TAMPA — Draft prospects will tell you they want nothing more than the mere opportunity to make it to the NFL.
But for those who actually attain that elusive goal, the question quickly becomes whether there will be legitimate opportunity to be a factor at the next level.
Which brings us to Tampa Bay, where the members of the Bucs' 2009 rookie class have the world at their fingertips.
Teams always maintain they draft the best available players, but it's clear the Bucs were drafting with a focus on their needs. As a result, most of this season's rookies can expect to play and, in some cases, compete for starting jobs from the outset.
With the possible exception of first-round pick QB Josh Freeman, who will likely use 2009 as an apprenticeship, each rookie plays a position that allows a chance for immediate impact.
Now, it's up to them.
"Any time you're a rookie with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, you're going to have legitimate opportunity," coach Raheem Morris said. "This year in particular, we're kind of going with a little bit of a youth movement, as you know, and these guys can come in and assume some roles.
"We're going to let them come in and assume those roles, and if they're man enough to do it, then they'll do it. If they're not man enough, then they won't. We'll find some second-year players, third-year players — the guys we already have on campus."
So, it's there for the taking. Are these youngsters up to the task?
Roy Miller could be. The former Texas standout and third-round pick will, at the very least, be a key member of the defensive line rotation given the dearth of qualified candidates. Fourth-rounder Kyle Moore will immediately be thrown into a competition with Jimmy Wilkerson at left defensive end, which is up for grabs. Moore's five sacks at USC in 2008 are unimpressive at first glance, but, as he explains, they might be a result of his multiple responsibilities in the Trojans defense.
Fifth-rounder Xavier Fulton, a tackle from Illinois, has a chance to fill a need as a backup swing tackle behind starters Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood. It's considered one of the more crucial backup roles on the roster. And seventh-round picks E.J. Biggers, a cornerback from Western Michigan, and Sammie Stroughter, a receiver from Oregon State, play positions that lack depth and can make an immediate splash.
Their opportunities begin with this week's three practices.
If — and at this early stage, it's a big if — this rookie class can seize the unique opportunities before it, it could define itself as one of the most impactful classes in quite some time.
Kicker duel: For all the talk of the position battles at quarterback and other units, one of the most interesting could be the one brewing at kicker.
The signing of Mike Nugent, a Tampa native, in March was a surprise given veteran Matt Bryant's consistency with the Bucs since 2005. But Nugent is younger (27) than Bryant (33) and arguably has more range, though Bryant has been slightly more consistent. One of Bryant's issues the past couple of seasons is his tendency toward short kickoffs. That has cost the Bucs field position.
Once training camp arrives, they will square off and be under great scrutiny. Morris and general manager Mark Dominik say Nugent was added to increase competition. To that end, the Bucs will have their first legitimate position battle at kicker since 2005, when Todd France challenged Bryant for the job.
Don't be surprised if Bryant doesn't survive this challenge.
Taking attendance: The Bucs expressed no concern about the players who missed voluntary organized team activities last week, particularly LB Barrett Ruud and TE Kellen Winslow.
Ruud's absence is thought by some to be contract related. Winslow was dealing with a "personal matter," according to the team, and will join his teammates "soon."
So, how should you feel about this? In a perfect world, everyone would be there. But missing two technically optional practices in May doesn't mean a player won't perform in September. If the absences remain isolated incidents, you've probably read the last word about the subject in these pages. But if Ruud or Winslow continues to be absent for this week's three workouts, then that's another matter, one the Bucs should address publicly.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]