SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, Pewter Report publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place:
FAB 1. With no cornerback carrying a first-round grade in the 2013 NFL Draft other than Alabama’s Dee Milliner on Tampa Bay’s draft board, Pewter Report has learned that the team is expected to use its first-round pick on another position and address the cornerback position in free agency.
A year ago, the Bucs thought they had two starting veteran cornerbacks in Aqib Talib, who was entering a contract year, and newly signed Eric Wright. Both proved to be disappointments as they were each suspended four games due to the use of Adderall, a banned PED (performance-enhancing drug). Talib was traded to New England for a fourth-round pick and Wright battled an Achilles injury and back issues during the second half of the season.
Wright and Talib each ended their 2012 Buccaneers season with just one interception, and Wright is expected to be released this offseason because his suspension voided the guaranteed money he was expected to receive in 2013. Out of the $7.75 million Wright was supposed to be paid last year, he only received $5 million of it due to the fact that he did not meet the threshold necessary for his $250,000 workout bonus, and he also lost $2.5 million in base salary due to the suspension. Wright is due another $7.75 million this year, but likely won’t see a dime of it.
As a result, the Bucs will need two new starting cornerbacks, and after playing with rookies and second-year players (Leonard Johnson and Anthony Gaitor) and street free agents (LeQuan Lewis and Danny Gorrer) for the second half of the season, if Tampa Bay wants to improve the league’s worst-ranked secondary it will have to do so with veteran players that can make an immediate impact. Sources tell PewterReport.com that the Bucs will look to free agency to find two starters in two tiers.
The first tier includes Tampa Bay pursuing Miami’s Sean Smith and Atlanta’s Brent Grimes. Smith, who will be profiled first, is expected to be the priciest cornerback in free agency due to his intriguing combination of size, age, production and upside. He is seeking a deal that would pay him an average of $8-10 million per season.
Bucs general manager Mark Dominik has shown on plenty of occasions that he isn’t afraid of aiming for the top free agents, evidenced by his pursuit of high-priced defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth in 2009, and luring Pro Bowlers Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks to Tampa Bay in free agency last year with over $100 million worth of combined contracts.
Dominik also bestowed a five-year, $37.5-million contract for a lesser talent in Wright. So why not show that kind of money – and perhaps a little more – to a more talented player like Smith, who would give Tampa Bay the big cornerback it covets?
The Buccaneers like big cornerbacks and there is none bigger in free agency or the draft than the 6-foot-3, 218-pound Smith, who would give Tampa Bay a defender to match up with the New Orleans’ 6-foot-4, 225-pound receiver Marques Colston and Atlanta’s 6-foot-3, 220-pound target Julio Jones twice per year.
While Smith has the size and physicality to play in Greg Schiano’s defensive scheme, he is not a ballhawk, and that’s a concern that some teams have with the former second-round pick out of Utah. Smith has only generated five picks in his first five years in Miami. In fact, four of those interceptions didn’t come until his last two years with the Dolphins in which he recorded two INTs per year in 2011 and 2012.
Some Bucs fans may think that Smith is just a bigger, more expensive version of Tampa Bay cornerback E.J. Biggers, who is also an unrestricted free agent. So why spend all that money when Biggers only has three career interceptions in his three seasons with the Bucs?
But what the Bucs scouts like is the fact that he is around the ball, and has 40 career pass breakups, including 12 in 2012, and three forced fumbles to go with 210 tackles in his time with the Dolphins. And it isn’t like Smith doesn’t have a track record for creating turnovers.
He picked off nine passes in his final two seasons at Utah, including five during his last year with the Utes as a junior. In his final college game, which came against Alabama in Utah’s 31-17 victory in the Sugar Bowl, Smith had six tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a pass breakup.
Tampa Bay feels like Smith has some real upside and has not reached his potential. In 2012, Smith fared well against the likes of Pro Bowl wide receivers in Cincinnati’s A.J. Green and Houston’s Andre Johnson. Green was held to under eight yards per catch, while Johnson was confined to 11.9 yards per reception.
