The only playing time WR Marquise Walker received in 2002 was during the preseason, when he still wore jersey number 4
In one way, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2002 draft paid huge dividends, in that the team's first and second-round picks formed the centerpiece of the deal that brought Head Coach Jon Gruden to Tampa. Gruden's value proved immense, exceeding even the loftiest expectations, as he led the Bucs to their first ever Super Bowl title in his first season with the club.
Statistically, however, the 2002 draft produced little for Tampa Bay last fall. Without their first two selections, the Bucs picked up eight players, half of them in the seventh round. Four made the team but two of them, third-round WR Marquise Walker and fourth-round RB Travis Stephens combined for one game played and almost a full season on injured reserve. Fifth-round S Jermaine Phillips played in all 19 games, but almost exclusively on special teams. Seventh-round CB Tim Wansley was inactive for all but one contest.
Between them, the four drafted rookies who made the Bucs' roster produced one catch for six yards, 15 special teams tackles and one fumble recovery on a kickoff.
Which is not to say Tampa Bay is disappointed in its picks of a year ago. Walker, Stephens, Phillips and Wansley will be back in camp this offseason, fighting for larger roles as NFL sophomores, and the Bucs still see a bright future for those four. However, they'll face the same obstacle in 2003 they did in 2002: a very deep and talented Buccaneer roster. As General Manager Rich McKay said last week, the days of Buc draft picks being expected to step immediately into starting roles are at least temporarily gone.
"We're a very good football team that's got depth, amazingly," said McKay. "And, accordingly, it's hard for these guys to find their way. What you have to do is have patience with them, let them bubble up, let them come on. Dexter Jackson, in his rookie year, really didn't contribute. Dexter Jackson in his second year kind of contributed. But he finally made his way, and that's really what we try to do."
The Bucs' depth may have worked against Walker, Stephens, Phillips and Wansley in their quest for playing time last year, but it might also be considered an advantage of sorts. None of the four was thrown prematurely into the fire, where NFL careers can sometimes be consumed before they start.
"It can go both ways," said McKay. "If our team was back in the mid-90s, they'd be playing. It's a different window now. It's hard for them because they're used to being on the field, getting a chance to make plays and show what they can do."
That opportunity was particularly hard to come by for Walker, whose playing time last year would have come at the expense of Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius or Karl Williams. If the Bucs had any designs on working Walker into the rotation later in the season, they were abandoned when the rookie from Michigan injured his thumb in practice and was placed on injured reserve on October 1.
"The only hard thing with Marquise is that we have a year's information – a half a year, until he broke his thumb – we've got that information, but we've also still got the four guys who were ahead of him," said McKay. "They're still there. It's still hard. It didn't get any easier for him."
The Bucs are about to add a half dozen or so more rookie draftees to the roster, and those new players will be the center of attention at the mini-camp that follows. But Walker, like his fellow second-year players, has already been at team headquarters for a month, working very hard in the offseason program. These mornings at One Buc Place won't get the media attention of this summer's training camp, but they're an important part in Walker's attempt to get back on the field next fall.
"Now, it's about practice, it's about offseason, it's about weightlifting, it's about running," said McKay. "(The second-year players) are on parade every day and every one is an important day for them."
The Bucs know the odds their 2002 draftees faced coming in, and that does add some patience to their evaluations. At the same time, the team is always happy to see its young players force the issue and make it hard to keep them off the field.
"You try to be (patient), but by the same token, he's got to show us why," said McKay of Walker. "And he knows it. He's been good this offseason. He understands the issues, is working hard and is in good shape."
Not every step forward Walker will make will be during the route-running drills with Johnson and the rest. To have any chance at getting in at receiver during games next fall, he will need to first be on the 45-man game day active list, and to be on that list, he will probably need to be a valued member of the kick-coverage or kick-return teams. That shouldn't be a stretch for Walker, who as a Wolverine was known to block punts, cover kicks and return punts.
"Marquise has to find a way on special teams, as he did at Michigan," said McKay. "That was one of his calling cards at Michigan. Now, is it hard for Marquise to understand that? Probably, yes. But he'll get his chance at camp. Travis, the same thing. Travis has got to try to help us on kickoffs or some other way."
So, all these things considered, how does McKay feel about the chances of his 2002 draft class in 2003?
"Same as I did in 2002," he said. "You still have to see how those guys progress and are they going to contribute? Where is Travis going to be a year later? Where is Marquise going to be a year later? Are they going to ascend? Are they not going to ascend? Are they going to fit or are they not going to fit? Is (Tim) Wansley going to become the nickel? Is (Jermaine) Phillips going to become a safety?
"We think yes."