What to do with the rookie?

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Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ rookie quarterback Nick Fitzgerald has yet to see the field. While Bruce Arians said that Fitzgerald hurt himself playing beach volleyball, the quarterback says that’s not entirely true.

“I wasn’t even playing beach volleyball,” Fitzgerald retorted.  Before training camp in July, he was tossing a ball around with some friends on the beach when his foot slipped on the sand. There was no net, no game, no competition about it.

The only competition he truly wants is on the football field. As a rookie, he wants to compete with his teammates at training camp and show his worth to the Buccaneers coaching staff. “It’s been terrible,” said Fitzgerald of being unable to practice. “I’d much rather be out here dying, sweating, grinding, and building chemistry with my teammates. That would give me an opportunity to show why I should be kept on the team.”

Before The Buccaneers

The 6-foot-5 Fitzgerald had a historic career for the Mississippi State Bulldogs before being signed to an undrafted free agent contract this offseason. With a 55 percent career completion rate, he was not the most impressive passer, but he counterbalanced that with his legs. The SEC’s all-time leading rusher at quarterback, he caused fits for opposing defenses. Of his 9,814 career yards from scrimmage, 3,667 were on the ground. He passed for 55 touchdowns and rushed for a school-record 46.

Fitzgerald was on pace for two consecutive seasons with 1,000-plus yards rushing when he dislocated his ankle in the first quarter of the final game his junior year.

In four years as a Bulldog, he also had one reception, three solo tackles, and a punt.

While at his Pro Day, Fitzgerald stated that he wanted to be evaluated “first and foremost” as a quarterback. However, unlike his counterpart Tim Tebow who refused to play any other position than quarterback, Fitzgerald isn’t too proud to play positionally. “I’ll do whatever it takes to make this team,” said the rookie.

“I think it’s great for me moving forward and whatever it is that football brings. Ultimately, playing different positions gives me new life for the game. I’m not throwing just the ball. I get to go out there block, run routes, and catch the ball.”

Still, at the behest of team evaluators attending his Pro Day, he ran routes at tight end and reeled in a deep ball. His adaptability caught the eye of the Buccaneers coaches, especially newly-appointed head coach Bruce Arians who called Fitzgerald’s skills “intriguing.”

Positional Flexibility

So, it came as no surprise when the Buccaneers were the first to call Fitzgerald after he went undrafted. With a nod to division rival New Orleans Saints’ Taysom Hill, the team wanted to develop what the quarterback had to offer – talent and experience at various positions. “I think of myself as one of the very few players who have the skill set to play multiple positions,” he said.

Fitzgerald’s positional flexibility and his receptiveness to play outside the quarterback role is what has helped his cause at camp after getting injured. “There are opportunities for me to make the team and I’m going to try to take advantage of every single one of them.”

If Fitzgerald Stays, Where Do The Bucs Use Him

Currently, his best chances of making the roster are if the Bucs change his position and put him in, if needed, as the emergency quarterback. However, the team is pretty stacked at wide receiver and tight end. The scenario of the team converting Fitzgerald is not very probable. Whether he can even make the conversion to either position remains to be seen, but with his stature and speed, he fits the profile.

He saw time at multiple positions in high school and at Mississippi State. “I was playing safety, defensive end, linebacker, wide receiver, everything,” said Fitzgerald. “It was a great time.”

Due to his combination of size, speed and athleticism, opportunities would be endless in special package situations as a blocking/receiving wide receiver or tight end and he could see time on special teams.

If he makes the 53-man roster at the August 31 deadline, his most likely landing spot would be as third quarterback; though that would merely be a designation. While it’s not entirely unusual for a team to have a third quarterback, it is unusual for that quarterback to play different positions.

This would, of course, mean keeping Blaine Gabbert or Ryan Griffin as their second-team quarterback, but not both. Fitzgerald’s ability to add a different skill set on offense and willingness and versatility to play special teams could be the deciding factor.

Nick Fitzgerald
TAMPA, FL – AUGUST 06: Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald strikes a pose following a post-practice interview [ photo credit: Allison Koehler/Bucs Report ]

What Could Be

He was highly-touted as being the next Hill or Julian Edelman after coming out of college. With his offensive weaponry skills yet to be proven professionally, it’s an unknown what could be for Fitzgerald.

Hill returns kicks and plays a number of positions for New Orleans, lining up at different spots in different packages. Whether Fitzgerald can pull off the same tricks as Hill remains to be seen.

Dozens of college quarterbacks have played a different position in the NFL. In addition to Hill and Edelman, among the notables are Joe Webb, Antwaan Randle El, Denard Robinson, Jerick McKinnon, and Josh Cribbs. Fitzgerald may soon add his name to that list.

Could Fitzgerald be the next Julian Edelman? Edelman has become a game-changer for the New England Patriots, so that’s a stretch, but not out of the realm of future possibility.

First, He Must Show His Worth

For any of the aforementioned scenarios to come to fruition, first, he must show his worth to the Bucs. All this speculation is for not if Fitzgerald can’t make it back from NFI before preseason’s end. While he claims he’ll be on the field this preseason, time is ticking for the quarterback to prove he’s worthy of a coveted roster spot. If he doesn’t return, it’s likely he’ll be relegated the Bucs practice squad.

As lucky as he has been to be signed, Fitzgerald also knows how lucky he is to have remained part of the team. “It speaks volumes that I’m still here. When I get back [to practice], I’m going to show why.”

For now, though, Fitzgerald is making the best of a bad situation. “While I’m hurt, I’m just out here having a great attitude, making sure I’m helpful in any way I possibly can. All the while, off the field studying making sure that, when I do get back, I’m ready to go.”

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