TAMPA — They are the long shots of NFL long shots.
If undrafted rookies who sign free agent contracts face difficult odds to make the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster, then what can you say about the 30 or so players who have been invited to rookie minicamp this weekend to compete for maybe two or three of those deals?
They have no contracts beyond this weekend. They have no signing bonuses. All they have is three days to make a big impression.
"All you get is a plane ticket and a hotel room," said Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Clifton Smith, who came to Tampa this time last year, undrafted and unable to get a contract out of Fresno State.
In Clifton Smith, this year's NFL hopefuls have all the inspiration they need. He had been told he could be a fourth-rounder in the draft, but he never heard his name. His only offer was a tryout clear across the country with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
"I already had a chip on my shoulder, and you can get a little bitter coming in," said Smith, remembering the shuttle ride from the Airport Marriott to One Buc Place. "I just had something to prove. I was preparing myself for the worst, but I knew I had my chance."
Out of 38 tryout players, Smith was one of four given a contract, and though all four were cut by August, Smith earned a spot on the practice squad in September. In late October, he was signed to the active roster, and the rest is history. With inspired special teams play, including a kickoff and punt returned for touchdowns, Smith, 23, became a surprise star and just the second Bucs rookie named to the Pro Bowl.
"It's a very simple story," said Bucs pro scout Justin Sheridan, who coordinates the tryout aspect of the minicamp. "Clifton came in here, busted his butt in camp and got noticed. He ran with that all the way to Honolulu."
Sheridan said the Bucs are honest with tryouts, who are brought in to fill out a roster for the team's first look at its draft picks and free agent rookies, a three-day camp that runs from today until Sunday (closed to the public). But they certainly sell them on a very real beating-the-odds story.
Who could be this year's Clifton Smith? The invited players include defensive end Jarriett Buie, tight end Cedric Hill and tackle Marc Dile of USF. Last spring, Bulls receiver Amarri Jackson earned a contract from the tryout, though he was gone from the roster by June.
"I believe that nobody works harder than we do at South Florida," said Buie, an Armwood High graduate who had five sacks for USF in the fall. "There's going to be a lot of talent here, but it's an opportunity, so we'll make the most of it."
Florida State defensive end Neefy Moffett will try out, as will Miami tight end Chris Zellner, along with Notre Dame linebacker Maurice Crum, a Tampa Bay Tech graduate.
There are other promising stories — James Madison quarterback Rodney Landers was a small-school sensation, rushing for 1,770 yards and 16 touchdowns as a senior while passing for another 1,534, with 21 touchdowns and just four interceptions.
Heard of Matt Fodge? He won the Ray Guy Award, given to the nation's top punter, despite playing for Oklahoma State, whose high-scoring offense limited him to just 31 punts in the fall. He averaged 44 yards, and only one punt all season was a touchback, while 17 were downed inside the opponent's 20-yard line.
To this year's long shots, the Bucs' Smith offers hope from his own experience, and a reminder that motivation and attitude can make or break a prospect's chances.
"It's easy to give up on yourself," Smith said.
"More than anything, I'd just give every one of them the hope not to give up."