Check out photos from Day 2 of Tampa Bay Buccaneers Rookie Camp on May 9, 2015.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers filled up the practice fields during their rookie mini-camp this weekend by bringing together four different groups of players. The rookie roster began to take shape the previous week with the selection of seven new contributors in the 2015 NFL Draft. In the hours that followed the final pick of the seventh round, the Buccaneers then added 13 more rookies from the ranks of the undrafted. Another 27 young men were then invited to participate on a tryout basis, most of them rookies, all of them hoping for an invite to stick around longer. Finally, the team asked eight first-year players from its pre-draft roster to join the ranks, as well.
"There were a couple of guys that came in on a tryout basis," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "We have draft picks, we have free agents that we sign, then there's a group of players that came in the way Demar Dotson did, the way two defensive backs from the Chicago Bears did – and they ended up starting for us. We like a couple of tryout players. In a few days, you'll see the ones we're talking about."
The players in those four groups mixed freely during all the drills and shared the reps evenly. In some ways, however, the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp was a different experience for each type of participant. Here's some perspective on the weekend from one player in each category.
The Draft Pick: LB Kwon Alexander
Alexander has the unusual distinction of being the only defensive player the Buccaneers have drafted in the two years since Lovie Smith and Jason Licht took over. Even that might not have happened had the Bucs not seen one of their favorite linebackers still sitting on the board midway through the fourth round. Smith and Licht liked Alexander so much that they gave up a seventh-round pick in order to move up a bit and make sure they didn't miss out on the LSU linebacker.
That fact and the team's expectation that Alexander will compete for a starting job as a rookie mean it is highly unlikely that he has to worry about job security in the weeks to come. Unlike many of his fellow mini-camp participants, Alexander didn't really have to prove himself over the weekend. Still, he was eager to begin working with the Buccaneers' coaching staff and showing them what he could do, especially Linebackers Coach Hardy Nickerson.
Alexander enjoyed his first few days under the tutelage of the former Buccaneer Pro Bowler.
"He just wants us to play hard, give it all we got, just come out there and compete," said Alexander of Nickerson. "Be confident, go out there, call the plays, and just be confident and play ball. He's a great coach. These past couple days, I really enjoyed it. He's coaching me up well; he's coaching everyone up well. Everybody likes him, so we're all just having fun."
Alexander may not have needed to impress anyone this weekend, but that didn't stop him from doing so. He looked noticeably fast during the linebacker drills.
"It felt great," he said. "I love to compete out here. I'm in love with Tampa. [I'm] very confident. I've got to have confidence to play ball. If you don't have confidence, you aren't going to do well. So I just come in and just have a lot of confidence and just have fun and do my job."
The Undrafted Free Agent: WR Rannell Hall
Hall didn't get to hear his name called during the draft but that just happened to give the Central Florida wideout a secondary advantage: He got to pick his NFL starting point from those teams that came calling. Proximity probably played a part in the decision for the Miami native, but Hall also felt a certain comfort level with the Buccaneers.
"I had other options as an undrafted player, but I chose the Buccaneers – great chemistry with the coaches, it's a great organization, great coaching staff," he said. "I feel like this is where I best fit in."
Undrafted rookies also have the luxury of surveying a team's depth chart before signing on, perhaps believing one destination offers a better shot at a long-term job than the others. In Hall's case, what drew him to the Buccaneers' receiving corps wasn't its weaknesses but its strengths.
"There are great veterans here among the wide receivers – Vincent Jackson, Mike Evans, Louis Murphy," he said, knowing that with a contract already in hand he will definitely get the chance to work with Jackson and company in the weeks to come. "They're great athletes and great veterans that the young guys can look up to, and I'm just looking forward to learning from them."
Because veterans are precluded from taking part in rookie mini-camps, Hall actually got to catch passes from first-round draft pick Jameis Winston before Jackson or Evans got their turns. He turned in a handful of eye-catching plays on both days of practice, though he felt like the entire offense was significantly better on Day Two.
