Ronde Barber has a long list of accomplishments that define his stellar NFL career, but one of the more impressive ones is this: Over the course of 16 seasons, he's only worn one set of colors.
In any professional sport, when a player like Barber or Derrick Brooks or Derek Jeter or Tim Duncan manages to build a very long career without ever switching teams, it is considered a notable accomplishment. It speaks of sustained excellence, popularity with the fan base and perceived value year after year.
No doubt Brooks enjoyed playing his entire career as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer, as has Barber so far, but one of Barber's new teammate says there's value in taking a different sort of path.
Defensive tackle Amobi Okoye entered the league as a first-round pick of the Houston Texans in 2007, the 10th player selected overall. Later that year, at the age of 19, he became the youngest player to appear in a regular-season NFL game in 30 years. Okoye played four seasons in Houston, all of them as a primary starter on the Texans' defense, but he was released last summer. Chicago signed him, and though he worked in a rotation as a reserve on the Bears' defensive line, he had a productive four-sack season on a one-year contract.
This past offseason, Okoye moved on again when he became an unrestricted free agent. The Buccaneers signed him in April, and it appears as if he will be a major part of the team's interior-line plans, particularly after Thursday's trade of defensive tackle Brian Price to those same Bears. He first has to learn his third defensive playbooks in as many years, but that doesn't bother Okoye. In fact, he has come to value the experience that changing teams several times has brought him.
"Changes happen in the NFL," said Okoye, who was drafted so young because his advanced academic work had him in the ninth grade by age 12 and college by age 15. "Look – this is my third team. I would suggest that every player should go through at least two or three teams because it really does a lot for you. I wouldn't necessarily use the word 'humbled,' but it teaches you a certain mental state."
Part of that mental state, one imagines, is perseverance and a willingness to fight for the job he desires. That's going to come in handy over the next five weeks, because Okoye knows the competition is wide open on the Buccaneers' defensive front.
At the end of the 2011 season, Tampa Bay's projected starting D-Line for 2012 might have been (from right end to left end) Adrian Clayborn, Price, Gerald McCoy and Da'Quan Bowers. However, Price is now in Chicago and Bowers is expected to miss at least a good portion of the regular season due to an Achilles tendon tear suffered in May. The eventual departure of Price has made the Buccaneers' signing of Okoye in the spring look like a particularly good idea, but that doesn't mean he's going to be handed the open job in the middle.
"I don't think [the Price trade] has changed anything as far as this team goes," said Okoye. "As far as the D-Line goes, we know what we're all up against. It's a competition. That stuff is still earned. You've still got to earn out here, so we're all out here competing. We're all competing for all the jobs on the front four."
In Greg Schiano and Bill Sheridan's defense, the two defensive tackle positions have different job descriptions. McCoy is the likely starter at the DT spot often referred to as the "three-technique," which emphasizes penetration into the backfield, meaning the open spot is the nose guard. Strictly speaking, Okoye is a more natural fit at the three-technique spot, but Schiano believes he is one of several candidates on the line who can help in a variety of ways. The other veteran players in the mix for snaps at the two DT spots are Roy Miller, who is more of a nose tackle type and has started 20 games over three seasons with Tampa Bay, and 2012 free agent acquisition Gary Gibson, a starter for the St. Louis Rams in 2010. Schiano also mentioned that versatile lineman Wallace Gilberry, another veteran newcomer in 2012, is working both inside and outside.
"Guys are going to have to cross-train," said Schiano. "With the limited numbers in professional football, you got to have cross-over backups. So they will. You always would like to have more depth but I feel comfortable right now. That's part of what we're trying to get to in Training Camp is who fits best where. Again, we still have not hit anybody. We've been here six months and haven't played off a block yet so I'm interested to see that."
The Buccaneers did not get a lengthy look at Okoye in the offseason because he was working through a knee ailment that eventually required arthroscopic surgery. He was briefly placed on the active/PUP list before the start of training camp but was removed on Thursday, allowing him to begin practicing. He didn't take part in every drill on Friday morning, as the Bucs practiced for the first time at their 2012 training camp, but he got in plenty of work and says he was only limited "a tad bit."
"It's coming along," he said. "We tried to avoid the scope but everything was putting in that direction so we went ahead and did it. Now it's time for me to get ready to come out here and compete in camp. It's not 100 [percent] but it's definitely much better than it was before the scope."
Getting cleared to practice meant he had the good fortune to spend two hours and 40 minutes in the sticky summer heat of Tampa with 86 of his teammates on Friday morning. Ah, but that's another way that playing for several different NFL teams can work to a player's advantage.
"It's hot for sure, but I don't think it's hotter than or more humid than Houston," Okoye said with a chuckle. "Four years out there definitely prepped me for any type of hot and humid weather. And then the cold weather in Chicago prepped me for cold weather, so I think my body's kind of like, 'Ah, we've seen this before.'"
