The two-time Pro Bowl guard entering the third year of a big contract missed most of the past two seasons because of injuries and the recurrence of the MRSA infection in his left foot that limited him to two games in 2013. He expects to be ready for training camp this summer.
But Smith and incoming general manager Jason Licht also are counting on the 28-year-old Nicks to do his part to help transform the Bucs into playoff contenders.
Nicks didn't miss a game in four seasons with the New Orleans Saints. However, he's played in only nine since signing a five-year, $47.5 million deal with Tampa Bay as a free agent in 2012.
He's not sure how to characterize the progress in his rehabilitation, yet he's confident he's on track to get back in the lineup.
''I'm not a percentage guy. Obviously, I'm not ready to practice right now, but I feel comfortable saying I'll be back for training camp, '' Nicks said during the team's voluntary minicamp this week.
''There's some nerve damage. So it's going to be pain, I'm told, for the rest of my life,'' the 6-foot-5, 349-pound seventh-year pro added. ''Lovie told me the other day my 80 percent is still pretty good. If I'm not 100 percent, hopefully I can get to 95 or 99.9.''
Nicks sat out the final nine games of his first season with the Bucs because of a left toe injury that required surgery.
MRSA found in a blister on the side of his foot sidelined Nicks the final preseason game, plus the first two weeks of the regular season last summer. He resumed practicing and made starts against New England and Arizona before learning the staph infection that's resistant to many common antibiotics had returned to the same location and gotten into the bone.
Season-ending surgery followed, and the offensive line, believed to be a strength entering the season, struggled as the Bucs went 4-12.
Guard Davin Joseph and tackle Donald Penn, both Pro Bowl selections during their stay with the Bucs, were released, helping free space under the salary cap to pursue Collins, Dietrich-Smith and other free agents. Jeremy Zuttah, last year's starting center, was traded.
''They were buddies. They're good guys on the field and off the field, but it's a business,'' Nicks said. ''Just like I left New Orleans, they had to go, too.''
Nicks was a fifth-round draft pick by the Saints in 2008. He became a starter in the third week of his rookie year, helped New Orleans win its only Super Bowl title five years ago, and became an All-Pro for the first time in 2011.
While teammates practiced for three days this week, Nicks stood nearby observing the workouts and trying to familiarize himself with the team's new offensive system.
''The main goal is the mental reps,'' he said. ''I know how to play football. I know how to block. ... I just don't know the plays.''
Smith isn't concerned about Nicks not being able to participate in April. All indications are there's a realistic chance the player will be ready for training camp.
''We like to think that until someone tells me otherwise,'' the coach said.
''He has a ways to go, but it's good for Carl to just get back into the mix with the rest of the group,'' Smith added. ''Early on, there is a lot of mental work for all of our players.''
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