table of contents
- The Future Is Anything But Grimm For Cody
- Bucs Have A Great Chance To Finish 2010 As Winners
- Pewter Report 2010 Midseason Grades
- Pewter Report 2010 Midseason Awards
- Pewter Report Conversation: WR Mike Williams
- The Foundation For An Offensive Juggernaut
- Bucs Becoming A Team Worth Cheering For
- The Underdogs Give Bucs Plenty Of Bite
- Pewter Prospect: DE Ryan Kerrigan
- Pewter Prospect: OT Derek Sherrod
- In The Lab: CB Myron Lewis
- Is Gerald McCoy A Bust?
The fact that cornerback Aqib Talib, who was Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2008, has a team-leading five interceptions, including one for a touchdown, and quarterback Josh Freeman, a first-round pick in 2009 who has completed over 60 percent of his passes with 12 touchdowns and only five interceptions, are playing great football right now is a major reason why the Buccaneers are 6-3 through nine games of the 2010 season.
But the real reason for success is the play of the team’s underdogs – a slew of late-round picks and undrafted free agents. Special teams has been strong in Tampa Bay over the last couple of years due to the scrappy play of players like cornerback Elbert Mack and former kick returner Clifton Smith, both of whom were undrafted free agents in 2008 that made the active roster and epitomize the term underdog.
Rookie running back LeGarrette Blount, an undrafted free agent signed by Tennessee who was claimed off the waiver wire, leads the Bucs in rushing with 359 yards and four touchdowns on 75 carries (4.8 avg.).
Tampa Bay’s special teams battery, which includes kicker Connor Barth, punter Robert Malone and long snapper Andrew Economos also entered the league as undrafted free agents.
“In the seventh round and after the draft with free agents, we’ve put a lot of emphasis on what we do on fourth down,” Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said. “Special teams is a big thing for us. It lets young players come in and make the team and then grow into their roles [on offense and defense]. If they can accelerate that growth then that is fantastic. That’s been our mentality for us and I think that’s why we’ve had success in the seventh round.”
Other players like linebacker Geno Hayes, a sixth-rounder in 2008, and nickel cornerback E.J. Biggers, a seventh-round pick in 2009, were late-round draft picks by the Buccaneers that have emerged as starters after proving themselves on special teams.
There was a time when the fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds were virtually guaranteed to disappoint in Tampa Bay. With forgettable players like Julian Jenkins, John Stamper, Justin Phinisee and a host of others, the Bucs kept blowing late-round picks in the Bruce Allen-Jon Gruden era.
But since Dominik took over as G.M. in 2009, he and director of college scouting Dennis Hickey have put a renewed focus on making sure they mine the late rounds for gold. Both of Tampa Bay’s seventh-round picks last year, Biggers and wide receiver Sammie Stroughter made the team and are big contributors this year. All three of the Bucs’ seventh-rounders in 2010 – safety Cody Grimm, linebacker Dekoda Watson and fullback Erik Lorig – made the team and all three saw significant action last Sunday at Atlanta with Grimm starting his sixth NFL game and Lorig his second.
Only less than 20 percent of seventh-round picks play more than three years in the NFL and just five percent wind up as starters. In Tampa Bay, Dominik and Hickey are bucking that trend with some shrewd late-round drafting.
“We saw the depth in the 2010 draft as being fantastic and we wanted to find a way to take advantage of the draft all the way through and even after the draft with undrafted free agent signings,” Dominik said. “I really liked the flow of those meeting and I think it’s something we’re going to continue going forward.
“Recently, the Saints have done a really good job on the second day. That’s how they built that offensive line. I think Baltimore continually does a great job with their draft classes. I think Ozzie Newsome is one of the most underrated talent evaluators in the National Football League because of how consistent he is in finding quality players all the way through the draft. Those are two teams that have had a lot of recent success in uncovering late-round guys that have really come through for them. When you think of the Saints, you are talking about Jahri Evans, Carl Nix and Marques Colston. There are a lot of players that have come through for them as late-round picks and undrafted guys. They do a good job of finding guys at all different levels and that’s what we’re trying to do, too.”
