In addition to the debuts of first-round picks Mark Barron and Doug Martin, the uplifting presence of Eric LeGrand on the roster and the arrival of such promising undrafted players as Leonard Johnson and Desmond Wynn, 44 lesser-known storylines will be woven into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2012 rookie mini-camp.
For some of them, the next chapter will be an extended opportunity to make it in the National Football League.
As has become custom at One Buccaneer Place in the weekend following each year's NFL Draft, Tampa Bay is staging a rookie mini-camp that includes draft picks, undrafted free agents, holdover first-year players and, to significantly flesh out the roster, several dozen young men in town on tryout contracts. This year, 44 players will take part in the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp on tryouts, pumping the weekend roster up to a total of 75 participants.
That custom serves two complementary purposes. First, the larger roster allows for practices to be run in as close to a normal manner as possible, with enough players at each position to spread out the repetitions. Second, those spread-out reps give players who did not get picked up in either the draft or the first wave of rookie free agent signings an opportunity to prove they belong in an NFL training camp. A week ago, Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik said he was purposely leaving several spots on his 90-man offseason roster vacant under the assumption that several of the tryout players from this weekend will warrant a more long-term spot with the team.
Technically, not every player invited to try out this weekend is a rookie; some, such as cornerback Derrick Roberson, defensive end Ayanga Okpokowuruk and defensive end Hilee Taylor originally entered the NFL in previous seasons and have spent time with other teams. Roberson, in fact, was with the Buccaneers for a good portion of the 2009 season and went to training camp with the team in 2010.
Some of this year's 44 tryout players are college football players from Florida who may be familiar to Buccaneer fans, such as Miami linebacker Jordan Futch and Central Florida guard Nick Pieschel. Some will find rookie friends at One Buc Place from their own alma maters, such as Northwestern safety Brian Peterson (seventh-round tight end Drake Dunsmore) and Nebraska tackle Jermarcus Hardrick (second-round linebacker Lavonte David). Cornerback Chika Madu from Nicholls State even has a family member in camp; his older brother is second-year Buccaneers running back Mossis Madu.
Since the Buccaneers have just one rookie quarterback on the roster in the person of undrafted free agent Zach Collaros of Cincinnati, LSU's Jordan Jefferson will be one of the busiest players in town on a tryout contract. Here's the list of the 44 players taking part in this weekend's camp on a tryout basis:
San Diego State
The Buccaneers didn't hold a rookie mini-camp last spring, obviously, due to the labor discord that was not resolved until July. In 2010, however, the team found seven players from among those on tryout contracts in rookie camp that they chose to sign in the weeks that followed: WR Chris Brooks, G Lee Grimes, DE George Johnson, LS Chris Mauriello, CB Darrell Pasco, FB Rendrick Taylor and C Jeff Tow-Arnett.
From among those players, Johnson still remains on the roster and has shown a significant amount of promise while battling injuries the last two years. Of course, the most well-known tryout player-turned-full-time-Buc is probably still return man Clifton Smith. The diminutive Fresno State product wasn't selected in or signed immediately after the 2008 draft, but he got a shot in the Bucs' rookie camp that year and earned a spot in training camp. That led to a stint on the team's practice squad and, after an eventual promotion to the active roster, a Pro Bowl rookie campaign.
As coaches often tell players who are contemplating the offer of a tryout contract, the opportunity to work with the Buccaneers this weekend is actually a chance to gain notice from all 32 teams. In 2010, Kansas State running back/return man Brandon Banks came to Tampa to try out during that year's rookie camp. He was not subsequently signed by the Buccaneers, but the Washington Redskins came calling two weeks later. Banks made the 'Skins active roster that fall and over the past two seasons has emerged as the team's primary kickoff and punt return man.
Maybe Chika Madu will be able to join his brother in training camp this year, or Jermarcus Hardrick will give the Bucs two Cornhuskers in the program. Perhaps Jordan Jefferson will prove to the Buccaneers or some other team that he has NFL-caliber quarterbacking ability. Chances are, somebody from this year's group of tryout players will be writing another chapter in their NFL story in the coming weeks.