Luke Stocker, the third-year tight end who has been penciled in as the potential tight end starter for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013, suffered a calf injury on reporting day of training camp and subsequently missed nearly two weeks of practice. That sounds unfortunate, and indeed Head Coach Greg Schiano calls it "not the optimal way to go about" winning a starting job, but there's a reason Stocker was upbeat and positive after practice on Tuesday.
It's a lot better than being on crutches.
As a rookie in 2011, Stocker similarly suffered an injury right at the beginning of camp. This one, though was a more troublesome hip injury that kept him out of action for most of the preseason and sidelined with his crutches for all of training camp. Oh, and it also came on the heels of the NFL's work stoppage, which erased all offseason workouts before training camp, giving Stocker no OTA knowledge to fall back on. It was, as he said at the time, "a raw deal." He ended up playing 14 games and catching nine passes for 92 yards during his rookie campaign.
Stocker, who started this year's camp on the active/physically unable to perform list, returned to the practice field on Monday, though he has been limited the last two days. He may not make enough progress to gain clearance to play in Thursday's preseason opener against Baltimore, but he's not concerned about keeping up with the rest of the team in the weeks ahead.
"My rookie year I missed a lot of time; I think that was a big setback," said Stocker. "That was also a very big lower body injury. I was on crutches for some time, that's a big thing too. This is nothing similar to that, it will be nowhere like that. I think I will hit it in full stride."
The Buccaneers hope so. Pass-catching tight end Kellen Winslow was still on hand during Stocker's rookie season, letting the fourth-rounder out of Tennessee ease into a role as primarily a blocker in two-TE sets. The Bucs obviously still felt good about that part of Stocker's game last year, because he started 11 games even as the role of pass-catching tight end was transferred to another experienced veteran, Dallas Clark.
Clark was not brought back this offseason, however, and the Buccaneers' additions to the tight end group, while potentially very helpful, did not include anyone of the Winslow/Clark variety. The Buccaneers have been high on Stocker's potential since trading up to get him in the 2011 draft, and it didn't hurt when he finished last season on an upswing. Stocker had half of his 16 catches for the season in the last three games and capped the year with three grabs for 50 yards in a rousing road win over the Atlanta Falcons. For most of the offseason, it seemed likely that the starting job was going to go to either Stocker or former Green Bay Packer Tom Crabtree, with the other probably playing a big role as well. On the team's first depth chart, Stocker and Crabtree were 1-2 on the list.
Of course, while Stocker feels much better at this point than he did two years ago, it has been tough watching that golden opportunity hang on the tree the past two weeks, just out of his reach. He's more than ready to grab hold of it.
"This is absolutely my shot, without a doubt," said Stocker. "They're handing it to me and saying 'It's yours, you've got to take it and you've got to run with it.' That's why this injury has been so frustrating. It's one of those things, they keep telling me, 'Be patient, be patient with it,' because it's soft-tissue muscle. You've got to be patient and let it heal on its own."
"They're working me back in progressively. The trainers are very smart people, and they've got a whole plan for me, so I'm just following their plan."
That lost offseason in 2011 had all the rookies scrambling to catch up, and last year the entire Buccaneers offense was learning a new system under first-year coordinator Mike Sullivan. This time around, Stocker has one season under Sullivan as a base plus a productive offseason that helped him and all of his teammates come into camp well ahead of where they were 12 months earlier. Once he gets a chance to play, he thinks he can step right in and be productive.
"I feel very comfortable with the offense," said Stocker. "I don't feel like mentally I'm set back at all. Physically, obviously I missed a lot of time in training camp. Everyone needs training camp to get in football shape. I've been doing everything I can to protect my calf so it's just a matter of getting back out there and getting in football shape."
Schiano says that Stocker definitely has the "skill set" to be a number-one tight end in the Bucs' offense, and that the team is eager to get more out of that position than it did last year. Stocker knows the Bucs believe in his abilities and is ready to prove them right.
"I think that I've showed promise," he said. "I've showed them that I can do things, it's a matter of consistently doing good things and consistently doing the things they need me to do. That's this league. You show promise, you stick around, but the thing is, if you want to be a great player you have to be consistent and do it consistently."
If he can do that – and if Crabtree or any of the other men on the tight end depth chart can produce as well – then Sullivan's offense might add another dangerous dimension. The Bucs already had the league's 10th-ranked passing attack last year, and that was with quarterback Josh Freeman relying very heavily on wideouts Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams and tailback Doug Martin. Those four are still around and likely to be just as productive in 2013, but Stocker thinks the tight ends can still be an important part of the attack.
"It's really up to me and the other tight ends," he said. "The tight end can be used as much as we get open or as much as we put confidence in the coaches to call the plays for us. The opportunities are there and it's up to us to make the coaches believe in us."