Another way Dominik has added talent to the team is by plucking players like Blount, defensive ends Tim Crowder and Michael Bennett, rookie Ted Larsen, who has started the last three games at left guard off the wire waiver, and grabbing players like free safety Corey Lynch and quarterback Rudy Carpenter off other team’s practice squads. Dominik has done that so often, starting with left tackle Donald Penn in 2006, that you would swear the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers was filmed in Tampa Bay.
“Mark Dominik and the personnel side do a great job of scouring the preseason games for guys like Michael Bennett,” Morris said. “We also wanted to stop drafting guys in the later rounds off potential. Those ‘P’ words get you in trouble sometimes – potential and project. We’ve been through a couple of those and I’m not saying we won’t take any risks, but we want to get productive guys. That ‘P’ word is the one we were looking for.”
In all, there are currently 20 undrafted free agents on Tampa Bay’s roster with 16 on the active roster and four on injured reserve:
RB Earnest Graham (2003)
LS Andrew Economos (2005)
LT Donald Penn (2006)
WR Micheal Spurlock (2006)
K Connor Barth (2008)
OT James Lee (2008)
RB Kregg Lumpkin (2008)
CB Elbert Mack (2008)
DL Michael Bennett (2009)
QB Rudy Carpenter (2009)
C Jonathan Compas (2009 – IR)
OT Demar Dotson (2009 – IR)
RB Kareem Huggins (2009 – IR)
TE Ryan Purvis (2009)
OT Will Barker (2010)
RB LeGarrette Blount (2010)
P Robert Malone (2010)
DE Brandon Gilbeaux (2010 – IR)
OT Derek Hardman (2010)
WR Preston Parker (2010)
Of this list, Graham, Penn, Economos, Barth and Spurlock are starters, while Blount and Mack are key contributors.
The Bucs also have eight players that were drafted in rounds 5-7 on their roster:
LB Adam Hayward (2007 – sixth round)
QB Josh Johnson (2008 – fifth round)
LB Geno Hayes (2008 – sixth round)
CB E.J. Biggers (2009 – seventh round)
WR Sammie Stroughter (2009 – seventh round)
FS Cody Grimm (2010 – seventh round)
LB Dekoda Watson (2010 – seventh round)
FB Erik Lorig (2010 – seventh round)
The list grows to nine when you include Larsen, who was drafted by New England in the sixth round this year before the Bucs claimed him off waivers. Tampa Bay has just as many fifth-, sixth- and seventh-round picks – nine – on the roster as the team has first- and second-round picks.
The 16 active undrafted free agents and nine late-round picks total 27 players. That means more than half to Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster is comprised of underdogs – players that were defined as too short, too small, too slow or just not good enough by 31 other NFL teams.
“The Elbert Macks and the Corey Lynches drive us,” Morris said. “I think our success is really a credit to those guys. We gave a bunch of guys a chance to play last year and a lot of them played well. Some of them didn’t play well and they aren’t here right now because of it. Some of them have significant roles on our team because of it. There is nothing more satisfying than seeing a young guy like E.J. Biggers go out and capture a starting nickel corner spot and then go out and play well after that. Sammie Stroughter came in ready to play with a chip on his shoulder. A lot of those late-round draft picks and undrafted guys came in with a lot of hunger.
“You really have to give Mark Dominik, Dennis Hickey and all the scouts credit for scouring the draft and finding the quality character guy you want in terms of want-to and will rather just pure, sheer talent. When you go on pure, sheer talent you don’t go get a Sammie Stroughter, who is 5-foot-9 and probably runs a 4.6. You want to go get the guy with heart that plays at a high level that you know will come in and be a dynamic spark for your football team. E.J. Biggers came in with sudden quickness, great speed that we didn’t have and good ball skills. He showed some talent that made you want to dig deeper in to him. Elbert Mack came in as an undrafted free agent and didn’t just make the practice squad – he made our team. Those are the fighters we’re looking for.”
Ask many of the team’s 27 underdogs if they carry a chip on their shoulder from a disappointing draft day experience and you can see the answer in their eyes before their lips move.
