TE Dave Moore, an accomplished pass catcher, could have more balls coming his way in 2000
If you see a Tampa Bay Buccaneer tight end with a smile on his face this summer, we can explain it to you in two numbers: 30 and 104.
The former is the number of passes caught by Buccaneer tight ends Dave Moore, Patrick Hape and John Davis, combined, in 1999.
The latter is the number of passes caught by Tennessee Titans tight ends (say that three times fast) Frank Wycheck, Jackie Harris and Michael Roan, combined, in 1999.
The connection between the two numbers is Les Steckel. After helping the Titans reach Super Bowl XXXIV last winter, Steckel left Tennessee to take over the offensive coordinator job in Tampa. Steckel is certainly not the sole reason between the difference in those two numbers above, but Buccaneer tight ends can just as surely expect their side of that ledger to go up in 2000. Steckel's attack features a variety of targets and has never hesitated to take advantage of talented tight ends.
On Wednesday, Buccaneers.com continued its series of pre-training camp meetings with the team's position coaches by speaking with Tight Ends Coach Ricky Thomas. The 1999 season was Thomas' first in that post, and he directed very fine seasons from his trio of players, but the previous Buccaneer offense was more reliant on its tight ends for blocking than receiving. The Bucs also utilized their tight ends in H-back type roles in 1999, though using different terminology, and that will give them a head start for 2000, as Steckel's system expands on that position.
All in all, that means a busier season for Thomas, who is excited both by that prospect and by the current group of players from which his crew will be drawn. "No doubt," said Thomas. "With the position of H-back, we now have a one-back offense instead of a two-back offense, and I have an opportunity to coach more guys. Those guys have to know both positions, and Mike Alstott has to know three positions. It puts a lot of emphasis on their abilities to learn and also execute, and it makes us more versatile."
Alstott's world has indeed begun to overlap with that of the tight ends, but we'll leave his evaluation to our talk with Running Backs Coach Tony Nathan. In the meantime, Thomas took a few minutes to run down his group as they prepare for the opening of training camp in just a few days. His thoughts are presented here in his own words, with the players listed alphabetically.
Jason Freeman is a first-year player who first came to camp with the Buccaneers last summer. He spent one week on the Bucs' practice squad during the 1999 season, then re-signed with the team in January and was allocated to the NFL Europe League. Playing this spring for the Berlin Thunder, where he caught passes from fellow Buccaneer Scott Milanovich, Freeman hauled in 19 receptions for 216 yards and one touchdown.
"Jason's just returning from NFL Europe," said Thomas, "and we've had a chance to sit down and take a look at the new offense. We talked about what the philosophy of it is and the things that he can expect as we begin training camp. He hasn't had the opportunity to go on the field and actually run plays, but he's a real smart guy who wants to do well. He's definitely here to compete for a job, so we're excited about what Jason brings to the table.
"His NFL Europe experienced helped him, no doubt. Jason runs well, has good hands and I think he'll have an opportunity to really excel in our offense."
Patrick Hape has been in attendance for all of the Bucs' offseason mini-camps and workouts, but has had very little chance to learn Steckel's offense. That's because a fractured right foot has kept him sidelined for several months, though he has continued to condition and catch passes from the 'Jugs' gun. Hape had a screw inserted in the foot in early June and is expected to be ready for camp. In his three seasons with the team, Hape has emerged as a powerful and reliable blocker.
"Patrick's a tough guy," said Thomas. "He understands the offense, he's learned it. He's been hurt and has been working with our trainer, Todd Toriscelli, and getting better every day. We haven't had the opportunity to see Patrick run as many plays as we would have liked to at this point, due to the injury, but he should be okay and ready to go in camp. We'll have a chance to evaluate him from a physical standpoint, even though we know he can play."
Henry Lusk signed with the Buccaneers on January 25 of this year as a third-year veteran. He has seen roster time with New England, Washington, Miami, Green Bay and the New York Jets, but his most extensive action came as a rookie with New Orleans in 1996. That season, Lusk caught 27 passes for 210 yards, playing in all 16 games.
"Henry Lusk is a very interesting guy," said Thomas. "He's a big guy, he's strong and he can run. He's a hard worker and we're just looking forward to seeing Henry continue to climb, as he has during mini-camp and May-June camp."
Dave Moore is the most familiar of the bunch to Bucs fans, and the man responsible for 23 of those 30 tight end receptions last year. A team-best five of those grabs were for touchdowns, highlighting a steady aspect of Moore's career. In each of the last four years, Moore has caught at least three touchdown passes, and he is already fifth on the Bucs' all-time touchdown reception list. With the team since the tail end of 1992, Moore enters camp as the starter for the third straight season.
"Dave just continues to get better," said Thomas. "He's done a good job at the little things, in terms of getting in and out of his routes, catching the ball and accelerating after the catch. Dave's our leader and we just need him to stay healthy.
"This is a very compatible offense for Dave. He sees that he has the opportunity to catch a lot of balls. Obviously, he does a good job blocking, and we're looking forward to him making even more of a contribution this year in terms of leadership.
Lovett Purnell was profiled here on Buccaneers.com recently, and he is thrilled for a chance to re-energize his career in Tampa. He spent his first three years in New England, where he became a valuable bookend to Pro Bowl TE Ben Coates, before one unhappy season in Baltimore in 1999. With both Moore and Patrick Hape slowed by injuries during spring and summer practices, Purnell saw significant action with the first-team offense.
"Lovett's doing a great job," said Thomas. "He's a veteran in the league, and he understands what it takes to play Sunday after Sunday – or whenever the games are. He's an intelligent guy, a hard worker. He does a good job of blocking, has nice hands and runs crisp routes. We're looking forward to his competition.
"I think (playing with the first team) was a big help, in terms of confidence, not only knowing the plays but running with the first unit. At least from a practice standpoint, he got to run with the first team and get in there and execute. I think that can only benefit him as a player but also us as coaches in terms of evaluating his abilities."
"James Whalen – the guy can catch," said Thomas. "And he has some great quickness. He's not a big guy, but he is working on his blocking. That's something he wasn't required to do as much in college, but he knows he has to do it here and he has taken the right attitude towards learning the fundamentals and practicing them. We've seen improvement and we just want him to continue with that, with his blocking and his learning of the offense. He has looked very good overall."
Thomas is ready for a busy training camp working with this expanded crew, but he is confident that his charges will have the offense down pat.
"In terms of what we were doing and what we're doing now, the tight ends have had to know the offense pretty much inside and out," he said. "So there's not much of a change in terms of running routes, understanding coverages, beating coverages, knowing when to break a route off or continue a route, or doing a great job in the running game. I think this offense allows for the tight end/H-back to take advantage of mismatches."
That certainly proved true in Tennessee, where Wycheck was the team's leading receiver in each of the last four seasons. That means the players above are battling not only for a spot on the roster and for playing time, but for the chance to be a key ingredient in the offense. Just the thought makes them smile.