Injuries and inconsistency derailed Luke Stocker last year as a rookie, but the second-year Buccaneers tight end is ready to step up and be the primary perimeter blocker as he develops behind veteran Dallas Clark this year.
When Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik traded away a fourth-round pick to Philadelphia in the 2012 NFL Draft to move up in the fourth round last year to select Luke Stocker, the Bucs envisioned him becoming the team’s long-term starter at the tight end position. The fact that Dominik traded away 28-year old Kellen Winslow, a three-year starter and the team’s leading receiver in 2011, only accelerated that notion.
Although 32-year old veteran Dallas Clark was signed to replace Winslow and give the team a veteran presence, the former Indianapolis Pro Bowler was only inked to a one-year deal means that 2012 is a big year for Stocker’s development.
“I understand I was drafted by this team and they want me to become the tight end of the future here,” Stocker said. “I hold myself to a high standard in that regard and I want to get to where they want me at. That’s what I’m working for every day.”
Stocker suffered a fractured hip in training camp that caused him to miss three weeks of valuable practice time and most of the preseason. In fact, he was only able to play in one preseason game, catching one pass for eight yards.
“Suffering the hip injury in camp, I missed pretty much the whole camp, and that’s a very important part of the body in football. Your hip is pretty much involved in every aspect. I never was at full strength last year. You get into the middle of the season and you can’t strength train to the level you need to get to the level you need to be. I think I’m finally getting back to that point where I’m equally strong on both sides and I'm feeling better out here on the field.”
Behind Winslow, who caught a team-high 75 passes for 763 yards (10.2 avg.) and two touchdowns, Stocker was the second-leading tight end on the roster in terms of receptions, catching 12 passes for 92 yards (7.7 avg.) with a long of 24 yards.
Although those numbers were disappointing to both Stocker and the Bucs, the team has faith that he will bounce back and become the player that Dominik envisioned he would be after investing two fourth-round picks in the Tennessee product.
Despite leading the team in catches, Winslow led the team in catches last year and was considered a primary weapon on offense, he was traded to Seattle two weeks ago as the team signed Clark, which was a signal to Stocker about how quickly opinions about players can change in the NFL.
“We understand this is part of this league. Guys move around with teams,” Stocker said. “I appreciate the time I had with Kellen and I learned everything I could from him. I wish him the best but we’ve got another veteran guy coming in with Dallas and I look forward to learning everything I can from him as well.
“I saw that I had a friend in Kellen Winslow that’s moving away. I realize it’s part of this business and I didn’t look at it as anything personal for myself. I was just seeing what was up next for the team. We’ve got another great veteran in Dallas Clark and I'm looking forward to working with him. I had a great time with Kellen.”
Stocker is aware of the public perception of Winslow’s surly attitude, but said that he was a great teammate that he was able to learn from during his rookie season.
“As a competitor, he’s one of the most competitive people I’ve ever been around,” Stocker said. “He’s a guy who would come in every Sunday and go to work. The time that I had to be around him was a great experience for myself. He tried teaching me everything he could with what experience he’s had in the game. I had a good time with Kellen.”
Due to the NFL lockout last year, rookies like Stocker didn’t have the benefit of an offseason of OTAs and mini-camps to learn the playbook. The second-year tight end is loving the fact that he can learn Mike Sullivan’s new offense at a slower pace.
“I remember last year coming in and the hardest thing was getting in and hearing in the huddle,” Stocker said. “I could be on the board because I had all the classroom time through camp. I even had extra film time when they guys would come out and do the individual stuff in practice I would be watching film and come out for the team periods. So I had all the board work but when you get out in the huddle and live bullets are coming, it’s completely different.”
Sullivan has installed about 85 percent of the Bucs offense during the offseason, but depending on which players comprise the best 11, there is no telling if Tampa Bay will feature one tight end and three wide receivers or two tight ends and two wide receivers. How the offensive personnel fares in the preseason will likely indicate how much playing time Stocker will receiver.
“It can be anywhere from a whole, whole lot to a very little,” Stocker said. “It’s football, you know what I mean? It’s up to the players and the guys to show they’re the ones that need to be on the field and the ones that can make the plays. Those are the guys that are going to get the looks.”
As for the look the 6-foot-6, 253-pounder Stocker expects to get in 2012?
“They expect a lot from me,” Stocker said. “They want me to be the guy that comes in to be the blocker. They’re kind of on me to be that guy this year, so that’s what I'm working for right now.”
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