“I think I carry a chip on my shoulder every day,” Bennett said. “That chip has helped me out a lot. Every day is numbered for me and I can’t take anything for granted. I ran a 4.78 at my pro day, but I ran a 4.9 or a 5.0 at the combine. I got hurt before the combine. It knocked me down in the draft because before my senior season I was listed in the top 5 defensive ends. It was weird for my agent and I. We were kind of surprised. We thought that the worst-case scenario was going in the fourth round. It didn’t work out like that then, but it’s worked out pretty good for me now.
“I feel like a lot of people on this team are like me. We’re the underdogs. We continuously work hard. I think that’s what is driving a lot of us. When everybody is in the Pro Bowl they may not work as hard. Us guys at the bottom of the roster, we continuously have to work hard. If we don’t, we get cut and are out of a job. If we do, it will go a long way.”
Ask nearly any late-round pick or undrafted free agent about how they got into the league and you will find that the word underdog is a commonly used term in the Buccaneers locker room.
“I know that on 31 other NFL teams I could be a starter,” Hayward said. “You still have that chip on your shoulder, but to be on a good team – and this team is going to be good – my role may not be as a starter. I might be a leader on special teams and have to make plays on special teams. It’s kind of tough knowing that, but as long as you buy in and you take care of, that’s all that matters. We’re going to be a good team. We’re the underdogs. Geno and I always talking about coming in the hard way as sixth-round picks, but we’ll keep fighting. Some people will relax, but we won’t. We have that mentality here. There are a lot of fighters here.”
Mack, who is one of Morris’ favorite players, concurs with Hayward’s assessment.
“There is a sense of pride in being one of the underdogs, especially here,” Mack said. “There are a lot of underdogs here. We’ve gotten a lot of guys off other team’s practice squads. The Bucs wanted to rebuild and if you are still here you are part of what they wanted to rebuild with. If all of us underdogs can keep working and come together as one, we can be Super Bowl champions. The sky is the limit.”
Mack believes that the reason why so many underdogs have succeeded in Tampa Bay over the years is because they come into the league with a sense of urgency.
“You have to come in and get it done with no excuses and no explanations,” Mack said. “That’s how we get it done in the DBs room. Being undrafted, there is a lot of pressure. You have more at stake. You don’t get the couple years to develop like you would if you were taken in the first or second round because they have invested so much in you. You have to contribute right away or they can go out and get someone else to do your job.”
“Obviously, when you are drafted in the first or second round, or even in the third round in some instances, people expect you to come in and deliver greatness right away. But if you are at the tail end of the draft or if you are undrafted like I was, they are expecting you to come in and contribute right away, but they are expecting you to do that in other ways besides offense and defense. Special teams or practice squad, whatever your role is, they expect you to be 100 percent on it and stay on your details.”
Mack has seen several of Tampa Bay’s underdogs earn roles on the practice squad and the active roster by starring on special teams like he did as a rookie.
“You definitely are happy and proud for guys like Kareem Huggins, who went from the practice squad to the roster this year,” Mack said. “I won’t ever forget that Donald Penn spoke to us and so did Earnest Graham. Both of those guys were undrafted and they were very influential to me. Both of these guys are big name guys in the program and they both came in the same way I did. I came in and made the squad and now there is a Preston Parker, a Kareem Huggins, Micheal Spurlock. Clifton Smith and I came in and did it together. He’ll be my friend forever because of what we went through together.”
Special teams can be a gateway for underdog players to make the leap from playing on fourth downs to landing roles on offense, like Graham has, and on defense like Hayes. Graham was a leading special teams tackler for several years before becoming the team’s feature back in 2007. Hayed blocked a punt and returned it for a touchdown as a rookie in 2008 before emerging as the starting weakside linebacker in 2009.
“Everyone knows Corey Lynch from special teams, but we were joking around the other day saying that we all play offense and defense as well,” Mack said. “Some might say Corey is just a punt blocker, but look at that Texans game in the preseason. He had an interception to the crib and then got another pick almost took it yard, too. With his interceptions, he probably sealed the deal and made the roster with that.”
Dating back to his days as Tampa Bay’s secondary coach, Morris has always believed that the guys at the bottom of the depth chart are so important because their hunger, drive and competitive nature as a late-round pick or an undrafted free agent is what either pushes established veterans or high draft picks to greatness – or to the bench.
