On Friday afternoon, for the first time in 2017, the fields behind One Buccaneer Place were home to a fully-formed practice. It was only 90 minutes long, it was rather basic in terms of the playbook and it included several dozen players who will no longer be around come Monday. That does not mean, however, that it was lacking in either value or emotional weight.
For players like wide receiver Chris Godwin, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' third-round pick in last week's draft, Friday's field session was essentially the beginning of a dream. Godwin, who excelled at Penn State, put his foot into the One Buc place grass and took the first quick steps in his NFL path.
"Honestly, it's surreal man," he said. "This is something that I've dreamed about my entire life and to really be here at this moment - obviously, it was a lot of hard work that went into it, there's still a lot of hard work ahead, but I'm thrilled to be here."
Friday's practice was the first of three the team will hold during its weekend rookie mini-camp. There's no Jameis Winston on hand to distribute passes or Gerald McCoy to mentor the young defenders – that assimilation between rookies and vets will take place beginning the week of May 15 – but there was a full cast of 56 players in camp Friday, about half of them participating on tryout contracts.
In addition to the six players the Buccaneers selected in the 2017 draft, the camp also features 14 rookies signed right after the draft's conclusion, seven first-year players who are eligible to participate, 26 tryout rookies and three NFL veterans also trying out. That means the practice roster was overwhelmingly filled with players who were getting their very first taste of the NFL.
"It felt great," said former Alabama star O.J. Howard, who eight days earlier had become the first tight end ever drafted in the first round by Tampa Bay. "I think the reality finally set in on me when I put on the jersey, went out with the team and competed."
The rookies first gathered at team headquarters on Thursday night, and they spent the first part of Friday in meetings in order to prepare for that initial practice. The lack of the veteran portion of the roster obviously puts some limit on what can be accomplished at practice – as does the full offseason prohibition on pads and contact – but every workout is important in the effort to get the team ready for training camp in late July. The Buccaneers also don't have the same advantage of starting a week earlier as they did last year when Koetter was in his first year as the head coach.
VIEW: ROOKIE CAMP ROSTER
"All those guys that you have high hopes for, they've got to learn fast," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "They have to get in the book and learn on the run. The way the rules are this year, after mini-camp those guys are going to have to leave for a week. Then they'll just come back, they'll only be here for five weeks in the offseason program. That's a week shorter than last year so it's definitely a steep learning curve. What we don't get in the offseason program we'll have to get in training camp."
Howard and Godwin are expected to add playmaking depth to a Buccaneers passing attack that also features Pro Bowl wide receiver Mike Evans, key free agent acquisition DeSean Jackson and touchdown-making tight end Cameron Brate. The Bucs would love to have both players fully integrated into the offense by Week One of the regular season, and that process got a minor start on Friday. Both players said their new playbook wasn't overly daunting, and neither suffered from too many first-day nerves.
"I was a little nervous at first, but when you get out here, it just goes back to doing what you've always done, which is play football," said Godwin. "But, I think the first day went really well. Obviously, there's a lot of guys flying around, a lot of guys eager to really get going, so it was a lot of fun."
Added Howard regarding the playbook: "Not bad at all. It requires studying every day so you can learn it. Every day you put more on it, so you've got to learn new things every day and remember what you learned yesterday. But so far it's not bad at all. It's very similar [to Alabama's playbook]. Very similar, just different names, different terminology. That's what makes it kind of easy right now, because it's kind of a similar to the offense we ran at Alabama. But like I said, every day you have to learn something new, so that will be the most difficult part, I think."
From the standpoint of the Buccaneers' coaching staff, these mini-camp practices are a mix of preparing their new players for assimilation into the full roster and evaluating those young men in town on tryout contracts. That's a lot to keep track of, which means that much of the evaluation will come from studying tape of the practice on Friday evening. Still, high-drafted players like Howard and Godwin obviously caught their eyes.
"Well, there's a lot of athletic guys out here but those guys definitely stand out with their athleticism," said Koetter. "We're trying to evaluate a lot of guys at the same time but obviously your draft picks are guys that you're looking at especially."