TAMPA, Fla. -- As you read this, keep in mind that Donald Penn talks big.
“My thing is, at the end of my career, I want to play 15 years and be a Hall of Famer and be one of the greats,’’ the left tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers said.
That might sound like an extreme ambition for a guy who has been to precisely one Pro Bowl (last season).
“He loves to talk and talks about nothing all the time,’’ said New Orleans defensive end Will Smith, who will line up against Penn on Sunday in the Mercedez-Benz Superdome. “He’s a nice guy. I know him off the field. But on the field, he just loves to talk about anything. He loves to self-promote himself.’’
In an interview with Sirius NFL Radio several weeks ago, Smith said Penn “talks as much as wide receivers,’’ who are commonly known as big talkers. Smith said Penn can be anywhere from funny to entertaining to annoying on the field. The topics can change, but the talk never stops, said Smith, who has been playing against Penn for five seasons.
“He’s made big strides as a player,’’ Smith said. “But he’s always been a talker.’’
Penn doesn’t deny any of that. He said he feeds off talking to opponents throughout a game.
“One of the things is, if you’re going to talk you’ve got to back it up,’’ Penn said. “I’ve been lucky enough to back it up.’’
That may sound a little like the self-promotion Smith talked about. But the thing is Penn doesn’t have to do all the promoting on his own these days.
"You can make an argument that Donald Penn is the best left tackle in football right now,'' former Pro Bowl tackle and current Westwood One Radio analyst Tony Boselli recently told The Tampa Tribune. "He's athletic, he's powerful, he's a good run blocker and an even better pass blocker.''
“A very solid left tackle,’’ said Matt Williamson of Scouts Inc. “They don’t give him a lot of help and he doesn’t really need it. People like to say you have to find a left tackle in the top 10 in the draft. But Penn is proof that you can get a good one outside of the top 10. Heck, the Bucs got him for nothing and that almost never happens with left tackles.’’
It wouldn’t be far off to say that Penn came out of nowhere. But the fact is he came out of Utah State. He had a shot at being drafted, but tore up his knee on the first play of the Hula Bowl in his final season. He showed up at the scouting combine, but was unable to work out.
“After that, I just fell off the map,’’ Penn said.
He went through the 2006 draft without being chosen. He later signed with the Minnesota Vikings and landed on their practice squad. The Bucs signed Penn off Minnesota’s practice squad later that season, thinking they were getting a guy who could be a career backup.
But it wasn’t long before Penn talked – and worked – his way into a starting role. He began the 2007 season projected as a backup for veteran Luke Petitgout, who the Bucs had brought in from the New York Giants.
“I was always telling Petitgout I was going to take his job,’’ Penn said.
Pretty soon, that’s exactly what Penn did. Petitgout started four games in 2007 before getting injured. Penn started 12 games that season and hasn’t missed a start since.
“Once I got that opportunity, I tried to do my best to not let it get taken away from me,’’ Penn said. “You don’t know when you’re going to get an opportunity like that again.’’
The talk of Penn as one of the league’s best tackles didn’t start right away. It’s really just started to heat up in the last year or so. That coincides roughly with the timeline of when the Bucs made a big commitment to a guy who wasn’t even drafted. At the start of training camp in 2010, the Bucs gave Penn a six-year, $48 million contract.
They paid him like a big-time left tackle. The contract might have changed the perception of Penn around the league, but he said he never viewed himself as anything less.
“I’ve always thought of myself in those terms,’’ Penn said. “You need to think of yourself in those terms to be a great player. You have to have confidence. Thinking of yourself as the best, that’s the most confidence you can have. I always knew I was good. I just needed a shot.’’
Penn’s become the most steady force on Tampa Bay’s offensive line. In a season in which the 4-3 Bucs have been up and down, Penn has been perhaps the team’s most consistent player.
In one three-game stretch, Penn had the task of blocking Atlanta’s John Abraham, Minnesota’s Jared Allen and Indianapolis’ Dwight Freeney. He gave up only one sack (to Allen) and Penn’s been getting a lot of praise from around the league.
“I’m going up against the best every week and I don’t get nearly as much help as most tackles do,’’ Penn said. “I appreciate finally getting the notoriety. Tampa is not a big media center, so you don’t get as much attention. But I’ve been doing it for five years now and I’ve been doing it well. It feels good to finally get some recognition for it.’’
But one Pro Bowl and a few nice comments don’t add up to the Hall of Fame career Penn talks about and he knows that.
“That’s my goal,’’ Penn said. “I’m a long way away from it, but that’s what I’m trying to reach. That’s why I’m working so hard and playing so good because I want to get there. I want to be known as the best left tackle in the game when it’s all said and done.’’
Yeah, that’s all down the road. But it no longer seems as impossible as it did when Penn was a practice-squad player. Maybe if he keeps talking big and playing the way he has recently, he just might meet his goal.