into this long-term partnership with Levy."
The Buccaneers announced their new partnership with Levy Restaurants on Friday. The agreement went into effect in April, giving North America's market leader in premium and concession sports and entertainment dining plenty of time to prepare for the beginning of the preseason in August.
Levy currently enhances the fan experience at the NFL facilities listed above as well as Green Bay's Lambeau Field and Kansas City's Arrowhead Stadium. This past February, the company served fans at Super Bowl XXXIX in Jacksonville.
"We're excited to be chosen by a team that shares our philosophy in creating an enhanced fan experience," said Andy Lansing, president and chief executive officer of Levy Restaurants. "Guests at Raymond James Stadium can now look forward to enjoying a great game in a unique venue, with spectacular food and hospitality."
Chicago-based Levy Restaurants is recognized as one of the country's fast growing and most critically-acclaimed restaurant companies. The company owns, manages or operates 95 locations, including 24 restaurants and 71 sports and entertainment venues, in 41 markets across North America. Levy's portfolio includes award-winning restaurants such as Spiaggia and Bistro 110 in Chicago and Fulton's Crab House in Walt Disney World®.
Hilliard Returns to Florida Roots
When he chose the jersey he wanted to wear upon joining the Buccaneers on Friday, wide receiver Ike Hilliard new the number might hold some significance among the team's fans.
Hilliard is going with 19, which is sure to remind Buc rooters of another number 19 of the past. That's right – running back Essex Johnson.
Johnson was actually the first Buccaneer to wear 19 in a regular-season game, donning it for 14 contests in 1976. Quarterback Gary Huff took it on for the next two seasons before it was effectively mothballed for two decades. Wide receiver Brice Hunter briefly donned 19 in 1997 before switching to 88, but it is, of course, the most recent number 19 to which Hilliard indirectly referred. That would be wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who played four seasons for the Buccaneers (2000-03) and caught 298 passes before being traded to Dallas a year ago.
Hilliard isn't trying to make any connection to Johnson. He simply wants to wear the number he starred in at the University of Florida in the mid-90s. And that option is now open to him, since the league began allowing receivers to move into the teens last season. Prior to that, an NFL team could only put a receiver in a jersey in the teens if all possible 80 numbers were already in use. That's how Johnson originally ended up in 19 with the New York Jets before getting permission to stay in that number with the Buccaneers.
Hilliard didn't have that option when he was drafted by the Giants in the first round in 1997, so he slipped into 88 and wore that number for eight fine years in New York.
"After I was released by New York, I said that if I had the opportunity to play again, being that the league was a little more lenient as far as the numbers are concerned, I wanted to wear my old college number," said Hilliard. "I know what that number means to this organization, and what they may or may not have gone through, and that's the most I'll say about that. If there are any comparisons, I'll leave that to [the media]; I just want to wear my old number again and close that chapter with the 88 and move on. It's just great being back in Florida. I think I'm really going to have fun playing football again, so I'm looking forward to that."