TAMPA — Sabby Piscitelli may be the sleeper of the NFL draft. Not the one next weekend, last year's. And the slumber lasted 13 games after he broke a bone in his foot during a kickoff against the St. Louis Rams in Week 3.
The offseason is when players typically start to feel like rookies again, but in Piscitelli's case, it's really true.
As the Bucs safety walked off the practice field last week, he savored every pain-free step, and the sweat, the grass sticking to his forearms, the excitement of just being on the field with teammates again made him grin.
"The foot injury derailed everything," Piscitelli said. "That's one of the first things I heard last year when I got hurt, that we have another second-round pick next year. I'm excited. I know I have the ability to make some plays for this team."
While the Bucs bemoan their lack of draft picks this year —only one in each of the first five rounds — a player such as Piscitelli, 24, is someone to get excited about all over again.
Piscitelli, 6 feet 3, 225 pounds, was a second-round pick from Oregon State, the 64th player selected overall. Although lacking in football experience — he first played as a junior in high school in Boca Raton — he was expected to challenge veteran Jermaine Phillips for playing time at strong safety.
Phillips responded to the challenge with one of his best season as a pro, leading the club with four interceptions and finishing third in tackles with 83. Meanwhile, fellow rookie safety Tanard Jackson, who was selected 42 picks after Piscitelli, was an all-rookie performer with three forced fumbles, two interceptions and 13 passes defensed.
Piscitelli had just three special-teams tackles to show for his rookie year. But if not for the injury, he wonders if he could've matched Jackson's success.
"Absolutely. I told (Jackson) he had a great year and made great plays," Piscitelli said. "You should expect that from yourself. I expect that of myself when I get my opportunity to go out there and make my plays. T-Jack knew he had to go in and he did it. I take my hat off to him; he made a lot of great plays last year, and hopefully when my number is called, I'll do the same thing."
Piscitelli's injury took 10 weeks to heal. He used that time to study film and simply observe how veteran players prepared each week.
"I watched everything they do," he said. "I tried to learn from Ronde (Barber) what he was doing, how he was watching film. Because I knew I couldn't do anything physically on the field. So I was trying to do a lot of film work. I was watching old tapes of the Bucs D back in the day to just learn anything I can. I studied other safeties here and there just to see the way they hit and the way they tackled. Little things. Anything that would help me improve my game this year."
The biggest hurdle Piscitelli faces is curbing his enthusiasm. It's only April and already he's trying to make up for lost time.
"He's just excited. He can't wait to play football," defensive backs coach Raheem Morris said. "He wants every rep. He thinks he doesn't get tired right now. I'm like, 'Relax. All I need is three fast ones. Give me three full speed. Then go sit down and then come back and give me three more later.' Make them all good, positive reps. If you're playing well in practice, you're probably going to show up in a game."
So what impact can Piscitelli have in 2008? Well, it might be a bigger one than many of the players the Bucs select April 26-27.
"The guy can be huge," Morris said. "Flip is here, T-Jack is here. He's one play away from being a starter. … He's one play from getting in the game just because I feel like subbing. He's one play away from being a starting dime (back). He's one play away from being a starting nickel. Right now, he's just got to go out and learn the system so he can know everything. When the situation arises, he's in. Who says he can't play wheel linebacker? He can do whatever he wants to do. You've got to find spots for good players."