Deshone Mallard (right) is one of a handful of young cornerback hopefuls on the Bucs' squad who hope to move up the depth chart.
One day you're an all-league player for a championship team. Three weeks later, you're third string.
That's the way it sometimes plays out for NFL Europe standouts, and that's exactly the transition Tampa Bay Buccaneers cornerback Deshone Mallard is making.
Of course, training camp depth charts almost always list newcomers at the back, and Mallard is a first-year player whose NFL resume includes only a full training camp with the Philadelphia Eagles last year. Not a single Buccaneer rookie or first-year player is listed at first string on the current depth chart, and only two, LB Nate Webster and P John Shay, are marked as high as second string.
It's an age-old system, and it works because players do not compete on paper. Mallard knows that his actions on the field over the next few weeks will dictate where he ends up on the final depth chart.
"Right now, they've got me last," said Mallard, without any bitterness. "I've only been here a week or so, so they've got me at the bottom. That doesn't mean anything. I just want to work my way up.
"I'm loving it. I like the intentions of the coaches. All the teams I've been with, it's been about winning the ring. I know these are the type of coaches that are going to try to get the best out of you. All I'm looking to do is take it one practice at a time and move on up.
Mallard looked both confident and competent during Monday afternoon's practice, when there were plenty of opportunities for the team's cornerbacks to show off their skills. During one-on-one drills with the receivers, Mallard fared well, allowing only one completion during his three coverages. Second-year player Darnell McDonald caught a short path underneath and spun past Mallard (there's no tackling in this drill), but Drew O'Connor and Reidel Anthony came up empty-handed.
A factor in Mallard's good start could be his physical condition, which is likely to be a bit more advanced than most of his teammates. As a member of the NFL Europe League Champion Rhein Fire, Mallard has already played 11 games this season, including the World Bowl on June 25. As a starting cornerback for the Fire, Mallard earned a spot on the NFLEL's all-league team after snaring three interceptions (or was it four? More on that later) and adding 51 tackles, 10 passes defensed and four stops on special teams.
He hit the states, and his own home state of Mississippi shortly thereafter, leaving about three weeks to rest before season number two. Echoing the sentiments of Aaron Stecker and Daniel Jones, Mallard indicated that his long pre-preseason is actually an advantage.
"Yeah, I'm already there," said Mallard of his football condition. "I've only had about three weeks off, but even then I kept up with my work. I was just trying to keep up, stay in shape, so that I could come into camp and get into a rhythm right away. I really just need to get going with the team, get comfortable with this team then work my way up.
"I think it's an advantage. Going over there is just like going to spring training. While I was over there, I did play the whole season, so when I came back I was just trying to get my legs back. So I really didn't do too much running or lifting, just tried to keep it steady."
Whether he fatigued himself or put himself into perfect shape is yet to be seen, but what is not debated is that Mallard made the type of impression he wanted to when he headed overseas. Players like Mallard may be striving to win a championship for their respective NFLEL teams, but they are also trying to provide udpated game footage for NFL scouts.
"You go over there to get good film and good technique," said Mallard. "You work on your techniques every day because that's all going to come out in the end. I just tried to go over there to get some experience."
Mallard picked off another pass in the World Bowl, a crucial turnover in the second half that ended a scoring threat by Stecker's Scottish Claymores. That may be the identity of the missing interception.
"They cheated me out of one in the paper, but I don't worry about that," said Mallard with a laugh. "It's on the film. I came out with four picks, about 57 tackles…and a ring. Now I'm trying to get another one over here."
His first try came in Philadelphia last year, where he signed as a college free agent then made it through most of the Eagles' camp before being released on August 28. He had a bout with an ill-timed injury in that camp, and learned a lesson that he vows not to repeat.
"They had a hard time (deciding whether to cut him)," said Mallard. "I had pulled my hamstring about two or three weeks into camp. I was rushing back for the first couple of games. I don't know if I rushed too much, because it wasn't 100 percent when I came back. I was wishy-washy when I came back. So this time, whatever happens, happens. This is my next shot and I'm just going to take it full speed."
Mallard decided to take his next shot with the Bucs when they pursued him quickly after the 1999 season ended. Indianapolis and New England also showed interest, according to Mallard, but he signed with the Bucs and was almost immediately sent over to the NFLEL. In the long run, that decision actually earned him a few valuable weeks off, as both the Patriots and Colts started camp in the second week of July.
That's all behind Mallard now, however, as he reported to camp on Sunday and put the rest of his life on hold. Training camp and its two-a-day practices interspersed with frequent meetings means very little free time, most of which is spent on campus.
"My free time?," said Mallard. "Study, watch TV, play pool a little bit. There isn't too much you can do once you get into the books. I know most of these guys have been here since mini-camp, so I need to get into my books and get it all down."
Mallard certainly looked like a man who knew where he was going during Monday's practices. He hopes that it's up the depth chart.