Smith’s best performance came against Arizona’s Pro Bowler, Larry Fitzgerald, who was held to eight catches for 64 yards and one touchdown. Smith fared better, breaking up four passes and intercepting two others.
Expecting a rookie cornerback – even one drafted in the first or second round – to come in and cover the likes of Fitzgerald, whom the Bucs are playing next year, along with Jones, Colston and another monster receiver in Detroit’s Calvin Johnson, is asking for trouble. That’s why targeting a monster-sized cornerback like the 24-year old Smith makes a lot of sense.
With what Schiano’s defense demands from its cornerbacks, and given the size and physicality that Smith plays with, it would be foolish for Dominik and the Bucs not to target Smith and make a big push for him in free agency.
FAB 2. The other top-tier cornerback the Bucs are believed to be interested in pursuing is Atlanta’s Brent Grimes. At 5-foot-10, 183 pounds, Grimes isn’t a big, physical cornerback that Tampa Bay head coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik prefer. But he does one thing that 6-foot-3, 218-pound Sean Smith doesn’t, which is pick off passes.
Grimes has picked off 13 passes in his six years in the NFL, including a total of 11 with Atlanta during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. During that two-year span, Grimes picked off Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman three times out of four games, and totaled 10 pass breakups, including a career-high six in Atlanta’s 28-24 win at Raymond James Stadium. His interception in that game came late in the fourth quarter to seal the win for the Falcons.
Grimes, who is the top-rated free agent cornerback according to ProFootballFocus.com, was less effective in 2011, picking off just one pass and breaking up 14 others in 12 games as he missed four contests with a knee injury. He tore his ACL in the first game of the 2012 season against Kansas City and was placed on injured reserve.
The fact that Grimes has had just one pick over the past two seasons, missed 19 games over that duration and will turn 30 in July will greatly reduce his market value. The Bucs are hoping they can get lure Grimes away from a division rival and sign him to a reasonable, short-term, prove-it contract.
If Grimes is healthy, he gives the Bucs an instinctive, turnover-creating cover corner that has the speed and quickness to match up with smaller receivers, such as the likes of Philadelphia’s DeSean Jackson, Atlanta’s Harry Douglas, New Orleans’ Lance Moore and Carolina’s Steve Smith among others. Those players are shorter than 6-feet and would give a long-legged defender like Smith trouble. Having a combination of a shorter, quicker corner like Grimes and a bigger, more physical corner like Smith would be ideal for Tampa Bay
While undersized, Grimes is a scrappy defensive back similar to the Bucs’ own Ronde Barber. Grimes has 254 career tackles and fights for the ball in traffic, evidenced by his 56 passes defensed.
Signing Smith and Grimes gives Tampa Bay two competitive cornerbacks that could step in and instantly improve the Bucs
’ pass defense, while helping develop the team’s young talent at the position.
FAB 3. If the Buccaneers can only lure one top-tier cornerback to Tampa Bay – either Miami’s Sean Smith or Atlanta’s Brent Grimes – Pewter Report has learned that the team will likely target a lesser-known corner, such as Pittsburgh’s Keenan Lewis or Arizona’s Greg Toler.
Toler, who was recently named by CBSSports.com’s Pete Prisco as an under-the-radar free agent, is a very intriguing player. Injuries have prevented him from playing in all 16 games in any of his four NFL seasons. He missed three games as a rookie in 2009 after entering the league as a fourth-round draft pick, and then missed a pair of games during his second season, which was his first as an NFL starter. After missing the entire 2011 campaign with a torn ACL, Toler played in 11 contests last year with two starts.
In 38 games he has shown his physicality and willingness to tackle as he has posted 128 stops, in addition to a pair of forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. Being physical and stuffing the run is an important trait of any cornerback in Greg Schiano’s defense.
Toler also excels against the pass, evidenced by five career interceptions, including a pair he returned 102 yards and 66 yards for touchdowns. The product of Division II St. Paul’s College (Va.) also has posted a sack in his fledgling NFL career.
Toler recently turned 28, so he’s no spring chicken, but he still has a lot of miles left on his NFL tires, according to the scouting community. What excites Tampa Bay about his skill set is that he is 6-feet, 192 pounds and has good coverage skills and playmaking ability.
As for Lewis, whom the team liked coming out of Oregon State in 2009, he has been a reserve cornerback during most of his his time in Pittsburgh, recording just one interception, which came in 2011, but leading the NFL in passes broken up as a full-time starter in 2012 with 23. Lewis had four games with three passes broken up and three games with two pass deflections.
Just because Lewis has only picked off one pass despite numerous opportunities doesn’t mean he can’t do it. The former Beaver recorded seven interceptions in college, including four as a senior and three as a junior.
At 6-feet, 208 pounds, Lewis has ideal size to play in Tampa Bay’s press defensive scheme. And at age 26, the Bucs feel Lewis still has plenty of upside to develop into a playmaking cover corner.
According to ProFootballFocus.com, Lewis was targeted 112 times by opposing quarterbacks in 2012, but those passers only compiled a rating of 80.7 while doing so. ProFootballFocus.com rates Lewis as the sixth-best free agent cornerback, one spot ahead of Smith on its top free agent cornerback list interestingly enough.
Like Toler, Lewis’ price tag won’t be too high. Neither of these second-tier corners will command the type of investment, but both would be upgrades over E.J. Biggers, an unrestricted free agent, and other cornerbacks on Tampa Bay’s roster.
FAB 4. In free agency the Buccaneers have the chance to get a couple of players that I really liked coming out of college four years ago. The first of which is Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson. Early in the pre-draft process in 2009, I touted Johnson as a potential first-round pick out of Georgia Tech and suggested the Buccaneers take him.
As it turned out, Johnson fell to the third round where he was selected with the 70th overall pick by the Bengals. During his Yellowjackets career, Johnson recorded 19 sacks, 30.5 tackles for loss, nine forced fumbles, two blocked kicks and one fumble recovery. As a senior, Johnson had a career-high nine sacks, 17.5 tackles for loss and two forced fumbles.
Despite stellar production, possessing measurables and running a 4.75 at the NFL scouting combine, Johnson’s draft stock fell due to the fact that he only started one game during his junior season after starting all 12 as a sophomore, and for being an inconsistent player. Bucs general manager Mark Dominik liked him at the time, but only as a second-round pick. He wasn’t sure about Johnson’s motor and inconsistency in college.
Unfortunately for Tampa Bay, the team had to surrender its second-rounder to Cleveland in the Kellen Winslow trade so it didn’t have a second-round pick . By the time the Bucs selected in the third round with the 81st overall pick, Johnson was gone and the team wound up drafting defensive tackle Roy Miller.
The Bengals have said that they would not be using the franchise tag on Johnson, who has logged 23 sacks, recovered three fumbles, picked off two passes and forced one fumble in his tenure in Cincinnati and has turned into a player with first-round talent. Johnson, who has never missed a game in his four years in the NFL, is coming off his best season in which he recorded 52 tackles, 11.5 sacks, a fumble recovery and an interception.
Tampa Bay is considering re-signing defensive end Michael Bennett, whose nine sacks and three forced fumbles led the team in both categories last year, but Johnson would represent a slight upgrade in terms of size (6-foot-7) and production as Bennett has 15 career sacks. Bennett would likely come cheaper, but he will turn 28 on November 13, while Johnson just turned 26 on February 7.
The Bucs need to sign a pass-rushing defensive end in free agency, and if it’s not Bennett it needs to be Johnson, who also has the ability and versatility to play both sides at defensive end. Johnson, an improving run defender, would be an ideal fit in Greg Schiano’s penetrating-style of defense with his length and quickness.
