The Bucs currently have the maximum roster limit for this point of the season, but there are positions with double the amount of bodies in camp that the team will carry on their 53 man roster. The race for the final tight end spot might be the tightest and the quietest, and each one of them knows how important the upcoming weeks are.
Immediately after the Buccaneers traded Kellen Winslow in May to Seattle for a seventh round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft, they signed Dallas Clark to a one-year deal. Clark has been one of the most prolific receiving tight ends in the league the past nine seasons with Indianapolis, amassing 4,887 yards and 46 touchdowns on 427 receptions. Clark was assumed to come in as the starter and has given Greg Schiano no reason to question that after two weeks in training camp as the Bucs are set to play their first preseason game Friday night.
Second-year tight end Luke Stocker was drafted in the fourth round of 2011’s draft and although he only caught 12 passes for 97 yards, The Bucs have high hopes he can continue to develop as an all around blocker and receiver. In training camp, Stocker has played in two tight end sets with Clark, and has looked like a viable No. 2 option at the position.
But the Bucs have four more on their current roster, and will likely carry only one more on the active roster when the final cuts are made, and may place one on the practice squad.
After Clark and Stocker, it gets pretty tight as far as competition, and looks to be a three-way tie between Zach Pianalto, Collin Franklin, and Drake Dunsmore with Danny Noble as the odd man out.
Pianalto was claimed by the Bucs off of waivers from the Buffalo Bills in September 2011 and played in 13 games last season, recording four receptions for 40 yards. Pianalto has looked solid so far through camp with his blocking and his catching, and is currently listed behind Stocker on the depth chart.
Behind Pianalto is Franklin, who also enters his second year after being claimed off of waivers from the New York Jets last August. Franklin was signed to the practice squad but promoted to the active roster following safety Cody Grimm’s injury that sent him to the injury reserved list. Franklin played in two games, but did not have any catches last year. At 6-6 256 pounds, Franklin is evenly matched with Stocker in size, but many feel Franklin is not the combination blocker/receiver Stocker is. During his senior year at Iowa State, Franklin led the Cyclones with 54 receptions, leaving many draftniks to feel Franklin’s blocking was an issue and that he was a receiving tight end only.
Franklin told PewterReport.com after practice last week that his blocking isn’t an issue and he can’t wait to show the team what he can do.
"I love it (blocking).” Franklin said. “I've always considered myself a very willing blocker. I know the offense I ran in college leaned more towards the pass game, but I've never shied away from it. It's always been something I've prided myself on as well, so I'm eager to get out here and show everybody what I can do as far as the run game is concerned and make the running backs and whoever is holding the ball confident they can run behind me."
The final piece of the tie is seventh round selection in April’s draft, Drake Dunsmore, another tight end that did not block often in college at the tight end position and played the role of FB/TE/H-Back. Dunsmore did however have a few highlight reel catches due to his above-average athleticism. Like Franklin, Dunsmore believes that the fundamentals of blocking are there and he has been learning as much as he can from the veterans.
"We practiced blocking as much as any tight end.” Dunsmore said. “We didn't necessarily block a lot in games, but a lot of that drill work is carried over. I've been learning a lot from Dallas [Clark] and Luke [Stocker] and the other guys here, they're great too."
Danny Noble signed with the Bucs after going undrafted in April following a season at Toledo where he recorded four receptions for 75 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Noble appears to be the least refined among the tight ends in training camp, although he has not gotten a lot of reps.
Being versatile is going to be the key for the final roster spots and that is something the tight ends have acknowledged.
“The amount of tight ends they keep on the team I think depends a lot on who's being productive in special teams.” Franklin said. “And I think if somebody's a definite asset on a couple sets of teams, or the kick return, punt, whatever I think that definitely makes a big difference on how valuable that person is. We say, 'the more you can do, the more valuable you are,' and it definitely holds true in that sense, so in my opinion I think with Dallas out here, with a couple of established guys out here, it's like I really need to take pride in what I do in special teams as well as the offense because I know that's a role that I'm going to have to fill to be a part of this team."
Last week former Mackey Award winner Chase Coffman was released from Tampa Bay after signing with the organization in February after the former Missouri Tiger standout was cut from the Cincinnati Bengals prior to their 2011 playoff run. Coffman’s release was surprising to Franklin, who said he found out Monday morning when he arrived at One Buc Place.
"We find out when we get here...yeah, it always is [shocking].” Franklin said. “It's never fun. These are the people you put in hours with, these are the people you bond with, so there's always a sense of brotherhood, a sense of camaraderie so it's always tough to see one of your brothers leave. But everybody at the same time understands it's what the business is about. Everybody understands it's cutthroat. Everybody knows what the final numbers are going to be so you got to keep doing your thing and all the decisions regarding player personnel - that's all upstairs. You can't really worry about any of it. You just got to make sure you're doing what you have to do in practice and keep improving."
With one less player in the tight end hunt, Franklin told PewterReport.com as far as he’s concerned, he isn’t letting up.
"I think that probably depends on who it is. In my opinion, it's a lot of impermanence going on so everybody's got to step their game up. I feel like I got to step my game up regardless of what's going on, but especially when you see something like that it's just another reminder that you've got to maintain focus, because any little slip up, any little misstep it's always so competitive out here, that you never know what can happen."
On August 28th NFL teams will trim rosters to 80 players, and then on September 2nd the final 53 will be set. The preseason will help determine who will be a 2012 Buccaneer, but it will be up to the players to push themselves harder and stand out as much as they can the next few weeks to guarantee them a spot. Whether it’s improving their blocking, receiving, or thriving on special teams, the hard work and focus will continue for the tight ends, and the rest of the team, as the end of the month approaches.
Dunsmore put it simply to PewterReport.com.
"The more I can do the better I am."