Rookie QB Josh Freeman is in line for more practice-field reps after the trade of Luke McCown
Demar Dotson wasn't selected in the 2009 NFL Draft, and that surely came as little surprise to the former Southern Miss basketball player.
After the draft, as 32 NFL teams burned up the lines trying to convince the most coveted undrafted players to come to their towns, Dotson's phone remained quiet. Still not too surprising, given that Dotson had played all of six NCAA football games, recording a career total of three tackles as a defensive lineman.
So it's fair to say this is a surprise: Dotson is one of the roughly 1,700 men who will open the 2009 campaign on an NFL regular-season roster. The former Southeastern Illinois College basketball letterwinner (he later transferred to Southern Miss) has to be one of the longest of the long shots in that group of 1,700 this year, especially considering he was also making a position switch to offensive tackle.
Dotson didn't sign with a team immediately after the draft, but he did accept an invitation to come to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie camp a week later on a tryout contract. That pact was good for three days; he would have to impress quickly to gain something with a little more duration. He managed to do just that, but even then was just one of approximately 20 rookie or first-year Buccaneers trying to beat out established veterans and 2009 draftees for a spot on the team. In the end, only Dotson and fellow lineman Marc Dile would take that last step (fellow undrafted rookie lineman Jonathan Compas came over to the Bucs as a waiver claim shortly before the end of the preseason).
Dotson was able to get his foot in the door during that rookie camp because he showed some impressive raw skills: Quick feet, strength and an ability to keep his pad level low despite standing 6-9 and 315 pounds. Those traits alone might have bought him a ticket to the practice squad, but Dotson then proved he could focus them quickly into actual strong play on the football field.
Dotson is obviously not a finished NFL product, but he is quickly looking like more than just a two-sport oddity.
"When you see how far he has come in such little time, it's promising," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "You see a big six foot nine inch guy. You watch the right side of our football team consistently throughout the preseason when he got a bunch of reps. He plays really physical and our brand of football, which is nasty. That is why Dotson's here. There is no doubt about that."
Morris spoke about the out-of-nowhere rookie on Sunday morning, when he made his first appearance to the press after Saturday's rather significant round of roster moves. The team released 21 players, including vested veterans Matt Bryant and Jameel Cook, traded quarterback Luke McCown to the Jaguars and placed rookie tackle Xavier Fulton on injured reserve. Those moves actually put the Buccaneers two roster spots below the 53-man limit, something that will change quickly when the released players around the NFL clear waivers.
Dotson was obviously one of the points of interest among those 51 remaining men, but barring injury he probably won't have a huge impact on Tampa Bay's 2009 results. Morris also addressed several other roster situations more central to what the Bucs hope to do this fall.
Among them was the trade of McCown, which elevates rookie first-rounder Josh Freeman to the position of second quarterback behind starter Byron Leftwich. The Buccaneers will likely have Josh Johnson run the scout team in practice and give Freeman more reps in relief of Leftwich than he would have gotten had McCown remained in the picture.
"He will prepare as a number two, he'll have a chance to learn as a number two, he'll get a chance to be in the meeting rooms as a number two," said Morris. "He has to say yes to his development and how he does it. He has to catch up. He has to get it a little bit faster than you normally would as a number two and get him as many reps as we could have before. Now it has to be fast-forward training. I have more confidence in my coaching staff and we know we can get that done."
The trade of McCown ended the Bucs' four-and-a-half year relationship with the classy, competitive passer and perhaps put him in another position to battle for a starting job down the road. That was not an easy decision for the organization, nor was it easy to release Bryant, the team's kicker for the past four seasons. Bryant made 83.1% of his field goal tries from 2005-08 and almost surely would have battled Mike Nugent fiercely for the job in 2009 had he not been limited by a hamstring injury.
Bryant didn't kick in any of Tampa Bay's four preseason games and Nugent overcame a slow start to give the Bucs confidence that he could handle the job. He also kicked off well, consistently putting the ball into the end zone.
"It is always tough to cut a guy that's been on the team," said Morris of Bryant. "That's always a tough decision. We didn't get the competition that we liked at kicker. When you don't kick, it's tough to make a football team. It's always tough. The comfort level with Mike Nugent should be where it needs to be. He played well for the most part and in most of the games. He did miss a couple of kicks that we wanted him to make, but they all do. We have to deal with that. I like his mental toughness and how he finished off the preseason. There were a couple of short field goals, but they are short field goals until you miss them, and then you need them and they are important. He went out there and knocked them down, knocked down the PATs and we're going to go into the season. We will see what he can do."
As for those two temporarily open spots, they could be used for virtually any position. One of the thinnest spots on the depth chart appears to be safety, thanks in large part to the fact that usual free safety starter Tanard Jackson will miss the first four games of the season on a commissioner's suspension. The only remaining safeties are Jermaine Phillips, Sabby Piscitelli and Will Allen, but Morris said he and Defensive Backs Coach Joe Baker have worked out contingency plans for all of the secondary spots utilizing the five cornerbacks who were kept. Thus, the team isn't specifically targeting a safety while combing the waiver wire, but they would be willing to alter their plans if a player becomes available who can help them.
"You have to look for the best 53," said Morris. "It's kind of like when you draft for a need, you usually end up getting the wrong guy. It's right now who helps this football team and how do they help this football team. What's best for us, what's best for the organization, what's best for everybody? That's where we are right now with the two extra spots, along with the guys that are on the roster right now that may not be."