TAMPA — The message has been unwavering and constant: The Buccaneers are building through the draft.
That, of course, means the current draft class had better be off to a fast start.
So, how is the 2010 class of rookies doing? Coaches and the rookies say the work ethic and diligence in studying playbooks are starting to pay off, and not just for those who have become somewhat household names.
The futures of coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik surely are linked to the success of players such as first-round pick Gerald McCoy, but the team's fortunes also can be impacted by players who might be considered afterthoughts from the draft.
Those players are said to be progressing well.
Seventh-round pick Cody Grimm is running with the second team at free safety. Linebacker Dekoda Watson out of Florida State, another seventh-rounder, has had an obvious presence and will be a key cog on special teams as well as a key backup to Quincy Black. The club is so satisfied with sixth-round punter Brent Bowden that it didn't bring a challenger to training camp.
So, at least initially, the Bucs feel good about the depth and impact of their rookie class, in part because its members are determined to fulfill and exceed expectations.
"It seems like every one of these rookie players want to be a part of something," rookie defensive end Erik Lorig said. "They're all drooling and performing at a high level already."
Coach Raheem Morris said, "The one thing you can say about our draft class … is that we see them all contributing to our football team in some facet. That's hard to say on every football team. It's tough to do. There's going to be some guys that you're wrong on. But top to bottom, to the last (college) free agent we decided to sign, they contribute every day or make some kind of play that makes you go, 'Ooh!' "
Scouting the draft is hardly an exact science. But the Bucs stuck to some key principles they feel have helped them net an impressive group of rookies.
While players such as McCoy and fourth-round receiver Mike Williams were stellar college players, Morris said the team gave great weight to considerations that went far beyond things shown on tape.
"When we went out and evaluated this class, we evaluated their work ethic and how much they cared about football," he said. "All that stuff was really important to us. I'm not trying to demean anything that's happened in the past, but sometimes you get enamored by talent. You get talented players and you start to hear that deadly 'P' word: Potential. We didn't want to get enamored by that this year."
That brings us to a player like Grimm. The baby-faced Virginia Tech product is not physically imposing at 5-11 and 210 pounds, but he plays with aggression and is a dedicated student of the playbook — like the other members of his class.
Most of all, he shares a characteristic with his fellow rookies that might be paramount: He has no expectations and plays like it.
"I think I've been able to excel a little because I know you have to pick it up and, being a late-round pick, they're not going to wait around for you," Grimm said. "It's not like college where they know you're going to be there for five years and they'll wait around for you. You've got to get up to the starters' level or they're just going to leave you behind."
Lorig said, "Hey, I was a compensatory pick. I almost wasn't even in the draft. You have to work."
That's beautiful music to Morris.
"We knew we would have a bunch of self-motivated players who would want to get on the field probably faster than they should," he said. "If you go out and get guys who are content with just making football teams, you're going to be in trouble. We wanted to get people who weren't content and wanted to move up the depth chart, and people who wanted to take people's spots."
And there's plenty of opportunity for that on a team that was 3-13 last season.
"You can go back to Geno Hayes," Watson said, referring to his fellow Seminole who was a 2008 sixth-round pick.
"He was a late-round pick and now you see he's starting here. It's all about that person. What do you want to do with that opportunity?"
That's the question these rookies will answer beginning Saturday night.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]