Entering his fourth season, Bucs tight end Alex Smith is an important year in his career. After three seasons Smith is focused to improve his production in the 2008 season. Smith had the lowest number of receptions in his career last year. In 2007, he started 14 games catching 32 passes for 385 yards and three touchdowns.
Smith missed time two games due to a sprained ankle and was limited from the injury in other contests as well. At the same time Smith, 26, established a new career-high with six receptions for 79 yards at San Francisco in Week 16.
"I expect to have a big season," said Smith. "I don't think there is time for any more excuses: no injuries, no being young. I think its just time to make some things happen. Like you said, its year four, so I'm expecting great things. That's what I'm looking forward to."
Early in free agency the Buccaneers brought in competition for Smith in John Gilmore and Ben Troupe. Tampa Bay uses plenty of multiple tight end sets so all three should see significant playing time.
"We brought some new faces in, I think they'll be able to help us," said Smith. "I don't necessarily think its a competition, we are all out here trying to work together and trying to get better as a tight end group, so its no competition."
Last season the Buccaneers tight ends had more touchdown receptions than the wide receivers. Smith was not sure whether the new group would be as talented as the past group.
"Its hard to say you don't really know until you get on the field," said Smith. "Its some different faces. Right now we're just trying to get used to each other. Once we have a little more time together maybe we'll be able to see what everybody can bring.
"Definitely they're two great athletes. Ben Troupe is very athletic from what I know. John Gilmore is very adept at blocking. Everybody brings their own little niche to the group so it will be interesting to see."
The 6-foot-5, 257-pound Gilmore, 28, has caught just 21 career passes for 194 yards (9.2 avg.) and three touchdowns, in six seasons for the Chicago Bears. He likely will be featured more as a blocker and than as a receiver in the Bucs offense under head coach Jon Gruden.
The Bucs expect Gilmore to help build on Tampa Bay's production via the ground game, where the team ranked No. 11 overall in the NFL. Gilmore's blocking ability must have been a big draw for the Buccaners, because they made him the second free agent they signed after center Jeff Faine. His signing came in the opening hours of free agency.
Troupe was drafted in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft by the Tennessee Titans. Troupe (6-4, 270) played collegiately at Florida and has hauled in 106 passes for 1,056 yards and scored seven touchdowns in four seasons in the NFL. His best season came in his second year where he grabbed 55 passes for 530 yards and four touchdowns.
With a new blocking tight end and a new receiving tight end, Smith could be the most versatile tight end of the group. That, and his experience in Gruden's offense, should help Smith to stay as the starting tight end for another season. Smith responded to whether there was a specific part of his play that he was focusing on during offseason training.
"Nothing in particular, just trying to be a well-rounded tight end," said Smith. "I'm just trying to make plays when my number's called, and become one of those dominating tight ends in the league. That's definitely been my goal so far."
Smith (6-4, 258) also discussed the disadvantage of having so many quarterbacks on the roster. Currently on the roster is: Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown, Brian Griese, Josh Johnson, Bruce Gradkowski, Chris Simms, and Jake Plummer. The last two are unlikely to be with the team in training camp. Plummer does not seem to be coming out of retirement, and Simms is avoiding practicing with the team due to his belief that his NFL future is not with Tampa Bay. Smith chuckled when asked about the number of quarterbacks the Bucs have for him to work with.
"Its kind of crazy, you always hear about it," said Smith. "You never have enough really. Everybody is here. I think its healthy competition as well. Everybody is trying to make each other better. I think its good for us.
"The one tough thing is we have so many quarterbacks that it's hard to get a strong relationship with everybody. I'm trying to focus with Jeff. I'm trying to get Brian back into things. I work out a lot with Bruce and Luke, so I'm trying to get a feel for everybody. Its hard to divide your time equally."
Not only do the Buccaneers have a lot of quarterbacks, they are not hurting for tight ends either. The Buccaneers have Smith, Troupe and Gilmore under contract for the next two seasons. They also have tight ends Keith Heinrich, Daniel Fells, and Tyrice Thompson on the roster. The hard-working Smith has that in mind when he consistently stays after practice for extra repetitions.
"I just try and do a little extra every time you get a chance," said Smith. "It never hurts to work your craft a little bit, sometimes it's hard in practice. You have five tight ends and everybody has to get reps, so if you can just get out there and work little drills that's what I'm trying to do for this season.
"I've already had my fun for the offseason. I'm back on the grind through mini-camp, and might take a little time off right before training camp comes."
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