Mark Cook offers up his insight and the latest inside scoop on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from his sources at One Buccaneer Place and around the league in the Pewter Confidential, which appears on PewterReport.com weekly. The Inside Scoop On Lofton
With the play of the Buccaneers linebacking corps in 2011 it would have seemed almost a certainty that Tampa Bay would have made improving that position one of its top priorities during this offseason. Within the first few minutes of free agency on March 13, reports began circulating that Falcons linebacker Curtis Lofton was signing with the Buccaneers. But as the day turned into evening, then nighttime, the signing never happened.
Talking with a very credible and reliable source last week, it appears the Buccaneers were never really “in” the Lofton sweepstakes as most felt. The Buccaneers did do their homework, and even “kicked the tires,” but as far as making an offer, it most likely never happened.
In a Pewter Confidential column leading into free agency, I wrote specifically about Lofton and how much of an impact I thought he could make – not only with play on the field, but also in the leadership department. A national writer who covers the Falcons was also in agreement that Lofton possessed solid, on-the-field talent, and above average skills in leadership. The only question we both seemed to have, was Lofton a two-down or a three-down linebacker? We both agreed Lofton didn’t excel in pass coverage, but after watching the Buccaneers in 2011, neither did any linebacker that wore the pewter and red.
The source confirmed that the Bucs organization also had serious doubts about Lofton’s ability in pass coverage. In fact, they were actually emphatic in their opinion that Lofton was strictly a two-down linebacker. They did agree his locker room presence was intriguing, but the fact is there are hundreds of guys walking the streets who could have a impact on a young locker room. That doesn’t necessarily mean they would be a good fit on their football team. The source also hinted that there might be some concerns health-wise that made them also think twice.
Another misnomer the source revealed was that the reports of Lofton demanding $9 million per season being completely false. The starting point may have been in the $5 million range, but steadily dropped after a lack of interest from around the league. In fact, the source said just before Lofton reached an agreement with New Orleans, the asking price for his services dropped under $3 million per season. Yet Lofton’s only real interest came from the Saints, who are facing the possibility of starting the season without Jonathan Vilma, and are desperate for linebackers.
The source made the case that if Lofton was such a highly-rated linebacker, why did the Falcons go out, even before free agency, and sign his replacement in Lofa Taputu, who wasn’t even in the NFL last season? And where were the other teams blowing up his agent Todd France’s phone scheduling visits? The reality is that it took Lofton two weeks to find a home and the Bucs clearly weren't interested enough to make an offer.
So what now for the Buccaneers as far as linebacking goes? Are the Buccaneers still bent on making Mason Foster their starting middle linebacker? It appears that is the game plan heading into the draft next month. But don’t be shocked if Tampa Bay shocks everyone and addresses the position early.
Very early in fact. Not necessarily at No. 5 but inside the top 15. It will take a willing trade partner and the right deal, but the Buccaneers will have no qualms with trading out of the No. 5 spot, forgoing LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne and Alabama running back Trent Richardson in the process in order to acquire more draft picks. Although running back and cornerback are areas of need in Tampa Bay, the draft is very deep in those positions.
The Buccaneers will most likely bring in a few free agent linebackers as training camp approaches, not with the idea of starting, but just as camp bodies. They have already signed one in Rennie Curran. And if things don’t work out in the first round as they may like, it seems no one at One Buccaneer Place will lose sleep if Foster lines up on opening day as the starting middle linebacker.
I also took from the conversation with the source that the Buccaneers are eager to see what Foster has to offer after a full offseason and a season of coaching from what many perceive to be a better defensive staff than in 2011.The Demise of Tampa Bay's Defense
Let’s face it; the Buccaneers defense in 2011 was terrible. No need to sugarcoat it, they were very difficult to watch, and I didn’t drop a couple grand on season tickets. So the big question is why did the Buccaneers only address a cornerback in free agency? The answers are several, one of which may be the biggest factor – they couldn’t fix all the holes in one offseason and targeted Jackson and Nicks as the two best overall players available in free agency.
Secondly, some the players that were available, the Buccaneers weren’t convinced they were good fits or good values.
Lastly, the team has a higher level of confidence in the current talent of the defensive side of the ball than most fans or those in the media care to believe.
Stat-wise there is not a lot to argue with. The Buccaneers were 30th in the league in total defense, last in points allowed, last in sacks and first in plays of 20 or more yards allowed. And of all the futile defenses the Buccaneers have out on the field since 1976, none have allowed more points than the 494 Tampa Bay surrendered to opponents last season.
I am not trying to be a Buccaneers apologist or sway anyone’s opinion, but looking at the defense after the first six games, the team was 4-2, first place in their division and playing competitively on both sides of the ball. While the defense wasn’t ranked in the top 10, it was middle of the pack and gave no indication of the late season swoon that was about to begin.
In the course of those four wins the Buccaneers were able to beat the Falcons and Saints, two playoff teams, including holding the Saints to their lowest point total (20) in all of 2011. The key to winning both of those games was the Buccaneers defense’s ability to shut down the run. Tampa Bay held the Falcons to 30 yards on 15 carries. Against the Saints, the Buccaneers run defense once again was stellar holding the trio of Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram and Darren Sproles to just 70 yards on 20 carries, while forcing three Drew Brees interceptions.
So the big question is where did it all go wrong? Did these guys all of a sudden forget how to play defense? How do you hold Michael Turner to 20 total yards in the first game, and then in the last game of the season allow him double his total on his very first carry?
