Rookie linebacker Barrett Ruud has the opportunity to learn from Pro Bowl mates Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles
On Saturday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tabbed 53 players with whom to begin the 2005 season. Of those 53, only 19 were on the team in 2003, when the Bucs took a veteran-heavy stab at defending their Super Bowl XXXVII title.
A two-year turnover of 64 percent of the roster isn't as rare as it might seem; that 2003 squad certainly had a lot of Bucs who weren't around in 2001. What makes this overhaul significant for the Buccaneers, what makes it encouraging for both next Sunday's season opener and the second half of this decade, is that 16 of the 34 players added since 2003 came courtesy of the last two NFL drafts.
At the end of last season, Tampa Bay's personnel department was understandably satisfied that all eight of the players it drafted in April of 2004 appeared in regular-season games as rookies, even if three of those eight ended up on other teams. This year's draft-to-roster feat might be even more impressive: 11 of the 12 players the Bucs' drafted this past April, including seven of the eight picked on the draft's second day, made the team. That number would rise to eight of nine if one included second-year QB Luke McCown, who the Bucs acquired in a draft-weekend trade using one of their sixth-round picks.
The only 2005 draftee who was not among the 53 players retained on Saturday was seventh-round safety Hamza Abdullah, and even that is no real slight. There was no room for Abdullah among the safety depth because the team kept Will Allen, a 2004 fourth-round pick, and Donte Nicholson, a 2005 fourth-round pick, as the main reserves.
Several of this year's rookies should find themselves in significant roles this season, including running back Cadillac Williams, linebacker Barrett Ruud, tight end Alex Smith and guard Dan Buenning. Even those who don't start or play regularly on offense or defense could make a big impact on a special teams unit that will have a lot of turnover from last fall. General Manager Bruce Allen, who has presided over the Bucs' last two drafts, says that is a result of nearly a dozen young men taking full advantage of an opportunity.
"I think it's a credit to those players who worked so hard," said Allen. "They stayed here in the offseason, when people were gone, trying to improve themselves. In different ways, each of them showed up whether it was in training camp or the preseason games. They have earned their right to be here right now."
Williams is expected to start at running back and its safe to say that his is the most eagerly-anticipated rookie season by a Buccaneer in many years. Smith is likely to get some starts when Tampa Bay opens in two-tight end sets, as it did three times during the preseason, and will probably be a factor in the passing attack. Buenning is locked in a battle for the starting left guard spot with veteran Matt Stinchcomb.
Those three alone would give the Bucs their biggest rookie presence in a season since at least 1999, when first-round defensive tackle Anthony McFarland played extensively, second-round quarterback Shaun King started the last two months and third-round kicker Martin Gramatica provided an immediate boost to the kicking game. But there's more to anticipate from this year's crew. Ruud and fourth-round safety Donte Nicholson should make an immediate impact on special teams, massive sixth-round defensive tackle Anthony Bryant may be in the interior line rotation, and seventh-round receivers Paris Warren and J.R. Russell will fight for playing time.
Even two youngsters who didn't play much during the preseason showed enough to warrant roster spots. Fifth-round wide receiver Larry Brackins had a slow start in August due to a June hamstring injury, and is considered a raw prospect given his community college background. Seventh-round fullback Rick Razzano is less of a project and more of a human battering ram, but he was also slowed by a hamstring injury suffered early in training camp.
"When we drafted [Brackins] from Pearl River Community College, we didn't think he would have our offense down there," said Allen. "He was behind also when he got hurt. The injures put some of these guys far behind because they lost out on reps, but we will continue to work with him."
Razzano is one of three fullbacks the Bucs kept, along with proven veterans Mike Alstott and Jameel Cook.
"We have some guys who are hybrids a little, so it gives us some flexibility," said Allen, noting that Alstott is often used as a tailback and Earnest Graham can play both positions. "Rick has done a pretty-good darn job. He hasn't gotten as much play time as he would have liked, or we would have liked, so we'll see how he keeps improving."
If this year's draft class is anything like last year's, they aren't just around to fill roster spots for a year. The five players the Bucs drafted in rounds 1-6 in 2004 are still on the 53-man roster now and should be part of the team's core for some time to come. That includes rookie sensation Michael Clayton as well as Allen, linebacker Marquis Cooper, guard Jeb Terry and tight end Nate Lawrie. Both Allen and Terry are still in the running for starting jobs this fall.
"Our goal has been to make sure that we could have a team to build around and be around these coaches, and learn from day one with them," said Allen. "That's been the objective. I think we have the same amount of second-year players on this team as first-year players. The process will continue. The nice part is, is that there is still a core of those champions here that these young guys can play with."
Counting on Bryant
By the end of the preseason, it was clear that the Buccaneers would be better off in the placekicking department this year, whether they finally elected to keep third-year veteran Matt Bryant or charging first-year prospect Todd France.
Bryant won the job, but France proved he could make it in the NFL. In an incredibly tight competition, one aspect in Bryant's favor was his overall leg strength. That was evident in his kickoffs and on the 52-yard field goal he drilled with some length to spare on Thursday night.
"Let me first say we liked them both," said Allen. "Todd did a very good job for us. Matt showed a lot, not only kicking field goals, but in kickoffs. His kickoffs measured out considerably better. His power gave us great comfort. They are both in a very good groove right now, but we felt that we should go with Matt."
More from Allen
The Bucs' general manager addressed several other topics following the submission of the team's waiver list on Saturday.
On the release of T Derrick Deese: "We feel he is cleared to play right now. He's available to be signed by anyone, including us, at any time."
On keeping seven receivers, and if that will change: "We feel good about where we are right now. The whole make-up could change some. We will see the waiver wire tonight. They project it will be out around 10 o'clock tonight, and there may be some adjustments based on who is available."
On keeping just five linebackers after the season-ending injury to Jeff Gooch: "We feel comfortable with the five we have. We'll be looking to see who is available, whether it be on the wire or in trades. We feel we have a good 46-man roster for the Minnesota game, if we stand pat, but that's not to say we will."
On if there is gamesmanship between organizations with roster cuts: "There is some, but like I said we feel good with the 46 guys we have to dress and play the Vikings. We just have to see what else is out there. We have about 18 of the teams' cuts right now, and we are going to work tonight to make sure we know everyone on the wire."
On the New Orleans Saints playing their first 'home' game at New York: "We are going to go through a lot of brand new things because of [Hurricane Katrina]. America is going to go through a lot of brand new, first-time events because of it. I think that they will settle on a game plan, in the next week or so, on what they are going to do with the rest of the games. It sounds like it is a competitive advantage for the Giants, but I don't think anyone has an advantage, based on what has happened."