Head Coach Jon Gruden was impressed with the enthusiasm of the players in town for the weekend's mini-camp
Twenty-eight undrafted, unsigned players came to Tampa this weekend hoping to make a splash.
It was thus fitting that, on the last play of the last morning of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' three-day rookie mini-camp, tryout player John Burke dove joyously into the end zone as if it was a swimming pool.
Burke was actually one of 44 players in camp with the Bucs over the weekend, but 16 of those men were either 2004 draft choices, signed rookie free agents or holdover first-year Buccaneers. That left 28 men who were promised no more than three days at One Buccaneer Place but who were chasing the possibility of a longer-term contract.
On Sunday morning, despite two previous days of afternoon practices in August-like weather, the final practice of this unique camp was unusually lively and enthusiastic. Defensive players thrilled to every near-turnover and heard roars of approval from the coaches on the sideline.
So, when Burke intercepted quarterback Marquel Blackwell's shallow out on the last snap of the morning and returned it untouched for an end zone, it was as if he had made a game-winning play. After his dive into the end zone, he was buried by his 'teammates' in a wild celebration.
It will take days or weeks for the Bucs to decide if they intend to sign any of the 28 players who were on hand with tryout contracts. Coaches and player personnel executives will pore over videotape of the weekend's workouts to sharpen their first-glance evaluations. Head Coach Jon Gruden, however, needed no further evidence to know that the tryout players had given an impressive effort.
"The guys did the best they could, the effort was great and we got a lot of work done," said Gruden. "We got a chance to look at our rookie class and evaluate a lot of newcomers. I was pleased with the genuine enthusiasm that we had here and I compliment the entire team that we had this weekend for that."
Burke is a 6-0, 180-pound cornerback from Arkansas State, one of three corners on tryout with the Bucs, along with Georgia's Kenny Bailey and Central Florida's Omar Laurence. Three plays before Burke's touchdown, Laurence had nearly intercepted another pass in the middle of the field.
Like just about every position on the depth chart, cornerback was a spot the Bucs shored up through free agency in March and April, signing Mario Edwards and Tommy Knight. Still, camp rosters run deep at most positions, and they can be updated in midstream if a player goes down with an injury. At the least, an impressive performance this weekend could put a player on the Bucs' radar when an opening arises in the future.
"It possibly could," conceded Gruden. "When you're all done with the evaluations, if there are seven or eight guys who emerge as candidates for that, you bet. You can never stop the evaluation process. You just keep looking for players and sometimes you'll be surprised where you find them."
Making the Best of It
If running a mini-camp with a roster almost two-thirds constructed of tryout players seems unusual…well, it was.
Teams used to be allotted two mandatory mini-camps during the offseason, three if there was a new head coach in town. Now one of those camps has to be voluntary and can only include rookies and first-year players. Since a camp with 16 players would have been only marginally productive, the Bucs decided to combine their scouting efforts with the camp, bringing in the 28 men on tryouts.
It's not the first time this idea has been attempted in the NFL, but it was a first for Gruden.
"No, I've never done anything like this," he said. "I don't quite understand why it's like this, personally. I'd love to see Chris Simms here and Earnest Graham and some of our new offensive linemen, taking advantage of another two or three chances to get better, but that's the way it goes.
"When you have a mini-camp, obviously you'd like to have your entire team here. I still can't quite understand that ruling. But everybody's got to abide by the same rule, so it's fair."
The upside, of course, is more intense work with the newest players.
"You get a chance to get a personal relationship going with your new players, your rookies, and you get to evaluate a lot of newcomers, guys who weren't drafted," said Gruden. "Maybe we can find a sleeper here who slipped through the cracks."
In the meantime, the Bucs have done what they can with their veterans, who are allowed to work at team headquarters four hours a day. Most of that time is used in the weight room, but there are small pockets of time for classroom work and one-on-one action with position coaches on the field. In addition, the club is allowed a number of 'organized team activity' days that can somewhat approximate a practice.
"We had three really good passing days before the draft," said Gruden. "We got a number of free agents signed early, so we've been getting a lot of work done on the field during the offseason program.
"We've had a real specific plan for the veteran players and we've introduced many different aspects of our football to them. Hopefully when we hit the ground May 18 and resume our passing camp days, we'll have some guys accelerated in terms of where they are."