WR Chris Daniels (left) has had plenty of time to learn from Buc coaches but has seen very little live action on the field since joining the team
Call it the Stecker Scenario.
Eight Buccaneers, most of them recent signees, were allocated to the NFL Europe League on Tuesday and will look to follow in the footsteps of RB Aaron Stecker.
Last February, Stecker was one of seven Bucs to get the NFLEL call for the 2000 season, and he made the most of the opportunity. Stecker went on to earn league Offensive MVP honors and parlayed that experience into a spot on the Bucs' 53-man roster the following fall.
Will another Stecker arise from this group: P/K Andrew Bayes, G Wilbert Brown, TE/WR Chris Daniels, WR Eddie Hardaway, G Kendell Mack, TE Randy Palmer, DB Terrance Parrish and DL Matt Sweeney?
Only Daniels was with the Bucs throughout the fall of 2000, although that entire season was spent on injured reserve, thanks to a shoulder injury suffered early in training camp. Mack, Palmer and Parrish have also spent varying but brief amounts of time on a Buc roster or practice squad. Bayes, Brown, Hardaway and Sweeney were signed after the 2000 season ended.
Virtually any young, unproven player on the Bucs' current roster could be considered a potential candidate for NFL Europe allocation, but a variety of factors goes into the team's decision on who to send overseas. One factor that's new this year is compulsion.
"This is the first year where allocations were mandatory, so each club has to allocate at least six non-kicker-punters," said Buccaneers Director of Football Administration John Idzik. "We've been very active year to year with NFL Europe so it really wasn't anything new to us."
Idzik refers to the Bucs' belief in the NFLEL system as a valuable method for developing and evaluating talent. Stecker was the most obvious example of that last year, but the Bucs also ended up with a pair of other NFLEL standouts on their practice squad last year, DT Chartric Darby and WR Yo Murphy. Idzik believes the key to seeing the benefits of the system is to treat it seriously at allocation time.
"We don't just send over bodies, guys that would just serve the mandatory allocation," said Idzik. "We decided that we actually wanted to earmark guys that we liked and that were good candidates for developmental-type positions, that we could scout live during the offseason."
That process actually begins each fall, during the Tuesday-afternoon workouts of free agents that are common around the league. On many occasions, the Buccaneers use these afternoons to look at prospects with an eye towards what they might be able to show in the NFLEL.
"So these are guys that won't lose as much by going away and not being involved in our off-season conditioning program," said Idzik. "Those were the types of guys that we picked, guys that were available, on other practice rosters, that we had liked coming out of school.
Idzik pointed to Sweeney as the perfect example of a player in this category. The Bucs had an interest in Sweeney as he came out of the University of Miami last spring, but Sweeney did not end up signing with any NFL team in the spring or fall. The Bucs inked him in December and will give him a chance to prove himself against live competition, in a league that gets more competitive each year. "He's a guy that we wanted to find out more about and we developed a list of players of that sort," said Idzik.
There are, however, a number of young, relatively low-profile players on the Bucs' roster that will not be taking any transcontinental trips this spring, and there are reasons for those choices as well. It's not always an easy decision, but the key is generally how much of an opportunity the team has had to see a player in action.
CB Anthony Midget, for instance, did a sufficient job of impressing coaches and scouts during an entire season on the Bucs' practice squad that he is considered a real prospect already heading into the 2001 training camp.
"Now you've got to answer the question of whether he's had enough time here to miss the offseason conditioning (and go to Europe)," said Idzik. "Anthony Midget, we signed post-training camp. He's never been through our off-season, our preseason training camp, our preseason games. He's never played a game for us. So there are some things that you want to bring him through, beginning to end.
"You weight that against the live action he would get over in Europe. Then, also, you have to take into account that, if you feel that player has a chance to challenge in camp, do you have enough homework on him to evaluate him through the season. We did on Anthony. He was with us the entire season on the practice squad. We'd rather bring him up to speed on our defense and get him comfortable so that he's peaked in terms of competitive value when we enter training camp. And there's not as much mileage on the guys that stay here, obviously."
Idzik's final point underscores the double-edged sword that is NFL Europe for these young, allocated players. Though the experience they gather and the valuable game videotape they produce during the 10-game NFLEL season are obviously very advantageous, they also enter training camp with more wear and tear than their fellow roster hopefuls. Generally, however, that is considered a small price to pay. That is certainly the way Stecker looked at it last summer.
"You're weighing those two factors," said Idzik. "Do I send him and evaluate him in live action, realizing that he's going to have a little more fatigue coming into training camp than the other players? Or do I work with him in the offseason? If you've seen enough of the guy and you're comfortable with what he's done – and with Anthony's case, we were – it doesn't make as much sense to send him."
Idzik points out Daniels as a player on the opposite end of the spectrum from Midget.
"With Chris Daniels, we didn't have as much on him," said Idzik. "He went to training camp with us and was hurt early in camp. Chris, we'd like to see him play, we'd like to see him long-snap in situations, so he's an example of the other situation. Although he was on our 80-man roster, we never got to see him practice and play that much."
Daniels has spent most of the fall and the weeks since the 2001 season rehabilitating and then maintaining his football playing shape. He and the seven other allocated Bucs will head off immediately to NFLEL camps in Orlando – Tampa Bay is allowed to request specific teams for their players and the requests are usually granted – where they must still compete for positions on the team. Because the Bucs make an effort to send real prospects to the NFLEL, their players are generally selected for the team's final rosters.
The Bucs will know by the beginning of next week which players landed on which teams and where they will be getting their valuable NFLEL experience. By next fall, these eight players will know whether or not it was the beginning of a successful path to an active NFL roster.