Rookie wide receiver Mike Williams, a fresh-faced 23-year-old who was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft this past April, will be in the starting lineup for his first regular-season game as a pro on Sunday.
For perspective on how such a young and at one point underappreciated player could so quickly make the leap to starter status, one can turn to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' other starting wideout, Sammie Stroughter…who is just 24 years old and was taken in the seventh round in 2009.
Yes, the Buccaneers are a young team, with a current average age of 26.6 years old, and their receivers are particularly green, with an average age of 23.8. That average will go up just a tick on Wednesday, when rookie Arrelious Benn celebrates his 22nd birthday, but the group's combined pro experience won't change until the Buccaneers' regular-season opener against Cleveland on Saturday at Raymond James Stadium.
There, Williams and Stroughter will be backed up by the likes of Benn, Preston Parker (23) and Maurice Stovall (25), plus the grand-daddy of the group, the 27-year-old Micheal Spurlock.
Heck, some of these guys might still be growing. That, in a somewhat less literal sense, is what has Stroughter so excited about his band of young guns.
"Everybody always talks about the downside of a young receiving corps but there's a lot of great upside," said Stroughter, who started to build chemistry with the Buccaneers' 22-year-old starting quarterback last season. "We get to grow with Josh Freeman. He gets to mold us. He's going to make us, and we're going to make him. We've just got to continue to work hard and just put it out there."
The Bucs' six young receivers have NFL origins all over the map, though none are former first-rounders. Benn arrived in the second round this year, Stovall is a former third-rounder, Williams a fourth-rounder, Stroughter a seventh-rounder. Parker and Spurlock came into the league as undrafted free agents, and the latter player had to convert from his college position of quarterback.
Those origins, however, mean even less to Stroughter than the receivers' overall youth.
"It's funny that everybody attaches a value to it, especially with me – fourth round, seventh round and different things like that," he said. "But it's just the way [Williams] plays the game. Look at Rejus [Benn], and the way he plays the game and the way he prepares. It's a nice thing to see the chemistry coming along with the young guys. They came in here and picked it up and said, 'This is my standard.' That's making them more effective players. I like that."
The Buccaneers know they have a burgeoning playmaker in Stroughter. The former Oregon State standout won the team's slot receiver job last year and contributed 31 catches, most of them on third downs, before missing the last two games due to injury. Now the Bucs want Stroughter on the field for a higher percentage of the snaps, which is why he's the starting flanker, or Z receiver. Offseason practice-field work and some eye-opening preseason cameos have convinced the Bucs that Williams, too, is going to produce a ton of big plays.
If Williams' meteoric rise levels off at any point, it won't be due to a lack of effort. The rookie adopted the same sort of hard-working approach that Stovall and Stroughter bring to the game from the moment he walked into One Buccaneer Place.
"I think it's just a work ethic," said Williams. "I said I was going to come in here and work hard and I said I was going to learn the plays and I said I was going to sign, and I did. It's just me working and saying I'm going to do this. I'm going to go get my goal. I'm going to have fun, and I'm going to come in here and start. That's what I wanted to do. Like I said before, that's just one step."
The Bucs' receiving corps is so young that its potential still outweighs its established NFL production. Stovall's 24 receptions last year were a career-high, and he and Stroughter account for almost all of the six players' combined 79 NFL catches. But that total is about to go up in a hurry as Stroughter, Williams and company prove they can drive an offense.
"It's a chip on our shoulders," said Stroughter. "Talking to Mike and Rejus and Maurice Stovall and Micheal Spurlock – everybody has something to prove in that room. Preston Parker, [practice squad receiver Dezmon] Briscoe – everybody has something to prove. That's the standard in that wide receiver room. When Coach [Eric] Yarber first came in he said he wanted the wide receiver room to be the strength of this offense. Ever since OTAs, I think we've done a great job of setting that bar, but now we've got to go above and beyond. We understand that we have to put our best foot forward. This is the opportunity of a lifetime and we've got to run with it."
Freeman Lets It Fly
Each time the Buccaneers take the practice field, as they did for a little more than two hours on Tuesday afternoon, they follow a script prepared in advance by the coaching staff. Tuesday's script, for instance, called for 13 periods, most of them lasting about eight or 10 minutes.
Before the Bucs hit the first period on the script, however, they run through a couple pre-practice exercises. Almost the very first thing the team does upon taking the field, in fact, is the quarterback-center exchange.
This is usually of very little interest, just three quarterbacks hunched over three linemen on some random stretch of the sideline, repeatedly going through the fundamental task of handing the football over to get a play started. Often, half of the team is still wandering onto the field while this is taking place, and few players pay much attention to it.
When your starting quarterback is returning from an injury to the thumb on his throwing hand, however, the QB/C exchange is suddenly a matter of great scrutiny. And on Tuesday that five-minute session went just fine for quarterback Josh Freeman, he of the August 21 fracture to the tip of his thumb, and center Jeff Faine. Those five minutes were essentially the first in a week's worth of tests to ensure Freeman is ready to face the Browns on Sunday.
"He took the snaps in quarterback-center exchange, and he'll just continue to progress throughout the practice week and take more and more snaps," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He looked good out there. He looked great being back with his football team. He went through a whole practice today and we look forward to him progressing throughout the week and getting better and better and just getting back into what he was doing before he went out."
Freeman did not wear a wrap or a glove on his healing hand, and he didn't skip any of his usual practice-field work.
"He took all the snaps he would take as a normal starting quarterback," said Morris, who also followed the usual pattern of practice plays with backups Josh Johnson and Rudy Carpenter. "They'll go out there and take all the snaps they would take normally. Josh Johnson prepares just as he does every week because he's his backup, Josh [Freeman] is the starter, Rudy takes all the scout-team reps and Josh [Johnson] takes a few of those scout-team reps to give Rudy a blow."
Bowden, Robinson Complete Practice Squad
The Buccaneers signed two more players to their 2010 practice squad on Tuesday, filling out that eight-man squad.
Or at least the first version of it.
The practice squad will go through a series of changes during the season as the team reacts to injuries and specific roster needs, but the first eight men on the list are:
- S Vince Anderson
- T Will Barker
- P Brent Bowden
- WR Dezmon Briscoe
- T Derek Hardman
- DE George Johnson
- TE Ryan Purvis
- LB Lee Robinson
Robinson and Bowden were the last two additions to the list, signed on Tuesday. The Buccaneers re-signed Robinson in time for the beginning of the practice week and brought Bowden back after he had cleared the waiver process that began on Monday.
Six of the eight players were members of the team's training camp roster: Anderson, Bowden, Hardman, Johnson, Purvis and Robinson. Bowden and Hardman actually made the original 53-man roster on Saturday but were subsequently released in favor of waiver claims punter Chris Bryan and center/guard Ted Larsen, respectively.
As the name suggests, practice squad players may work out with the team in the middle of the week and attend meetings. They are not eligible to play in a game, however, unless they are first signed to the 53-man active roster. A player may also be plucked off a practice squad by any team that is signing that player to its active roster.
Last season, six different players made the Buccaneers' active roster at some point after first appearing on the team's practice squad: Purvis, cornerbacks Brandon Anderson and Derrick Roberson, tackle James Lee, running back Kareem Huggins and wide receiver Mario Urrutia. Huggins and Lee took it the next step by earning spots on the team's 53-man roster to begin the 2010 season.