LB Jeff Gooch, who went undrafted in 1996 but promptly made the Bucs' roster, is a positive example for this year's rookie free agent crew
Meet Tavarus, Tarig and Mawuko. Ketric and Damonte. Earthwind.
You wouldn't think these guys would be worried about making a name for themselves, because their parents already did such a fine job of it. But that's just what they're trying to do.
Tavarus Hogans, Tarig Holman, Mawuko Tugbenyoh, Ketric Sanford, Damonte McKenzie and Earthwind Moreland are a half-dozen of the 14 college free agents signed by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers the day after the NFL draft. Uncommon first names aside, many of these players are mysteries to Buc fans, but that doesn't mean they are obscure. Had their names been called on draft weekend two weeks ago, they would have a little more name recognition in NFL cities. However, since 1992 the draft has been shortened from 12 rounds to seven and every April that leaves a broad pool of talented players undrafted and free to sign with any team.
That process is the hidden third part of the NFL draft, after the well publicized Saturday early rounds and Sunday late rounds have been completed. Before that Sunday has ended, most NFL teams have reached commitments with a list of players that were not drafted but still have quite a bit to offer. Tampa Bay's list included the six players above plus WRs Chris Daniels and Michael Williams, RB Ketric Sanford, S Ashley Cooper, CB Terrance Parrish, TE Todd Yoder, T John Blick, DE Aaron Humphrey and DT Carl Bradley.
The Bucs brought in these particular free agents because they have displayed traits on which the team focuses. While Tampa Bay shifted its draft-day emphasis from potential to production a few years back, with fantastic results, the line separating those two categories becomes increasingly fuzzy as the second day of selection wears on and the most coveted players are taken off the board.
"You can break a few rules with free agents," said Buccaneers Director Player of Personnel Jerry Angelo, referring to the team's drafting guidelines. "By the fifth round, you start looking at dominant traits that fit your scheme. Generally, you're focused on one particular trait and because of that, more development is sometimes needed with these players.
"For us to sign a player, he has to have shown the following things: work ethic, a passion for the game, good football instincts and a competitive nature. That applies to every player we sign or draft. Athletically, an undrafted free agent may not be the full package, but you look for certain traits that fit your scheme. For instance, we may emphasize size at wide receiver and look for a big guy with good body control. Every position has some trait that we're looking for. Once the player is here, we hope we can take his weaker areas and improve them through practice, good coaching and hard work."
When such efforts go well, the Bucs sometimes end up with a diamond in the rough. Angelo need to point no further than a signee from earlier this spring, RB Jerry Ellison. Ellison played the last season in New England, but spent his first five NFL years in Tampa after being signed by the Bucs as an undrafted free agent in 1994. He spent a year on the Bucs' practice squad before developing into one of the team's top special teamers and a valuable reserve for the backfield. Other prominent examples from the Bucs' current roster include WR Karl Williams, LB Jeff Gooch and RB Rabih Abdullah.
This year's list of newcomers has one noticeable difference from the above foursome. Ellison (Tennessee-Chattanooga), Williams (Texas A&M-Kingsville), Gooch (Austin Peay) and Abdullah (Lehigh) all came from relatively low-profile programs. Many players in this year's cadre were playing on or around New Years Day in front of a nationwide audience.
- Bradley helped the Virginia Tech Hokies come within a half of the national championship. Bradley started every game and compiled 51 tackles and two sacks for the Hokies, who went undefeated through the regular season before meeting Florida State in the Sugar Bowl.
- Williams, from Arkansas, and Humphrey, from Texas, were on opposite sides in the Cotton Bowl on January 1. Humphrey started 12 games at DE for Texas, was named team MVP and led the Big 12 with 10 sacks, but his Longhorns were unable to overcome the Razorbacks and Williams.
- Daniels (Purdue), Cooper (Mississippi State), Parrish (Southern Mississippi), Blick (Penn State) and McKenzie (Clemson) all helped propel their teams to major bowl games, as well.
Thus, all 14 of this year's undrafted free agents are familiar with high-level challenges and are prepared for another one this summer in Tampa Bay's training camp. The very traits that Angelo demands in a signee – work ethic, passion, competitiveness – will serve them extremely well as they try to create a little name recognition this July and August.