His entire career has been spent on the fringes of the roster. In Minnesota and in Denver, Patrick Chukwurah made a living as a special teams star. He knew that was the only way he could remain employed.
Work as the gunner on punt coverage? Done. Play the occasional down at outside linebacker or as a third-down pass rusher? All right. Make the occasional start? Great.
He came to Tampa Bay as a free agent this offseason because the Buccaneers value fast defenders. Little did he know that coming to Tampa Bay would offer him the best opportunity of his career.
Simeon Rice is gone. Chukwurah is now a candidate to start at right defensive end on opening day against Seattle.
"It's a long time coming for me," Chukwurah said after practice on Friday. "I can't say I'm the man for the position because I can bust my tail and not get it. But I believe it. I have no choice but to believe it. I won't go full speed if I don't believe it. It's not up to me. It's up to my play."
Chukwurah worked with the first group of defenders on Friday — ahead of first-round pick Gaines Adams, who is considered the future at the position. That is not a vote of confidence in Chukwurah, nor is it a knock on Adams. Chukwurah is a veteran with five years in the NFL. He played three of those years for current defensive line coach Larry Coyer in Denver, so there's a comfort level there between the two that hasn't developed for Adams yet. Coyer said Friday that he feels secure with either player at the position.
The competition is going to be fierce, no doubt, as Chukwurah works to earn his first consistent role as a starter.
The 6-foot-1, 250-pound Wyoming product impressed Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia when he leapt up to bat down one of Garcia's passes in an 11-on-11 drill.
"The guy is a beast," Garcia said. "He looks physically dominating and he plays that way in practice. You hope that's something that carries over into the game because if there was an ideal way to build the look of a football player, I mean he fits that mold and he plays with a lot of energy."
Chukwurah's value to the Bucs is his versatility. He can play as a pass rusher with his hand on the ground, though he's never done it all the time, he admits. He can also rush the passer as an outside linebacker. He's played in a 4-3 and a 3-4 formation. And he reminds one — at least this is what he says — of the player he's attempting to replace.
"I'm a lot like Simeon," Chukwurah said. "He's a speed guy. He loves to rush the passer and hit the quarterback and get sacks. That's my mentality too, but at the same time you have to play your own game and I have to get better at that. It's all about technique."
Chukwurah's journey to Tampa was a long one. Minnesota took him in the fifth-round of the 2001 NFL Draft, and he lasted two seasons with the Vikings. That's where he made all five of his career starts — four at linebacker and one at defensive end.
His career nearly ended in 2003 when the Houston Texans released him during their final cuts at training camp. The Broncos signed him in December of 2003 and he had a productive three-year career with the Broncos. He never started a game, but played on most of the Broncos' special teams, and last year had a career-high 20 tackles.
Perhaps the Buccaneers are getting a player whose production is on the upswing.
Chukwurah isn't bogging himself down in dreaming about a starting role, though. To him, the situation is the same as if Rice was still in front of him on the depth chart. He said that's how he has to treat it or he won't get the job done.
"In my eyes there was always a job opportunity for me," he said. "That's how you have to look at it. Certainly they had a guy (Rice) that had been here for a while, but anything goes in training camp. They play the best players. To me the job has always been open. I just had to make the most of the opportunity. That's how I still look at it."
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.