WR Paris Warren (who wore #15 during his first preseason) is a polished route-runner and a heady competitor
Thirteen months ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers headed to training camp with a bursting-at-the-seams roster, one that included 14 wide receivers. The passcatchers ranged from returning starters Michael Clayton and Joey Galloway to high-profile free agent Ike Hilliard to a trio of recent draftees to a wide array of lesser-known prospects.
In little over a month, the Bucs will once again sweep into Orlando with nearly 100 players overall and at least a dozen wideouts. It's a different group at receiver this year, for sure. Some of the returning players are healthier (think Clayton), some are more battle-tested (think Edell Shepherd), some are new and intriguing (think David Boston and Maurice Stovall) and some are multi-position talents (think WR/PR Mark Jones).
The battle, however, is the same. Those 12-14 receivers going into camp have to be pared down to a regular-season group that probably won't top half a dozen. The names have changed – and yes, it would seem that the additions of Boston and Stovall make for an even tougher field – but the numbers haven't. Neither has the focus for one of those competitors, second-year man Paris Warren.
"Competition doesn't bother me," said Warren, one of those three 2005 draftees at the position. "I can only worry about what I can control, and that's how I perform."
In other words, he doesn't plan to be a victim of this summer's increased competition. Rather, he expects to be part of the cause.
"I'm very confident this year," said Warren. "I've lost a few pounds, so I feel a little bit lighter. This year, I'm coming to play."
Warren, along with Larry Brackins and J.R. Russell, was picked up on the second day of the 2005 draft. The team first drafted Brackins, admittedly a project, out of Pearl River Community College in the fifth round. Then it used two of its four seventh-round picks on Warren and Russell, a pair of highly-productive seniors in explosive offenses at Utah and Louisville, respectively. The 6-0, 213-pound Warren is considered a technician at the position, an intelligent player who runs sharp routes and rarely drops the ball.
The Bucs ended up keeping all three receivers on the active roster heading into the first week of the season, but all three had been relocated to the practice squad by the end of the year, with none actually playing in a regular-season game. Brackins was moved before the first game, Warren followed in mid-October and Russell lasted on the active roster until mid-November.
In effect, the dates of those moves were irrelevant because all three managed to stay with the team and involved in practice all season. That allowed the learning process to continue unabated, which is critical given the complexity of Head Coach Jon Gruden's system. A solid year of playbook absorption is one reason Warren feels more confident heading into his second season; things are beginning to come naturally for him.
"This year's going great," he said. "I know all the plays. There isn't too much thinking out there for me. I'm just getting out there and doing what I do best, running good routes and catching the ball."
Receivers aren't coddled on the Buccaneers' practice field, either. Virtually every practice includes a "group install" section that is run at high throttle and high volume by Gruden. There is no defense on the field for this drill, but Gruden constantly barks out defensive formations and changes that the receivers should be instantly reacting to as they run their routes. A premium is placed on getting off the line, getting quickly into one's route and, if applicable, reading zone coverage and finding the holes.
Warren did that well at Utah, where he was the favored receiver of current San Francisco 49er Alex Smith, the first overall pick of the 2005 draft. Scouts say he is smooth off the line and has "field presence." Of course, finding open spaces against UNLV or San Diego State is a bit different than doing so against the top-ranked defense in the NFL. A year of working against Monte Kiffin's crew has helped Warren feel more acclimated to the challenges on the professional level a year into his career.
"I feel a lot more comfortable this year than I did last year," he said. "We go against the best defense every day – Derrick Brooks, Ronde, Simeon. You can't ask for anything better than that."
Warren was also a very versatile threat in Utah's wide-open offense. He frequently took direct snaps from center, rushing 48 times for 189 yards over his two seasons with the Utes. During his one season at Oregon before transferring, he threw an option pass for a 50-yard gain. In high school, he was a highly-productive defensive back. And he helped out on special teams at Utah, too, returning 28 punts at a 6.8-yard clip per runback.
Warren isn't likely to do a lot of running or passing for the Buccaneers, no matter how large of a role he earns in 2006. However, he could improve his value to the team by figuring into the punt return equation. As such, he has begun staying after the official end of practice to field punts from a Jugs gun along with a couple other young players, all under the watchful eye of Special Teams Coordinator Rich Bisaccia.
"I'm helping out any way I can," said Warren. "I returned punts in college. Last year, I really didn't get around to it. I was trying to learn the plays. It didn't work out too well last year, but this year is a new ballgame."
New, but necessarily easier. If the Bucs' more recent moves pan out as the team hopes, then the competition at receiver will be intense and fruitful in Orlando this year. Warren can't control that, but he can make it awfully difficult on the decision-makers.
Or, as he put it: "The more you can do the harder it is for them to get you out of here."