TAMPA — One message that’s been clearly delivered by new Bucs coach Bruce Arians is that every player given a uniform this preseason will receive ample opportunity to show he belongs.
Arians plans to have players practice on two fields, giving each player the necessary reps. He hired a large, diverse coaching staff with the hopes no player falls through the cracks.
That’s good news for the undrafted free agents, and even the players offered rookie minicamp tryouts.
While the success of general manager Jason Licht’s drafts have been uneven, he must be given credit for finding undrafted players who make an impact — wide receiver Adam Humphries, tight end Cameron Brate and running back Peyton Barber among them.
In fact, Licht has had more success with undrafted free agents than he has in the sixth or seventh rounds of the draft.
Not counting last year’s final selection — linebacker Jack Cichy in the sixth round — only one player taken in the final two rounds of Licht’s first four drafts is currently on the Bucs roster. That’s linebacker Devante Bond, who will be fighting for a roster spot this preseason.
Licht said there’s not much difference between those selected in the final rounds and undrafted free agents.
“They’re basically (very) close to each other on the draft board,” Licht said Saturday.
Humphries, who just signed a four-year, $36 million deal with the Titans, is the best example. He was an afterthought on a deep Clemson receiving corps coming into the 2015 draft, but left Tampa with 219 receptions, the most of any undrafted player in team history.
After going undrafted in 2014 out of Harvard, Brate also earned a contract following a rookie minicamp tryout. Barber went undrafted after declaring after his redshirt sophomore season. He ran for 1,000 yards at Auburn after being thrust into the starter role because of injuries, but his productivity faded down the stretch, dropping him off draft boards in 2016.
All those success stories have one thing in common: Each player took advantage of an opportunity.
Humphries showed his versatility in his second season, becoming a valuable slot receiver and key return man. Brate supplanted second-round pick Austin Seferian-Jenkins to become one of Jameis Winston’s favorite red-zone targets. When the Bucs needed a strong rusher coming out of the Doug Martin disaster in 2016, Barber showed his potential.
And there are definitely opportunities for this year’s undrafted free agent class.
One of the biggest might be in the return game.
The Bucs drafted just one offensive player, speedster wideout Scotty Miller from Bowling Green in the sixth round. With Humphries gone, the Bucs need to find a new primary punt returner.
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Miller and second-year running back Shaun Wilson are candidates there, but several undrafted free agents like Newsome product Bruce Anderson out of North Dakota State, Ole Miss receiver DaMarkus Lodge, Buffalo receiver Anthony Johnson, Richmond receiver Cortrelle Simpson and Ferris State receiver Malik Taylor could compete for a role in the kickoff and punt return game.
Anderson, who returned kicks all four years at North Dakota State and averaged 26.2 yards per return, would appear to fit that role nicely while also potentially giving the Bucs a third-down pass-catching running back to replace Jacquizz Rodgers.
“That will be an evolution here, if you will, over the next few months here in training camp and (organized team activities), but we feel good about it,” Licht said of the return game.
The above-mentioned group of wide receivers will also compete with Miller and incumbent Bobo Wilson entering camp.
Another interesting free-agent signing is former South Carolina right guard Zack Bailey, who went undrafted after breaking his leg late in his senior season.
Despite a number of questions on the right side of the line — there’s no true starter at guard and tackle Demar Dotson turns 34 this season — the Bucs did not draft a single offensive lineman.
Licht said guard Alex Cappa, a third-round pick last year, and Caleb Benenoch, who struggled transitioning to guard lard season, have made strides.
Bailey, who started 46 games in college, showed versatility with the Gamecocks, starting at center, guard and tackle, though most of his time came at guard.
The Bucs spent just one draft pick on an edge defender, so Charleston defensive end Kahzin Daniels will also have an opportunity. Daniels, who is completely blind in one eye, is one of the more intriguing undrafted free agents.
Daniels combined for 34 1/2 sacks, including 9 1/2 as a senior, over his senior season, but those gaudy numbers came at a Division II school, so his biggest test will be showing his small college success can translate to the NFL. In some ways, he starts out along with all the edge defenders trying to adjust to a new 3-4 scheme.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.