The other looming unrestricted free agent that would be a great fit in Tampa Bay is New York Giants wide receiver Ramses Barden. In four years, Barden, who was a third-round pick, has caught just 29 passes for 394 yards while playing in just 29 games. Barden’s best season came in 2012 when he saw action in 12 contests and caught 14 passes for 220 yards (15.7 avg.).
He had a breakout game with 10 catches for 138 yards (15.3 avg.) in New York’s 36-7 romp over Carolina, but went catch-less in seven of the last nine games of the season.
Barden’s appeal is his massive size at 6-foot-6, 224 pounds, but he doesn’t possess great speed, evidenced by a career-long catch of just 31 yards. He ran a 4.61 at the NFL scouting combine in 2009.
Playing at a small school like Cal Poly-S.L.O., Barden dominated, catching 206 passes for 4,023 yards (20.4 avg.) with 50 touchdowns. As a junior, Barden burst onto NFL scouts’ radar with 57 catches for 1,467 yards and 18 TDs, and followed that up with 67 receptions for 1,257 yards and 18 more scores as a senior. He had six games with at least 200 yards receiving and 13 games with multiple touchdowns.
Barden rarely got the chance to play against FBS schools, but he helped Cal Poly-S.L.O. upset San Diego State, 16-14, by catching three passes for 80 yards and a touchdown in 2006. In another upset at San Diego State in 2008 in which Barden’s team prevailed, 29-27, he caught seven passes for 161 yards a touchdown.
Later that year in a narrow, 36-35 overtime loss at Wisconsin, Barden caught six passes for 83 yards and a touchdown in defeat to help his draft stock. The Giants traded up six spots in the third round to take Barden in 2009.
With the likes of starting wide receiver Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, Barden has been unable to rise up the depth chart to the number three spot and has been beaten out before by the likes of Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, and most recently, Domenik Hixon. Barden could come in and compete with the likes of Arrelious Benn and Tiquan Underwood for Tampa Bay’s third wide receiver spot
as both Benn and Underwood are entering the final year of their contracts.
Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman had a great deal of success hitting big plays downfield by throwing the ball up and letting 6-foot-5 Vincent Jackson and 6-foot-2 Mike Williams jump up and get it. At 6-foot-6, Barden, who possesses a 33.5-inch vertical leap, is a similar player that has the potential to come down with deep lobs from Freeman and make big plays in the passing game.
With Cruz and Nicks going nowhere anytime soon, Barden will be looking for a new team in 2013 where he has the chance to get more playing time.
“I had a great experience with the Giants, and had I had more opportunities to seize, I would’ve seized them. And I’m confident in that,” Barden told the New York media recently. “I’m really seriously kind of excited for the offseason, because as much fun as I’ve had in New York – and yeah, I’m comfortable there – it’s probably best for me to start looking other places for a new system, for a refreshed sense of welcoming. I think everybody can benefit from newness in their lives. This is going to be one of those for me.”
Keep in mind that Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan coached Barden as a wide receivers coach during the 2009 season in New York before moving to quarterbacks in 2010. If Sullivan liked Barden from his days with the Giants expect Tampa Bay to make a run at the big, talented target.
FAB 5. Here are a few items to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Pewter Report has discovered that the famous “send these coaches back to college” statement that was reported on ProFootballTalk.com wasn’t referring to head coach Greg Schiano. It was referring to former Tampa Bay defensive backs coach Ron Cooper, who came from LSU.
Multiple sources have told Pewter Report that Cooper was in way over his head and didn’t take charge in meetings or on the sidelines on game days. Sources also said that veteran free safety Ronde Barber often took the lead when discussing making some in-game adjustments when Cooper dropped the ball on Sundays. Cooper was released from his contract this offseason and joined the University of South Florida football team as the Bulls’ secondary coach.
