Head Coach Raheem Morris told the rookies to work hard during their two weeks away from One Buc Place
In 2008, cornerback Aqib Talib tied for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' team lead in interceptions (four), offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah started five games at two different positions, linebacker Geno Hayes blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown in a big win over Carolina and running back Clifton Smith made the Pro Bowl as a return man.
The connection between the four is obvious. Talib, Zuttah, Hayes and Smith were all NFL rookies in 2008. They had an immediate impact on the Buccaneers' fortunes, just as Gaines Adams, Arron Sears and Tanard Jackson did in 2007 and Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood and Bruce Gradkowski did in 2006 and Cadillac Williams and Dan Buenning did in 2005 and…well, you get the picture.
Whether the Bucs were coming off a tough season, as they were in 2005, or were a veteran-laden defending division champion, as they were in 2008, there was room for rookies to make a difference. Thus, Tampa Bay's three-day rookie mini-camp this weekend was almost certainly the first Buccaneer work for at least a few players who will prove to be critical parts of the team's efforts this fall.
Josh Freeman will battle for the starting quarterback job, though he has several veterans he will have to overcome. Defensive tackle Roy Miller and defensive end Kyle Moore could quickly fit into the rotation up front. Wide receiver Sammy Stroughter and cornerback E.J. Biggers looked like anything but seventh-round picks during the weekend's three practices. And somewhere from among the three dozen tryout players whose names are unfamiliar at this point may come another Clifton Smith.
"You never want to leave anybody out when the season starts," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "You'd better hope those two young D-Linemen can help you. You never know what's going to happen at the quarterback position. You look at a guy like Sammie Stroughter come out and not look like a seventh-round pick and have the ability to do some things in the slot, play some wideout for you, maybe a little return man, whatever. Competition's everywhere, even though we've got a Pro Bowler [at kick returner]. You never know."
Of course, the only competition taking place this weekend was between fellow rookies and first-year players. The real test for these newcomers will be the upcoming practices with the full team, when they will have to stand up to the abilities and the knowledge of the team's veteran players. The rookies can return to One Buccaneer Place following May 16 and they will get a chance to compete alongside their new veteran teammates during six organized team activity days (OTAs) over the last two weeks of May.
Players who excelled on the One Buc practice fields this weekend should not convince themselves that it will be easy to do the same when the full team is together.
"That's kind of what we talked about a little bit today," said Morris. "What you talk about with the guys that are coming back is that they've got to get ready for when the vets are here. You can't go home and sit on your couch and think you're going to be ready when you get back because the tempo's going to be a little bit faster, the guys are going to be a little more intense, practice is going to be more intense. Your learning curve will have to go up.
"I sent them home with a message today in our team meeting and I hope they get it."
Freeman, who has stressed that his only goal at this point is to work as hard as possible, certainly got that message. He wants his veteran teammates to know that he is not taking anything for granted.
"Being the first pick, a lot of people have their questions about me," said Freeman. "I'm definitely going to go home and work out. I can't be up here, but I'm definitely going to be in contact with Coach Olie [Quarterbacks Coach Greg Olson) and going through my playbook so I'm up to speed when the veterans get in so I can maybe get in every now and then with them. Obviously, working hard is the bottom line. If I can come in here and work hard in the weight room, work hard in the film room, I think that will prove a lot to a lot of people."
QB or DB?
Without the tryout players that fleshed out the rookie mini-camp roster, the Buccaneers would have only one quarterback on the field. In order to take at least some of the burden off Josh Freeman's arm, the team brought in prospect Rodney Landers from James Madison.
Landers started 26 games for the Dukes and put up impressive career statistics, including a 35/9 TD/INT ratio and a 159.5 overall passer rating. Still, he is most likely a fringe prospect at the quarterback position, and despite the fact that everybody in the weekend camp was getting a fair look, Landers would have a tough time cracking the Bucs' overcrowded depth chart at that spot.
However, Sunday's practice might not have been the end of the story for Landers in Tampa. After the rest of the players left the field following the final workout, Landers was run through some drills by Morris, Defensive Backs Coach Joe Baker and Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia. The Bucs wanted to get a look at Landers as a defensive back, so they watched his back pedal and his hip turn and some of his other fundamental skills.
"We had to get another arm in here to play quarterback and we happened to run into an athlete," explained Morris after Landers' workout. "He showed some stuff in special teams periods. He's a six-footer who's 220 pounds and moves around pretty good.
"I'm a project guy so I want to see if I can get a project down here to work with. Maybe he comes back and he's a Wildcat quarterback, I don't know. Maybe he comes back and he's a DB for you. He can do some things for you. It's interesting. I don't know where it's going to go from here but I just wanted to get a look at him moving around in space a little bit as a defensive back. We were trying to get an evaluation of him."
The idea didn't completely come out of the blue. Landers worked out for scouts at several positions during the JMU Pro Day, though he was unable to run a 40-yard dash at the time due to an injury. He is certainly an unproven commodity, but that's essentially the case for most of the players on tryout contracts, and the Bucs seem to find interesting talent during this camp every year. Morris wants that to happen again, even if it means thinking a little bit outside of the box with Landers or another prospect.
"Anybody out here I try to evaluate," said the Tampa Bay coach. "I want to give everybody a fair chance. Some guys you stay on longer, some guys you get off a little bit, some guys bring you back as they perform. You try to evaluate everybody. You want to see them all. These guys are talented guys. You never know what you've got out there. Don't take anything for granted; look at them all."
New Tight End Signed
Even though the rookie mini-camp was only three days long, there were some changes to the weekend roster along the way, some due to injuries or players who did not report.
Among the players who were on the original roster of tryout players on Friday but either failed to report or were sent back relatively quickly were Akron defensive tackle Nate Robinson, Mississippi State wide receiver Co-Eric Riley, Mississippi State guard Michael Gates and Grambling defensive tackle Melvin Matthew.
Joining the proceedings along the way were Louisville wide receiver Pat Carter, South Florida guard Jake Griffin, Florida State defensive tackle Paul Griffin and Georgia Tech defensive end Adam Oliver.
Whether or not any of the three dozen tryout players will get signed to the Bucs' official offseason roster will likely be learned next week. However, the team did add one more undrafted free agent to their 80-man roster over the weekend, signing former Boston College tight end Ryan Purvis.
Purvis played the last two seasons under former Boston College Head Coach Jeff Jagodzinski, who is now the Buccaneers' offensive coordinator. The 6-4, 260-pound tight end had his best season in Jagodzinski's first year at the helm, hauling in 54 passes for 553 yards and four touchdowns as a junior in 2007.
In all, Purvis caught 113 passes for 1,122 yards and six touchdowns over four seasons with the Eagles. He joins a tight end corps in Tampa that was recently reduced by one when the Buccaneers traded fifth-year veteran Alex Smith to the New England Patriots last Thursday.