One good thing about having a roster so heavily tilted towards youth, as is the case with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, is that so many of the team's players have legitimate room for improvement.
The Buccaneers love what they have in the 36-year-old Ronde Barber and the 30-year-old Jeff Faine, to be sure. They also know what they have in Barber and Faine. The Bucs also love what they have in LeGarrette Blount and Gerald McCoy; they don't yet know how great those players may become.
Fortunately for the Buccaneers, their decision-makers have shown a keen eye for talent in recent years, and so the team has already enjoyed breakout performances from the likes of Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, Cody Grimm and Ted Larsen. Others are sure to follow – maybe Adrian Clayborn or Myron Lewis or Dekoda Watson. If a young player shows he can produce, he's going to get a shot on Raheem Morris's team.
That adds an air of authenticity to one discussion that seems to pop up in every training camp: What are we going to do with all these receivers? Often that's a question that seems relevant in early August but is forgotten by the time the final roster cuts roll around.
That's because the out-of-nowhere receiving star is a camp staple. There are plenty of passes to go around during three weeks of constant practicing, and usually about a dozen eager wideouts ready to grab the spotlight. Some of them may not enter camp with much name recognition, but almost by definition they were standouts on the college level, and obviously very talented athletes. It's a given that somebody will get hot, make some eye-catching grabs and build up a little camp buzz.
Sometimes it's the first big step forward in what will prove to be a real NFL career. Sometimes it's just a few strong practices for a player who ultimately doesn't hang on. You remember Karl Williams, Preston Parker and Charles Lee. It might be harder to recall Chas Gessner, Chad Lucas or Amarri Jackson.
The Buccaneers are already very young at receiver. Their returning starters – Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn – were both starters in 2010. Parker was also a rookie last year. Sammie Stroughter is going into just his third NFL season. Micheal Spurlock, the converted quarterback who bumped his career receptions total from four to 21 last year, is something of the dean of the group at the ripe old age of 28. And yet those players are already being pushed from "bottom of the bus," as Morris likes to put it, by another group of young receivers.
On Thursday, Morris discussed two of those young wideouts, and it's clear the team is high on both of them: 21-year-old Dezmon Briscoe and 24-year-old Ed Gant. As those two shine practice after practice in this year's camp, the question once again materializes: What to do with all of these receivers? Fortunately, in early August, it's still a pleasant problem to have. Hopefully, for the sake of overall roster strength it will still be a tough decision in early September.
The Buccaneers liked Briscoe coming out of Kansas during the 2010 draft but didn't find a way to fit him into their picks before he was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals in the sixth round. That's rarely the end of the story, however, if a team particularly appreciates a young player, as it will keep tabs on him waiting until he might be available. In Briscoe's case, that was around the time of the final roster cuts, when Cincinnati dropped Briscoe, perhaps intending to sign him to their its practice squad the next day. The Bucs pounced and convinced Briscoe to come south. By the end of November he was on the active roster and by the end of December he was actually seeing a decent amount of playing time. In the season finale at New Orleans, Briscoe caught four passes for 65 yards and a touchdown.
Briscoe has carried that late-season momentum right into this year's training camp. The gradual return of Benn from the knee injury that cost him the last game of 2010 has opened up playing time for Briscoe at the "Z," or flanker, position and he has looked like a player well beyond his 21 years.
"We were able to snatch him off the wire and get him here and put him into our system and watch him grow," said Morris. "He got going once he picked up the offense because he's a sharp kid when it comes to football. He loves it. He was able to get out there and show his talent and show his ability. I knew I wanted to activate him at some point last season to get a chance to see him and fortunately I was able to get him out there. And then [Benn] gets hurt and you have a healthy Briscoe to go out there and perform. It was nice. Right now he's been in camp really just showing out. He's definitely a standout guy from camp and someone [the media] will be talking about."
Morris initially envisioned Briscoe as an "X," or split end, in the Bucs' offense, and that's where he saw his first work in practice. His path to any real playing time was blocked, however, by the presence of Williams, so Morris tried him at the Z, just in time to see Benn emerge as a force there. Still, Briscoe got valuable instruction at both spots and now he's also getting a look at "Zebra," what the Bucs call their slot receiver.
"He's really got the ability to learn all three based on trying to find a spot for him," Morris explained. "Last year he was able to go out there and play a little Z. He's able to go out there and play X for us. He's also able to play little inside for us. He's just an exciting, young player that we can watch."
Gant arrived in Tampa on the exact same day that Briscoe got his promotion to the active roster last November, as the latter move necessitated a new addition to the practice squad. The 6-3, 200-pound prospect out of North Alabama had spent the better part of the 2009 and 2010 seasons on the Arizona Cardinals' practice squad after signing with that team as an undrafted free agent.
Gant finished out the 2010 campaign on the Bucs' practice squad and then re-signed with the team in January. Somehow between that date and the start of training camp, despite the fact that the labor negotiations wiped out every single offseason practice and mini-camp, Gant took a major step forward. His performance in camp has been every bit as impressive as Briscoe's.
"I had to go up to him the other day and pat him and say, 'Hey, you're doing a heck of a job,'" said Morris. "He's one of those guys that came in as a practice-squad player at first, kind of felt his way through. He looked a little stiff at first but he had really good skills, really good ball skills. Now he's come back and he's looking like a second-year guy with a full offseason that was with his coach every day and talking to him. We know he wasn't, but he was working somewhere and it's really paying off for him right now."
Of course, the eye-catching work of Briscoe and Gant doesn't mean the rest of the Bucs' receiving corps has faded into the background. Williams has been sensational, perhaps not unexpectedly, and Benn has impressed the coaches with how quickly he has gotten back to full speed. Preston Parker looks comfortable in the Bucs' system with a season under his belt and is still an option in the return. Rookie Jock Sanders is in the mix as a return man, too. There are other rookies waiting for their turn to emerge, such as Texas Tech's Detron Lewis.
Maybe the competition will get even more intense. Already, the strong work of players like Gant has the coaches thinking about what they'll have to do when it's time to form a 53-man roster…and that's an issue they're more than happy to have to deal with.
"To come back like he is, that's going to make it tough for people," said Morris. "He's helping create a competition level that we love."