“We gravitate towards underdogs,” Morris said. “I think one day you’ll be writing about Mark Dominik and calling him a genius because of some of the guys he’s stocked our roster with. We have a lot of hard working guys. When you watch us practice, you see the competition. Arrelious Benn has gotten better because of a guy ahead of him, Sammie Stroughter, and a guy behind him, Dezmon Briscoe, are pushing him. It’s the same thing with Preston Parker, one of our many undrafted guys. You get better on this team because you just don’t have a choice.”
Mack believes that the environment Morris and Dominik have created with so many young, hungry players that have come in with chips on their shoulders has helped the team fight back to win four games in the fourth quarter this year. The competitive nature that is prevalent in practice comes from having so many underdogs on the team.
“It’s kind of like a limo driver,” Mack said. “The guy sitting in the back is Ronde Barber while we drive him around town. You hope that one day you can be the guy that sits in the back. Everybody has to go through it. Ronde didn’t start at the top. He was a third-round pick that didn’t play a whole lot his rookie year. Us guys at the bottom of the list, we drive the bus. It’s always going to be more younger kids than vets in any room and that’s working real well for us.”
Spurlock, who was an undrafted free agent from Mississippi, knows how hard it is to make an NFL roster. Even after making history by being the first player in franchise history to return a kickoff for a touchdown in 2007, Spurlock was released the following year to make way for Dexter Jackson, a failed second-round pick. Since his return, Spurlock has returned a punt for a touchdown against New Orleans last year, returned a kickoff for a touchdown this season at Atlanta and emerged as the team’s third wide receiver, scoring two touchdowns.
It’s hard to believe that Spurlock was not drafted and that he was cut by the Bucs once before. But it is also a testament to how hard a player has to continually fight for a roster spot.
“When you look back at the Bucs, that’s what they’ve kind of always been about,” Spurlock said. “We’ve always been known to be scrappy. Nobody gives us a chance. The underdogs are kind of what drives this team. We’re going to work hard and scrap for you every day. I think the underdogs kind of set the tempo for the other guys.”
Spurlock said that the underdog mentality came from the top. Dominik started off as a scouting assistant before becoming pro personnel coordinator and director and eventually G.M. The same holds true for Morris, who started with the Bucs as a quality control coach in 2002 before becoming an assistant secondary coach, the team’s defensive backs coach, and finally the head coach and defensive coordinator.
“Look at how he got to where he is, Raheem came from the bottom and worked his way to the top,” Spurlock said. “He knows what it feels like to be at the bottom. I know Coach Raheem from when he was the defensive backs coach. It’s great having him as a head coach, knowing that he’s scrapping as hard as you are to find ways for us to win and for the defense to try to make plays. It’s very refreshing to see him and the energy he brings to us. He’s an underdog, too.”
Johnson, a third-year pro who got the chance to start four games at quarterback last year while Freeman developed behind the scenes, credits Morris’ belief in young players for the team’s resurgence.
“I always wondered why a guy like Clifton Smith, who was my roommate my rookie year, was never drafted because he is so talented,” Johnson said. “That’s one of the things that I love about Coach Raheem. He is always open to give young guys an opportunity to play if they put it on tape. Here they have the opportunity to play. We don’t have a lot of six- or seven-year veterans. We have a young team and all that opportunity brings out the competition level. That builds great chemistry for us.”
One of the cardinal sins in the NFL is to hang on to busts too long for ego’s sake and because of the draft pick or money invested in players, especially those drafted in the early rounds. Morris and Dominik do a great job of looking past draft status when they have their personnel meetings to discuss how players are developing and if making a roster move would be worth it or not.
“We have to go out and grade guys on the production on the football field,” Morris said. “We have to both look each other in the face and be honest. Sometimes when we make decisions we know we’re going to take critical hits for it. We’ve made some strong, bold decisions in trading Gaines Adams and cutting Dexter Jackson, a second-round pick, after just one year. As men, we can’t worry about draft status. We have to do what’s best for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Sometimes we agree to disagree, but most of the time we agree. We’re both trying to get the best players with the best qualities and best attributes.”
Dominik acknowledged that he and Morris have worked extremely well together in personnel evaluation and share the same vision.