No Give in the Practice Tempo
On Thursday, guard Davin Joseph said the conditioning test the Buccaneers were required to pass before starting practice in training camp was meant to simulate how grueling a 16-play drive during an actual game can be. Similarly, Schiano's non-stop up-tempo approach to practice is a match for how quickly the action moves on game day.
To rookie running back Doug Martin, it certainly feels as if the team is practicing at game speed.
"It's similar, if not faster, because we're finishing and running to the ball," said Martin. "To get a play right, we've got to run at full-speed, and that's the only way to practice."
Because the new CBA rules do not allow a team to hold more than one full-speed practice in a day (the Bucs will regularly take the field a second time in the evening for a walk-through), the team has to get all of its regular practice work done in one long session. The Bucs went nearly three hours on Friday morning, but there was no concession in tempo to that elongated schedule.
From the opening horn to the final two blasts that signal the end of the practice, the Buccaneers ran swiftly from one play to the next, and from one drill to the next. As an example, when any pass was completed during the full-team periods, every player on the team, including the 300-pound linemen, were instructed (loudly) to turn and run to the ball. When the play was whistled over, every player was expected to turn and run back to the huddle.
It was difficult, and there were a few players who fought cramps along the way, but Schiano believes it will gradually make his team stronger and more prepared to deal with the demands of game day.
"I think that with the fact that you're in one-a-day practice with the new CBA, I think it would be better to have two and be able to shorten them up, but we have to get the work in," he said. "We tried to work through, but we'll get better at it. You know, we'll get accustomed to it and acclimated again. That's got to become an advantage of ours as we progress, without running ourselves down at the same time."
Underwood Showing Up in Receiver Competition
Training camp is a unique opportunity for NFL fans, as it is the only time of the year in which teams open up their practices to the public. Even so, it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly what to cheer for as the action unfolds on the practice field. Running plays routinely go all the way to the end zone, for instance, because the defenders are taught to engage in "pro thud" rather than tackling. And, as Schiano pointed out after Friday's workout, any play that looks particularly positive for one side of the ball could also be construed as a negative for the other side.
That said, there is one play that will never fail to bring a loud reaction from the stands: The deep bomb.
Fans who had rosters with them in the bleachers on Friday had several occasions to check who was wearing #11, as Buccaneer newcomer Tiquan Underwood found himself on the receiving end of several impressive completions. Josh Freeman hit Underwood on a very long throw down the middle of the field during a seven-on-seven drill and Dan Orlovsky later found him for another long-gainer during a full-team period.
It was a good day for Underwood, coming less than 24 hours after the receiver competition got a little shake-up with the release of third-year man Dezmon Briscoe. When players reported for camp on Thursday morning, Briscoe was one of just four wideouts on the roster who had played in at least 14 games for the Buccaneers the year before, along with Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Preston Parker.
Tampa Bay's receiving corps will obviously have a different look in 2012 thanks to the high-profile free agency addition of former San Diego Charger Vincent Jackson. There will be plenty of competition to fill out the rest of the depth chart, as well. Williams, Benn and Parker are obviously strong candidates to remain on the 53-man roster, but there are some new competitors as well. Ed Gant will get another shot after spending all of last year on the Bucs' practice squad, and one or more competitors could arise from the new-to-the-team group of Greg Ellingson, Armahd Lewis, Wallace Wright and Landon Cox.
And, of course, Underwood, who signed with the Buccaneers on May 10 after spending his first three NFL seasons in New England (2011) and Jacksonville (2009-10). Before the Jaguars drafted him in the seventh round in 2009, he played for Schiano at Rutgers. Now he's back in Schiano's program – albeit on the NFL level – and trying to establish himself once again. Friday's practice was a good start.
"I feel better," said Underwood. "I definitely feel comfortable. I'm just going to try to build on it day by day. Don't worry about anybody else. Just keep getting better day by day, learn the playbook, go out there and give it my all, and whatever happens, happens."
Underwood's Rutgers ties won't earn him a roster spot, but his familiarity with Schiano's approach could certainly help him make the most of training camp. Every player who participated in Tampa Bay's offseason program should have a good handle on Schiano's expectations by this point, but Underwood has experienced the program first-hand. Whether or not that ends up as an advantage for him, he does believe it's a good thing for the team overall.
"He's very tough," said Underwood. "He believes in his beliefs, and I think his beliefs are going to help the Buccaneer organization. I think they hired the right guy, and time will tell. [Teammates] asked me how it was in college, but I was just truthful. Coach is tough, but if you're doing the right thing, not getting in trouble and studying the playbook, you'll be fine."
Catching a couple deep bombs a day in practice won't hurt, either.