G Dan Buenning was one of the rookies who made a good first impression on the coaching staff
In the huddle at the end of Sunday morning's practice, which brought the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' three-day rookie mini-camp to a close, Head Coach Jon Gruden had the young players shake each other's hands. Since 20 of the 50 players on the field were there on tryout contracts, Gruden knew it might be some time before their paths crossed again.
For a few of those 20, however, those will likely prove to be introductory handshakes. According to the head coach, there is a strong chance that some of the tryout players will receive full contracts shortly, clearing the way for them to attend training camp with the team in August.
"There are four or five guys who are here who we'll find a way to get on our roster, I believe," said Gruden. "This was a strong cast of players."
If the Bucs do sign that many of the tryout players – 20% to 25% of those on hand – that would represent an impressive level of scouting success. Last year, the Bucs used the same process but signed only one of 27 tryout players in the days after the rookie camp, Wake Forest offensive lineman Mark Moroz, who was later released before training camp.
Actually, the Bucs' scouting success was represented all over the field this weekend, in the fine debuts, for instance, of running back Cadillac Williams, linebacker Barrett Ruud, tight end Alex Smith and the two drafted offensive linemen, Chris Colmer and Dan Buenning. Gruden called it the best rookie camp he has seen in some time, and knew there was a very simple reason for that.
"We had better players; isn't that something?" said Gruden with a laugh. "We had a lot of good players here, let's be honest. We had a first-round draft choice [Williams] who's really good; this middle linebacker is really a good player; the tight end, you saw for yourself, has really got a lot of ability; two linemen who have played a lot of football, and you throw in [undrafted free agent guard Jonathan] Clinkscale and you've got three guys who are pretty darn good players; the two safeties. I mean, this is a good draft class.
"When you combine good players with guys who are very good position coaches, you have a chance to have a great camp."
Actually, none of the 40 or so rookies will be back right away, as they are ineligible to return until their respective colleges finish their school years. By mid-May, many of them will have returned to One Buccaneer Place and will be mixed in with the returning veterans for more rigorous preparations for the 2005 season. Gruden may have to wait a few weeks to see most of these young men again, but they leave having given the coach and his staff a charge for the rest of the offseason.
"When you have good young players to work with, it stimulates the coaches, too," said Gruden. "I'm not alone. I know Joe Barry is very excited about injecting Marquis Cooper and Barrett Ruud into this veteran linebacking corps. We're excited about the additions of Anthony Becht and Alex Smith. I think Ron Middleton is rejuvenated. So we'll see. Hopefully [Michael] Clayton and [Joey] Galloway come in here with some system intelligence this year, where everything's not so new to them, and we can hit the ground running a little bit better."
The practices to come in May and June will be more involved, more demanding. Coaches might be less tolerant of mistakes then they were on the field this weekend. While the work was pared down some for the rookie camp – no blitzes, for instance – they still had to grasp a lot of information in a short period of time. They did so impressively.
"It was great," said Gruden. "I tell you, it was unbelievable. The tempo today and the execution of assignments were very, very well done. We got a lot done. I was very pleased with what we got done, and the execution got better and better and better."
As for those tryout players who won't be signed, it was far from a lost weekend. They got a rare opportunity to create some practice tape on an NFL field, and that could come in handy as they continue to pursue their football careers. In addition, they could find themselves back with the Buccaneers at a later date. Wide receiver Terrance Metcalf didn't get a contract after his tryout in Tampa Bay last spring, but he stayed on the team's board and was signed in January. He is now playing in the NFL Europe League, and playing well.
"Some of these guys might not have a chance to come and play for us this year," said Gruden. "But certainly if they stay in shape, we might get an injury in training camp and you might recall this as an experience to draw from."
That post-practice huddle on Sunday was an eventful one.
Before he even got to the round of handshakes, Gruden made the players scatter again and return to the huddle with more enthusiasm. Then he delivered a lengthy closing speech, thanking the players for their efforts and giving them tips for the weeks to come. Finally, he asked Personnel Executive Doug Williams to address the team.
Williams, in his second year in the Bucs' player personnel department, remains one of the most important players in team history. He played five seasons in Tampa and led the team to three playoff berths, including the 1979 NFC Championship Game in only his second season. He later won a Super Bowl with the Washington Redskins and was named the game's most valuable player.
"We try to use Doug creatively, not just in personnel but as a former Buccaneer player," said Gruden. "He's got a lot more stock, I think, then people realize. A lot of people might think around here he's just an ex-Buc. But he's a Super Bowl MVP and he went through a tremendous amount in his life. [He was a] black quarterback before there were very many black quarterbacks. He went to the USFL, lost his wife, was a head coach at Grambling, succeeding Eddie Robinson. This guy's done some miraculous things and he's a great resource to draw from."
Gruden knows that Williams went through a camp similar to this one 27 years ago, after being drafted in the first round in 1978. Gruden wanted the latest Buccaneer rookies to benefit from Williams' experience.
"He had just a good word to these guys to get themselves in shape and come back here as soon as they can ready to go," said Gruden. "[He advised them] to have some camaraderie and unity among this class. Don't come in here intimidated, come in here ready to compete."