Paris Warren is one of three receivers from this year's draft who will be vying for a roster spot this summer
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will soon have another rookie invasion at team headquarters. This time, however, Buccaneer veterans will be on hand to welcome the newbies to town.
With their respective colleges having completed the 2004-05 school year, most of the Bucs' newest players are now allowed to report to Tampa, right on time to join in the next round of "organized team activity" (OTA) days. The Bucs have 11 OTA days remaining; the first three will be spent this week, Tuesday through Thursday.
There are 25 rookies on Tampa Bay's roster, all added since the beginning of the 2005 NFL Draft on April 23. Those 25 men have all visited One Buccaneer Place one other time, for a mandatory rookie and first-year player mini-camp the weekend after the draft. NFL teams are allowed that one three-day exception to the rule excluding rookies from reporting until their school year is complete.
This time will be different for several reasons, however. First, OTA days are completely voluntary, though usually heavily attended in Tampa. Second, there are some restrictions as to what a team may do on the field (such as no one-on-one periods) and limits to how long it can meet in the classroom. And third, the rookies will have some eager and experienced company on the field this time around.
Dozens of Buccaneer veterans, barred from participating in that first mini-camp, are expected to attend the three OTA days this week. That will spice things up for the rookies, whose first three days in Tampa were productive but fairly vanilla.
"It's still awfully early," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, pointing out that young linemen like Chris Colmer and Dan Buenning are in for some more interesting experiences this time around. "We haven't seen a blitz yet. We haven't seen Simeon Rice in town yet. So life will get a little bit more challenging to say the least."
Here's another thing the rookies may find different this time around: The heat.
The young Bucs caught a break in the weather during the rookie mini-camp, working mostly under a cool breeze and tolerable temperatures. Tampa has edged closer to summer conditions since then and should add to the rookies' challenge this week.
"We'll give them a chance to enroll in our offseason program and get used to this heat," said Gruden. "They got a break [during camp] – it wasn't very hot – so I think they still don't have a full understanding as to what they're getting into."
Understanding is what the Buccaneers are pursuing during their 14 allotted OTA days (three were used before the draft in early April). The OTAs are part of a 14-week offseason program that focuses on strength and conditioning but also uses whatever time is allowed to teach rookies and remind veterans of the team's offensive and defensive systems. The idea is to start training camp with a very good working knowledge of the playbook, so the team can hit the ground running.
There is a lot to learn, especially for the returning rookies.
"It is hard," Gruden conceded. "Forget about learning your new offense, but how about learning the opponent's defense and the nature of blitzes? The specialization of pro football nowadays is just incredible."
The OTA days also allow the team to begin assessing the roster, which is crammed with an even 100 players right now but will eventually have to be trimmed to almost half of that. The team doesn't make any decisions on who will and won't make the team during May – that's what training camp is for – but there is still a sense of competition among the younger players. That may be especially true at wide receiver, where the Bucs have experienced a lot of turnover from a year ago.
Starters Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton return, but that's where the similarities end. Veteran Ike Hilliard was added in early May and second-year man Edell Shepherd, last year's camp surprise, is back from a foot injury. Beyond them, there are plenty of opportunities for young players. The team will be looking very hard at a trio of receivers taken during the second day of this year's draft. That includes fifth-rounder Larry Brackins, who is making a big league up from Pearl River Community College, and a pair of seventh-rounders from big programs in Paris Warren and J.R. Russell.
"We have a guy in the fifth round here who's a project," said Gruden. "He doesn't have a lot of experience to draw from, but he's a talented guy. He made two or three plays easily [during the mini-camp] that a not of lot of men can make. Brackins is going to be a work in progress. Paris Warren is a really good football player. I think at the end of the day he's going to be good after the catch, he's instinctive, he's tough and he's a natural. Whether he's fast enough, whether or not he can produce day-in and day-out remains to be seen. The same with [J.R.] Russell. Those guys know how to play the game, they're physical and tough and they've got to sustain day after day after day of getting better and showing improvement."
That's the idea for all of the young players, actually. With the veterans now by their sides for guidance, the 25 Buccaneer rookies will need to get into the flow quickly and begin their NFL development. There's no time to waste; OTAs start on Tuesday.
"Most of these guys will be back and we still have 11 OTA days left and plenty of work to be done," said Gruden. "So the sooner the better."