After a few last-minute changes to the list of attendees, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers took to the field on Friday afternoon to begin their three-day rookie mini-camp. Depending upon what the coaches witness over the weekend, the camp could prompt a few changes to the offseason roster, as well.
Two weeks ago, the Buccaneers selected eight players in the 2018 NFL Draft and then signed 14 more undrafted rookies in the days that followed. That pushed the roster to the offseason limit of 90 players, but an NFL roster is always a work in progress and that's particularly true at this time of the year. As they do every year, the Bucs fleshed out their mini-camp depth chart by bringing in roughly 30 players to participate on tryout contracts. Most years, the Buccaneers uncover a prospect or two among those trying out that they want to bring to training camp, prompting some additions to and subtractions from the roster in the week that follows.
"At the end of the weekend, you're just trying to finish up with the best 90-man roster that you can have because these guys are going to stay here and work with us for five more weeks of OTAs," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter after Friday's practice. "Every year, we've found a couple guys here that we didn't know about coming in and we may make some roster moves at the end of the weekend just to try to get that best 90 moving forward."
Koetter indicated that he had indeed seen some intriguing talent on the field. For obvious reasons, he declined to get specific until the camp is over and he and General Manager Jason Licht have made the changes they deem necessary.
"I don't really want to say who they are yet, but there are definitely guys that catch your eye and we'll go in and look at the tape and go through two more practices. Jason has all his [personnel] guys out here and they are studying up and they will be making some decisions here come Sunday.
"There are so many good football players out there. Just look at the roster from schools you have never heard of and some of these guys just need a chance. That's how we found Adam Humphries, not from a small school, but was a guy that was somewhat overlooked."
Finding a few more persons of interest among the tryout players is a useful byproduct of the annual rookie camp, but there is also a core purpose to the weekend that will have an effect on the months ahead. One of the main things the Bucs would like to accomplish this weekend is a narrowing of the gap – to whatever degree possible – between how conversant the rookies and their new veteran teammates are with the playbook. The Buccaneers will have those two groups together on the practice field when organized team activity days (OTAs) begin on May 22. They would like to see the rookies keep up as much as possible, particularly those who are expected to have large roles early, like first-round defensive tackle Vita Vea and second-round running back Ronald Jones.
Jones, who has already shown he's an explosive playmaker at USC, knows the weekend is about learning for him and the other players who have already secured a roster spot.
"[I'm] just taking the install one step at a time, just trying to learn the offense, get a feel for everything and the other rookies around me," he said. "[The playbook] is a lot bigger. We put in a lot of plays for Day One. At SC, we were going two or three plays at a time. It's definitely more fast-paced but that's what we expected, so it's good. I think the key is, again, just showing the coaches that I can learn quick, adjust on the fly and just make plays when I get the opportunity."
Added Vea, who like Jones will have a shot at a starting job in his rookie campaign: "Definitely [it's about] getting better, learning the playbook so that when the veterans come in, you're not behind and you can continue to work and get better."
As is the case with all offseason practices, including the upcoming OTAs, contact is prohibited in the rookie mini-camp. The players donned helmets for Friday's practice but no pads, and some of the periods were run at half-speed. The coaches worked the young players hard during individual drills but the biggest gains from this weekend will be mental ones. Vea knows he has to get the little things down first if he's going to have a chance to make a big impact in the fall.
"One thing is that as a lineman, know where you're going to go and know your alignment," he said. "Because if you mis-align then you're already wrong and stuff like that. [I was] just learning the front and learning the different techniques."
In less than two weeks, Vea will be watching six-time Pro Bowl Gerald McCoy lining up in all the right spots. That will add quite a bit to the rookie's learning experience. Right now, he's lining up with rookies to his left and his right, and all of them are trying to absorb the same information. If the weekend is a success, they will all look a little bit less like rookies when they start sharing the field with the veterans later this month.