WR Maurice Stovall won't have to worry about this week's cuts, but he's still working as if he has to earn a spot
Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie receiver Maurice Stovall has made the team, not necessarily an unexpected achievement for the 2006 third-round selection out of Notre Dame but nonetheless gratifying to hear from the head coach the day before the first roster cuts of the season will be made.
"Stovall is a physical presence - he's going to make this team," said Head Coach Jon Gruden in an almost offhand comment after Monday's practice. "I will make that statement. He's going to be on the football team, and he's going to be a competitor here."
Stovall's future may have been fairly secure already, but that hasn't stopped the rookie from working hard to show his potential. Seeing limited playing time throughout the first three games of the preseason, the 6-4, 229-pound receiver has made five receptions for 63 yards. Among those catches was a touchdown grab that came on a perfectly timed fade route against the New York Jets, on which Stovall adjusted to the pass, twisting and pulling the ball into his body before falling to the ground. Another snare came on a 36-yard pass down the seam, which Stovall plucked from the air in traffic, using his height to perfect advantage.
That Stovall has distinguished himself at such a highly competitive position on the Bucs' depth chart is a testament to his maturity and approach to the game. He was routinely one of the last players off the field during two-a-days in Orlando, putting in extra time on his route-running and hands. Sure, history suggests that third-round picks are virtual locks to be on the roster for the start of the regular season, but Stovall pushed that idea far from his mind.
"I don't feel that way at all," he said. "I haven't felt that way since I got here. I don't think that you should have that mentality because then you become lazy, not working hard and taking things for granted."
In fact, Stovall was so determined not to take anything for granted that as recently as last week he included himself in a statement about players on the team who were thinking about the looming cuts.
"Cuts are part of the process of building a team," he said. "You can only play 53 guys, only 53 guys can travel. I'm sure that's something that a lot of us have in mind but at the same time, we're just concentrating on our plays and executing on the football field."
As of today, he has one less thing on his mind. The public praise for Stovall by Gruden and affirmation that he, indeed, had secured his place with the Buccaneers was good news for the rookie, but for the team's bubble players it translates into one less roster spot available. Tuesday, the Buccaneers must trim their 89-man roster down to 75, and on September 2, another 22 players must be cut, reducing the roster to the final 53. The cuts, Gruden said, are difficult on players and coaches, alike.
"They're all tough because these guys have been here since April and May at One Buc Place where we were working hard, and a lot of these guys won't be able to make this team," Gruden said. "Hopefully they feel like they had a fair chance, everybody got a chance to compete, to prove what they could do. It's never easy this time of year. It's a guy's dreams that will be put to an end, at least in Tampa."
Given the emotion involved, the cuts can sometimes result in disagreements among Bucs coaches, Gruden admitted. But in the end, he said, the team's best interests are always put first.
"We've got some animated coaches," Gruden said. "[Special Teams Coach] Rich Bisaccia is going to fight for his guys. Just because you might not be the number-one linebacker or the number-one fullback or the number-one wide receiver on the board, you might be the number-one linebacker or wide receiver on the board at special teams. Some of these [discussions] with Bruce Allen and certainly our coaches will get animated because there is strategy involved in who are the men that make the 53-man roster and who you have active each and every Sunday."
It's a strategy based on intense evaluations – evaluations that Gruden said will still be underway throughout Tuesday's practice. In addition, those fringe players who survive this first round of cuts are far from secure since the Buccaneers roster is likely to be a work-in-progress – a fact that Gruden mentioned in the context of signing other players around the league who might be released from their teams.
"We're not the only team that's going to have to let go of a good football player or two," Gruden said. "These other teams are doing the same thing, so we've got to make sure we understand who's available and what they could potentially bring to us."
For now, Tuesday's inevitable roster cuts will mean one thing.
"There will be a wave of players who won't make the trip to Houston," Gruden said. "We're going to wish them well, certainly, and thank them for their efforts."