TAMPA — These days, Bucs rookie Jamel Dean easily passes the eye test.
The 6-foot-1, 206-pound corner possesses size, length and speed, all the measurables you want to see in today’s NFL defensive backs, especially in the NFC South, home of some of the league’s best receivers.
But not that long ago people told Dean he’d never play football again. In the spring of 2015, doctors deemed him broken at the age of 18 after a pair of knee injuries during high school.
So, when Bucs coach Bruce Arians raves about the maturity of his rookie class, he’s talking about players like Dean, who enters his first NFL training camp already having tackled his share of adversity.
"I always think back to, 'I've been through worse,'" Dean says with a smile. "Now, I've got to just continue pushing through like I've always been."
Dean’s ability is hard to miss on the practice field, and it’s understandable once you know his story.
“He’s resilient,” said Bucs second-year cornerback Carlton Davis, who started alongside Dean for a season at Auburn. “He’s a guy who is not going to take no for an answer. Just having that kind of attitude is going to take you a long way, and it shows.”
Dean had his choice of Division I scholarship offers playing at Cocoa High School across the state, and he committed to Ohio State as a junior, then early enrolled in the spring of 2015. But when Dean arrived, the Buckeyes medical staff refused to clear him. Dean was coming off a second knee surgery, having torn his meniscus after suffering the same injury along with a torn ACL in the same knee a year earlier.
Doctors told him he had just a 5 percent chance of playing again.
"When they first told me, I really didn’t believe it, because I was like, ‘I only have a torn meniscus,'’' Dean said. “I was thinking about back when (former NFL running back) Willis McGahee had a suffered his knee injury (in college) and he almost blew out everything in his knee. I was like, ‘There’s no way my knee is worse than that.’”
Dean wasn't about to let his career end like that. He went to see renowned orthopedist Dr. James Andrews, who cleared him to play. At the time, he didn't know that Andrews was also the team doctor at Auburn.
"I just went to him because I heard he was one of the top doctors in the country," Dean said.
Not long after, then Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp — who recruited Dean out of high school when he was Florida’s head coach — gave Dean a second opportunity.
"I didn't really know he was at Auburn," Dean said of Muschamp, who would go on to South Carolina before Dean could play for him. "All of that just kind of fell in my favor."
After sitting out because of transfer rules, a third knee injury derailed Dean’s first season at Auburn, but he became a two-year starter.
Dean’s size helped drove up his draft stock. Then he ran a 4.3-second 40 time at the NFL combine, which topped all cornerbacks and ranked second-best among all participants, including receivers.
The Bucs were more than happy to take Dean in the third round of the draft, a part of a secondary revamping that also included choosing cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting in the second round and safety Mike Edwards in the third.
The broad-shouldered Dean — along with Davis — are the Bucs’ biggest corners, but what initially stands out about Dean is his length. His long arms give him a better opportunity to play press technique against receivers and make plays on balls. Dean is already earning some first-team reps, and said Sunday that he loves lining up against Pro Bowler Mike Evans in practice because Evans is one of the best and has size.
“He’s getting better and better," Arians said. “His off coverage, he still sits and looks in the backfield too much. But when he’s playing press man, he’s long and hard to get away from. He’s so strong and just getting better and better every day.’’
He’s continuing to defy the odds, showing that all you need is a 5 percent chance.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard.