RB Cory Boyd and the rest of the Bucs' rookies are ready to jump into action this weekend
Someday soon, Josh Johnson will break the huddle, line up under center and try to decipher a Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense that has been giving the NFL fits for years.
That's a lot to ask of a particularly green rookie like Johnson. No worse than asking Aqib Talib to try to cover speed-demon Joey Galloway, though, or telling Jeremy Zuttah he has to withstand the ferocious trench battling of Chris Hovan. Geno Hayes will discover how shifty Warrick Dunn and Michael Bennett can be in the open field. Cory Boyd will learn that the Buccaneers' linebackers have speed to burn.
But not quite yet.
The league's freshest faces – the 252 young men selected this past weekend in the 2008 NFL Draft – are not allowed to report permanently to their teams and the ongoing offseason training programs until the third full week of May. Those intriguing rookie-veteran duels, those annual rites of passage, will have to wait until then.
The NFL does allow its teams to bring the rookies in for one weekend mini-camp before that third week of May. Some teams in the league get an early look at how their rookies will fit in with the vets by holding a full-team mandatory mini-camp shortly after the draft. Eight of the 32 teams, in fact, will do just that this coming weekend.
However, each team is allotted just one mandatory camp for its veteran players during the offseason. Thus, teams that do a post-draft, full-team camp will be running strictly voluntary programs the rest of the way.
A growing trend in the NFL is a practice the Buccaneers have been employing for years. Rather than a full-team exercise, Tampa Bay runs a camp just for rookies and first-year players the weekend after the draft. Veterans are expressly prohibited from participating. The mandatory camp for all players is then employed later in the offseason – in the Bucs' case, June 17-19. Seventeen other teams will follow a similar plan, though the dates for the full-team camps vary from mid-May to late-June.
Of course, the Bucs have just seven new draft picks, a total that will be augmented a bit this week with the signing of some undrafted free agents. There are also a handful of first-year players on the roster, such as Ken Darby, Chad Lucas and Dennis Roland, but not enough to give the Bucs a camp of any real depth.
Thus, the Buccaneers will once again fill out their rookie camp roster with several dozen players in town on tryout contracts. These players are signed just for the weekend, and many won't return after, but each year the Bucs find several players from that group who earn a spot in that summer's training camp. Last year, for instance, defensive end Jeremy Pittman, tight end C.J. Leak and guard Anthony Wollschlager were signed to the roster after participating in the tryout camp.
"We will sign a few [players], but we will bring in a couple dozen for the tryout this weekend [and] save some spots for guys who have performed well," said General Manager Bruce Allen. "Then we will get a better feel for [the roster]."
The Buccaneers' rookies will arrive in Tampa on Thursday and get their first look at One Buccaneer Place (though first-rounder Aqib Talib visited on Monday for a press conference). They will get physicals, meet the Bucs' football staff and sit down for a meeting with Head Coach Jon Gruden.
Practices begin the next day. On Friday and Saturday the rookies will have a walk-through in the morning and a full-scale, two-hour session in the afternoon. The camp will conclude with a morning practice on Sunday.
After that, the rookies will scatter back to their respective campuses or homes. Many will return; some will not. Those who do come back will find out what it's like to line up across from experienced NFL veterans. This weekend's rookie camp and the eventual merger with the vets are both part of the long process that will shape the Buccaneers' final roster in 2008.
"There is a lot that will be done yet before training camp," said Gruden. "Good teams have competition, and it will be competitive at training camp this year at a lot of positions."