The Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear to be fully stocked at the tight end position going into the 2008 season. With the number of two-tight end sets and variations in head coach Jon Gruden's offense, the Bucs will probably be using all four of their veterans on game days.
"Well, it is an obvious very good position," said Gruden. "Ben Troupe has been really impressive here. We like Alex Smith. He started for three years for us. Jerramy Stevens is really playing well, and he has got a suspension for the first couple of games, we realize that. John Gilmore is a good player. He's complete. He can play on the line of scrimmage he is a very good blocker and he has functional speed and we like what he's doing. It is a position we've leaned on in years past and if we want to lean on it this year we can do that."
In the offseason, the team did not re-sign tight end Anthony Becht and waited until May before re-signing tight end Jerramy Stevens. Starter Alex Smith was coming back, but the Buccaneers moved quickly on the first day of free agency to sign Gilmore, and Troupe was signed not long thereafter.
"The whole group is very versatile," said Bucs tight ends coach Bob Casullo. "All of the guys can both block and catch. Some are a little stronger at the blocking than they are at the catching. Others are stronger at the catching than they are the blocking. But as a group, I'm not sure if I've ever worked with a group as good as this one."
According to the coaching staff, the new tight ends have been doing well in their transition to the Bucs offense. With Gilmore, Troupe, and undrafted rookie tight end Daniel Fells, Casullo has three new players to teach and to incorporate into the offense.
"They've been great since Day 1," said Casullo. "They ask good questions. They're not afraid to ask questions. They might make mistakes here and there, but the good news is they never make the same mistake twice. Everybody is allowed to make mistakes. They're very sharp and I enjoy working with them."
Troupe is considered to be a pass-catching tight end and Gilmore has a reputation of being more of a run blocking tight end. Tampa Bay is looking for both players to expand their abilities and fit in other aspects of the offense than just what they are known for.
"I hope [Troupe] can fill all the roles," Gruden said. "A lot of people don't realize he is over 270 pounds. He is not a little guy. He is very capable of being a ‘H'-back,' a guy that can come into the backfield and play. He is a guy that you can flex out and try and create some matchups. I think he is a guy that can pretty much do it all physically. That is the process we are going through right now to try and develop that."
In watching practice, Pewter Report has seen a number of passes being thrown in Gilmore's direction. As a Chicago Bear, Gilmore did not receive many passes his direction, because of his fellow tight ends Desmond Clark and Greg Olsen. In the first preseason game, Gilmore was the Bucs leading receiver with three catches for 25 yards. In speaking with Gilmore, the new Bucs tight end is excited for the opportunities he has as a Buccaneer.
"I'm being put in positions that I've never been put in before. That makes everyday exciting," said Gilmore. "You never know what's coming next. I learned a lot from working with Desmond Clark for five years in Chicago. I took some things from his game and tried to incorporate them into mind. Those years with him really helped me. In that offense, we really tried to get Desmond and Greg involved. It's hard to be the third tight end and get a lot of opportunities on offense. This is a little different. I think I will be utilized more in the passing game here than I was in Chicago. That definitely figured into my thought process when I was signing with Tampa Bay."
With four veteran tight ends it appears that it may be hard to incorporate all of them into the game plan, but from watching practice, the Bucs have been rotating the players regularly and are getting all of them involved.
"That's a product of Jon's system," said Casullo. "It features a lot of different personnel groupings and changing. You're going to get the ball and get to play. Our group is very unselfish."
The group as a whole has worked together a lot. A staple in the Bucs offense is the two-tight end or "U" formation. This grouping on offense gives the Buccaneers some more big bodies to block in a power running game, and more blocking ability for a maximum protection passing attack.
"We have so many different "U" sets," said Gilmore. "That's how complicated and detailed this offense is. Everybody will be put in situations to succeed, and I think we'll do a good job in that regard. I'm being given the opportunity to do something I've never been in a situation to do before at my position."
Gilmore and Troupe have been put to the test with learning Gruden's offense. It didn't help matters when Troupe was said to have a mild concussion earlier this week. After missing a morning practice, Troupe was back to practice in the afternoon. Following that episode, Troupe has been held out of some practices and did not play in the first preseason game against Miami.
"My head is spinning all of the time learning this offense, so I don't see how the doctors thought it would be any different after a big hit," Troupe said laughing. "This offense is complicated, but Coach Gruden tests us. It's not just one of the offenses where you just line up and play. You have to think just like the quarterback thinks.
"It was just a little thing. There was no concussion. It's one of those things where you're out in the heat and the team has to take the proper precautions."
While Troupe was confused learning the new playbook, Gilmore was more upbeat about the new offense.
"Things are going really well," Gilmore said. "I'm learning the system. I'm catching on pretty quickly. Getting acclimated to this heat is going to be a little bit of a process for me, but things are getting easier as far as the heat is concerned. I'm having fun learning the playbook. It's not tedious learning something new.
In speaking with the players and coaches, there is a lot of excitement for the new tight ends. The holdover tight ends will play a big role as well. Casullo commented on his tight ends that he is working on building off of last year's success. In 2007, the tight ends caught nine touchdown passes, the most touchdown receptions of any position on the team.
"[Jerramy Stevens] picked it right up and stayed on top of things," Casullo said. "Since he's been back he's been in the book. Like he told me, ‘It all comes back to you. It's like riding a bike.'
"Alex [Smith] is a competitor and he wants to do well. Each year he's gotten a little better. Last year he had more [receiving yards] than he had ever had here. His production level has come up and he's a good football player. He's smart, too. He sees in that room that there's a lot of good competition there. Not that we're trying to get rid of anybody, but these guys feed off of each other."
There is plenty of optimism from Gruden and Casullo regarding the tight ends prospects in the 2008 season, and the players apparently feel the same way.
"They are great tight ends. These guys can do it all," said Troupe. "On some teams there is the best tight end and the worst tight end. On this team everybody works together. We just try to be a moving train. You know how a moving train is – you can't stop one."
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