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: July 12, 2007, 12:35:02 AM

From Buccaneers.com: http://www.buccaneers.com/news/newsdetail.aspx?newsid=5858

New Blood

Notes: Even older Buc vets are pleased by the influx of young players on defense…All 32 teams set to report to camp by July 30…Gradkowski’s NFL future remains bright


Rookie CB Marcus Hamilton could be part of a new wave of standout Buc defenders

Jul 11, 2007 -

The typical NFL veteran understand that the primary goal of every young player is to take his job.

It’s nothing personal, but it is unavoidable. With the possible exception of Julio Franco – check back in another 10 years – age eventually closes every athletic career. In the NFL, except perhaps at quarterback and kicker, there is a relatively small percentage of players who extend their careers beyond their mid-30s, particularly without switching teams near the end.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were given an obvious reminder of that this offseason. Shelton Quarles, an extremely productive player for the Buccaneers for a solid decade, was released due to injury just a few months shy of his 36th birthday, most likely ceding the job to his understudy of the last two years, the 24-year-old Barrett Ruud. While the Buccaneers have extreme confidence in Ruud and specifically planned for this day during the 2005 draft, it was still another bit of turnover from the great defense that carried the team to the Super Bowl XXXVII title.

All of which brings us to Tampa Bay’s 2007 draft class.

Armed with 10 picks overall, the Bucs loaded up on defense, taking a defensive player in every round and addressing five different positions on that side of the ball (defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, safety and cornerback). The Bucs’ proud defense still has a veteran core of such Pro Bowl-caliber performers as Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Simeon Rice, Brian Kelly and Greg Spires, but now it is also has a solid influx of young talent.
 
And, yes, some of those defensive newcomers may one day replace the current Buccaneer stalwarts, but that doesn’t mean the team’s veterans feel threatened. Rather, if Barber is any indication, they are pleased to see their group energized by some new blood.

“It’s good,” said Barber of the defensive-heavy draft. “It’s probably been a couple years late. We’ve needed to address some issues, especially on defense with some of our older guys. I thought it was good. At some point I’m going to be 35 and I’m not going to be able to play anymore. Sim’s going to be 36 and not able to play anymore. We needed it. We needed a little injection of others and it’s good that we got it right now.”

Barber is still just 32 and coming off his third straight Pro Bowl season. Kelly is 31 and looking as fit as ever after losing much of last season to a foot injury. The secondary also has a new twenty-something contributor in Phillip Buchanon, 26, the best bet to emerge as the team’s third cornerback. Still, the Bucs recently invested draft picks on Alan Zemaitis (fourth round, 2006) and Marcus Hamilton (seventh round, 2007) and may be hoping they are part of the next wave of defensive stars that will eventually replace Barber and Kelly. At other positions, such as linebacker and defensive end, the young newcomers may be even closer to prominent roles.

That means a transition at some point, perhaps a series of them across the defense, but Barber can envision that process working out for the team.

“We definitely got younger at a lot of positions on defense, and with youth comes speed, obviously,” he said. “We’re lacking some experience, but that comes with playing. That’s what [the offseason is] for, that’s what preseason’s for. Hopefully we can use it to our advantage.”

Barber obviously has a reasoned approach regarding the young players who are, by necessity, going to be angling for his job at some point. What he doesn’t necessarily have – and perhaps it’s the flip side of the same coin – is a load of patience. More important to Barber than the mix of young and old is how much overall talent is on hand, and how quickly it can be turned into victories.

“I’m going to preach to the guys that nobody wants to be 4-12,” he said, referring to the team’s 2006 decline. “Nobody wants that laughingstock type of season like we had last year. We’ll get back on our game. We know we’ve got the talent here to do it, we just have to go execute it.”


Camps on the Horizon

Browns and Dolphins rookies will be first in. Eagles veterans will be last. By Monday, July 30, every healthy player in the NFL will be fully immersed in the joys of training camp.

The NFL has released reporting dates for all 32 teams, some of which bring their rookies in earlier than the rest of the squad. Teams are not allowed to start training camp practices more than 15 days before their first preseason game, but some clubs tack their allotted mandatory rookie workout days to the front end of camp to create a two-stage start. The majority of teams bring all of their players in on the same day.

That’s the case for the Buccaneers, who will report for camp on Thursday, July 26 and begin practice the next morning. That’s a common reporting date; eight other teams will start on the same day, including the Seahawks, Tampa Bay’s regular-season opening opponent. New England, the first team on the Bucs’ preseason slate, will have its players report on July 27.

The Steelers will be the first time to bring its veterans into camp, setting their report date as July 23. That’s possible only because Pittsburgh plays the New Orleans Saints in the Hall of Fame Game on August 5, four days before any other preseason games are played. The Saints will wait until July 25 to report.

Click here to see each team’s reporting dates on NFL.com. Though the Jets’ dates are listed as “TBA,” they have announced a start date of July 27 on the team’s official web site.


A Good Start

Most of the attention regarding Tampa Bay’s quarterback position has focused on Jeff Garcia and Chris Simms, the presumptive main combatants in the battle for the starting job. That’s not surprising; Simms is the incumbent opening-day starter and free agent signee Garcia has been tabbed by Head Coach Jon Gruden as the leader in the race to open the season in ’07. Another decent portion of the QB discussion has dealt with Jake Plummer and his retirement intentions.

Thus Bruce Gradkowski, the quarterback who started the most games for the Buccaneers last season, has had a very quiet offseason in advance of his second NFL campaign. That doesn’t make him a forgotten man in the Bucs’ coaching offices, however. Gruden and his staff are still high on the 2006 sixth-round pick out of Toledo.

“The one thing that impresses me is that this kid has a lot of grit,” said Gruden. “He has a lot of mental toughness which is going to allow him, I think, to be an NFL quarterback. How good? We’ll see. But he does have the determination and the mental toughness and he does have some physical characteristics that are going to give him a chance.”

Gradkowski was thrown into the fire as a rookie after Simms’ season-ending spleen injury in Week Three. Due to his outstanding preseason performance, Gradkowski had leapt over veteran Tim Rattay into the number-two role, putting him in line to replace Simms. He held the starting job for 11 weeks, largely on the strength of some very good early performances. Rattay eventually took over the reins for the last two games of the year after a stellar relief performance against Chicago in Week 15.

In the end, Gradkowski’s numbers – 54.0% completion rate, 9/9 TD/INT ratio, 65.9 passer rating – were neither wonderful nor disastrous. In some ways, though, they were impressive for a second-day pick who wasn’t really expected to play much as a rookie.

“When we drafted Bruce, our intent wasn’t to start him for 11 games, to be honest with you,” said Gruden. “I realize and I think he realizes how hard this league is, for a rookie especially. I think he did some admirable things last year, good things. I think he got his eyes opened by some good teams, also. But I do think he has talent, I think he’s learned a lot and I think there’s nothing like experience to teach, good or bad experiences.”
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