For the last two days of practice at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' training camp, rookie safety Mark Barron has mostly taken it easy due to a nagging bit of discomfort in one of his toes. He's run through early-practice "indie" drills but spent the more fast-paced team periods on the sideline.
"I'm just doing what I can," said Barron after Friday's practice. "I had a little minor toe issue, but it's getting better every day. I've just got to take my time with it and be careful with it. It's more of a precautionary thing."
The cautious approach, in this case, has an added side benefit. See, the extra time Barron spends on the sideline is just an added opportunity to drink in the knowledge that pours out of his very advanced running mate, Ronde Barber.
The Buccaneers have what appears to be a deep pool of safety talent in this year's camp, thanks to Barber's potential conversion from cornerback and the arrivals of Barron and fellow 2012 draft pick Keith Tandy, and the repetitions have been spread around liberally. However, the Bucs haven't done a lot of mixing and matching at the position; rather, they have formed four pairs and moved them on and off the field in discrete units. Barron and Barber are running together, as are Larry Asante and Ahmad Black; Tandy and Cody Grimm; and Sean Baker and Tramain Thomas.
So, in a nice bit of timing, the Buccaneers have elected to use the last few days to give Barber, he of the 15 previous NFL seasons, some added rest. Players of different age sometimes benefit from more or less practice than the others, and Barber is the most senior member of Tampa Bay's roster. So while Barron has rested his toe, Barber has taken it easy too, and the pair have been side-by-side on the edges, taking it all in. Coaches often talk about players getting "mental reps" when they're out of commission, and Barron's reps are that much better with Barber's mind ready to be tapped.
"The guy's been in the league 16 years, so he's been through anything you can go through as an NFL player," said Barron of the five-time NFL Pro Bowler. "I feel like if there's anything I need to know I can just go ask him."
Barron can also learn simply by observing his well-heeled teammate, both on and off the field. Barber's insistence on preparation and professional habits is well-known, and the self-professed reason for his NFL longevity. Barron has now seen in person how hard Barber works at his craft, even this far into his career, but he wasn't actually shocked by what he witnessed.
"Any time you can stay in the league 16 years you have to be doing those kinds of things," said Barron. "So, no I wasn't surprised to see him doing that, because that's what it takes to get to that point."
Head Coach Greg Schiano is confident that his first-round rookie is taking advantage of the unique resource at his disposal.
"He understands he's fortunate to have a guy like Ronde mentor him," said Schiano. "Sometimes guys fresh out of college don't realize how fortunate they are to have that, you know. It's come easy and think it's going to continue to come easy. It's a different level of competition. Ronde has been willing to help and share, which I think is great."
Of course, Barber and Barron can communicate on the field, as well, and it's clear that the hard-hitting rookie would rather be in the middle of the action. The Buccaneers have been practicing with pads on for just five days, and Barron has missed about half of that; even before his toe injury, he had missed out on any chance to thump shoulder pads with an opponent. Tampa Bay opens its preseason in Miami in just one week and Barron, who should be well back in action by then, is very much looking forward to that.
"I really haven't had a chance to hit anybody in practice and I haven't had that contact in a while," he said, smiling. "I'm kind of itching for that right now."
Actually, if his toe is willing after another 24 hours of rest, Barron could get in a few solid licks before that. The Buccaneers will be practicing at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night, and that session is going to include a live intra-squad scrimmage. It's also going to feature thousands of hyped-up Bucs fans in the stands, and that alone is enough to make Barron hope he's got the pads on Saturday night.
"I'm actually excited about it, because I haven't been on the field yet in the stadium," he said. "I'm pretty excited about getting a chance to get down on the field."
Still, none of that will measure up to September 9, when Barron and his teammates take the field at Raymond James Stadium against the Carolina Panthers for the first game that counts. The Buccaneers hope that game is a fast start to a rapid turnaround after last year's disappointing season, and they believe Barron's presence will be a big part of that process. Those are high expectations for a rookie, even the seventh overall pick in the draft, but Barron wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's pressure, but I like that pressure," he said. "I want that pressure put on me. I don't mind that. I'm comfortable with everything. I'm still learning, but at the same time I'm comfortable. I know that a lot of pressure's been put on me, and I'm ready for it."