Odds are long for a player like Frick

Justin Frick went undrafted in April. But it doesn't mean he was unwanted. The North Dakota State defensive lineman's agent fielded offers from three NFL teams as the draft concluded. By the following Friday, Frick found himself in Tampa Bay.

"We run a very similar defense to this at my school," Frick said of Tampa's Cover 2 defense. "That was key. Plus my agent was looking at the rosters, how deep they (teams) were and how experienced they were at certain spots, what would give me the best chance to make a roster. Coming out as an undrafted free agent, it's hard to make a squad. So he tried to put me in the best situation."

How hard? Well, in Tampa Bay the odds aren't kind.

Since Jon Gruden took over as head coach before the 2002 season, just five undrafted free-agent rookies have made the opening-day roster.

In fact, the Bucs have not had an undrafted free-agent rookie make the active opening-day roster since defensive tackle Josh Savage in 2004. The past two years, with a plethora of draft picks, the Bucs have passes on undrafted free-agent rookies.

Tampa Bay selected 10 players in the draft in April, further reducing Frick's odds, as well as the odds of the other nine undrafted rookies they signed in May — TE Matt Herian, LB Jerry Mackey, FB Mike McFadden, LB Sam Olajubutu, OL Jed Prisby, PK Garrett Rivas, CB Kenny Scott, FB Byron Storer and QB Zac Taylor.

In fact, half of them — Mackey, McFadden, Prisby, Rivas and Scott — have already been released.

At least Frick is working out at a position where the Bucs are seeking help, and being open-minded about the competitors. While he's working out at nose tackle (currently occupied by veteran Chris Hovan), Frick is athletic enough and big enough (6-foot-3, 295 pounds) to also be a quicker under tackle.

Veteran newcomer Ryan Sims, fifth-round pick Greg Peterson, holdover Ellis Wyms and the emerging Jovan Haye are all contenders to earn starting or backup roles on the defensive line. And Frick fits into that rotation, at least at the moment.

The next step for Frick is to survive the cuts before training camp. The Bucs will have to release some players as they sign their 10 draft choices (they've already signed S Tanard Jackson and CB Marcus Hamilton).

That's much more drama than you would expect for a Division I-AA prospect who grew up in Yankton, S.D., as a three-sport athlete.

"I'm getting to experience a little bit more of the world than just the Dakotas," he said after a recent practice. "Summertime in college, you're not working out like this. You're not used to that. So it's been a fun experience."

Frick must prove to new defensive line coach Larry Coyer that his skills will translate at the pro level. At Division I-AA NDSU, he finished with 131 tackles, 10 sacks, two forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and nine passes defensed. His play in 2006 earned him notice on six different all-star teams, including notice as a I-AA all-America. Pro scouts noticed, pegging Frick as an emerging small-school prospect.

Most scouts considered him the dominant player on that NDSU line, one that during Frick's junior year helped the Bison hold five opponents to single digits.

He's also more athletic than his frame would suggest. He reached the semifinals in wrestling in North Dakota as a high school senior at Yankton High. He also played tight end and defensive line, plus competed in track and field.

But after taking Peterson in the fifth round, the Bucs didn't have enough room to take another flier on a D-I AA prospect. So they took advantage when Frick fell into their lap when the draft ended.

Frick realizes the odds are long, so during the offseason camps he focused on learning his position and getting reps, rather than trying to beat out a particular player.

"Right now it's not about competing," Frick said. "It's about getting better and learning a lot of things."

Making it the hard way

How undrafted free agents have fared in making the roster their rookie season in Tampa Bay, since 2002:

2002: RB Darian Barnes, LB Ryan Nece, DE Corey Smith

2003: DE Will Heller

2004: DE Josh Savage

2005: None

2006: None

Undrafted free agents on Tampa Bay's active roster at end of the 2006 season:

S Blue Adams, DT Jon Bradley, K Matt Bryant, DT Darrell Campbell, LB Antoine Cash, T Anthony Davis, RB Lionel Gates, RB Earnest Graham, OL Cornell Green, DT Jovan Haye, LB Wesly Mallard, OL Nick Milhauser, TE Dave Moore, LB Ryan Nece, S Kalvin Pearson, T Donald Penn, LB Shelton Quarles, FB Jerald Sowell.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. Included among his more than two dozen writing and editing awards are national awards from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors, and state awards from the Florida Press Club and the Florida Sports Writers Association, for his coverage of the Buccaneers since 2004.

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