TAMPA — Eric Page dreamed of the perfect scenario. Get drafted, make a team's roster and get the ball rolling on a successful NFL career.
Instead, the former record-breaking receiver at Toledo was undrafted in 2012. Then, a torn ACL last summer meant he didn't even make it to his first training camp.
But after the injury resulted in Page's release from the Broncos, he found his way to the Bucs and now has a legitimate shot at adding a new chapter to his story. Coaches say Page is in the thick of things as they search for consistency in the return game, something they lacked in 2012.
For Page, who has seen extensive action in practice on punt and kick returns, it's about making up for lost time.
"Everybody has their own story," he said. "I'm just trying to live mine out and do my best."
Page finished his three-year career at Toledo (he entered the draft a year early) with 306 catches, 44 shy of the NCAA's major-college record. As a junior he had 125 catches, one year after he was named a Walter Camp and Sporting News All-America selection in 2010 as a kick returner, averaging 31.1 yards per attempt and scoring three touchdowns.
Coach Greg Schiano tapped his numerous connections in the Mid-American Conference to mine additional info on Page, and the Bucs made a push to sign him as an undrafted free agent last year. He initially committed to Tampa Bay — until the Broncos offered a chance to play for a contender quarterbacked by Peyton Manning. Page ultimately settled in Tampa this spring.
Special teams coach Dave Wannstedt said Page is one of many return-game candidates in a fluid situation, with WRs David Douglas and Chris Owusu and RB Michael Smith in the mix.
"Until we get the pads on and get into training camp and get into some preseason games, then it'll start separating itself a little bit," Wannstedt said. "But it's competitive."
Page, though undersized at 5 feet 10 and 180 pounds, has a knack for returning. It's a skill that goes beyond physical ability.
"I think you have to be fearless back there," Page said. "You have guys running down who are probably two times as big as you trying to hit you. You just have to be able to move and be able to read body momentum."
NEW ADDITION: The team took advantage of relaxed NFL rules that allowed clubs to conduct tryouts with players during minicamps, signing former third-round pick Derek Hagan.
Hagan, who joined the team in practice on Tuesday and Wednesday, is a receiver who spent time on the Raiders roster last season, catching 20 passes for 259 yards. The 28-year-old is joining his fifth team since entering the league with the Dolphins in 2006. His best NFL season was in 2007, when he caught 27 passes for 373 yards for Miami.
The decision by Steve Smith to retire last month created a potential opportunity for another veteran receiver. Like they were with Smith, the Bucs likely are interested in determining what Hagan has left.
Even before the addition of Hagan, the team anticipated an intense competition for the backups receiver spots. After starters Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, the team will watch Kevin Ogletree, Tiquan Underwood, Chris Owusu, Page, David Douglas and others fighting for precious few spots.
Five receivers were kept when the team made its final cuts last season.
WELL EARNED: The team was scheduled to have its final practice of the offseason on Thursday, with one more minicamp workout on the agenda. That was to be the last hurdle between players and five weeks of down time before the start of training camp
But after a long offseason of sweat, Schiano cut his players some slack.
Practice was called off, and the team caught a matinee screening of Brad Pitt's yet-unreleased action thriller, World War Z. Judging by player responses on social media, the excitement was palpable.
"There is a God!!!" LB Dekoda Watson exclaimed on Twitter.
The team's next foray onto the field will come in training camp in late July.
TV DEAL: The Bucs and Ch. 8 announced a deal where the local NBC affiliate will broadcast preseason games through 2017.