TAMPA — The certificate left on the seat in front of Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie tight end Tim Wright’s locker last Wednesday looked like the kind you get for completing a safe-driving or CPR course.
This one, however, certified that Wright had successfully navigated the requirements for passage of an NFL life management course called the Rookie Success Program.
“It’s something all the rookies have to go through,’’ Wright said. “It helps prepare you for things like managing your finances, dealing with relationships — all those things you tend to go through in life.’’
Successfully managing a change of positions isn’t part of the course, but if the NFL handed out certificates for that, this former Rutgers wide receiver would almost certainly have one coming to him.
Only eight months into his transition to one of the most complicated positions in the game, Wright ranks second among Bucs pass-catchers in receptions (45), receiving yards (486) and touchdown receptions (4).
That’s more receiving yards than Dallas Clark gained a year ago for the Bucs. And with two more catches and one more touchdown reception, Wright will have put together one of the best seasons for a Bucs tight end in decades.
Since Calvin Magee caught 45 passes for 564 yards and five scores in 1986, only Kellen Winslow (2009-11) and Clark (2012) have had better seasons than the one Wright is having this year.
“It’s been a crazy ride,’’ Wright said. “But it’s been a blessing, too. I’m just trying to take full advantage of the opportunity I have here, because it’s not often a guy gets a chance like this.’’
It was indeed a rare string of events that created the opportunity Wright has been taking such good advantage of. The first of those was the decision by Bucs coach Greg Schiano to move Wright to tight end.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Wright was a wide receiver at Rutgers, where he caught 11 passes as a junior for the last team Schiano coached there. But Schiano always had plans to move him to tight end. Schiano finally made good on those plans after the Bucs signed Wright as an undrafted free agent last spring, but Wright’s chances of making the team at that position seemed slim.
With Luke Stocker, Tom Crabtree and Nate Byham ahead of him on the depth chart, Wright’s best bet was to earn a spot on the practice squad. But then training camp rolled around and, one by one, Stocker, Crabtree and Byham went down with season-ending injuries.
By the third game of the season, the Bucs were left with no choice but to play Wright. He didn’t necessarily seize his first real opportunity to impress, dropping a potential touchdown pass early in a loss to the Patriots in New England.
A week later, though, Wright bounced back nicely, catching five passes for 41 yards from newly promoted starting quarterback Mike Glennon. Since then, Wright has established himself as one of the top rookie tight ends in the league.
His 45 receptions are tied for the most among rookies, his 486 receiving yards are second to the 499 accumulated by Washington’s Jordan Reed, and his four touchdown receptions are tied for second-most behind the seven secured by Detroit’s Joseph Fauria.
In addition, Wright has already put together the seventh-best season by an NFL rookie tight end since 2003, and with two games to go, he has a chance to better the 55-catch, 627-yard, five-touchdown 2008 season by Seattle’s John Carlson that ranks first during that span.
“When I look at what Tim Wright has done, I just think, holy cow,’’ Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. “He’s really developed into a guy that we feel very excited about in the passing game. And he’s really fighting and doing some good things in the running game, too. It just really speaks volumes to what hard work and dedication can do for you, and you see the results that come to people who do that.’’
The work has really just begun for Wright. Though big and strong enough to make an impact, he’s still a novice when it comes to blocking, which is something he’ll spend the offseason trying to improve.
Unlike a lot of tight ends, though, Wright is actually looking forward to that.
“I love that part,’’ Wright said of the physical aspect of playing tight end. “I think it’s cool, because sometimes you want to get down and dirty and hit someone in the mouth, and at tight end you’re allowed to do that.’’
Wright’s size and his willingness to play physical were two of the reasons Schiano moved him to tight end. But Wright’s ability to get loose from linebackers and safeties is the reason he’s excelling at that spot.
“For me, going against linebackers and safeties, I feel like those are the things I can take advantage of,’’ Wright said. “That’s the best part of it for me, having those mismatches.’’
The worst part about playing tight end, Wright has found, is learning all the nuances of the position. And there are a lot of them, he said, from reading defensive schemes to blocking linemen, linebackers and defensive backs.
“There’s a lot of things you have to look for,’’ Wright said. “You have to look at the secondary, you have to be aware of the linebackers and what they’re doing and you have to play with a big defender right in front of you all the time.
“That’s the most challenging part. And things happen fast. When I first transitioned to tight end, it was hard. And then you’re matching up against guys that are physically more dominant than you. That’s difficult to adjust to.’’
Difficult, but obviously not impossible. Not even for a rookie still learning the position.
“He’s played very, very well for us and has been very productive,’’ Schiano said. “And thank goodness, too, right? Because we’ve needed every contribution we’ve gotten from him. I’m glad he’s here.’’