During the first two days of the 2016 NFL Draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers aimed directly at their biggest needs, selecting an elite cover cornerback, a promising edge rusher and a deadly-accurate kicker. As Day Three began, the team targeted long-term depth and, interestingly, did so by stressing versatility.
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Tampa Bay's fourth-round pick was North Carolina Central cornerback Ryan Smith, whom the team plans to try at safety in the early going. The team's fifth-round selection was UCLA tackle Caleb Benenoch, who is spending this weekend's rookie mini-camp playing right guard. This may prove to be an excellent way to find value in the middle rounds of the draft, just as the team has done with 2014 fifth-round pick Kevin Pamphile, a tackle who last year made a strong impression at guard.
"Both of those guys played both positions at college," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter after the second mini-camp practice on Saturday. "I mean, they both started at both positions, so as we said going back to the day we drafted those guys, versatility in the later rounds is key. You've got to have multi-positions guys, you've got to have guys that can play more than one spot. Look at a guy like Kevin Pamphile. Last year his versatility is what kept him here and he did a lot of great things for us on offense. That's just one example."
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Of course, simply wanting a position switch to work and it actually becoming a reality at the NFL level are two different things, and Smith, Benenoch and the Buccaneers are still at the very beginning stage of that process. Smith did indeed play some safety at UNCC before switching to corner and Benenoch started four games at guard last year for the Bruins; now they will find out if they can combine that experience and their raw talents to make an impact at the pro level.
Both rookies believed they could take a substantial step forward in those efforts this weekend before joining the Buccaneers team as a whole in the coming weeks.
"Knowledge, that's the big thing," said Smith. "Learning that playbook. It's a lot different in college, especially at safety, so knowledge is the big thing. That's what I really want to get out of this, so I can play fast. It's better than I thought it would be. I'm handling it better than I thought I would, so it's going pretty well."
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Due to a later ending to UCLA's academic year, Benenoch won't be rejoining the Buccaneers until June, which means he'll miss a handful of OTA practices. But he has embraced the idea of playing guard this weekend and is trying to milk as much out of the weekend as possible.
"I love it, I'm for it," said Benenoch of trying his hand on the interior line. "I love the challenge. That's why I came out [of college early], so I can compete and get coached by the best. [Offensive Line] Coach [George] Warhop is a great coach, so I'm looking forward to learning a lot from him. Coach Warhop wanted to start me at guard. I'm probably going to move outside at some point but I'm a versatile guy and that's what he wanted when he picked me up so I'm going to do whatever he needs me to do."
It is obviously difficult to install much of the playbook in a camp almost totally comprised of newcomers, including several dozen on tryout contracts. But the Buccaneers' coaching staff hoped to accomplish two major goals: Prepare the already-signed rookies for their integration into the team as a whole, and evaluate the roster hopefuls to determine if any of them should be retained. For Smith and Benenoch, who have already signed their first NFL contracts and will definitely be in training camp this summer, the rookie camp was a chance to learn as much as possible.
"Technique for offensive line, that's the biggest thing," said Benenoch. "Technique is crucial to winning and losing every play. So technique for me, getting bigger and stronger in the weight room and just learning, soaking up all the knowledge I can."
Added Smith: "It's just a lot. You really have to be in tune. You really have to pay attention. You can't miss a thing or you're really going to be lost out there. So me being coachable and knowing that a lot is coming my way, it helps me to understand more."