Bruce Arians spent a lot of time on the kick and return game during the first two days of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie camp, and for good reason: It's the best path to a roster spot for most of the nearly 60 players on the field this weekend.
"The one thing we’re emphasizing a lot of special teams, because most of these kids if they are going to make our squad, it’s going to be on special teams," said Arians.
That's a truism around the NFL, and it is invariably drilled in the head of a sixth-round cornerback or an undrafted running back. It is not however, applied to quarterbacks very often. Pitchers don't make it to the big leagues based on their stick, goalies don't crack the NHL because of their slap shots and quarterbacks, in particular, don't stick in the pros because they can tackle a return man.
There are a few exceptions, however, and Nick Fitzgerald could be the next one.
The Buccaneers called Fitzgerald as soon as the final round of the 2019 draft ended on April 27 and the former Mississippi State star decided immediately to accept Arians' offer to come to Tampa. He liked the support system that having family in Florida offered him, but he also thought the Buccaneers would offer him "a lot of opportunities." Yes, that's opportunities, plural.
"Nick’s one of those intriguing guys, because as a quarterback he can do a lot of things for you," said Arians. "And I think back to Joe Webb, some of those guys who were running quarterbacks they found a niche playing special teams, being your third quarterback, maybe playing some other position as a guy to get you out of games. So, that would be his role - if he can win it - and [we'll] groom him as a quarterback."
Fitzgerald was a very productive offensive player for the Bulldogs, throwing for 6,207 yards in 45 games and 37 starts and also running for another 3,607 yards. He tossed 55 touchdown passes and also ran in 46 more scores. He has prototypical NFL quarterback size at 6-5 and 226 pounds and he ran a 4.64 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. Obviously, Fitzgerald would have been drafted, and very early, if he was coming into the league a fully-formed NFL passer, and his 54.2% completion rate and 30 interceptions are on the other side of the ledger. But there are talents to be molded there, and his ability to help a team in other ways during that process could be the way he gets a chance at development in the first place.
"Going through the whole process since I left college, everybody always said, 'Hey, you can play multiple positions,' and I'm completely fine with that," said a game Fitzgerald. "I'd love to get on special teams, have a chance to do that, maybe go run some routes, do something. I'm always open to do whatever I can. Make the team first and then obviously help the team while I'm on it. Whatever they ask, I'm willing to do."
Arians referenced Webb, who has played for four NFL teams (most recently Houston) and has been active for 102 regular-season games despite throwing only 159 passes. Webb has proved he can be an asset on special teams, which allows his teams to keep a useful third passer around. In his three years with the Panthers (2014-16), Webb played 846 snaps on special teams and 68 on offense.
An even higher-profile case emerged last year in Taysom Hill, whom the Saints put to use in a wide variety of ways. Hill can help on special teams, too, but New Orleans also got him involved on offense as a Wildcat quarterback, sometimes with Drew Brees on the field at the same time. Hill ran 37 times and threw seven passes last year.
That might not be the exact idea with Fitzgerald, who cuts more of a tight end figure, given his size and speed. In fact, some teams asked him to run tight end drills at the Combine and he expressed his willingness though it never actually happened. Now Fitzgerald will happily do whatever the Buccaneers coaches ask him to.
This weekend, however, Fitzgerald was a quarterback, the leader of a three-man group that also included tryout players Tyler Gangi and Vincent Testaverde. It was the beginning of a significant transition for the former Mississippi State standout, as the Bulldogs' offense was nothing like Arians' playbook.
"It's tough," said Fitzgerald. "You go from college where everything's spread, zone reads, kind of an 'air raid,' to getting into a more pro-style offense, getting under center. So that's always tough, just getting your footwork down and just how we operate with the huddle. Never done that before. But I'm enjoying it. I like the grind, I like the challenges."
And that's exactly the point. Fitzgerald may need time to prove one way or another if he can stick as a quarterback in the NFL. All the other things he can do may just buy him that time.