The New England Patriots' practice facility outside Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Massachusetts includes two side-by-side outdoor fields, the easternmost one ringed by bleachers for fans attending the Patriots' training camp. For much of the week, the visiting Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been sharing those fields with the home team, running a series of joint practices that have proved beneficial for both squads.
At one point during the last of those practices on Thursday, roughly 170 players were on one field, either running through a drill or watching from the sideline. Alone on the adjacent field were two Buccaneers: punter Chas Henry and wide receiver Eric Page. For several minutes, Henry blasted one punt after another down towards the other end of the field, where Page was waiting to haul them in.
It's not unusual for players who aren't involved in a particular practice period to get some work in on the side. It seems like a pretty good idea, in fact. In this case, however, there was a reason to pay attention to what Page was doing, with Henry's help. The first-year receiver out of Toledo, who missed his NFL rookie season after tearing an ACL in practice with the Denver Broncos last summer, could be Tampa Bay's next punt returner. And that is not an insignificant job.
This was an instance of Page choosing to be thorough in his preparations for Friday night's preseason game inside Gillette Stadium. The conditions in Foxboro this week have been cooler and windier than what the Bucs have grown used to in Tampa, and he expects to be fielding some live kicks on Friday with Patriot cover men bearing down on him. This is not the time to leave anything to chance, whether it be a specific punt on Friday night or the ongoing competition to win that job on the Buccaneers' depth chart.
"With a little bit of wind up here, it's different than back home, and making sure you actually catch the punt is the first thing you need to do," said Page. "Before you can start running you have to catch it. I think that's a big thing to Coach [Greg Schiano], giving the ball back to the offense. He always preaches that. That's the most important thing."
Roscoe Parrish was the Bucs' primary punt returner for the better part of the 2012 season, but Parrish is no longer in the league. Page is one of a number of candidates for that job in 2013, and the Buccaneers are very eager to get more out of that phase of the game. Among the other candidates on the Bucs' depth chart are first-year wide receiver Chris Owusu, rookie cornerback Branden Smith and second-year wide receiver David Douglas. The battle is far from decided, but Schiano did indicate late last week that Page is in the lead.
That would seem like it would be a confidence boost for a young player who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent, but Page has been confident since he arrived in Tampa in April.
"It's the same as it was coming into it," said the former NCAA All-American. "[Schiano's statement] hasn't changed any confidence level for me. My whole goal in the beginning was to get that job, to go out and go my hardest. We've got a game tomorrow and my goal right now is to just keep getting better and keep learning."
There's certainly reason to believe that Page can be a dynamic return man. At Toledo, he earned his All-American honors at the kickoff return position as a sophomore in 2010, as he averaged 31.4 yards per runback and scored three times. As a junior, he caught 125 passes for the Rockets, building on his 99 receptions from the year before and making him Toledo's all-time leading receiver. He also averaged 10.9 yards on 18 punt returns and scored one touchdown in that fashion in 2011. The fact that Page could consolidate both the punt and kickoff return jobs for the Buccaneers – he took the first rep at both jobs in practice on Tuesday – can only help in his efforts to make the team.
"I definitely think that would be the best for me," said Page. "I'm trying to be on the field as much as possible, so kick return and punt return would be perfect. I did them both in college and I want to continue to do them here."
Of course, Page could also envision a role on the Buccaneers' offense, as well, and he'll likely get a decent opportunity to play in that phase of the game on Friday night, too. But, as his almost solitary work on the far practice field on Thursday indicated, his attention right now is aimed at the job that currently appears attainable. If he can win a spot on the Bucs' roster through his prowess in the return game, a more expansive role could develop in the future.
"I think that's the goal of every special teams guy, to get on the field at one of the main positions at some point," said Page. "But right now I'm focused on special teams. Those are my two main focal points – punt return and kick return. Whatever I can do to help the team – learn the offense at the receiver position and be ready when they put me in – I'm going to do that, too."