The Buccaneers' 53-Man roster.
Alan Cross is the latest example of that annual NFL long-shot story: The undrafted rookie who beats the odds to make a regular-season roster. If so, they won't even be the longest odds he's overcome on the football field.
Cross began his college career at the University of Memphis as a walk-on. A walk-on long-snapper.
READ: Bucs Trim Roster to 53
Now Cross is a member of the 2016 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, at least through the "final" round of cuts that took the team's roster down to the regular-season limit of 53 on Saturday. In reality, an NFL roster is never really final, as additions and subtractions happen throughout the season – particularly on Sunday when all 32 teams can take advantage of hundreds of newly-available free agents – but Cross's surprising journey to the NFL continues.
Cross made the Tigers' roster during fall camp in 2011 but he did not play that year and was given a redshirt. Justin Fuentes replaced Larry Porter as the team's head coach the following year and apparently thought Cross could do more than just snap for kicks in practice. Fuentes was right – Cross eventually started 42 games over four seasons, became a favorite target of future NFL first-round pick Paxton Lynch, caught 90 career passes and set the Tigers' career record for touchdowns by a tight end with 14.
Pictures of the Buccaneers during the 2016 preseason games.
"When Coach Fuentes got there he was like, 'Hey, you want to play tight end?'" Cross recalled. "I was like, 'Sure, I'm just trying to earn a scholarship.' I was just trying to do the best I could, earn a spot on the team and earn the respect of the guys in the locker room. That's what I did at Memphis. I caught a lot of balls there. Me and Paxton played together and had some good years there."
Lynch and Cross finished their Memphis careers together last fall. Lynch went 26th overall in the 2016 NFL Draft and is considered the Denver Broncos' quarterback of the future. Cross was not drafted, nor was he necessarily a lock to continue playing tight end. Most pre-draft scouting reports listed the 6-1, 235-pound prospect as a fullback. In essence, Cross was back to his walk-on days, and he decided to handle his next opportunity the same way.
"I got the call from Tampa to do the free agency thing and it was basically like starting all over again," he said. "I just had the same approach, to come in here and try to do the best I can and hope for the best."
So far, so good. This time, the excitement for Cross came from a conversation he did not have with his head coach. While tight ends Danny Vitale, Kivon Cartwright and Tevin Westbrook were all let go over the two rounds of cuts that started last Sunday, Cross was one of five players the team kept at that position. There are two "TE" spots listed on the Bucs' official depth chart; one lists Cameron Brate, Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Brandon Myers, while Cross sits behind veteran Luke Stocker at the other one.
"It's really exciting," Cross admitted. "This is a great feeling considering where I came from and it shows that hard work pays off."
Cross was one of four undrafted free agents to make the initial cut-down to 53 players this year, which is four times as many as were kept at this stage a year ago. Wide receiver Adam Humphries had that lone distinction last year, though he was later joined by fellow undrafted rookies wide receiver Donteea Dye and cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah. Humphries and Adjei-Barimah are excellent examples for Cross to follow, as both remain with the team a year later and have carved out significant roles.
Defensive tackle DaVonte Lambert (Auburn), defensive end Channing Ward (Mississippi) and tackle Leonard Wester (Missouri Western) all went from undrafted in May to on the Bucs' roster in September. While Lambert and Ward obviously played in high-profile college programs, Wester went from an Iowa hometown of roughly 60 people to a Division II program in Missouri. He was not invited to the NFL Scouting Combine and didn't even have an agent until several weeks before the draft, when a few teams finally showed interest.
Wide receiver Evan Spencer did enter the NFL via the draft, as a sixth-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 2015, but he spent most of his rookie season on Tampa Bay's practice squad. His inclusion on Saturday's roster, as one of just five receivers to survive the cuts, represents a major step forward in his NFL career. Spencer believes a good performance in the preseason finale against Washington on Wednesday night, in which he showed sure hands on a soggy night full of dropped passes, helped his cause when it was time to make cuts.
"It's definitely nerve-wracking because at the end of the day, you never know," said Spencer. "And I wanted to go out there and show everybody around the organization - and mainly my teammates - that I was here for a reason and I was here because I'm going to give everything that I can for our team and help us win."