Of the eight players Tampa Bay drafted last year, only four secured spots on the Bucs' 53-man roster, and of those four rookies, two of them spent the majority of the season on the injured reserve list.
The Bucs were pleased with the contributions made on special teams by safety Jermaine Phillips and the promise shown by cornerback Tim Wansley late in the year, but things didn't exactly go according to plan for wide receiver Marquise Walker and running back Travis Stephens.
A third-round draft pick out of Michigan, Walker was the first selection of the Jon Gruden era. His production as a the Wolverine along with his 6-foot-2, 219-pound frame convinced the Bucs that Walker had a tremendous upside. But Walker didn't come close to living up to those expectations and it nearly cost him a roster spot last season, and a roster spot for him in 2003 is far from guaranteed.
Gruden and some Bucs players grew critical of Walker's work ethic during training camp last year, but the Bucs gave him the benefit of the doubt and kept him on the 53-man roster. But Walker's rookie campaign was cut short when he fractured his thumb during a practice and was placed on the injured reserve on Oct. 1.
Walker is expected to take his game to a higher level this season, but he isn't expected to beat out receivers Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius, who are practically locks in front of him. Walker will, however, compete with Karl Williams and Jacquez Green for a backup spot.
"The only hard thing with Marquise is that we have a year's information – a half a year, until he broke his thumb – we've got that information, but we've also still got the four guys who were ahead of him," said Bucs general manager Rich McKay. "They're still there. It's still hard. It didn't get any easier for him."
While Walker isn't expected crack the starting lineup, he needs to make a significant impact on special teams, just as he did in college.
"Marquise has to find a way on special teams, as he did at Michigan," said McKay. "That was one of his calling cards at Michigan. Now, is it hard for Marquise to understand that? Probably, yes. But he'll get his chance at camp."
Stephens, a fourth-round pick out of Tennessee, played in Tampa Bay's first regular season contest but never saw the field again. Gruden talked about involving the 5-foot-8, 194-pound back in his running back by committee approach, but all of that talk came to a halt when Stephens dislocated his big toe and was placed on the IR in mid-November.
Stephens arguably has more upside than Walker, and his chances of earning playing time are much better than Walker's since Gruden is looking for someone or something to help improve Tampa Bay's 27th ranked rushing attack.
Like Walker, the Bucs expect Stephens to make more contributions on special teams, and he'll likely be given a shot as a return specialist.
"Travis, the same thing (as Walker)," said McKay. "Travis has got to try to help us on kickoffs or some other way."
While they may not all have the chance to earn a starting job this season, there will certainly be more pressure on Tampa Bay's 2002 draft picks.
The Bucs want Walker, Stephens, Phillips and Wansley to eventually succeed some of its veterans in the starting rotation, but it's hard for the team to give each of them a time frame.
Phillips will be the first one to receive that opportunity when he attempts to take Dexter Jackson's spot as starting free safety. And Wansley could get the opportunity to take Dwight Smith's spot at nickel cornerback if Smith is moved to free safety.
Tampa Bay's four remaining 2002 draft picks have the opportunity to groom behind veterans, but some of those players won't be around to succeed them if they don't provide depth and contribute on special teams next season. The reason is because the Bucs don't have any glaring holes in their starting 22, and the overall talent is at such a high level that competition will be fierce for every spot on the 53-man roster.
"Last year, we felt the same way we do this year," said McKay. "We're a very good football team that's got depth, amazingly. And, accordingly, it's hard for these guys to find their way. What you have to do is have patience with them, let them bubble up, let them come on.
"You still have to see how those guys progress and are they going to contribute? Where is Travis going to be a year later? Where is Marquise going to be a year later? Are they going to ascend? Are they not going to ascend? Are they going to fit or are they not going to fit? Is Wansley going to become the nickel? Is Phillips going to become a safety? We think yes."