Late Tuesday morning, the rookie trio of Adrian Clayborn, Da'Quan Bowers and Mason Foster – the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first three draft picks in 2011 – was on its way out of the locker room at One Buccaneer Place, essentially walking shoulder to shoulder.
This happened to be "open" locker room, the period during an in-season work day when the media is allowed in for interviews, but nobody had yet asked to speak to any of the three, so they were headed to the dining room. That led to a tongue-in-cheek outcry from the assembled reporters – these three very dependable interviewees couldn't all leave at once!
Foster and Clayborn hastily nominated Bowers for the honor, and truth be told the defensive end from Clemson is the most comfortable of the three in that setting. Bowers gamely stopped to discuss the trials and tribulations of the Bucs' 2011 season while his rookie teammates continued on to lunch.
That's the kind of teamwork those three are likely to be engaged in for many seasons at One Buccaneer Place and, more importantly, on the football field during fall Sundays. The Buccaneers haven't had a particularly happy 2011 season, at 4-11 with the finale on Sunday in Atlanta's Georgia Dome, but the valuable playing time those three newcomers have gotten should lead to better days in the very near future.
Between them, Bowers, Clayborn and Foster have logged 45 games played and 34 starts for the Buccaneers this season. Clayborn and Foster have been in the starting lineup since Day One – at right defensive end and middle linebacker, respectively – and Bowers has joined them over the last five weeks at left defensive end. All three have had flashes of brilliance, but Bowers thinks the simple preponderance of playing time they've been granted is the most important thing.
"I think we all made great strides," he said. "Myself, starting the last couple games and Adrian being in the starting lineup all season long with Mason, it just goes to show what this team is going to be capable of in the future. We've got a young team and hopefully we can get everybody back here next year and make a decent run at where we need to be, the Super Bowl and all those things. It's been a tough year, but us being so young is not necessarily a bad thing. It gives you time to grow as a team and as a unit."
Clayborn's season would likely be considered the most unequivocal success. He leads the team in sacks (7.5), quarterback pressures (26) and forced fumbles (three) and is first among the Bucs' defensive linemen with 53 tackles. He has the most sacks by any rookie defensive end this season and already has the second best total ever in that category by a Buccaneer rookie. He was billed as a non-stop effort, "high-motor" type of end, and has proved to be exactly that.
Foster has piled up the statistics, too, though his task of playing middle linebacker as a rookie was a greater challenge and has led to some ups and downs. He leads the team with 120 tackles, the second-best total ever for a Buccaneer rookie, and also has two sacks and an interception. He is one of only two players on the team to make a mark in all the defensive stat categories kept by the team (tackles, tackles for loss, sacks, quarterback pressures, interceptions, passes defensed, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries), along with (you guessed it) Ronde Barber. However, many of his splash plays came earlier in the season.
Bowers has the least shiny stats line – 28 tackles, 1.5 sacks, eight QB pressures, five passes defensed and a fumble recovery – but that and his 15 games played might be the biggest achievement of them all. There were many scouts and analysts who believed Bowers would not recover enough from his offseason knee surgery to make any real impact in 2011, which is why he surprisingly slipped to the second round of the draft. Instead, the Bucs' cautious approach has kept the rookie end on the field all year and allowed the team to ramp up his playing time as the season has progressed.
Now those three will get their first chance to work together during an entire offseason, honing their craft and their understanding of the Bucs' schemes, after the labor impasse erased all of last spring and summer's preparation time. Bowers thinks the difficult lessons of the 2011 season combined with that opportunity to work together in the coming months will make a big difference going forward.
"There are a lot of lessons we learned this year," he said. "It's all about playing technique football, playing your assignments, not trying to make every play. Play within the scheme of the defense. Don't try to be Superman, don't try to force it yourself and make plays that aren't there for you, because it will cause a slip in the defense where somebody else will miss an opportunity. We've got to learn how to grow as a defensive team, and not only as a defense but a whole team, and we'll be alright."
The numbers over the last four or five weeks of play would not suggest that this message has truly stuck yet, but the overall experience won't be for naught. Bowers said that, after the Bucs' loss in Charlotte last weekend, several veterans spoke up, telling the rookies to remember how they were feeling right then, minutes after the game.
"That stuck with me – remember the feeling of being on a [long] losing streak, remember the feeling of being blown out," he said. "It's a bad feeling, so you never want to experience that again. We're going to do everything in our power to change it."
Bowers showed good instincts by stopping and talking when his rookie teammates needed somebody to step up on Tuesday morning. It should be said, both Clayborn and Foster have been very accommodating in those situations all year, as well, and that's also a positive sign. The Buccaneers want to continue to build around youthful talent, but they won't be using that youth as an excuse for any more struggles in 2012 or beyond. Several men from among that young group of potential franchise cornerstones will need to step up as team leaders moving forward. Bowers has no problem with that.
"Nobody ever said a rookie couldn't be a leader," he said. "It's always in the person. If I feel that I see something where I need to say something to my teammates, I say it. Being a rookie doesn't have anything to do with it. Just being a part of something, being around these guys – there are a lot of leaders on this team. It may not seem like it, but there are a lot of leaders. Even the smallest guy on the team can say something that will mean a lot to the whole team."