Barber has had experience stepping up before as a sideline coach. In Week 6 of the 2011 season, Barber took over as the team’s defensive backs coach when secondary coach Jimmy Lake suffered a knee injury during the game while jumping up to celebrate an interception with former free safety Tanard Jackson and tore knee ligaments. That forced Lake to coach from the coaches booth in the second half of the Saints game, while Barber wore the headset and took over on the sidelines.
• Talks have broken off between the club and the player and the Buccaneers are prepared to let starting nose tackle Roy Miller hit free agency for two reasons. First, the team doesn’t have an accurate gauge on what his true market value is and doesn’t want to overpay for his services. By allowing Miller to become an unrestricted free agent in 2013, the Bucs can get a better feel on what to pay Miller based on what kind of offers he’s receiving from other clubs. Tampa Bay is hoping that his desire to remain a Buccaneer and play next to good friends Gerald McCoy and Michael Bennett will afford the team the chance to match any offer Miller receives.
The second reason why the Bucs are comfortable allowing Miller to become a free agent is because he is a two-down run stuffer and the team already has a similar-type player on its roster in Gary Gibson. The problem is that Gibson battled an Achilles injury early last year, is 30 and may not be able to be counted on to start 16 games. Still, Tampa Bay would have an easier time replacing Miller by finding another run-stuffing defensive tackle than trying to find a replacement for a pass rusher like Bennett, so the Bucs are willing to take a chance by letting Miller test the free agent waters.
• If defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan was a cat he may be down to his ninth life. After Tampa Bay’s pass defense finished dead last in the league in 2012 after surrendering 297.4 yards per game, Bucs fans were calling for Sheridan’s head.
Sheridan survived an offseason purge that saw some assistant coaches, including defensive backs coach Ron Cooper and special teams coach Bob Ligashesky, lose their jobs. While he retained his post, linebackers coach Bob Fraser was promoted to assistant defensive coordinator in Tampa Bay and had previously been a defensive coordinator under Greg Schiano at Rutgers.
Robb Smith, who replaces Fraser as Tampa Bay’s linebackers coach, is also capable of calling plays on defense after serving as Rutgers defensive coordinator and leading a unit that finished fourth in the country in run defense, sixth in the nation in scoring defense and No. 10 in overall defense. That gives the Bucs five in-house candidates with defensive play-calling experience as possible replacements if the defense doesn’t improve and Sheridan is jettisoned.
Smith, Fraser and Schiano all have experience calling defensive plays, and don’t forget that the Bucs also added Dave Wannstedt as the team’s special teams coach. Both he and Butch Davis, who is still employed as a defensive consultant, have defensive coordinator experience in the NFL.
• As if the Bucs didn’t have enough insight into Rutgers players in the 2013 NFL Draft with the likes of having former Scarlet Knights defensive assistants in Bob Fraser and Matt Hafley on the staff, plus head coach Greg Schiano, Tampa Bay recently added Robb Smith to the coaching staff after he coached Rutgers defense in 2012. While Schiano, Fraser and Hafley were in the NFL last year, Smith saw the final year’s worth of development of 2013 draft candidates like cornerback Logan Ryan, linebackers Khaseem Greene and Steve Beauharnais and tight end D.C. Jefferson first-hand.
Smith, 37, has been on the Rutgers staff since 2009 and has coached special teams, outside linebackers and defensive backs. That has allowed Smith to personally coach Ryan, Greene and Beauharnais during his time with the Scarlet Knights, and additional insight will come in handy as those players are being evaluated during Tampa Bay’s pre-draft process.
Schiano’s staff in Tampa Bay now features eight former Rutgers assistants in Smith (linebackers), Fraser (assistant defensive coordinator), Hafley (safeties), John McNulty (quarterbacks), Brian Angelichio (tight ends), Tem Lukabu (defensive assistant), Randy Melvin (defensive line) and Jay Butler (strength and conditioning).
Scott Reynolds is in his 22nd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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