Kendell Beckwith may not be the absolute best player in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp just yet, but when you factor in the level of difficulty for his routine, he'd definitely get one of the top scores through four days.
The Buccaneers drafted Beckwith in the third round this past April, even though the LSU product was still recovering from a torn ACL suffered the previous November. Tampa Bay's brain trust was thrilled to add a big and physical player to the middle of their defense – an area of some concern after last season – and were willing to wait if it took Beckwith a little while to get back on the field.
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Well, they didn't have to wait long. Beckwith
He's been doing great, just coming back off an injury, too. He's been picking up everything really quick. He's just been staying patient and he's going to get his chance. The rookie defender backed up his offseason claim that he would be ready for the start of training camp, taking the field with his teammates on Day One. But two days' worth of rookie-only practices last week represented his very first onfield work in the NFL, and he's also currently learning two positions at once. That's the increased level of difficulty that has made Beckwith's first week of camp so impressive.
And the man who is most impressed is Head Coach Dirk Koetter, which is an awfully good thing for a rookie trying to earn a job.
"Kendell, that's really amazing because it's only been eight months since his ACL [injury] and very few guys come back that fast," said Koetter on Monday, after the team's first practice in full pads. "The first couple days we were out here in rookie practice before the throng of fans and media was here, Kendell, I was a little nervous, not about his knee, just he looked rusty. After four practices he's probably our most improved player, as far as a guy where he started and where he is after four practices.
"It really is a good story, kind of an amazing story, how fast he's back."
Beckwith played middle linebacker at LSU, and the Bucs eagerly drafted him despite already having a rising star at that position, coincidentally another LSU product in Kwon Alexander. The Bucs' newest Tiger represents great value anyway because he can immediately compete for the strongside linebacker job and also offer depth behind Alexander. As such, Beckwith has been actively learning both jobs in the Bucs' defense, often playing in the middle on second-team snaps. His primary competition for the strongside, or SAM, job is second-year player Devante Bond.
Beckwith hasn't had any trouble picking up the responsibilities of the SAM role. That position is generally on the field for downs in which a run is more likely, which plays into Beckwith's best strengths. At 6-3 and 247 pounds, he's easily the Buccaneers' biggest linebacker, and he was known as both a rugged and sure tackler at LSU.
"It's just playing football," he said of learning a new position. "That's the way I look it. I'm just going to go play football, know my assignment, do my job."
Beckwith got a call from Alexander, his once and future teammate, right after he was drafted in the spring. Since then, Alexander has been eager to help the rookie get acclimated.
"Both of us were happy," said Beckwith, describing the call. "I'm just excited to be down here with him. To learn from a guy like him and Lavonte [David], it's pretty special."
Alexander and David have been one of the team's most productive linebacking duos in the NFL over the past two seasons, and they shared a very fast transition to being productive NFL players. Both started from Day One in their rookie seasons (2012 for David, 2015 for Alexander). David had 284 tackles, nine sacks, six interceptions and 14 passes defensed through his first two seasons; Alexander already has 238 tackles six sacks, three interceptions and 16 passes defensed to kick off his career, despite missing four of his first 32 games. Like Koetter, Alexander sees rapid development from Beckwith, who could fashion a similarly fast start to his career.
"He's been doing great, just coming back off an injury, too," said Alexander. "He's been picking it up fast, he plays fast and makes a lot of plays. He's just being patient and he's going to get his chance."
Beckwith is not on any sort of "pitch count," so he'll get as much of an opportunity as his play warrants. That he was rusty, as Koetter put it, during those first couple practices last week was no surprise given that he hadn't really been on the field since November. One might also expect Beckwith to be a little cautious with his repaired knee in the early days of camp, but he says that isn't an issue.
"I'm still doing maintenance and keeping up the treatment on it, but so far, so good," he said. "I feel good. I'm not really thinking about it. Especially a day like today, we had a little contact, that was good for me. I feel like myself again."
Beckwith did say that he hopes never to have to be in the position of watching from the sideline again. His goal at the moment is imply to "come out and try to improve" every day. According to his head coach, he's been doing exactly that.