Part of the downfall can be attributed to the attitude of the defense. Playing defense is about scheme and talent, but a big part is about wanting to impose your will on your opponent. In those four wins the defense wanted to do just that, and it showed. Rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster played better earlier in the season, as most players did. But also like many players, the wear and tear of a long season and lack of metal toughness became the story line. When thing started going south, heads hung and the “want to” went out the window. By the last game of the season the Buccaneers defense was like a dog that had been kicked too much, afraid to come out from under the porch with its tail tucked firmly between its legs.
The biggest factor though might have been the injuries that took their toll. Sure, all teams are beat up after 16 regular season games, but when a young team lacking depth gets hammered by the injury bug, it is a recipe for disaster.
The string of injuries began in the first game when starting strongside linebacker Quincy Black suffered a leg injury. Black attempted to play the following week against Minnesota but was ineffective. The following week saw starting safety Cody Grimm catch friendly fire from teammate Geno Hayes, putting Grimm out of action and on injured reserve, sending Hayes to the bench in a hazy fog of a concussion on the same play. From there things went from bad to worse. Defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, cornerback Aqib Talib, defensive end Michael Bennett, safety Tanard Jackson, linebackers Dekoda Watson and Foster, and other key defensive contributors missed significant playing time at some point in 2011. By the end of the season, the Buccaneers were starting defensive players who were literally signed off the street (defensive tackles John McCargo and Jovan Haye) and asking them to play significant minutes.
Again, injuries are part of football and the Buccaneers were ill-equipped to handle them due to poor depth on both sides of the football, but even the most cynical fan would have to admit Tampa Bay suffered more than their fair share of injuries, and would also have to admit it played a significant role in the poor showing of 2011.
Management is aware of holes and gaps that will need to be addressed, and will attempt to do so in the draft and by possibly bringing in players who are released closer to the start of the season. But while the numbers don’t lie (remember someone once said stats are for losers), the gloom and doom may not be quite as bad as it appears on paper.
The actions by new head coach Greg Schiano and his staff by not being aggressive in free agency on the defensive side of the ball speaks volumes. Schiano believes that there is enough talent to develop and win with, and that most of the mistakes made on film are correctable with better coaching. We'll see if he's right come September.Prospecting the State: OT Zebrie Sanders
It is hard to imagine the Buccaneers drafting an offensive linemen in the first two rounds with the amount of money already committed to that unit over the next several years. But RT Jeremy Trueblood is in the last year of his contract, and despite having one of his better seasons in 2011, the possibility exists that Trueblood won’t return after this upcoming season. While the Trueblood critics will be pleased, the fact is, currently there is no one better on the roster to replace him with.
Florida State’s Zebrie Sanders will likely go in the second round and while the Buccaneers may have other pressing needs, Sanders is someone Tampa Bay may still consider, especially if he somehow slips to the top of the third round.
Listed at 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, Sanders is a mountain of a man and showed very good lower body strength and power during his four seasons in Tallahassee playing for Jimbo Fisher and offensive line coach Rick Trickett. Sanders was one of the most dependable and reliable offensive linemen at FSU over his last two seasons. FSU ran a zone-blocking scheme and would fit in nicely with an NFL team that runs the same. Sanders is better when blocking down and crashing the defensive line as opposed to man-on-man or releasing to the next level, but his agile feet will allow him to grow at the NFL level.
At the Senior Bowl in Mobile Sanders didn’t standout, but also didn’t show any glaring weaknesses, either. Scouts seemed impressed with his lower body strength and also with his lateral movement. The one knock I saw in watching Sanders time playing for the Seminoles, was his occasional tendency to lose focus and make mental mistakes, primarily offsides penalties. In his defense, most college linemen not named Reily Reiff, David DeCastro and Matt Kalil suffered from the same fate occasionally.
While doubtful he falls into the third round, if somehow that happens, the Buccaneers could do much worse than drafting what could become the heir apparent to Trueblood as the team’s right tackle of the future.
Check out this video of Sanders
against Miami last November.Extra Points
• With Aqib Talib’s felony trial now pushed back to June 25, general manager Mark Dominik may be scratching his well-manicured head of hair, wondering how to handle the upcoming draft. Not knowing the fate of Talib will certainly cause some adjustment in the approach to the draft, but ultimately the Buccaneers should – and probably will – draft the best player on their board. It isn’t as if the Buccaneers are one or two players away from making a serious run deep in the playoffs.
You would have to think Dominik and Greg Schiano have always been planning for the worst and would now count Talib’s availability for 2012 as a bonus. By bringing Ronde Barber back and signing free agent Eric Wright, it appears the Buccaneers have had contingency plans at cornerback all along.
While I do not believe the Buccaneers have seriously considered trading Talib around draft day, if the possibility was ever being talked about, those chances went out the window with his trial date being moved for the second time.
• Tight end Kellen Winslow was rumored to have been shopped around the league a couple of weeks ago, but most likely it was an exploratory situation to gauge interest around the league. Right now, the Buccaneers have little in terms of replacing Winslow’s production (75 receptions, 763 yards and two touchdowns) and the fact is most players on the roster are always a trade possibilities, although trades are not very common in the NFL.
The Buccaneers may have some concerns with how Winslow’s sometimes abrasive personality will mesh with new head coach Greg Schiano, and if it appears there is any friction, Tampa Bay would most likely try and move Winslow.
A factor that could make it easier to get something in return for Winslow as opposed to an outright release, is his salary, (less than $5 million as opposed to nearly $9 million in 2011) is the lowest it has been since the former Hurricane came to Tampa prior to the 2009 season. That salary cap number also works in Winslow’s favor in staying with the Buccaneers at least one more season.
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