In 2016, just after Thanksgiving, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were looking for an answer at cornerback. Jude Adjei-Barimah, the team's nickel back for much of the season, had been suspended, former second-round pick Johnthan Banks had been released and former starter Alterraun Verner was away dealing with a death in the family.
The loss of Adjei-Barimah, who had also suffered an injury in his last outing and would not return to the field that year, left the Bucs a man short at cornerback and in need of a new plan for its sub packages. The team chose to look within to fill that first need, and eventually the second.
The answer proved to be rookie Javien Elliott, who had spent the first 10 weeks of the season on the Buccaneers practice squad after arriving as an undrafted free agent. Merely being promoted to the active roster was a notable achievement for Elliott, who had previously been a walk-on at Florida State who only played one season for the Seminoles. The story got even better when the Bucs decided to give Elliott real playing time. After first moving rookie Vernon Hargreaves into the slot on nickel snaps, the Bucs decided to leave their first-round pick on the outside and let Elliott handle the slot.
Elliott handled that role solidly during the Bucs' final six games as Tampa Bay's defense put together a strong second half and helped the team win four of those six contests. The Buccaneers' coaching staff wasn't surprised, as they had seen evidence on the practice field that the unknown rookie could hold his own against the league's best.
"We've been working Javien and the main reason we have confidence in Javien Elliot is he picks off our offense about three times every day in practice," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter after Elliott played well in a win at San Diego. "He's a kid that practices hard. We encourage those guys not to hit our guys, not to take shots on our guys, but if you can get the ball in practice, get it and nobody picks off Jameis Winston more than Javien Elliot. And he makes plays, so we knew when he had a chance to come up, that we weren't going to be afraid to put him in the game."
Elliott's story is one that repeats itself, albeit with different particulars, nearly every fall. Injuries are an unavoidable factor of every NFL season and eventually a team's depth is going to get tested. Sometimes that depth runs out, which necessitates additions to the active roster. More often than not, those additions come from the practice squad, where the prospects have at least had some time to learn the team's playbook and make an impression on the coaching staff.
NFL practice squads are sometimes unofficially referred to as developmental squads, and those two names reveal the dual purposes of that group. On one hand, having 10 extra players around during the work week helps a team spread out reps, make up for the absence of injured players and fill out a "look squad" for the starts to go against. At the same time, those are getting a chance to hone their skills and move closer to actually playing in the NFL.
Riley Bullough is a good example. The undrafted rookie linebacker out of Michigan State made an early splash in Tampa Bay's training camp, which was captured and highlighted by the ubiquitous Hard Knocks cameras. Koetter particularly liked how well Bullough communicated on the practice field. That wasn't enough to earn him a spot on the 53-man roster, to the detriment of the Hard Knocks storyline, but it earned him a spot on the practice squad. When injuries hit the linebacking corps late in the season, Bullough got his long-awaited promotion.
"He has done a good job all year running the scout team, working on his craft [and] continuing to get better like every guy that we keep on the practice squad," said Koetter. "Eventually our hope is that they will be able to come up and play for us on Sunday. That's what you keep those guys for – all of them. We've had other guys that have moved up and done that over the last couple of years and I'd expect him to be no different when he gets his opportunity."
Indeed, that's how it's supposed to work. Not every player who lands on the practice squad ends up on the 53-man roster. Some come and go quickly, others spend most of the season with that crew. But every year there are a players who rise from midweek helpers to Sunday contributors, and 2017 was no different.
A total of 27 players spent at least one week on Tampa Bay's practice squad this past season. Of those 27, 10 also made it to the active roster at some point: Bullough, tight end Alan Cross, linebacker Nigel Harris, safety Isaiah Johnson, guard Mike Liedtke, wide receivers Freddie Martino and Bobo Wilson, defensive ends Patrick O'Connor and Channing Ward and cornerback David Rivers. Unlike the other nine men on this list, Cross actually started the 2017 season on the active roster before moving to the practice squad four weeks in. He was promoted again in Week 13.
View some of the best photos from the Bucs Cheerleaders' 2017 season.
All 10 of those players were still on the roster at season's end, which means that practice-squad promotions made up nearly 20% of the entire active crew. They combined to play 33 games with five starts. Much of that came on special teams, but Cross, Martino and Wilson all had reasonably significant roles on offense by season's end. Wilson gave the Bucs a fourth rookie contributor on offense, joining draft picks O.J. Howard and Chris Godwin and undrafted free agent tight end Antony Auclair.
Wilson had to wait until Week 13 for his promotion, but he apparently used those three months on the practice squad well. Koetter referred to Wilson as perhaps the most improved player on the roster over the course of the season. It was thus satisfying for the coaching staff to see the rookie play well when he did make the active roster.
"The reps that those [practice squad] guys get are really on the look squad, so it's a card," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken. "It's a dot running a route. What do you see? You see him going against Brent Grimes. You see him going against other corners and you like what you see, but that's off a card. That is in practice. You've earned that part – that next step – because some guys don't do what he did, so he's done that part to compete and earn that. Now, we will see. Still we have six receivers up. We were talking about getting guys more touches when we might have four or five. Hell, now we've got six. We will see. We like where he is headed if he continues to progress like we hope."
Wilson's first regular-season NFL catch – so far, his only catch – went for a touchdown and was one of the top moments for the 10 players who earned promotions from the practice squad in 2017. Here were the top five plays for those up-and-comers:
- Isaiah Johnson scooped up a fumbled punt against New Orleans on December 31 and returned it six yards for a touchdown early in the fourth quarter. That sparked a rally that ended in Tampa Bay's 31-24 win on Chris Godwin's last-second 39-yard touchdown catch.
- Playing in just his second regular-season game, Wilson saw the field in the second half of the Buccaneers' down-to-the-wire game in Week 16 against the playoff-bound Carolina Panthers. As quarterback Jameis Winston scrambled to escape pocket pressure inside the Panthers' red zone, Wilson worked open in the left side of the end zone. Winston threw on the run and Wilson hauled in the 18-yard pass for a go-ahead touchdown. Carolina would eventually win, 22-19, on Cam Newton's tw0-yard touchdown run in the last minute.
- In the same Week 16 game in Charlotte, Freddie Martino got open down the left sideline on third-and-eight late in the third quarter. Winston found him and the completion was enough for a first down, but Martino turned it into much more by faking out one Carolina defender and out-running two others for a gain of 39. The drive resulted in a short field goal that gave the Bucs a 19-15 lead in the fourth quarter.
- Alan Cross had his best moment of 2017 in front of a national audience. Playing Atlanta on Monday Night Football in Week 15, the Buccaneers fought the Falcons down to the end despite losing 10 players to injuries. Two of those were tight ends O.J. Howard and Cam Brate; though Brate eventually returned to the game, Cross and Antony Auclair saw a lot more playing time than originally intended. On one play, Cross left the backfield and lined up out wide to the left. Though he looked like a decoy on this third-and-four play, Cross ran a straight fly down the sideline and Winston hit him for a gain of 23. The Bucs got down to the Atlanta nine before losing the ball on a fumble.
- Martino had several important catches over the last four games of the season, but before he ever got involved in the passing game he made an immediate impact on special teams upon his promotion. On the very first snap he played in the entire season, Martino tackled New York Jets return man JoJo Natson at the Jets' 18-yard line, leading to a quick punt and great field position for the Bucs' first drive of the day. Later in the same game, Martino dropped Natson at the Jets' 10-yard line on another kickoff return.