Voluntary organized team activities across the NFL are exactly that: Voluntary.
In some, if not most cases, that doesn't mean OTAs aren't valuable.
Even for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, freshly removed from a Super Bowl victory earlier this year, the optional practices serve as an instrumental learning period for players, both young and old, and a time to make a mark in hopes of earning a spot on the final roster.
Buccaneers' head coach Bruce Arians shared before camp began that expected starters on his team would not take the field if they took part in the practices. However, backups, rookies, and even long-shots to make the final 53 have an opportunity right now to fight for a role. Arians wished on Tuesday that some of the players not in attendance over the past few weeks would realize that.
"These guys out here are working their asses off, but I’d like to see about 10 more of them out there fighting for jobs that they don’t know they’re fighting for," Arians told media after the team's fourth day of OTAs.
By AllBucs' count, 42 of the team's players participated in the team's first practice last Tuesday.
That isn't to say the absent players haven't been working out on their own or aren't taking their preparation seriously. In fact, quarterback Tom Brady and a group of pass-catchers have taken workouts into their own hands with unofficial throwing sessions across recent weeks, among other notable training regimens.
Arians realized that these workouts may be advantageous for some players while not as crucial for others. For example, although he'd like to see rising second-year receiver Tyler Johnson on the practice field, Arians admits that catching passes from Brady isn't a bad alternative.
“Yeah, I would wish that he would be over here," Arians said. "He’s not [dumb]. Tom is throwing him the ball over there, so I might be with Tom too.”
Johnson, Tampa Bay's fifth-round pick last year, performed admirably in a limited fashion throughout his rookie season. The Minnesota product caught 12 passes for 169 yards and two touchdowns as the team's No. 4 receiver at highest and No. 5 receiver at lowest on the depth chart, and added an extremely impressive grab against the New Orleans Saints in the playoffs.
It's fair to credit Johnson with meeting or exceeding his rookie season expectations, which gives him the flexibility to train with Brady instead of partaking in OTAs without having to worry about job security.
Players such as rising second-year running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, however, may be better suited at team activities, Arians suggested. The Vanderbilt alum also opted for Brady's workout over the Buccaneers' despite underperforming as a third-round pick last season, tallying only 109 rushing yards - 62 of which came against Detroit, mainly in garbage time - and a receiving touchdown.
Notably, Vaughn fumbled the ball on a third-quarter rush against Washington in the Wild Card round of the playoffs, on the Football Team's side of the field as Tampa Bay held a one-score lead. He didn't take another snap throughout the postseason.
"Ke’Shawn decided to work out with those guys," Arians explained. "That’s their choice, but hopefully he’ll make a better decision tomorrow.”
A short time will tell if Arians' message hit home following Tuesday's OTA, as the Buccaneers are set to take the field again on Wednesday morning. Brady is no longer in town, Arians revealed, meaning there is a possibility that the head coach's wishes could come true.
"I would hope some of those guys that have been with him will come here tomorrow," said Arians. "We’ll see.”