At his press conference on Thursday, T Kenyatta Walker joked about the need to get in camp on time to keep up with Simeon Rice and Warren Sapp
It was the week before training camp, Kenyatta Walker was unsigned and the pressure was building.
Walker wasn't worried about how many zeroes were going on his first NFL contract, though. No, he was more concerned about numbers 99 and 97.
On Thursday, Walker, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-round draft pick in April, signed a five-year contract that, happily, will allow him to report to training camp on time Sunday, with the rest of the team. At the press conference to announce this welcome news, Walker spoke of motivations for staying on schedule that were easily understandable.
"I wanted it done quickly because I needed to get into camp," said Walker earnestly. "I've got a lot of plays, a lot of blitzes to pick up. I've got (Warren) Sapp and (Simeon) Rice to deal with in camp…I've got to get in there! The quicker I get in, the better I'll be. I feel good and I'm ready to play."
Sapp and Rice, numbers 99 and 97 on the Bucs fearsome defensive line, have plenty of what the NFL is going to shove right into Walker's face: speed. Through offseason practices, the rookie from Florida has already received a sneak preview of what he can expect from Rice, Tampa Bay's starting right end and Walker's chief opponent in practice. It opened his eyes and quickened his feet.
"I'm starting to feel comfortable," said Walker, though he quickly admitted that "It's a faster game, a lot faster. You have to be quicker on your feet. There are great athletes on the other side of the ball. At Florida sometimes, I was the better athlete on the offensive line. Here, it's a Florida-Florida State game every day."
General Manager Rich McKay, who hammered out the pact with Walker's agents, has not had to contend with a single extended holdout since moving into his current position with the team in 1995. He also understood Walker's motivation.
"I think it's just what he described: it will be the speed of the game and it will be the athletes he faces," said McKay of the greatest adjustment his rookie lineman faces. "By moving to the left side, he should face a traditionally better athlete, and he's now at a level where the speed of the game at left tackle is real. It can be felt. I think he'll benefit greatly from the guy lining up next to him. (Left guard) Randall (McDaniel) is very committed to trying to help him. I think he'll talk to him a lot during the games about the stunts, about what teams are doing, and I think that will be a comforting factor.
"There will still be a little period of adjustment. I just don't think the period of adjustment will be that great of going from the right to the left side, given Kenyatta's athletic abilities."
The Buccaneers were also interested in speedy negotiations, in effect for the same reasons as Walker. It seems likely that the team will entrust the crucial left tackle position to this rookie for the 2001 season, so every minute of camp will be crucial.
"It's good for us," said McKay of the timely signing. "We have high expectations for the football player, not just in the future but this year. It kind of raised the bar, if you will, for us in trying to get the deal done.
"It's always nice when you get the first pick in. It's even nicer when you get the first pick in before the start of camp. It was a pretty easy deal to do, in the sense that the market had started to set itself, and Kenyatta's represented by some agents that know how to make a deal. That made life a little easier in the sense that we were able to get rid of a lot of shenanigans that go on in these deals sometimes and get right down to brass tacks."
Basically, you had your three elements – team, player and agent – on the same page, and that meant an outcome and a schedule that was pleasing to everyone involved.
"I knew it was going to get done," he said. "I had faith in my agent and in the Bucs, and now it's done before training camp even started."
Besides, Walker knew exactly what he did not want to become, and avoiding that fate meant getting into camp on time.
"You want to be on the same level (as the veterans)," he said. "There's going to be a lot of pressure – I put a lot of pressure on myself. I want to contribute. I don't want to be a first-rounder who doesn't do anything."