Not everyone gets to go through training camp like Vincent Jackson or Gerald McCoy.
Bona fide players like them still show up every day, grind it out and put in work, but their roles on the team are clearly defined and their spots on the 53-man roster are secure.
Players living each day on the fringe – guys like offensive lineman Jace Daniels – don’t have any such luxury. Oftentimes these players need to find other ways to stand out and demonstrate their value. For Daniels, he’s hoping his ticket to a regular-season locker is versatility.
“I think that’s a big plus for me,” Daniels said. “I’ve got to keep doing it. If you’re not a starter you’ve got to be able to play the center-guard or tackle-guard. You’ve got to be a swing guy, so that’s what I’m trying to do.”
Daniels, who was signed by Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent out of Northern Michigan last year, spent most of 2013 on the practice squad. Halfway through head coach Lovie Smith’s first training camp, the 6-foot-4, 300-pounder has been showing he can be a quality asset on the interior line.
“I think it’s a general rule for a guy like Jace, if you’re not a starter right away, to have flexibility,” Smith said during a recent post-practice press conference. “And that’s what we’re looking for.”
Daniels said he’s embracing the opportunity to learn the guard and center positions if that’s what it takes to stick with the team, even if it’s outside his normal comfort zone. He grew up exclusively playing left tackle throughout high school and college and only began working at guard last year with the Bucs.
“When I was at school I was just at left tackle,” he said. “I never played center or guard in my life until I got here last year. It’s been quite the experience but I’m starting to like it a lot. The guys are right on top of you. I’m not working in space anymore. They like to call it a fight in a phone booth and that’s what it really is.
“I’ve adjusted to that well now, I think, and I’m really liking it. I feel like I’ve made a pretty good jump from last year and whatnot. The experience of last year has helped out so much at the center-guard position for me. It’s given me a head start on plays and who I’m working to and calls and all that.”
The departure of guard Carl Nicks opened up a huge opportunity, not only for the eventual starter at left guard but for others vying for backup roles. Daniels has been running primarily with the second-team offensive line through the first 11 training camp sessions, along with fellow interior linemen like fifth-round draft pick Kadeem Edwards, second-year guard-center Jason Foster and undrafted free agent Josh Allen.
Smith and the Buccaneers released their first, tentative public depth chart on Tuesday and Daniels is currently penciled in as the backup to new starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith, ahead of Foster, Allen and undrafted free agent Andrew Miller. Daniels is not listed as a backup at either guard position, however he’s worked on the left side in most 11-on-11 drills this week.
Tampa Bay’s first-team offense currently has veterans Oneil Cousins at left guard and Dietrich-Smith at center, and second-year Patrick Omameh at right guard.
As of Sunday, the Bucs were carrying 14 total offensive linemen, nine of which are options on the interior. The team ended last year with nine linemen on the 53-man roster and three others on the practice squad. Daniels’ place on this year’s team looks promising, but it’s the jump from the practice field to the stadium that he wants for 2014.
“I set a couple goals and I set the first one to make the 53,” Daniels said. “If I can do that, then maybe start. But if not that then being in that backup role and just helping out this team anyway I can.”
The Bucs are far from whittling down their current 90-man training camp roster and posting final depth charts, but Smith said Daniels’ progress and versatility continue to boost his appeal.
“We’re going to dress seven offensive linemen (during game days),” Smith said. “One guy has to be the swing tackle, the other guy has to be the swing guy inside, guard to guard. So (that other guy) has got to be able to play guard and center, which (Daniels) can do. He’s had his moments, we have good interior offensive linemen, and we’ve seen improvement with him also. So we will see how that plays out. He’s in the mix.”
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