The Bucs have enjoyed outstanding voluntary participation in their offseason workouts
National Football League rules limit the amount of "organized team activities" (OTAs) clubs are allowed to utilize in the offseason.
There are no limitations, however, on the benefits a team is able to reap from its allotted practice sessions.
That's why the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have been squeezing as much effort and execution out of each of these 14 non-mandatory offseason workouts as possible – and as allowed by league rules. The Bucs are following the old adage of "practice makes perfect" even though the team won't play any sort of organized game until the preseason opener in Miami on August 9.
Each OTA spent developing the team's talent and preparing for the upcoming season is vital, and the results so far have been promising, according to Head Coach Jon Gruden.
"We've got half the OTAs left to go. We've had an unbelievable turnout; we've got about 90 players participating," Gruden said. "We're getting better. We've obviously added some players that we're excited about. We're trying to get them caught up in terms of what we want to do. The work ethic has been tremendous and I credit our coaches and certainly our players for that."
The team is on a one-week hiatus from OTAs before returning to the practice field next Tuesday, though the Buccaneer quarterbacks have been around the facility, going through the second of their offseason orientation sessions this week.
Three days of practices during each of the next two weeks will conclude the Bucs' allotment of OTAs, but much still remains to be accomplished between now and training camp.
"It's important for all of these guys," Gruden said. "We're only allowed to take 80 guys to camp now; we're going to have to cut the roster down to get to 80, let alone figuring out who's starting and who's going to get what reps with what group. There's a lot to be decided here before we go to Orlando and this is a key evaluation for us."
Perhaps more than any group on the roster, the club's rookies stand to gain the most from these offseason practices, which are not allowed to include contact but are perfect for trying to learn the basics of the offensive and defensive systems. Fresh off their collegiate campuses and staring down a thick new playbook and a slew of new coaches and teammates, the newest Bucs face the biggest challenges but also have an excellent opportunity to improve.
Reps may prove hard to come by for some of these young players as the offseason progresses into training camp, but some of the rookies have taken advantage of these early OTAs to show flashes of progress.
"Some guys have [shown their knowledge]," Gruden said. "Some positions it's a little bit harder to thrust them into this type of environment, the quarterback in particular. Some of these guys have only been back [for a short time]; we have a long way to go with our young players and that will be a big part of the offseason."
As for the veterans on the roster, OTAs and offseason programs can become somewhat of a blur as the years of NFL experience pile up. Some players require more work in the summer months than others, linebacker Cato June says, but it's all about knowing yourself and what you need to do to get ready for the upcoming campaign.
"I think everybody knows what people are capable of," June said. "I would say [OTAs are] more for the young guys. It helps the veterans to get refreshed and the young guys to get more accustomed to how we do things around here. It's your offseason. It's not mandatory for guys to be here, it's a plus. It's a plus for everybody to be here and go through practices and meeting and things that OTAs have for us. It's just about everyone getting mentally ready. Everybody's different – you can go out and take every rep, but some guys only want to take a few reps and that gets them prepared for camp. It's just about being ready for training camp in July."
Most veterans know their bodies and know what steps to take during the offseason to keep them in top physical condition. The true benefit of OTAs for experienced players, June says, is the mental fine-tuning these practices provide.
"It's a refresher course to go out and try to mentally change some things," June said. "Think about the things we did well and try to continue that, see the things that we didn't do as well and try to tweak those things, and change things that we may need going into the fall so that'll make us a better, more complete defense."
So as the rookies battle to learn new schemes and earn more reps and the veterans focus on refreshing and perfecting their knowledge and skills, OTAs are a prime chance for even talented teams to improve and build a championship foundation.
"A lot of guys impress me," Gruden said. "We've got a good football team. We wouldn't have won the NFC South if we weren't pretty good, so we do have talent. The obvious guys impress me, and their work ethic impresses me. The togetherness of this team, the accountability on this team impresses me. You wouldn't have 90-plus players here participating if that wasn't the case. It's just my opinion, but that gives us a chance."