Thanks to the decision to label versatile rookies Dan Vitale and Alan Cross as tight ends, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' coach for that position has a very crowded meeting room these days. According to Jon Embree, one thing about that group hasn't changed as it has expanded this offseason: There's a quietly valuable leader in their midst and it might not be who you think.
There are eight men crowding Embree's room right now, ranging from eighth-year veteran Brandon Myers to undrafted rookie Kivon Cartwright. The biggest name is Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who became the earliest-drafted tight end in franchise history when the Bucs took him at pick #38 in 2014 and who has shown big-play ability when not battling injuries. The object of curiosity right now is Vitale, the rookie sixth-round pick who was called a "superback" at Northwestern. The wild card is Cameron Brate, a former undrafted player out of Harvard who was a minor revelation as a pass-catcher last year.
None of those players, however, is the glue holding that group together, at least right now. Embree describes that player thusly:
"Well, he’s invaluable because he’s a great pass protector, he’s a good run blocker and he can be a threat in the pass game and he knows what everyone is supposed to do, so there’s a lot of times last year where he made things right. Maybe a play wasn’t called right, the formation wasn’t right, but he knew what was supposed to be done and he got it done, so Luke is probably the most valuable guy in that room."
](http://www.buccaneers.com/news/article-1/Winston-to-Have-Added-Responsibilities/582a7770-1da4-42d6-bc23-35098a01bc56)That room MVP would be Luke Stocker, who is heading into his sixth season with the Buccaneers, something that – amazingly – only four other tight ends in franchise history have ever done (Jimmie Giles, Ron Hall, Dave Moore and Jim Obradovich). That didn't seem particularly likely early in his career when he had trouble avoiding injuries and didn't immediately develop into the two-way blocking-receiving threat the Bucs thought he would be. But Stocker has proved his value through the years, he's found better injury luck of late and he's become an important part of a rising Bucs offense better known for such names as Doug Martin, Mike Evans and Jameis Winston.
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Over the last 19 months, the Buccaneers have re-signed three important cornerstones in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, linebacker Lavonte David and running back Doug Martin. They represent the biggest successes from the 2010-12 drafts, players who developed into stars and got second contracts with the team. Tampa Bay selected a total of 24 players across those three drafts; the only other one who got a second contract with the team was Stocker. He's the only player from the 2011 draft still in Tampa.
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Last year, Stocker caught nine passes for 61 yards and one touchdown, fourth among the team's tight ends behind Brate, Seferian-Jenkins and Myers. Stocker has just 44 career receptions in 59 games. But he has started 42 of those games, including 24 over the last two years, and last season he played the highest percentage of offensive snaps among the Bucs' tight ends. Seferian-Jenkins' shoulder injury contributed to that, of course, but Stocker was valuable enough to be on the field for just over 50% of the Bucs' snaps.
As Embree notes, Stocker is a very good blocker, which is the most obvious way he has brought value to the team, particularly one that wants to keep Martin as the centerpiece to its offense. But as Embree also points out, Stocker's earned experience through the years has given the Buccaneers another reason to want him on the field.
With his reception totals, Stocker will probably always remain "quietly" valuable, but that's okay from the Buccaneers standpoint because he's just part of the mix of talent at the position.
"I feel good about our group," said Embree. "I feel like it’s really strong. You know, Austin is back healthy, you got Brandon Meyers and Luke and Cam – how he finished last year – and we’ve added some young guys to the mix. Tevin Westbrook who was on the practice squad for us – having him and then some of the rookies we’ve added. I really feel good about our group. I think it’s very strong."
Stocker is the obvious choice when the Buccaneers want to run the ball and they're doing so out of a single-TE set. And when they do that, they would likely line Vitale up as a fullback in front of Martin or Charles Sims. However, it's a good bet that Dirk Koetter's scheme will involve plenty of multiple-TE sets, and other concepts where Vitale is moved around the formation. And, obviously, the team is going to want to get Seferian-Jenkins on the field as much as possible if he has better luck staying healthy this year. If a one-TE, two-back alignment on first down might be a pretty strong indication that a run is coming, the Buccaneers will have plenty of other looks that don't give anything away to the defense.
"I think it's pretty common to think that if you have players that can do multiple things it gives you more flexibility," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "You can stay in the same personnel, you can be in 'empty,' you can have a fullback, you can be in multiple formations without changing personnel. One of the first things a defense looks for is, what is a team doing out of certain personnel groups? When you change personnel groups, what are you doing out of this? Well, if you can stay in the same group and guys can do multiple things, whether it's Chuck [Sims] or whether it's some of the H-backs that we have, that's what we're looking for – flexibility and guys who can do multiple things to give the defense problems. That's what it's about."