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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Rookies Have Answered the Call for the Bucs This Season

Members of the 2017 rookie class attribute their close-knit group’s production to team leadership and feeling at ease within the Bucs’ locker room

It's Sunday afternoon in Miami at Hard Rock Stadium. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are looking for their second straight win in the second half of the season against the Dolphins.

Miami takes their first possession 72 yards down the field and are threatening to strike first, when rookie safety Justin Evans jumps a route in front of Dolphins' receiver Davonte Parker and picks off quarterback Jay Cutler's pass in the end zone.

"It's surreal to you," Evans said about the play. "I calmed down after a while, but I was pretty geeked about it." It was Evans' second interception of the year, good for second-most among rookie safeties this season.

And that would be just the first of multiple rookie contributions throughout the day.

A look back at all of the matchups between the Buccaneers and the Falcons.

The Bucs first touchdown of the game would come at the hands of rookie tight end O.J. Howard. Set up by a Kwon Alexander interception, Howard would haul in a 5-yard score from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on the second play of the drive in an almost automatic fashion.

"It was really exciting in that moment. Having a birthday that week and then being able to score that touchdown was just really cool and I think it was exciting," Howard said later about it. "It's always good to score a touchdown, but I think that one was a little more special."

With three minutes to go in the game, the Dolphins evened the score at 20, giving the Buccaneers one last opportunity to put points on the board after a stagnant second half. It was rookie wide receiver Chris Godwin's turn to step up. The Penn State-product caught passes of 14 and 24 yards to help set up kicker Patrick Murray for the game-winning field goal and all but cement the Tampa Bay victory.

Godwin now has 189 receiving yards this season in a limited role with just 24 targets. That's good for seventh-most among rookie wide receivers that have played at least 10 games this season.

The contributions that came from the 2017 rookie class in Miami aren't an anomaly. Rookies have been answering the call throughout the season.

With star linebacker duo Lavonte David and Kwon Alexander both out with injuries, rookie linebacker Kendell Beckwith led the team in tackles for three straight weeks, from Week 3 to Week 5. In the Buccaneers' narrow loss to the New England Patriots in Week 5, the 6'2" 243-pounder out of LSU recorded 12 solo tackles and two assists. Through Week 12, Beckwith leads all rookies in tackles with 43 so far this season.

Not exactly rookie-type stats there.

Beckwith himself, attributes the success and comfort-level of the rookie class to their belief in the Buccaneers' system.

"Football is football, but I guess we just did a good job buying in," Beckwith said. "Buying in to the playbook and listening to what the [veterans] tell us. It's pretty much how we approach it, I think. I think I speak for all the rookies when I say that."

As a class, feeling comfortable hasn't been an issue.

"When we first came in, we all hooked up pretty well," safety Justin Evans said of the group. "It just felt like we had been here for a little minute with each other."

Evans wasn't the only one to comment on the chemistry among the new kids on the block.

"I can tell we are closer than we were when we first got here in the first few weeks," tight end O.J. Howard said. "Now we're all close just because of the chemistry and I think that says a lot about our rookie class."

"We have an honest dialogue [with each other]," wide receiver Chris Godwin said. "We hold each other accountable."

Still, being a rookie isn't without its challenges.

"Here in the NFL, everybody is good every week. I think every week you have to come in prepared to play hard," O.J. Howard said, when asked about the biggest difference he has noticed since getting into the league. "[It's] more of a mental challenge at this level in the NFL."

The expectations of each player and comfort level within the locker room extends beyond just the rookies. A lot of the reason for their seemingly seamless transition into the game's highest level has been because of veteran guys and locker room leaders willing to work with the young guns.

"Everyone that's in the safeties group, I look up to all of them," Justin Evans said. "[Keith] Tandy and T.J. [Ward] and Chris [Conte], they have been in the league way longer than I have, obviously. If they tell me something I try to use it. Most of the information they tell me, I try to use it in my game."

"That comes from the older guys not leaving you out to dry; them showing you that it's ok to mess up sometimes; ask them if you have questions," O.J. Howard said of how the veterans on the team have helped him and the rest of the rookie class. "I think when you have that type of leadership on the team and that comfort level it just makes you relax and play a lot better."

Howard now has four touchdowns on the season, tying him for fifth-most in franchise history by a rookie in his first season – and it's still Week 12. Howard ranks in the top 10 for most touchdowns by any tight end this season and has the second-most touchdowns among rookies at that position.

That impact hasn't gone unnoticed from the team's more seasoned players. Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick had some great things to say about the rookie Howard on Wednesday.

"O.J. is just getting better and better," Fitzpatrick said. "Obviously, physically he is as talented as they come. [He] does a great job in the run game in protection. He blocks his butt off. In the pass game, he can obvious create some explosives for us and we've seen that this year. He's continuing to get better every week.

"He really takes what is being said in the meetings and all the coaching and all of [those] things. The great thing about him too, if he makes a mistake it usually doesn't come up twice. He's done a great job with that all year and he is just going to continue to get better and better."

When asked if correcting his mistakes the first time around was a focus for Howard, he responded by attributing that attitude to his tight end group.

"In our tight end room, we have something that we like to say: 'make new mistakes', which means don't make the same one twice," Howard explained.  "If you make a mistake, make it something you haven't done before. That's something to harp on. That just shows you as a player how you're improving. Are you very coachable or not? So, that's something that I try to remind myself of."

Howard isn't the only rookie getting noticed. Following Sunday's win over Miami, defensive coordinator Mike Smith detailed what he sees in safety Justin Evans.

"I like to get in one-on-one situations with him and just talk about, 'Hey, what did you do good? What did you think about it?' And not put him in a setting outside of it," Smith said on Wednesday about his approach to coaching Evans. "He realized he had a play or two that he'd like to have back. His athleticism is off the charts. That interception that he made in the game – there [are] not many guys that can make that play.

"I think long term he is going to be a guy that is going to make a lot of plays. Once he gets the feel of the NFL game and the pacing of it and the pace of the season, he is going to be a really good player because not only can he run – he's got great hands and he is not afraid to mix it up and put his face in there. He is a physical player, as well."

ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. rated the Buccaneers' 2017 draft class an A- back in April, one of only five A or A- grades he gave out. I think it's safe to say that through Week 12 of the 2017 season, the rookies have earned that grade and more.

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