Ellis Wyms has produced wherever the Bucs have played him on the defensive line, but he would like to concentrate at tackle
When the later rounds of the NFL Draft roll around, teams often go fishing for one quality, a hook that could get a player into the league. While first-round picks are usually thought to be complete prospects, a sixth-rounder might be a smaller receiver with great speed, or a slower linebacker with big-time production, or a small-school cornerback with good feet. One standout skill can get a player into camp, where the rest of his game can then be developed.
Ellis Wyms – he was quick, particularly for a big man.
In 2001, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers used the second of two sixth-round selections to grab Wyms, the Mississippi State defensive lineman. Because he played in a rotation with several other well-regarded tackles, Wyms was somewhat overlooked going into the draft. He wasn't one of the top 10 ends on the board, but the Bucs liked his speed and thought they could develop his other skills.
Four years later, Wyms ranks as one of the best sixth-round selections the team has ever made, and that's because the Bucs' educated guess was right: There was more there to develop. As it turns out, the quick-footed 280-pounder was loaded with talent, and was a quick study to boot. Four NFL seasons, occasionally interrupted by injury, have proven what a valuable asset Wyms can be and given him the confidence to take on any job the Bucs put in front of him.
"I feel like I'm a gifted athlete," said Wyms. "If I get a coach who will show me what he needs me to do, I feel like I can get it done in any capacity. I don't really care what position it is. I just feel like I'm a good athlete, and whatever they want me to do, whatever they ask me to do, I'll do it. I don't think there's anything on the defensive line that I just can't do."
Wyms, of course, plays for several coaches who are adept at getting the most out of players. Monte Kiffin's schemes reward quick defensive tackles, and Rod Marinelli's practice-field instructions maximize his players' abilities. Wyms, for instance, was thought to be a versatile player along the line at Mississippi State, where he played tackle and both end spots, and the Bucs have developed that versatility on the professional level.
Since his emergence in 2002, when he racked up 5.5 sacks despite not starting a single game, Wyms has helped the Bucs immensely by filling in where most needed, whether it be at end, under tackle or nose tackle. Tampa Bay has had excellent defensive line talent for the better part of a decade, but injuries and free agency departures have left the team with different needs at different times. Wyms, who signed a long-term contract in 2003 just before becoming a restricted free agent, has shown he can rush off the edge or make the quick move inside.
"When we get into the season, whatever they want me to do, whatever they think is going to help this defense – well, they coach, I play," he said. "Wherever they put me at, I've just got to get on the field and make plays. It's all the same. Once you put the hand down, it's pretty much all the same. Get your hand down and go make plays."
That being said, as he heads into his fifth NFL season, Wyms has his eye on a more fixed role in 2005. Because he still possesses that quickness noted by the Bucs' scouts, and because he has bulked up to nearly 300 pounds, he believes he could make his biggest impact inside. While acknowledging that shifting needs could once again put him on the move, Wyms hopes to settle in at tackle this year and make a name for himself around the league.
"I'm planning on concentrating on being a defensive tackle," he said. "I think as a defensive tackle I can be one of the best tackles in this league if I can stay healthy and really get on the top of my game. Right now, I'm about 295-300 pounds, I feel good, running around the field. I've still got my quickness. I mean, there are not a lot of 300-pound guys in the league who can run and move like I move."
As it turns out, Wyms desire could fit the Bucs area of greatest need. After the 2003 season, Warren Sapp, long a mainstay at Tampa Bay's under tackle position, left to join the Oakland Raiders, which moved Anthony McFarland to under tackle and opened the nose tackle position for Chartric Darby. Now, Darby has departed for Seattle and McFarland is returning from his own injury-shortened season. McFarland certainly figures to be one of the Bucs' two DT starters, but there is opening at the other, and Wyms could win that job.
However, the Bucs have provided some competition for the spot…or seen another way, some more talent for the entire defensive-tackle rotation. Former Minnesota first-rounder Chris Hovan was added through free agency and could revive his career in Tampa. Massive Alabama nose tackle Anthony Bryant was picked up in the sixth round of the draft and is considered another player who could blossom under Marinelli. Defensive ends Greg Spires and Dewayne White showed they could be effective inside when pressed into service last year. And fifth-year man Damian Gregory, a surprise contributor last year before his own season-ending injury, is back to make another run for a starting spot.
"I know we've got a lot of guys on the defensive line who can play, so it's going to be a lot of competition for playing time and spots," said Wyms. "It's going to be competition, but that's what keeps us good every year. There's always competition in camp, there are always guys fighting to either earn a spot or keep a spot. We're going to be fine as a defensive line and I'm going to be fine as a player. You've got to keep working on it and keep getting better."
The competition will really heat up in training camp, which is when Wyms expects to be fully recovered from the shoulder injury that cost him the last 10 games of the 2004 season. He estimates that he is currently 75-80% recovered, still trying to add strength and flexibility to the joint.
"My timetable is to make sure I'm strong and ready to go to camp," said Wyms. "Once we get to camp, we'll see how it goes there, but I've been working at it. It feels better, but I'm not ready to get in there and start throwing around offensive linemen. I'll keep working on it and it will be fine by the time we get to camp."
Wyms endured several ankle and knee injuries in 2002 and 2003 but was always able to get back on the field quickly. He missed just three games in '03 and sat out two in '02 before returning for the Bucs' successful playoff run. He capped his breakout 2002 campaign with a sack in Super Bowl XXXVII.
This year, he wants to play in 16 games and sees no reason why he won't hit that goal. If he does, the numbers are likely to follow.
"Last year was the first time I missed a numerous amount of games, where I just couldn't do anything," said Wyms of the shoulder injury. "Other than that, I think I've had a decent career around here and hopefully it will continue this year. I've just got to get back healthy."