Late Friday night, after a two-and-half-hour practice, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians was asked for his assessment of rookie safety D'Cota Dixon. Arians spoke on the subject for less than five seconds, but even with his economy of words he still said something big:
"Smart, tough. Really got a chance to make this team."
Count that last sentence among the favorite words an undrafted NFL neophyte would want to hear from his head coach a week into training camp and five weeks before the big roster cuts. It is nowhere near a guarantee, of course, and the Buccaneers' safety depth chart is still very much a work in progress, but it at least indicates that Dixon has caught the eyes of the coaching staff.
Actually, Dixon might not have heard what Arians had to say about him yet. He was signing autographs after practice when Arians met the press, and for a long time after that. Dixon was, in fact, the very last player to leave the sideline where fans were collecting signatures. But even if those encouraging words do eventually find their way to his ears, he won't spend much time dwelling on them.
"I feel like I haven't done anything, honestly," said Dixon. "I feel like I haven't proven anything. I'm still learning and I'm just trying to be a sponge right now. There are a lot of things that I think I've improved upon since I've been in camp, but there's certainly much more to improve on, and obviously that never stops. I'm definitely not where I want to be, I can say that for sure."
That said, Dixon can find some encouragement in what his body is telling him. Training camp is a grind and every player has to deal with fatigue, but Dixon has noticed that he has a bit more of it to contend with lately. The reason: Simply put, his reps are on the rise. That is obviously a very good thing for a player trying to fight his way up the depth chart.
"Steady, steady day by day," said Dixon of his share of the reps. "They're going up. My body's feeling it, so I know they're going up."
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
As for that depth chart, it doesn't yet exist, at least not in a public sense. Obviously, the coaches and the personnel department keep track of the rotation and every player's level of involvement, but the first "official" team depth chart won't be released until early next week. It's a league requirement in advance of the first preseason game.
Reading the tea leaves on the safety depth chart is also complicated by the fact that one of last year's primary starters, Justin Evans, is on the PUP list and hasn't yet practiced. In addition, offseason addition Orion Stewart, a former AAF standout, tore an ACL over the past weekend and is also now unavailable for reps. Still, it's hard to miss that Dixon has been on the field quite a bit, and not just when the third-string defense gets its turn.
For Dixon, one of the keys to making the right impression is taking command when he is on the field. He recently learned that his new Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles played safety in the NFL and thus would expect a lot out of the players at that position, particularly in terms of leading the communication on the field. Dixon might not yet know that Bowles also came into the league as an undrafted free agent before catching on and eventually earning a starting spot on a Super Bowl-winning Washington team.
"I'm really starting to put it together; it makes sense," said Dixon of Bowles' emphasis on that topic. "I just take pride in taking ownership, being a general, making those calls, taking responsibility for the right call or the wrong call. I made a wrong call today, but it's all part of the learning curve. It's all part of the learning process, and I'm just looking to build off that.
"These coaches make calls and they put us in position to make plays, and the goal is to make plays as much as you can. Whether that's me or the corner or the linebacker, as long as we're all communicating and talking, everyone has a chance to make plays. I definitely take pride in it, I take it seriously and I love it."
Dixon was in the right position to make a big play on Friday night and he took advantage over it, streaking in front of the intended target on a pass over the middle and intercepting it in stride. It was not his first splash moment of this training camp.
"I'm just doing my job, hitting my spots, having good alignment…just read the quarterback, make a play on the ball," said Dixon in description of his latest pick. "That was all."
Dixon leans heavily on his Christian faith while pursuing his football dreams, and he needed it earlier this year when the draft came and went without his name being called. He was a very productive player at Wisconsin, a first-team all-conference choice as a junior and a team captain as a senior, but an unimpressive 40-time and some college injuries may have hurt his draft stock. It was more of a surprise when he also wasn't immediately signed as an undrafted free agent in the week following the draft.
He did get one call, though, an invitation from the Buccaneers to participate in their rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract. Given the chance to show off his skills and his smarts, Dixon stood out and earned a spot on the Bucs' roster. It's been a steady uphill climb ever since.
"I prayed about it, and my prayers were answered," he said. "I was optimistic about it the whole time. It was definitely frustrating. It was an ambiguous time, and I was not expecting to not at least get a shot anywhere. So I'm just thankful that the Bucs reached out to me. By the grace of God, I am here still I'm just thankful to be here. I'm trying to be a sponge, trying to learn as much as I can from the veterans, the coaches. They've all been great and I'm just trying to build off that.
"Like I said, it is by the grace of God that I'm here. It truly is and I believe that, and it gives me an itch to play. It gives me an itch to play harder."