TAMPA — The wide smile worn by Da'Quan Bowers on Tuesday was that of man without a care in the world. Playing catch with middle school kids tickled by his mere presence, the Bucs defensive end looked at ease — finally.
Bowers has borne a lot on his broad shoulders the past two years. From seeing his stock plummet from likely top-10 pick in the 2011 NFL draft to a devastating Achilles tear in 2012 to his February gun-possession arrest in New York, there have been significant setbacks.
But Bowers' load is lighter these days. He's healthy, and his case has been resolved favorably. The only challenge now is fulfilling the high expectations he set long ago.
"It's not only injuries, but (my) play. I haven't been the dominant player that I know I can be," Bowers said Tuesday at Tampa's Pierce Middle School, joined by teammates Josh Freeman, Dekoda Watson and Lavonte David for an event promoting physical fitness.
"I have a lot of potential to be one of the best and the elite at what (I) do, and I haven't shown that at this level yet. (It was) injuries and not understanding what was going on. It takes time to mature at this level. I think my maturation process is going on now and a lot of it has already passed. So, I'm just looking for an opportunity now."
Bowers reflected on his recent past for the first time this offseason, having not spoken to reporters since his arrest and subsequent plea deal in what was a felony weapons possession case at New York's LaGuardia Airport.
Bowers says he inadvertently brought a handgun in his checked luggage during his inbound flight, then tried to turn it into authorities when checking in for his return flight. That resulted in his arrest because he lacked a proper New York permit, thought he owned the gun legally in Florida. Bowers pleaded to disorderly conduct and was assessed a $250 fine.
With no known history of legal trouble, Bowers hated being associated with a crime.
"There is no right way to make a mistake," he said. "I just apologize to the fans and the organization that I put in that (position). I apologize to my family. … That's not what I'm about. That's not the type of person that I am. I appreciate (general manager) Mark (Dominik) and the Glazers and Coach (Greg) Schiano for being with me through this whole situation."
The arrest came after two years of injuries, including the 2011 knee surgery that dropped the projected top-10 draft choice into the second round. The Achilles tear last year was suffered in offseason workouts.
With all that behind him, Bowers now looks forward to a challenge of a different sort: The one issued by his team. By letting free agent defensive end Michael Bennett sign with the Seahawks, the Bucs essentially cast a vote of confidence for Bowers as starting left end.
Bowers, 23, called the task of becoming a full-time starter "a big responsibility. I have a job to do and it's to make this team the best team it can be," he said.
But the team shows no doubts, in part, Bowers said, because of the fight he showed in returning from the Achilles tear in less than six months to appear in 10 games last season.
"It was determination," said Bowers, who made lifestyle and diet changes in hopes of preventing injuries. "Tearing an Achilles and making a return to the field in October is a big move. It wasn't done overnight and it wasn't easy. I had great trainers and I had a great support team with Coach Schiano and Mark Dominik the rest of the staff.
"They put faith in me and they told me to just work my way back and they trusted in me. And now they're trusting in me again and it's my job to prove their decision is a good decision."
Around the NFL: Kicker John Kasay, 43, signed a one-day deal so he could retire with the Panthers. … The Broncos named former Browns GM Tom Heckert as director of pro personnel.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com. Information from Times wires was used in this report.