TAMPA — 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 strong impressions in training camp.
"They come to work every day," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who saw two make the roster on defense, 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."
The other undrafted rookies who made the initial roster are tight end Alan Cross — whom the Bucs kept over sixth-round draft pick Danny Vitale — and offensive tackle Leonard Wester, who went to Division II Missouri Western.
Ward and Lambert had lockers next to each other on an interior wall of the locker room, where less- established players have their lockers. The two SEC West alumni — 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 initial roster. "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 nickel defense, made a strong case for himself in the second half of the final preseason game against the Redskins, 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 rookies still have a long weekend to make it through, knowing the Bucs could try to upgrade by claiming players cut by other teams, potentially at the expense of players who made the initial cuts with Tampa Bay.
Cross, who in college first made the roster at Memphis as a walk-on long snapper, said the Bucs' veteran leaders — players such as McCoy and receiver Vincent Jackson — embraced all the players, 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 old house," Cross said. "It's a great feeling."
The Bucs are carrying five tight ends, which points to the liking of a two-tight-end look 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," Brandon Myers said. "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 after being largely off the radar of NFL scouts in college. 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 undrafted rookies who remained Friday are a testament to the depth of the Bucs' scouting. Ward got a $5,000 signing bonus, Cross a $2,000 signing bonus and Lambert no bonus at all, turning down money from other teams when he identified an opportunity to make the Bucs' roster as a fourth defensive tackle.
Contact Greg Auman at [email protected] and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.