Rookie T Xavier Fulton is one of many young Bucs who will get a long look on Friday night
Marcus Hamilton was drafted by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the seventh round in 2007, played one game for the Bucs in 2008 and is currently a reserve cornerback for the Chicago Bears.
That's not an unusual career arc for a seventh-round pick in his early years, and Hamilton may never contribute anything for the Buccaneers beyond the one fill-in effort he had last year against the Bears.
Still, Hamilton has had a presence of sorts at Buccaneer headquarters in recent weeks, simply because Head Coach Raheem Morris has found the former Virginia cornerback to be a perfect example of the point he wishes to make. With the final preseason contest looming on Friday and the roster cutdown to 53 awaiting the very next afternoon, the days ahead could be make-or-break for young players who find themselves in the position Hamilton did a year ago.
Hamilton had spent the 2007 season on the Bucs' practice squad, which means he had already impressed the team enough to remain in its plans. When rookie cornerback Aqib Talib suffered a minor injury and fellow rookie corner Elbert Mack got a suspension for a hard hit on Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, the Bucs found themselves short-handed headed into their Week Three game at Chicago. Hamilton, who had once again started the season on the practice squad, was called up and immediately pressed into action. He performed well in the Bucs' 27-24 overtime victory, which actually proved to be his exit from Tampa Bay.
Morris, then the Bucs' defensive backs coach, said he didn't worry about the Bucs' shortage of cornerbacks or press management to sign a veteran. He had seen enough from Hamilton to be confident in the young player's abilities.
"I've got a guy that I've been training for a year," said Morris, recalling that turn of events. "We're going to put him in the lineup, go out and win a game versus Chicago, a tough road game. The kid played well and got picked up by Chicago the next week when we tried to slip him back on the practice squad. That example right there is what we've got to be about, what you want your team to be about this year."
What Morris would like all of the Bucs' young players to understand is that, as long as you're still on the team, there is an opportunity waiting to be seized. Hamilton has found most of his opportunity in Chicago, but it started with his behind-the-scenes efforts in Tampa. Mack did the same thing a year ago, playing so well at the end of the preseason that the Buccaneers felt they couldn't form their best 53-man roster without him.
Morris would like to see the less established young players on this year's roster do the same thing, including such later-round 2009 draft picks as tackle Xavier Fulton and cornerback E.J. Biggers.
"Elbert Mack made a big push at this time last year," recalled Morris. "He had a shot to get on the practice squad and then [said], 'Are you kidding me? I'm starting.' He made a big push. It's a big-time week for the Biggers of the world, the Fultons, the [Demar] Dotsons, all those guys. It's a big-time week for those guys. They're going to play a lot. It's a chance to make that last-minute push."
When the Buccaneers play the Houston Texans on Friday night at Raymond James Stadium, the night will belong almost exclusively to the Biggers and Fultons and Dotsons. Any starters that do play won't play for long, giving young Bucs like Kareem Huggins and Kyle Arrington and Ryan Purvis an extended opportunity to show off their skills.
The following day, the Buccaneers will trim their roster from 75 players to 53. The majority of the cuts will be young players like Hamilton, some of whom will end up on the practice squad and perhaps find their way into a long-term NFL career. Buccaneers' management hopes that Friday night's game will make their Saturday decisions much harder.
"You want to make it a little bit tougher to make some of these cuts," said Morris. "There are a lot of battles as far as who you want, who you like on the practice squad, who's going to be your fifth, who's going to be your third, who's going to be all those different positions? That's fine. They're always tough, but we'll see how tough they are after this game. This game is when people make big pushes."