Rookie WR Sammy Stroughter is adept at making his way through the traffic in the middle of the field
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers scouted Oregon State wide receiver Sammie Stroughter in preparation for the 2009 NFL Draft, they liked his toughness and his speed, his run-after-the-catch talents and his hands. They were impressed by his production – 70 catch seasons in 2006 and 2008 – and his ability to overcome adversity.
But if you want to go to the tape and get specific, the Buccaneers really liked the routes they saw Stroughter run out of the slot position.
As most NFL fans know, the slot comes into play when a team puts three wideouts into the game. The slot receiver lines up closer to the middle of the field, between either the split end or the flanker and the offensive line. He often must navigate through a lot of middle of the field traffic, and sometimes absorb the abuse that comes with that, but he can also find himself in favorable matchups with slower defenders at times. Also by starting closer to the middle of the field, there is more room for a variety of routes on both his right and left.
Stroughter did that job particularly well at Oregon State, en route to 1040 yards last year and 1,293 in 2006. In his first three days as a Buccaneer – and, admittedly, in a camp comprised solely of fellow rookies and first-year players, Stroughter looked like he might be able to do it on the professional level, as well. Offensive Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski certainly got a strong first impression.
"We brought him in when we saw him working in the slot position, letting him work a linebacker and getting one-on-one with a nickel defensive back," said Jagodzinski. "We put him in that position. In fact, any time we had that route [Friday] in practice, we had him in the slot to see what he could do. And he did what we saw on film, in and out of the cuts."
Of course, that doesn't mean the solidly-built 5-9, 189-pound wideout can only play the slot. The size of his role will be determined by how well he meets each new challenge. The last receiver picked up by the Buccaneers in the seventh round or later (Stroughter was the 224 selection overall) to make a significant impact in the passing game was undrafted free agent Karl Williams in 1996. But the receiving corps for the 2009 Buccaneers appears to be one of great opportunity for newcomers, and Stroughter had a promising look about him in the rookie mini-camp.
The rookie was enthused by what he had seen as he left the field after the final camp practice on Sunday.
"It's a great opportunity," he said. "The sky's the limit, but it's a perfect opportunity. I couldn't hope for anything better than this. I have a great opportunity here, great coaches and [Wide Receivers] Coach [Richard] Mann always teaches you up on technique, and that's really, really big here. I get to evolve as a person and a player."
Stroughter's character has already been galvanized by tough times. An upbeat and charismatic young man, he was a popular figure at Oregon State after that breakout season in 2006. Then his life was turned upside down by the death of three men, two uncles to which he was close and Beavers' assistant coach Jim Gilstrap. He walked away from the game for a time in 2007 as he dealt with an onset of depression, and then promptly sustained a lacerated kidney just two games after returning.
With the support of his family and the OSU program, Stroughter sought help for his depression and came back in 2008 resembling the same high-energy guy his teammates had known in 2006. He was also ultra-productive again, catching 70 passes and passing the 1,000-yard mark for the second time. Stroughter was also a third-team All-America choice as a kick returner three times in his Beaver career.
Now, Stroughter uses his 2007 ordeal as the basis of his strength.
"It was adversity," he said simply. "It was a true test of my character, and I prevailed. I came back my senior year and put an explanation point on it. I showed a lot of people that I have been through something and I can get through it, so this football thing is cake. I know there are going to be some hurdles, but my mind is strong, my will is strong and I have a great support group. As long as I stay on the grind and continue to get better, the sky's the limit."
Stroughter is fast but he didn't scorch the stopwatches at the Scouting Combine, and he wasn't one of the taller receivers available. The Buccaneers didn't have a sixth-round pick, so it's conjecture as to whether or not they would have jumped on Stroughter in that round for fear of losing him. Still, it's a fact that he slid into the seventh round. Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris isn't certain as to why, but he knows its irrelevant now.
"I don't know; I see the talent," said Morris. "I've seen what he was on tape. I knew what he was as a person through my scouting department. I had a chance to meet him a little bit. Shoot, once you might the kid you fall in love with the character and you give him a chance, get him in here and see what he can do.
"Sammie came into this camp and he really went to work. He's done some good things at the receiver position and also on special teams. He's got a great personality; [he's] a live wire. He's practicing great, he's learning things, he's around good people. He's a leader amongst the rookies. You can see it already, he has a swagger about himself. You don't know he's a seventh-round draft pick, I'll tell you that much."
Stroughter's first weekend in Tampa was a muggy one, not quite what he will experience in training camp, but certainly a taste of it. The offense was brand new, to him and to everyone else on the field. There were three up-tempo, two-hour practices, two very thorough walk-throughs and quite a few meetings. It wasn't necessarily designed to be fun (though it tends to edge in that direction with Morris walking around the field).
Stroughter's take on the weekend grin: "It's peaches and cream!"
"I got a chance to get introduced to the playbook and be around the coaches, and you get a lot of great knowledge from them. The speed is something else. When the vets get here, it's going to be even faster. You've just always got to stay on the grind, put your best foot forward and go 100 percent."