Bucs rookie tight end Luke Stocker is trying to carve out the same type of pro career as his friend and idol, fellow Tennessee alum Jason Witten, who has been working with Stocker this offseason as he prepares for his first NFL season.
The Buccaneers didn’t draft Luke Stocker to become the team’s number-two tight end. While Kellen Winslow, one of the most talented and highest paid tight ends in the NFL, will certainly be more involved in the passing game than the 6-foot-5, 257-pound rookie from Tennessee, Tampa Bay feels that Stocker has the chance to emerge into a number-one tight end due to his receiving ability, which is vital in case Winslow ever went down due to injury.
While he has not missed a game in his two years as a Buccaneer while catching 143 passes for 1,614 yards and 10 touchdowns as one of the team’s most potent offensive weapons, Winslow does have a knee that has been operated on six times over the past seven years. The fact that the 27-year old is limited in how often he practices has concerned the team, which is why the Bucs wanted to draft a premier tight end and traded a fourth-round pick in 2012 to Philadelphia to move up in the fourth round to select Stocker with the 104th overall pick in this year’s draft.
The Berea, Kentucky native was a three-year starter at Tennessee. During his senior season, Stocker caught 39 passes for 417 yards and two touchdowns. In his Volunteers career, he recorded 85 receptions for 956 yards and eight touchdowns, which surpassed the career total of Jason Witten (797 yards), one of the NFL’s best tight ends and Witten’s role model and mentor.
Witten, a Tennessee alum who caught a school-record 39 passes as a junior, which was matched last year by Stocker, hauled in a 493 yards in 2002, which was a record for UT tight ends. Stocker missed that mark by less than 80 yards last year. Drafted in the third round by Dallas in 2003, Witten has become a seven-time Pro Bowler and is coming off a record season in which he caught 94 passes for 1,002 yards and nine touchdowns. The 29-year old Cowboys star has 617 receptions for 6,967 yards and 36 touchdowns in his career.
Stocker aspires to have the same type of production in the NFL as his fellow former Volunteer.
“He’s the type of guy that has the kind of game I’m working towards,” Stocker said of Witten. “I do have a good relationship with him. He came in this past summer and we got to hang out and work out a couple of days. He has a youth football camp in his hometown and I went up there and volunteered for that. He [planned to come to Tennessee in the offseason] and work out a few days and just hang out and talk. He’s going to help me through this process and give me a little head's up about what’s to come. He’s one of the best out there at the position I’m trying to be great at, so it’s great.”
What made Witten go a round higher than Stocker in the draft when he came out was his speed, which was timed at 4.67 in the 40-yard dash at the combine in 2002. Stocker is not the fastest of tight ends, clocking a 4.79 at the combine, but has the reputation of having very good hands and is a quality route runner. He had a very solid performance at the Senior Bowl, and did improve his 40-yard dash time to 4.71 at his pro day.
Some observers felt that Tennessee underused Stocker in the Volunteers offense as a pass catcher, but he was able to polish his blocking skills, and showed a great deal of intelligence by picking up three offensive systems in the span of three years as the Volunteers went through three different head coaches over that time span. Just an inch shorter than the 6-foot-6 Witten and only a few pounds lighter, Stocker believes he can be just as an effective receiver as the Cowboys' Pro Bowler as well as Winslow, his new teammate.
“Yeah, I think so,” Stocker said. “I think they drafted me to come in and fill a role for them, fill a need for them to come in and be an every down tight end for them. Whatever role they have for me when I get there I am looking forward to it. I’m ready to take that step.
“In the NFL it’s a game of mismatches. You see all of these teams utilizing two and three tight ends at one point and that’s what it’s all about – creating mismatches. If they have a big guy in there and they’re running their base package you can run past them, and if they’re bringing their nickel package you can run the ball. That’s huge in the NFL and that’s what I’m trying to get my value to be. The more versatile you are the more money you can make and the more value you are going to bring to the team. That’s what you have to show. You need to show that you can do everything they ask you to do. If you can have value as a big tight end – the Y they call it – or the H-back – the guy that moves – your stock is though the roof. If you’re limited to one or the other, your value is going to go down a little bit. It’s a chance to come out here and show that you can do both and that’s what they’re looking for.”
While Stocker has studied plenty of Witten’s tape over the years, he is anxious to work with Winslow in Tampa Bay and learn from one of the game’s most athletic tight ends.
“I watched quite a bit of him and I remember when he was in Miami watching him," said Stocker. "Athletically, he is unbelievably gifted and his ball skills as a receiver are as good as you can get. I think I know the dimensions of the offense. I’m a bigger-bodied guy, a guy that can put my hands in the dirt, so I think the combination of a really athletic, fast guy like him and another big, versatile guy like myself can really [be great]. A lot of teams in the league are doing that now. Look at the Patriots – look at teams like that. They’re really utilizing two-tight end sets. I think that can be a dimension of offense that we can bring in Tampa now.”
Bucs head coach Raheem Morris likes the fact that Stocker, who will likely replace unrestricted free agent John Gilmore as the team’s number-two tight end on the depth chart on opening day, has Gilmore’s blocking ability, but is regarded as having more speed and better hands than the departing veteran.
“The thing with Kellen and Jerramy [Stevens] – it was kind of hard to do because then you are predictable,” Morris said, noting that both Winslow and Stevens were strictly receiving tight ends. “‘Hey, look at us. We are throwing the ball because you don’t want to necessarily run behind either one of the guys.’ You do it every once in a while. Kellen is capable of getting out there and [blocking] every once in a while. That is not necessarily an envelope we are going to live by and push, so having a guy like Stocker who has more of an in-line ability. Have more of a stout guy to be on the point.”
The Bucs had Stocker rated higher than the fourth round and felt they got a steal in taking him in the fourth round, even though general manager Mark Dominik had to surrender next year’s fourth-rounder to Philadelphia to move up to get him. If Stocker’s receiving ability can continue to develop at the next level, he won’t be the number-two tight end behind Winslow. The Bucs will actually have two number-one tight ends with Winslow and Stocker on the field together.
“We felt like he was certainly one of the best players left on the board,” Dominik said. “We felt like he was the best tight end left on the board at that time. Certainly there were some good tight ends that went in that round. I think three or four tight ends went at the end of the fourth round. He was a guy that we targeted last night. He was a guy that’s always been on our radar and in a good spot on my board in terms of where we thought the value was. For us it made sense to get a guy like that. He’s got great size, he’s a great worker, he can play special teams, and he catches the ball very well. He’s also a good in-line blocker and so for that point he really compliments what Kellen Winslow does. He’ll be a big asset to our football team.”
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