"I started off with a few M.E.s and M.A.s but that's bound to happen the first day of practice," said Hall, knowing that his coaches would be charting 'mental errors' and 'missed assignments.' "I'm still getting in the flow of it, getting back into the rhythm of the game. The second day I feel like we came out better as a unit – as a matter of fact as a whole team – and it showed out there on the practice field."
So, can Hall turn his post-draft signing into a spot on the 53-man roster? His approach: "I just come out every day and give it all of my God-given ability, come out with a 100-percent effort every day."
The Tryout Participant: CB Domonique Johnson
Johnson went a long way to end up just a few miles from his high school home.
The Tampa native and life-long Buccaneers fan played his prep ball at Jefferson High School, located a few short miles from One Buccaneer Place and Raymond James Stadium. He went from Jefferson to Butte College in Oroville, California, then looped halfway back home by transferring to Oklahoma Panhandle State in a town called Goodwell. He had learned of the existence of OPSU from his friend and former Butte teammate Jamal White, and decided to follow White to the Sooner State.
"He was a great receiver, and I thought I could help out by being a great corner for them," said Johnson.
After his final season with the Aggies, Johnson did everything he could to draw attention from NFL scouts. He and a few other OPSU players took part in the Pro Day at the relatively higher-profile University of Central Oklahoma, then went to an NFL Regional Combine in Denver. Due to his Tampa roots, Johnson was also eligible to participate in the Bucs' annual pre-draft workout for local prospects. After that, it was little surprise that he was invited to the post-draft mini-camp on a tryout basis.
"It was a great experience for me," he said. "I learned a lot from my coach, and there was a lot of competition out here. Hopefully I can learn from this and get better for my next opportunity. I always rooted for Tampa Bay growing up, so this was a great opportunity for me."
For Johnson, the weekend at One Buccaneer Place was more of a proving ground. That was explicit, of course, in his tryout-contract status. But it was also a personal opportunity for him to run reps alongside players with more notable college backgrounds and prove to himself that he had the skills to make it at the next level. Johnson felt like he belonged.
"Oh yeah, definitely," he said. "I can make it. It takes repetition, practice and film study."
The First-Year Player: TE Taylor Sloat
For Sloat, the four hours of practice on Friday and Saturday were a sweaty end to a very long week of work. That's because, unlike most of his fellow camp participants, Sloat had already put in four days of workouts and class-room study at One Buccaneer Place before camp started.
An undrafted rookie a year ago, Sloat got his first taste of the NFL in the exact same environment. Without a contract offer from any team following the draft, the former UC-Davis tight end accepted an invitation to come to Tampa Bay's rookie camp on a tryout basis. He wasn't signed immediately afterward but obviously made an impression because the Bucs later brought him back to their practice squad in October. After the season, he was re-signed to a reserve/futures contract for 2015, meaning he would get another chance to make it in Tampa, and hopefully his first chance to take part in an NFL training camp.
Because he was already on the roster, Sloat had been taking part in the team's offseason training program, which began on April 20. He segued from that right into the rookie camp along with a handful of teammates including quarterback Seth Lobato and defensive end George Uko.
"I felt like it was a good opportunity to get better," said Sloat. "Obviously, I was working out with the team the rest of this week, and then followed that with the rookie mini-camp here. It was a big load, but I thought it was a good opportunity to get time in with the quarterbacks and then actually get reps with the guys instead of just being with the threes and the fours on the regular team."
Indeed, a roster half-filled with tryout players allows a returning first-year player the chance to get some "first-team" reps over the weekend. And no matter which group of players he was running with, Sloat was catching half of his passes from Winston. He made several nice grabs on Saturday, including a one-hander that drew attention.
And, simply by being involved, he showed those 27 tryout players what could come from the weekend.
"The rookie mini-camp is a good way for you to get film out there for a team," said Sloat. "If you don't get in a preseason game, you're kind of riding blind off your college tape. When you get exposure here and you make plays here, then they've got that list, the emergency list, and you can get on it. If they have a banged-up player during the regular season they can call you up for a tryout and you can get noticed again.
"You've just got to stay ready. If you get this rookie mini-camp tryout but don't get signed right away, your chances are still good later in the long run. That's exactly what happened to me."