Second-year tight end Todd Yoder sees protecting the quarterback as his most important role in 2001
Last summer, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers headed into training camp with seven tight ends on the roster, and the depth chart was a huge question mark.
After incumbent starter Dave Moore and blocking specialist Patrick Hape in the second spot, how would you arrange the list? You had a promising draft pick in fifth-rounder James Whalen, a holdover from last year's practice squad in Jason Freeman, two relatively experienced veteran free agents in Henry Lusk and Lovett Purnell, and an unknown, undrafted rookie in Todd Yoder.
The custom in these situations is to rank the players in terms of NFL experience and tenure with the team. However you stacked the other six, that meant Yoder was headed for the seventh slot, if only on a piece of paper.
Less than a year later, Yoder will head into the Bucs' 2001 training camp in the two-hole, right behind Moore.
Yoder bucked the odds in training camp 2000 by emerging as the only undrafted rookie to make the Bucs' active roster last season, landing as the third tight end behind Moore and Hape. With Hape moving on to Denver as a free agent this offseason and the team adding only inexperienced players or rookies in Damian Vaughn, Randy Palmer and David Newman, Yoder now appears to be Moore's primary backup.
As he walked off the practice field behind One Buccaneer Place last Thursday, Yoder thought back to his first round of spring practices with the Buccaneers just a year ago. Despite the potentially bleak scenario described above, the Vanderbilt product insists he hit Tampa with confidence he could still be in the picture when fall rolled around.
"How many tight ends did we have last year, six or seven?" asked Yoder. "With all of those guys, I knew I was going to have to come in and compete, but I came in thinking that I had a chance, especially being known as a faster-type tight end. I thought I could get on special teams and make some plays."
Of course, that outlook may have ignored the fact that Whalen, an extremely prolific pass-catcher at Kentucky, was in the same speed mold. Whalen, however, struggled with injuries and production in training camp and Yoder impressed right from the beginning. He also recognized quickly that there were other places on the depth chart that he could make his move.
"If you're a rookie free agent type, the easiest way you can make an impact is on special teams," said Yoder. "You can come out and really do something on kickoff coverage or punt coverage. I think that helped me out, playing well on special teams."
Indeed, though Yoder saw action in just nine of the Bucs' 16 regular-season games in 2000, he contributed eight special teams tackles, good for eighth on the team. Of the seven Bucs who made more stops on kick coverage, all played at least 12 games. Yoder also saw spot duty on offense and did record one reception, a one-yarder in his first NFL game, the home-opening win over Chicago.
Yoder remains confident heading into his second NFL season, but now he's hoping to use that and his typical hard-working approach to earn more playing time between the kicks and punts.
"Hopefully, I'll be able to play more on offense," he said. "My special teams role will probably pick up even more this year; hopefully, I'll be a factor there. Really, when you're in the backup (tight end) role, you're just one play away from being in. You have to prepare as well as you can to be ready to go in there, if something were to happen."
The Bucs know Yoder can catch the ball. At Vanderbilt, he posted 80 career receptions for 1,267 yards and eight touchdowns, including 25 catches as a senior. Perhaps the better question is whether Tampa Bay's offense, currently under reconstruction by new coordinator Clyde Christensen, will toss more balls in the tight ends' direction. Last year, Buc tight ends accounted for 36 of the team's 237 receptions, roughly 15%.
"It's tough to tell," said Yoder of the tight ends' pass-catching role under Christensen and with veteran QB Brad Johnson at the helm. "We have a lot of weapons in our offense. You've got receivers like Keyshawn, and then you have guys like Warrick coming out of the backfield.
"We're going to do our part in protection first. We've got to keep people off the quarterback. We'll do that role first, and then if we catch some balls along the way, that would be great. I think the balls that we do catch, are going to be important balls – on third down, in the red zone. We just have to do our part when the play comes to us."
Right now, however, Yoder is pushing the action. Armed with a better understanding of what's to come in training camp, he plans to once again pounce on the opportunity.
"Last May, my head was still spinning," said Yoder. "Sometimes you find yourself coming out on the field and thinking, 'This is the NFL.' You're confused by the offense, you're not exactly sure what you're doing or that you're doing it the right way. This year, a lot of guys are coming back from last year and I think we're comfortable with the system, with our teammates. I know I am. It makes it so much easier."