'Phenomenal': Bucs' roster includes four undrafted rookies
Among the biggest surprises as the Bucs made cuts Friday to arrive at their initial 53-man roster were four undrafted rookies who overcame odds to stick around, having made a strong impression on Tampa Bay coaches and teammates in training camp.
"They come to work every day," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who saw two make the roster on defensive line in end Channing Ward and tackle DaVonte Lambert. "Some rookies, you see come in and you never know what you're going to get from them. Those guys took every opportunity they had and made the best of it. Making the 53 is huge. I'm happy for them, but they earned it."
Also making the cut as undrafted rookies were tight end Alan Cross -- who the Bucs kept over sixth-round pick Danny Vitale -- and offensive tackle Leonard Wester, who made the leap from Division II in college to the NFL. McCoy said he sees undrafted rookies and thinks of John Randle, who wasn't drafted and made the Pro Football Hall of Fame with 137.5 career sacks.
"It shows the mindset and the work they put in, doing extra, staying after late and asking questions," McCoy said. "And not being afraid to be told the truth. You tell the truth about their game, they can make improvements. To see those guys make it is huge. The first thing that pops in my head is John Randle. Anything is possible."
Ward and Lambert had lockers next to each other on an interior wall of the Bucs locker room, where less established players have their lockers. The two SEC West alums -- Ward from Ole Miss, Lambert from Auburn -- worked together to push each other to survive cuts on the defensive line.
"We talked about those things in the summer, making sure we worked hard every day, stayed on each other," said Lambert, sweat dripping off his nose from his first weight-room workout after making the team. "Things get hard, things get tough, but you work hard and you expect those things."
Ward, another versatile end who can slide inside as part of the Bucs' nickel defense, made a strong case for himself in the second half of the final preseason game, when he made four tackles, all from inside in the nickel package.
"It's a great feeling. A lot of hard work paid off," said Ward, who started only four games in his career at Ole Miss as part of a talented defense. "I took advantage of every play I got. I knew I didn't have many, so I tried to make a big jump every time I could. It's a great feeling that they have faith to keep me around. I just have to keep fighting."
The Bucs rookies still have a long weekend to make it through, knowing the Bucs could try to upgrade their roster by claiming players who were cut elsewhere, potentially at the expense of players who made the initial cuts with Tampa Bay.
Cross, who first made the roster at Memphis as as walk-on long-snapper, followed a similar path in the NFL, and said the Bucs veteran leaders -- players like McCoy and Vincent Jackson -- were embracing of all the players on the roster, whether they were drafted or not.
"They're great leaders on and off the field, and great teammates, regardless of whether you're a free agent with no money or a millionaire with a big ole house," he said. "It's a great feeling."
The Bucs are carrying five tight ends, which points to a liking for two-TE looks on offense, and Cross has quickly impressed the veterans at his position.
"He's a guy that comes in and goes to work every day, a guy you can root for," said veteran Brandon Myers, who also made the cut. "I totally see where he's coming from. I know his past. I'm very excited for him. He's a guy that's going to come in and thump, be a downhill guy. What people don't really know about him is he can catch the ball really well. Very smart, quiet guy. He's got many hidden talents, as you'll find out."
Wester worked throughout camp as the second-team left tackle, going from tiny Missouri Western, largely off the radar of NFL draft scouts. The Bucs worked him out and liked him enough to give him a $20,000 signing bonus and to guarantee $15,000 in base salary, among the largest commitments for any NFL team to any undrafted rookie.
"It's really humbling," Wester said. "There's so much more improvement I have to do, so many things I have to improve on. It's a great feeling coming from a Division II school, an undrafted guy. Just excited to keep getting better."
If Wester was a priority for the Bucs after the draft, the other three are a testament to the depth of the Bucs' scouting efforts: Ward was signed with a $5,000 signing bonus, Cross with a $2,000 signing bonus and Lambert got no bonus at all, turning down money from other teams when he correctly identified an opportunity to make the roster as a fourth defensive tackle.
Wester said there's been a bond among the team's undrafted rookies, and as the initial 53 was announced by Dirk Koetter at a team meeting on Friday morning, there was a shared joy in them each lasting longer than the odds would have suggested.
"Nothing but smiles. It's a pretty phenomenal feeling," he said.