Troy CB Elbert Mack tied for the national lead with eight interceptions last year
A year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected 10 players in the 2007 NFL Draft, and eight of them went on to see action in the regular season last fall. Seventh-round tackle Chris Denman landed on injured reserve in the preseason and seventh-round cornerback Marcus Hamilton spent the entire season on the Buccaneers' practice squad.
There were, however, nine rookies who suited up for the Buccaneers during the 2007 season. As usual, the seven rounds of the draft were not the only source of new talent in the NFL.
In the Buccaneers' case, the one undrafted player who made the roster and had an impact on the 2007 season was Cal fullback Byron Storer. One of eight young men who signed with Tampa Bay immediately after the draft was concluded, Storer started the season on the practice squad but eventually saw action in nine games. Though he initially made his presence felt on special teams, Storer moved into the starting lineup in December after an injury to fullback B.J. Askew.
Each year, the last pick of the draft sets off a lightning round of phone calls around the league, with each team trying to add a handful of players to its rookie class. In many cases, these players are prospects that could have very easily been selected in the sixth or seventh round, and thus it is unsurprising when a keeper emerges from that post-draft group.
Earnest Graham, the Buccaneers' leading rusher in 2007, is a prime example; he was an undrafted free agent with Tampa Bay in 2003. Other men on the Bucs' roster who weren't drafted but have become well-established NFL players include Jeff Garcia, Donald Penn, Anthony Davis and Ryan Nece.
So who will be the next Storer…and, hopefully, in the long run, the next Garcia or Graham? After the conclusion of the 2008 draft, the Buccaneers lured five undrafted players to Tampa, including Auburn fullback Carl Stewart and Troy cornerback Elbert Mack. They officially signed their contracts upon arriving in town on Thursday.
Here is the full list of the 2008 undrafted free agents signed by the Buccaneers to this point:
|Chris Clark||T||6-5||290||Southern Miss|
|Tyrice Thompson||TE||6-5||220||Arizona State|
Storer was one of eight undrafted players the Bucs signed last year, right after the team selected 11 men in the 2007 draft. The Bucs' rookie class is smaller this year, with just five undrafted players added to a draft class of seven. Thanks to a busy round of free agency shopping in March and a relatively small number of losses in that same market, Tampa Bay's roster has fewer openings among the veterans in 2008.
Still, those 12 newcomers will get every chance to compete, and history suggests the undrafted players truly do come in on an equal footing. Like many rookies, particularly those who arrive in later rounds, the undrafted players often need several years to carve out a significant role on the team. However, this year – and in a more immediate sense, this weekend at the rookie mini-camp – represents their first chance to get a foot in the door.
Graham did just that, impressing Buccaneer coaches in his rookie training camp. He was waived after a foot injury knocked him out in the preseason, but the team re-signed him as soon as it was allowed to during the season, and he's been on the team ever since. After excelling on special teams and showing in a string of preseasons that he could make an impact in the backfield, Graham finally got his chance to be a starting running back last year, and with outstanding results.
Here's a closer look at the five undrafted players who will try to construct a similar career path, beginning this weekend:
The Bucs have expressed a desire to add playmakers, and cornerback Elbert Mack will try to make his mark after displaying a knack for big plays as a senior at Troy. The 5-10, 168-pound Mack snagged eight interceptions for the Trojans in 2007, tying him for first in the nation in the category. Mack also returned one of those picks for a touchdown.
Jonathan Hefney started out as a cornerback at Tennessee but played free safety his final three seasons and was a first-team All-SEC pick last year. His 2007 statistics included 96 tackles, one interception and six passes defensed. Hefney actually produced bigger numbers as a junior, picking off six passes to go with another 96 tackles. Though considered undersized at 5-8 and 190 pounds, Hefney is also an experienced return man who averaged 8.3 yards on 67 career punt returns.
Chris Clark, a tackle from Southern Miss, will show off the skills that earned him preseason All-Conference USA honors in 2007. The 6-5, 290-pound Clark started every game his final three seasons as a Golden Eagle and helped the team set a school record for total offense in 2006. Truly a leader on his collegiate offensive line, Clark will try to parlay his size and durability into a chance to stick around in the NFL.
Special teams are often the place for undrafted rookies to make a name for themselves, and Arizona State tight end Tyrice Thompson may try to do just that. The 6-5, 220-pound Thompson was one of the most improved players in the Pac-10 Conference his senior season. He caught 15 passes for 272 yards and a touchdown in his final campaign as a Sun Devil and was also a demon on special teams, blocking a punt and a field goal and recovering a fumble in 2007.
The 6-1, 230-pound Carl Stewart mostly played fullback at Auburn and will get a look at that spot with the Buccaneers, but he is an experienced ballcarrier as well. In 47 games (12 starts) in four college seasons, he carried 128 times for 482 yards and nine touchdowns. Stewart was a threat around the goal line and also a valuable lead blocker for Auburn's strong running game. Stewart has fine hands and run-after-the-catch ability, too, snaring 39 career passes for 612 yards and two touchdowns, with a 15.7-yard per-catch average that is very high for a running back.