A threatened rainstorm and it's chill wind didn't hit the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Wednesday practice in the United Kingdom until the last few minutes of the two-hour session, and by then the team's spirits had been warmed by several pieces of good news on the injury front.
Four players who didn't suit up for last Sunday's win over the New Orleans Saints – and in some of their cases, for a more extended period – participated in Wednesday's practice in some capacity. Rookie tight end Luke Stocker was able to practice without limitations; second-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was back on the field for a good portion of the workout; wide receiver Sammie Stroughter saw his first work since the season's opening week; and long-snapper Andrew Economos took a big step towards his return from the PUP list.
Stocker made it all the way through to the rainy bit at the end, and afterward he appeared quite confident in his chances to return on Sunday when the Bucs take on the Chicago Bears at Wembley Stadium.
"It felt to come out here and get back in the swing of things, knock the rust off and get ready to play on Sunday," said the team's 2011 fourth-round draft pick. "Today went well. I felt good, I felt fresh, so as long as the rest of the week goes well I expect to be able to play."
Stocker has missed the last two games with a knee injury and that has caused a significant amount of adjusting in the Buccaneers' play-calling. The team drafted the former University of Tennessee standout in April with the belief that he could join Kellen Winslow in the two-tight end package the team was eager to emphasize on offense. The Bucs are fond of the running plays they can call out of that formation, and believe that Stocker's presence along with Winslow makes them less predictable in the passing game.
"Stocker coming back would be awesome," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He's a big-time blocker for us. He provides that second tight end for the two-tight end sets that we always wanted and needed and he does a great job in his role."
McCoy's return would obviously have a big impact for the Buccaneers as well. He suffered an ankle injury in San Francisco that, at the time, appeared quite severe, but he has progressed rapidly from a walking boot just eight days ago to a return to action on Wednesday. McCoy was officially limited in the first practice of the week but he has shown enough to create optimism about a quicker-than-expected comeback.
"We've had a chance to get some people back," said Morris. "Knowing McCoy was going to be down last week and having the next guy step up and play hard and play fast, and to have a chance to get him back is exciting for us."
Two players actually stepped in for McCoy when the Bucs took on the Saints last Sunday. Jumbo defensive tackle Frank Okam took over the starting role and played extensively, with rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers pulling a cameo inside and spelling Okam on some passing downs. The fact that Bowers lined up in his normal position on Wednesday seems to be evidence that McCoy is on track for a rapid return.
"He's at end right now," said Morris of Bowers. "Hopefully Gerald's coming back and we'll have all our guys at go and we can put him back at the end position and let him go out there and rush the passer."
Stroughter hasn't played since suffering a foot injury on a kickoff return against Detroit in Week One. Stroughter got 78 yards on the return, which set the Bucs up to score on their very first possession of the year, but he required surgery the following week and has been working on his rehab since. His limited participation in practice might not signal an immediate return to game-day availability but it is an indication that he will be ready soon.
Economos is not technically on the 53-man roster at the moment, but that wouldn't necessarily stop him from playing against the Bears. The team's long-snapper since 2007 (and part of 2006), Economos hasn't played since suffering an Achilles heel injury in the offseason. He missed training camp and was placed on the reserve/physically unable to perform list to start the regular season. That meant he would not be eligible to return to action until after six games had passed, but the team anticipated he would be at full strength by that time. The Bucs now have up to 21 days to determine whether to activate Economos or put him on the disabled list, and that activation could happen at any time. Rookie Christian Yount has handled the team's long-snapping duties through the first six weeks without incident.
Of course, there are still some clouds in that sunny projection of the Bucs' injury situation. Rookie linebacker Mason Foster did not practice on Wednesday after spraining an ankle against the Saints on Sunday. It was actually the second such injury for Foster in two weeks; he had sprained his other ankle in San Francisco and didn't practice most of last week. However, he returned last Friday and was able to start the New Orleans game, so the team is hoping he can make a similar amount of progress at Pennyhill Park this week.
"He actually kind of sprained his other ankle a little bit," said Morris. "He's walking around on nice ankles right now. Hopefully we can see what he can do by the end of the week. He's a tough kid so I have a lot of confidence in him."
Starting center Jeff Faine did not practice on Wednesday due to the biceps injury he sustained against the Saints, which knocked him out for roughly half of that 26-20 victory. Michael Bennett was held out due toa groin strain but Morris hopes the team will be able to get its starting left end ready in time for Sunday. Tight end Kellen Winslow was kept out of action Wednesday, but that is part of the normal routine that has kept Winslow on the field for all 38 games since he joined the team in 2009, despite a knee that needs constant maintenance.
And running back LeGarrette Blount missed Wednesday's opening practice, making it hard to predict a return from his knee injury on Sunday. Blount missed the Bucs' win over the Saints, in which veteran Earnest Graham stepped into the starting tailback role and produced his first 100-yard game since 2008.
"He's got a messed-up knee right now," said Morris of Blount. "We'll see where he's going to progress throughout the week, see what he's going to be able to do for us, if anything. If not, we've got the next-man-up theory in Tampa. When people go down, the next man's got to go in there and be better than the starter."
The Bucs will follow their trip to London with a bye week back in Tampa before heading out to New Orleans for a rematch with the Saints in Week Nine. Thus, any injured players who are not able to return on Sunday at Wembley will have an extra week to get back into the mix. However, the timetable looks considerably better than that for several previously-ailing Buccaneers, and that's an encouraging way for the week in the U.K. to begin.
"In the National Football League, the team that stays healthy is usually the team that wins…other than the Green Bay Packers last year," said Morris. "We've got Sammie on the rise and all those guys are coming back slowly but surely and we look forward to getting those guys back. We know Blount's coming back sooner or later; we just have to see."