Rookie DL Ellis Wyms has been slowed by a foot injury but was able to practice for a limited time on Thursday
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' slow trip back to roster health took another small step on Thursday afternoon when rookie defensive lineman Ellis Wyms participated in roughly half of the day's two-hour session.
After completing the nine-on-seven portion of practice (a drill that features both offensive and defensive lines and concentrates on running plays), Wyms headed back to the training room for treatment on his sprained left foot. It wasn't a setback, however, but an adherence to the team's pre-practice plan.
"He actually did okay," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "Now we've got to see if he doesn't have a reaction to it. If he's able to come back tomorrow and practice again, then we think he's got a good chance to play."
Wyms did not practice on Wednesday, joining center Jeff Christy (knee), defensive tackle James Cannida (knee), cornerback Dwight Smith (foot) and guard Russ Hochstein (foot) on the sideline. While Wyms rekindled some hope on Thursday, Dungy indicated that the other four injured players are unlikely to play in Dallas.
Though Wyms is not a starter and has yet to play in his first regular-season NFL game, his availability might be a little more important than is obvious at first glance. With Cannida injured, the Bucs have no specific backup to the nose tackle position filled by starter Anthony McFarland. Wyms, who can play inside or outside, is going to work at that position during Cannida's absence (which could last six weeks) and could thus impact possible roster decisions before Sunday's game.
If the Buccaneers do elect to massage the roster further to respond to depth issues at nose tackle, guard, center and cornerback, that decision will likely be made late on Friday.
"It will probably be after tomorrow's practice," said Dungy, who is still looking to juggle his existing players into additional spots to cover the thin areas. "We'll exhaust all possibilities and then decide after practice."
One player who already is getting action at another position is second-year offensive lineman DeMarcus Curry, until now exclusively a tackle. On Thursday afternoon, Curry continually switched back and forth between right tackle and right guard, sometimes on consecutive drives. Dungy considered that contingency plan for interior line depth a long shot when the week began, but Curry believes he can play the guard position with no problem.
"I feel like I can play anything I've got to play, point blank," said Curry. "If I've got to play quarterback, I'll do that."
Even switching from the edge to the inside in the middle of a practice or a game is not an issue for Curry, who did not find the double duty particularly troubling on Thursday.
"No, it's not confusing," he said. "In order to play right tackle, I have to know what the right guard is going to do anyway, so it's not a problem."
Even without Curry in the lineup, the Bucs appear set to debut an offensive line in Dallas with three players making their first NFL starts – rookie left tackle Kenyatta Walker, second-year right guard Cosey Coleman and fourth-year center Todd Washington, who is filling in for Christy.
"Everybody starts their first game somewhere along the line," said Dungy. "We think we've got some pretty good players playing those positions, so I think we're going to be fine."
On the other hand, the team will need an improved effort from all if its players on Sunday if the game is to go according to the Bucs' plans, says Dungy. Thursday's effort did not earn one of the higher mark's in the coach's grade book.
"Practice today was a B ," said Dungy, taking a long pause to think of the letter assessment. "It wasn't what we needed. We needed to be in that A range. We had some mistakes early on, just concentration lapses that we need to get ironed out. We need to be a little sharper tomorrow.
"I thought we got better as practice went on, but at the beginning we just had too many concentration errors that will hurt us if we make them on Sunday."
The special teams portion of practice on Thursday centered around kickoffs, but the Bucs covered punting on Wednesday and veteran Mark Royals continues to kick on his own during spare moments of practice.
Royals returned to action last Friday in Atlanta after missing a month due to a knee sprain, but his first game out showed a little rust on the kicking leg. This week in practice, he believes he is returning to the form that made him arguably the best punter in team history over the past two seasons.
"I felt almost like I knew what I was doing again yesterday," said Royals on Thursday. "I'm still a little shaky on my timing…I'm a little anxious, rushing my punts a little bit. But the problem I was having is fatiguing really quick, the overall leg in general.
"I know it sounds weird, but after four weeks of inactivity, after you punt to loosen up, you start getting tired and start doing things differently. When I'm in really good kicking shape, I can just kick, kick, kick without getting tired. So I was getting tired and that was creating some problems with consistency."
He has kicked well enough in practice to remove at least one worry from the head coach's mind.
"Mark looks fine," said Dungy. "He should be 100 percent."
This week's edition of the The Sporting News hit Buccaneer headquarters today at 2:00 p.m., about the time the team was taking the field for practice. Seven of those players headed out for the workout were prominently featured in TSN's annual "NFL's Top 100," a list of that magazine's choices for the 100 best players in the league.
No team had more players on that list than Tampa Bay, though the Tennessee Titans matched the Bucs with seven of their own.
The seven Buccaneers to make TSN's Top 100 were DT Warren Sapp (7), LB Derrick Brooks (13), S John Lynch (20), WR Keyshawn Johnson (49), DE Marcus Jones (77), DE Simeon Rice (82) and RB Warrick Dunn (84).
In addition, the magazine recognizes Buc CB Donnie Abraham as a player that narrowly missed its cut. Another section touts five players who did not make the list in 2001 but are expected to be in the TSN Top 100 next year, and Tampa Bay DT Anthony McFarland is the pictured player in that group.
Three players from the Dallas Cowboys, Tampa Bay's opening-week opponent on Sunday, also made the list: G Larry Allen (8), RB Emmitt Smith (44) and LB Dexter Coakley (69). Judged purely on TSN's rankings, Sunday's meeting in the trenches between #7 Sapp and #8 Allen should be one of the top matchups of the first weekend.
The game will also feature two of the 16 running backs to make that TSN list (that was the most represented position). RB Warrick Dunn came in about 40 spots below the Cowboys' Hall of Famer-in-waiting. Dunn may eventually climb the ladder towards Smith's spot, but that's only one of the ways in which he is chasing the league's third all-time leading rusher.
"He has good vision, great balance, he's durable…he's been places that guys dream about going, and he's been going for a long, long time," said Dunn of Smith. "Sometimes it's just a joy to watch to just see the things he can do.
"He makes great reads. He reads well, and that makes him an exception, because most guys all the backs have to be big and fast, with great hands. He's a different guy that I truly respect."
Dunn knows that Smith came into the NFL with his doubters, and even knows how that feels. While Smith was considered not quite fast enough to be an elite back, Dunn was thought by many to be not quite big enough.
"You're always going to have skeptics," said the Bucs' back. "I've always had to deal with the size factor. 'Can I stay healthy for 16 games? Can I play at the highest level for 16 games?' This year we'll find out.
"I haven't doubted myself once. If I doubt myself, I don't need to be playing this game."