TAMPA — More than any other sport, availability is the most coveted ability in football. Spend too much time in the training room and you can not only lose a starting position, it can end your career.
With that in mind, for several Bucs players, 2017 will serve as a comeback. They are sometimes forgotten players, but come September, they could be making a memorable impact.
When the mandatory minicamp ended Thursday, coach Dirk Koetter was asked if all 90 players on the Bucs' training camp roster will be healthy enough for full participation when the team reports later next month.
"I'm going to say I learned my lesson, because last year I said there was none and I was proven wrong," Koetter said. "I'll say I hope everyone will be ready for training camp."
Let's take a look at a few players who missed significant time due to injury last season that could be difference-makers:
E JACQUIES SMITH
Smith always has been a highly productive pass rusher with 13.5 career sacks in only 18 starts in 2015-16.
But on the first defensive series in Atlanta, when the Bucs held the Falcons on third down and Smith was on the punt coverage team, somehow he got twisted up and tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and was lost for the season.
"It was huge," defensive line coach Jay Hayes said. "He only played one play [last season]. It was disheartening."
Smith wasn't cleared to participate in off-season workouts, but he's one of the players expected to be ready for training camp.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy led the Bucs with seven sacks. The crazy streak persists. No Bucs player has had double-digit sack totals in a single season since Simeon Rice in (gulp) 2005.
Smith used the time to focus in the classroom on learning the nuances of the new defense under coordinator Mike Smith. He's been a mentor to defensive end Noah Spence. It's a tough injury to come back from as a pass rusher, but if Smith can be anywhere close to 100 percent, it would be a boon.
DE ROBERT AYERS, JR.
Ayers quickly became the emotional leader of the Bucs defensive line after signing as a free agent from the New York Giants. He missed four games with an ankle injury and still finished second on the team with 6.5 sacks while adding 18.5 quarterback hits.
"Everybody has to fight through something and I was no different," Ayers said. "If I'm out there, [I'm] expected to perform at a certain level. This year, I plan to be at 100 percent, but I'm pretty sure there are going to be things I've got to fight through, just like last year."
Ayers is the Bucs most versatile defensive lineman — equally effective at tackle or end. Having him for 16 games would be huge.
RB CHARLES SIMS
Two years ago, Sims was an integral part of the offense with nearly a combined 1,100 yards rushing and receiving. As a third-down back, and one who provided a different running style and change of pace from Doug Martin, Sims' future appeared bright. But a series of knee injuries limited him to seven games. He rushed 51 times for 149 yards and one touchdown (2.9 avg.). He caught 24 passes for 190 yards, including a memorable TD in the season-opening win at Atlanta.
Martin is suspended the first three games, but Sims will battle with rookie Jeremy McNichols and Peyton Barber for a spot.
"I think that if Charles was in that same role, I'm confident that he would be productive," Koetter said. "But the competition is tight. He's not going to be the only guy competing for that."
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