The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened their rookie mini-camp on Friday with a 90-minute afternoon practice that featured a total of 51 players in action. Only seven of those men were drafted by the Buccaneers last weekend, but that doesn't mean the other 44 were merely background extras for a draft-class showcase.
Of those 51, 19 were players the team signed in the hours following the conclusion of the draft last Saturday and nearly two-dozen more were additional undrafted rookies in town on tryout contracts. Despite those disparate backgrounds, the mini-camp roster displayed a surprising amount of talent on Friday, at least in the estimation of Head Coach Dirk Koetter.
The Buccaneers held their first rookie mini-camp practice at One Buc Place on Friday.
"It's great to be out here," said Koetter. "Fifth-one guys – it's a little bit difficult when you're trying to break in this many new guys at the same time, but it's exciting not only to see the draft picks but the free agents and the tryout guys. It's always amazing the level of talent that's out there that doesn't get drafted. It really is impressive."
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, the Buccaneers' first-round pick last Thursday, noticed a different level of competition, too, despite the fact that none of the team's veterans were on hand. That's another indication of how much rookie talent was available this year and how even the playing field when the competition for jobs begins.
"It's a big adjustment for everybody," said Hargreaves. "Playing college football, then coming here and going through a practice, you can see the difference. I don't necessarily know how to put it into words, but the speed is different, it's a little bit faster, a little bit more complex. It takes a little time to get used to, but everybody will be alright.
"You've got to get in the playbook and you've got to learn. It's a big adjustment for everybody. The coaches are hard on you on purpose, just to see how you react. You've got to go home, study tonight, get in that playbook and come back out for a better day tomorrow."
The young players actually made a good first impression on the coach even before they started running at full speed. The team's first trip out to the practice field was for a morning walk-through, and Koetter noticed immediately that the rookies were ready to take advantage of whatever opportunities came there way. Many of them knew that they would have only three days to prove they should be kept around even longer, and Koetter respected that reality and how the players handled it.
"I can't say enough about them," said the coach. "When we were out here for the walk-through in the morning, they were ready to go. They had their ears pinned back. These guys, they know what's at stake. You've got 51 guys [competing] for probably about 19 spots on the 90-man roster, so there's a lot at stake. These guys are hungry and they show it."
It would be unrealistic to expect the newcomers to have more than just a surface understanding of the playbook after only a few hours of study. For that reason, much of the practice time was devoted to individual-position drills focused on technique and details. The full-team sessions were cut basically in half, to seven snaps each. For those who do stick around past Sunday, Koetter and his staff wanted to make their integration into the rest of the team as seamless and productive as possible.
"Can they learn? How fast can they move their feet?" said Koetter. "When we're not going in pads, you can't totally go on effort because they can't hit each other. Some of these guys got here because they're big hitters and tough guys, and that doesn't always show up when you're just practicing in helmets.
"Everything's moving fast and there's so much teaching going on when it's moving this fast. We're just trying to help these guys so they can function in practice. If the guys don't know what they're doing, you've got to give them the best chance to put their best foot forward. Until they can do that, they can't really show what they've got."