For decades, the 40s were the forgotten set of 10 in the hierarchy of NFL jersey numbers. For one thing, the only positions who could wear a jersey in the 40s were running backs, defensive backs, tight ends and linebackers, and that lattermost position only got the "right" to do so in 2015. By that point, linebackers were pretty much entrenched in the 50s and 90s and a 40 jersey made a player look like camp fodder. You got the occasional back and DB in the 40s but most still preferred the 20s and 30s.
This was certainly true through most of Tampa Bay Buccaneers history. Who was the most famous player to wear a jersey number in the 40s before John Lynch came in and made 47 famous in the 90s? Probably running back Ricky Bell, #42 in your hears. Running back Jerry Eckwood had a couple good years in 43; Vernon Turner started out in that same number but had switched to 30 by the time he made history with the first punt return for a touchdown in franchise history; Wayne Haddix made a Pro Bowl in jersey number 45. No Buccaneer ever wore number 48 in a single game until 1997, and no one wore it for more than a season until long-snapper Andrew Economos came along.
But times have changed. The 40s have gradually come into vogue for linebackers and tight ends, and with edge rushers considered linebackers in many systems there's even more demand. In fact, the Buccaneers will start training camp this year with seven players in 40 numbers. That's actually the maximum number of 40 jerseys possible, as Lynch's number is officially retired and nobody gets Bell's 42 or Mike Alstott's 40 anymore.
All of which means this entry in our 'Camp Goals' series wasn't nearly as easy as it would have been a few short years ago, but it is quite a bit more interesting. As we continue to examine each player on the Bucs' current 90-man roster and guess at what his individual goals for camp may be, we come across a group that includes a Pro Bowl linebacker, not one but two 2022 draft picks, perhaps the squad's best special teams player, and more.
#41 TE Ko Kieft: The Buccaneers took this Minnesota tight end late in the sixth round – after trading up 17 spots to make sure it happened – because they considered him an absolutely dominant blocker. That is a skill that is difficult to put on full display in the offseason when no one is wearing pad and no real hitting or blocking is allowed. So for Kieft, after the NFL-mandated ramp-up period is over and the pads finally go on five practices into camp, the first goal will be to demonstrate that the scouts were right and he can still control the action at the point of contact at this level. Kieft only had 12 catches over four seasons with the Gophers, but he and the team may try to find out if there is untapped potential there because the Bucs will be looking to find some contributors to make up for the retirement of Rob Gronkowski.
#43 CB Ross Cockrell: A year ago, Cockrell became a prominent storyline in Bucs training camp when he started to cross train at safety and immediately made some splash plays (and when his sister, Anna, was running in the 400-meter hurdles in the Olympics). Cockrell's newfound positional versatility gave the Buccaneers some options when putting together their DB crew for the 53-man roster, but in the end the team never turned to Cockrell as a safety. Still, for the past two seasons he has proved to be valuable depth for a cornerback position that has endured a string of injuries. The Buccaneers added a cornerback in the draft (Zyon McCollum) and signed a couple undrafted rookies (Kyler McMichael and Don Gardner), and Dee Delaney was a standout in OTAs, so there will be plenty of competition for those cornerback depth spots this summer. Cockrell's camp goal could be to demonstrate that his experience, track record and versatility still make him valuable on the 53-man roster.
#44 OLB Elijah Ponder: The Buccaneers signed Ponder as an undrafted free agent out of Cincinnati last year and he had two different stints on the team's practice squad during his rookie campaign. Ponder started out as an interior lineman for the Bearcats but over the course of three seasons eventually saw action all up and down the line, eventually trimming his weight to 260 pounds. He has slimmed down even more since joining the Buccaneers, as they see him as exclusively an outside linebacker. That's a position where the Bucs have some talented players but not a huge amount of depth, which opens up opportunities for the likes of Ponder, Cam Gill and a couple new undrafted rookies. So Ponder's camp goals could include continuing to get comfortable at his sole position on the edge, and show that there is untapped potential there, enough to earn him a spot on the roster or at least a starting point on the practice squad.
#45 ILB Devin White: White made his first Pro Bowl in 2021 but in the end didn't finish with quite as many splash plays as his nine-sack regular season in 2020 and his incredible star turn in the Super Bowl run suggested he would make. To become his best self on the gridiron, White has a number of stated goals this year, including, as he put it, "being consistent with my diet, with my training,' so that he feels just as strong in the fourth quarter as the second. White also said he intends to be an avid film-watcher because, after some discussions with coach Larry Foote, he feels like the mental side is where his game can grow the most. White is extraordinarily confident in his physical skills but his goal, starting in training camp, is to be the type of cerebral inside linebacker that former Panther Luke Kuechly was during his superb career.
#46 OLB Andre Anthony: The Buccaneers landed the LSU edge rusher in the seventh round back in April, and he may have been available at pick number 248 because his final collegiate season was cut short by a knee injury. Anthony showed great promise as a pass rusher for four games in 2021 before that mishap, and the Bucs definitely have room on the depth chart for another edge player. Encouragingly, Anthony was able to take part in some offseason practice field work, so he'll be able to head into his first NFL training camp with his recovery all or mostly in the rear view mirror. That will allow him to focus on goals such as honing his pass-rushing techniques under the Buccaneers' outstanding coaching staff and showing he can put his excellent size-speed combination to good use on special teams.
#48 ILB Grant Stuard: The Buccaneers made several draft picks with an eye towards special teams in 2021, and that paid off in the seventh-round selection of Houston's Stuard. The last pick in that year's draft, Stuard was as good as advertised in the cover-and-return game and eventually led the team with 11 special teams tackles while also recording the only forced fumble on a return. He played 311 special teams snaps overall as a rookie. If Stuard merely remains that active and productive in the third phase of the game he will continue to be a valuable part of the 53-man roster. However, as a competitor, he likely has aspirations of developing into a contributor on defense, as well. With veteran Kevin Minter no longer in the mix, the Buccaneers have no real experienced depth behind White and Lavonte David, so there is room for both Britt and Stuard to step up if there is a need during the season, and perhaps in future seasons. Britt, a strong run defender, is likely first in line to step into Minter's role but Stuard will have his chance to compete, as well.
#49 OLB Cam Gill: Gill has essentially spent the last two seasons as the fifth man in the Bucs' outside linebacker rotation. That in itself is impressive enough for an undrafted free agent out of Wagner in 2020, but that spot in the rotation has led to just 122 regular-season defensive snaps in that time. He's shown some promise with those snaps, with 1.5 sacks last year and, memorably, a shared sack with Ndamukong Suh in Super Bowl LV. With Jason Pierre-Paul no longer on the team, there is room for advancement on the depth chart. Second-year man Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is expected to step into the starting lineup to replace Pierre-Paul, but that creates the possibility of Gill joining Anthony Nelson as the two primary backups. If he can advance in the OLB hierarchy, Gill could see his snaps increase and that could prove to be a big step forward in his career. The Buccaneers did use a draft pick on Anthony this spring, though, so there is competition for those spots. Gill will come to camp hoping to prove that an expanded role for him would provide good results for the Bucs' defense.