Even with offseason rosters recently expanding from 80 to 90 players, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano may have a difficult decision looming.
If there is one unifying aspect of the Buccaneers' collection of defensive linemen, it is youth. The organization has placed a great emphasis on acquiring D-Line talent over the last three years, and while the verdict on that group is still out, the Bucs believe they have gathered a serious amount of youthful talent. At the moment, Schiano and his coaching staff are contemplating whether to add any more promising young men to the group.
The Buccaneers conducted the second day of their three-day mini-camp on Saturday, and as was the case on Friday Schiano spent most of the afternoon practice session watching the 44 players who are in town on tryout contracts. If this year's rookie camp is as productive as those in recent years, there's a good chance a handful of those tryout players will earn more lasting contracts to work with the team in the offseason and, hopefully, training camp.
In particular, Schiano has been impressed with the pass-rushers this weekend.
"Some of those D-Linemen…I think it's going to be hard to decide which D-Linemen we go with, because there are some that have done a nice job and have shown promise. Tonight's a big night, evaluating everything and meeting as a staff, talking through it a little bit. We'll be trying to make decisions and then we'll have one more workout tomorrow."
Schiano knows he can't be in every place at once on the three fields behind One Buccaneer Place, so he soaks in what he can in person and then fills in the gap with intensive tape study at night. What he and his assistants see on Saturday evening could very well confirm their afternoon impressions and earn a player or two an extended look in Tampa.
The Buccaneers did not select a defensive linemen during the seven rounds of the 2012 NFL Draft last weekend, not terribly surprising given how heavily they had invested in that position during the 2010 and 2011 drafts. Of the 16 undrafted free agents the team picked up in the days after the draft's conclusion, only one, Tennessee State's Donte'e Nicholls, plays on the defensive front line. That means virtually the entire crew of D-Linemen at One Buc this weekend is made up of tryout players. Some are rookies, like Eastern Washington's Renard Williams, and others are players looking for another shot at making an NFL roster, like North Carolina's Hilee Taylor.
Obviously, that group is doing something right to catch Schiano's eye, collectively. That's not necessarily easy to do under practice regulations that allow no pads and no player-on-player contact whatsoever. That would seem like a particularly limiting factor for players who make their living battling in the trenches, but Schiano explained several methods of evaluation that can still separate one prospect from the next.
"We try to evaluate their suddenness, their explosion into a sled," he said. "There's an old saying among coaches: 'You have to learn to beat a sled first before you can beat a man.' If the sled hits you back, you've got a problem. We were able to do a lot of that work. Then you can see their flexibility, the way they can turn their bodies. Defensive linemen, although they're big guys, they have to be flexible. They need to be able to contort their bodies in ways to rush the passer that are not necessarily normal. So we were able to get a good look at that."
The team purposely left several spots on that 90-man roster open for the possibility of signing tryout players after the weekend, though Schiano said there will be no specific effort made to maximize that number of openings.
"We're allowed to have 90," he said. "We'll probably just kind of mix in with the roster that we have established. I don't know what that number will be. We'll keep as many guys as we think we'll help us win. If we don't fill the 90, that's okay, too. It's a continual process. You continue to bring guys in all the time."
As the Buccaneers' fifth-round pick in this year's draft, West Virginia linebacker Najee Goode is one of a handful of players who have been receiving special, detailed attention on a separate field during the first two days of the team's rookie camp. As Schiano explained on Friday, he knows the seven draft picks are going to be with the team in training camp, so he's giving them a head start on the specific details of the Bucs' defensive techniques while the tryout players work in separate drills to make their case for the offseason roster.
Goode and second-round pick Lavonte David have been working closely with Linebackers Coach Bob Fraser, learning the basics of what each of the three linebacker positions – middle or 'Mike;' weakside or 'Will;' strongside or 'Sam' – are required to do in the Bucs' defense.
"We're just learning what a linebacker does in this defense, going over the fundamentals to learn the Mike, Will and Sam, just trying to be a great linebacker," said Goode. "Coach Frazier's doing a great job with me. I'm just trying to impress upon him that I'm learning right now.
"Everything right now is still a learning experience, for me and I'm pretty sure all the guys here. Hopefully everybody gets a chance to play and improve the team. Right now we need overall improvement, and that's what I'm working on right now."
A team captain at West Virginia as a senior, Goode was invaluable to the Mountaineers' coaching staff because he could – and did – play any linebacker position on the field. He would gladly line up anywhere the Bucs' coaches want him to, as well, but he does feel a bit more natural at two of the three spots, at least so far.
"I'm happy to play anywhere," he said, "but right now, playing the Mike and the Will, those two I really feel comfortable at because I've played them in the past."
In the coming weeks, Goode and his fellow rookies will be integrated with the Buccaneer veterans, and the holdover members of the team's linebacking corps, and then it will start to become more obvious where he fits in. Still, he knows this rookies-only weekend is a valuable opportunity to learn the basics so he can handle that transition smoothly in May and June.
"It's very important," said Goode. "We all have to come out here and work and compete against each other. There are great guys here like Lavonte and Ryan Baker and the other guys, and we're all competing with each other. Coach Schiano preaches about lighting each other's fires and getting everybody up, and that's what we're doing right now. This mini-camp has been a great experience."
A Nose for the Ball
The book on Keith Tandy, the West Virginia cornerback selected by the Buccaneers in the sixth round last Saturday, is that he is particularly adept in zone coverage. Tandy, in fact, supported that very idea when he was asked to do a bit of self-scouting after the draft. As Schiano points out, however, this should be viewed as an expansion of what he can do in the Buccaneers' defense, not a limiting factor.
Schiano notes that Tandy's zone-coverage awareness is a strength that some otherwise good defensive backs do not possess, and that makes him more of an all-around asset to the team.
"He has great zone ball skills," said the Bucs' head coach. "Some guys are just man-to-man guys – 'I've got that guy' – and other than that they struggle. He is not. He is a complete defensive back. He's got zone skills, man skills, press skills, off skills. We just need to see where he fits best right now, with the Bucs, today. He does have that versatility and we're going to be able to mix and match depending on where he's needed."
Tandy's most tantalizing strength may be his nose for the football. He picked off 13 passes during his three years as a starter in West Virginia, 10 in the last two seasons alone. A number of those came off tipped passes, which is another nod for his excellent field awareness. Schiano, who saw plenty of Tandy's exploits over the last three years while coaching at Rutgers, is pleased to have that asset on his side now.
"Some guys are just like that," he said. "They have a skill, a knack, whatever you want to call it. I've, unfortunately, seen it up-close and personal too many times. I'm anxious to see it up-close and personal in favor of the Bucs. He's a very instinctive player."