“Our mindset has been to keep the best 53 players on the team regardless of how they were acquired,” Dominik said.“The thing that is good about Coach Morris is that he likes to sit down and watch practice film and also watch draft tape. He doesn’t want to just hear about players, he wants to see them for himself. Then we talk about what traits the players have and if they fit into what we want offensively and defensively. That fosters camaraderie puts everybody from Dennis Hickey and all our college scouts and Shelton Quarles and our pro personnel department on the same page and allows us to be more productive.”
While each underdog remembers how he made his way into the league, he may still carry a motivational chip on his shoulder, but once he makes it on Tampa Bay’s roster it doesn’t matter.
“We just come to work and we don’t look at each other as our draft status at all,” Huggins said. “There are a lot of guys that can play here – period. So what’s the point in looking at where people were drafted? We all were put in different situations, but you can only control what you can control. We’ve got a lot of guys in that situation that want to work and do well and want to win. Our common goal is to work hard and prove ourselves and get this organization wins no matter how we got here.”
In an effort to further team unity, Morris and Dominik decided to go against normal NFL practice and bring the team’s practice squad players on road trips this year.
“I’ve got a new policy change this year,” Morris said. “I’m traveling my practice squad guys. I told them, ‘I’m looking at you guys that go out there and practice every day and you guys are just as much a part of this team as anyone.’ What they give us is effort, guys like Dezmon Briscoe. Our scouts do a great job of looking at the waiver wire and not just getting us 53 great men, but also getting us guys that may eventually help us like Kareem Huggins or Ryan Purvis.”
Aside from rewarding the players from practicing hard, there is also a tactical reason why the Bucs are bringing their practice squad on the road to away games.
“A big reason why we now travel the practice squad is because we know at some point in time we will have to call these men up and help us play,” Dominik said. “We don’t want anything to be new for them in terms of traveling and how we work on the road. At the same time, they are a part of our football team – all day, every day throughout the week. There is no reason why they shouldn’t travel with our team and continue to grow with our team. Your practice squad players are usually younger players that you have accumulated. I want them to all grow together. That’s important for us.”
The amazing turnaround by the Buccaneers has been spearheaded by several players like Talib, Freeman and rookie wide receiver Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick. But Tampa Bay’s 5-3 record has also been fueled by players like Spurlock, Hayes, Biggers, and the rest of the underdogs. The combination of waiver wire and practice squad acquisitions and improved drafting on the second day has been the key.
“Maybe we weren’t as successful later in the draft a few years ago because it was a different philosophy on what type of player we wanted at the bottom of the roster,” Morris said. “I can’t really speak about what we did back then because I wasn’t high enough on the food chain. All I know about are the DBs we drafted because my opinion was highly valued by Bruce Allen. Ultimately, they made the decisions and we coached which players we got.
“But Mark and I and Dennis Hickey look for guys with military backgrounds, tough kids, guys that have two parents and have been raised right, team captains and guys who have been productive. Sometimes it’s guys other teams – and even us – have overlooked.”
The Bucs want scrappy fighters. They want resilient players who don’t blink. They want underdogs in Tampa Bay to complement and compete with the ultra-talented, high draft picks like Talib, Freeman and this year’s first-round pick, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Veterans and established players beware.
“First of all, I didn’t realize that so many of our players thought of themselves that way, and second, I’m glad I didn’t know because I never look at a player based on how or where we acquired them,” Dominik said. “We judge them based on their ability. Therefore, maybe we give more young guys an opportunity to make this football team. I didn’t really know about [this underdog mentality] in the locker room, but I think it speaks to the type of people we’re trying to keep here and the way we’re trying to build this team.”
A prime example is that the Bucs felt like Larsen had played well enough to the point where a veteran like left guard Keydrick Vincent was expendable after Week 6 in favor of a younger guy that fits Tampa Bay’s long-term plan of letting young players develop.
“A lot of the guys on this team are considered to be underdogs,” Hayes said. “It really shows the people we have in the front office. They are looking at the film and not just listening to the hype and what other people are saying about players.
“The thing about underdogs like me is that nobody may know you coming into the league, but we’re going to make sure you know us when we leave the game. That’s how a lot of our underdogs go about their business.”
And at 6-3 through the first nine games, business is quite good in Tampa Bay right now. The underdogs have given the Bucs quite a bite in 2010.