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. SHAW IS A REAL SLEEPER QB IN 2014 DRAFT CLASSWhen asked about the quarterback position last week in a radio interview, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht told 98.7 The Fan, “I see franchise quarterbacks in this draft, but likely not the ones you’re thinking of.”
Reading between the lines, Licht wasn’t necessarily talking about Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, Central Florida’s Blake Bortles or Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, all of whom are considered to be top 10 picks in the 2014 NFL Draft. He might not even be talking about Fresno State’s Derek Carr, another first-round option that has been interviewed by the team and linked to the Buccaneers due to his past with Jeff Tedford, the team’s offensive coordinator. Tedford coached his brother, David, at Fresno State well over a decade ago, and also worked with Derek Carr following the 2013 Fresno State season to help prepare him for the Senior Bowl prior to being hired by the Buccaneers.
Is Licht talking about some of the accomplished SEC quarterbacks, such as Alabama’s three-time National Champion A.J. McCaron, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger or Georgia’s Aaron Murray – the last two are recovering from torn ACLs last fall? Or is Licht talking about another SEC star signal caller?
When looking at the criteria for potential franchise quarterbacks, South Carolina’s Connor Shaw checks a lot of the boxes and could be the Bucs’ fifth-round pick, as PewterReport.com has forecasted in its latest 2014 Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft. First and foremost, he’s a winner.
With Shaw as the Gamecocks’ quarterback, South Carolina has finished in the top-10 three years in a row. Only Alabama and Oregon have accomplished that feat during that span. South Carolina was also the only college football team in 2013 to beat three top-10 teams from the final Associated Press poll. Shaw was 27-5 as a starter and went undefeated against rival Clemson and also in South Carolina’s three bowl games.
He ended his college career as a winner, too. Shaw almost single-handedly beat Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl, completing 22-of-25 passes (88 percent) for 312 yards with three touchdown passes with one rushing score and a receiving touchdown. He finished his collegiate career as the only Gamecocks quarterback with 6,000 yards passing and 1,000 yards rushing.
Shaw is a very accomplished quarterback, starting his final three years at South Carolina. As a sophomore, he completed 123-of 188 passes (65.4 percent) for 1,448 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions. He set a school record for completion percentage (67.5 percent) in 2012 as a junior, completing 154-of-228 passes for 1,956 yards with 17 TDs and seven picks before completing 180-of-284 (63.4 percent) of his throws for 2,447 yards with 24 touchdowns and one interception as a senior.
New Bucs quarterback Josh McCown, who is currently slated to be the team’s starter in 2014, revealed that Smith puts a premium on turnovers.
“I think, first and foremost, to protect the football. If I’ve learned anything about playing for Coach, it’s to protect the football,” McCown said when discussing his nearly turnover-free 2013 campaign in Chicago. “Obviously 13 touchdowns and one interception is a good way to get that done, and that will be a premium that we put on us offensively, that we’re going to protect the football. And that’s not just from my position, but (for) ball carriers and those alike; we’re going to protect the football and be smart. Because we know – I’ve been around (Smith), I’ve played for him and I’ve watched it – that (the defense) is going to get the football back. They’re going to get it out; it’s going to happen. So we understand the ratios and the percentages of winning games and how important that is. So I think that’s the number one thing (Smith) is expecting.”
The fact that Shaw, an accurate passer that puts good touch on the ball, has thrown 56 touchdowns and just 14 interceptions over the past three seasons has to be attractive to Smith. The second enticing quality Shaw has is his high character, his faith and his maturity – all of which appeal to a coach like Smith. Shaw recently got engaged to his high school sweetheart, and has a stable off-field life. That’s important when dealing with the pressures that come with playing quarterback in the NFL.
The third element that Shaw could bring to the Buccaneers is athleticism and mobility to the quarterback position. Neither McCown nor Mike Glennon, who started 13 games last year as a rookie, has great scrambling ability.
“You need a guy who’s mobile enough to buy time and throw the ball or just to take off and run from time to time,” Smith said. “I think you need an athlete. In an ideal world, you have an athlete at every position. Sometimes, you look at the pass-rusher on the other side. They’re athletic and they can run. So you need a guy who’s mobile enough to buy time and throw the ball or just to take off and run from time to time.”
While Manziel is regarded as one of the most mobile quarterbacks in the draft, turning in a 4.68 in the 40-yard dash at the National Scouting Combine, and Carr surprised many with his athleticism at the Indianapolis with a 4.69 time, Shaw was faster than both with a 4.66 time. He also proved to be just as athletic, if not more, with a 116-inch broad jump and a 34-inch vertical jump, along with a respectable 4.33 time in the 20-yard shuttle.
That speed and athleticism allowed Shaw to rush for 1,683 yards and 17 touchdowns on 452 carries and turn in some memorable rushing performances, including 96 yards on 10 carries, including a 64-yarder, against Michigan in a 33-28 win in the Outback Bowl during his junior season. Shaw completed 18-of-26 passes (69.2 percent) for 224 yards and two touchdowns in that game. He has 11 career games with 70 yards rushing or more.
“I’ve had a lot of good quarterbacks, but Connor would be right there with anybody,” said South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier, who coached Danny Wuerffel, a Heisman Trophy winner, and Rex Grossman at Florida among others.
In an interview on NFL AM in February, Spurrier compared Shaw to Wilson, who won a Super Bowl in Seattle this past season just two years from being the Seahawks’ third-round pick.
“[Shaw] became a starter three years ago, he’s been the quarterback on all three of these 11-win seasons,” Spurrier said. “Connor’s just a winner. He’s a lot like Russell Wilson. He takes care of the ball, doesn’t do stupid stuff, and doesn’t take careless sacks. He can throw it away, and he’s really a good passer. Any time you see a guy who can run as well as Connor you don’t think he’s that good of a passer. I think he’s going to wow them at the Combine coming up this week and I hope he’s a mid-round pick, maybe even better. The kid is a winner, he can run with it and he can throw.”
So if Shaw is so fast, so great and won so many games with a gaudy touchdown-to-interception ratio, why is regarded as a Day 3 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft? There are several reasons, starting with his height. While his 6-foot, 206-pound frame resembles that of Manziel, he has not been as durable as the Texas A&M star and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner.
Shaw had surgery on his left foot in the 2013 offseason after missing the 2012 game against Clemson late in the year prior to the Outback Bowl. During his senior year, Shaw missed most of the game against Bortles’ UCF team due to a sprained right shoulder, but the Gamecocks did enough to prevail, 28-25.
Two weeks later in a 23-21 loss to Tennessee after spraining his MCL and LCL, Shaw was expected to miss the following game at Missouri. Battling a sprained knee and flu-like symptoms, Shaw came off the bench in the third quarter of the road game against the Tigers with the Gamecocks trailing 17-0. He completed 20-of-29 passes (69 percent) for 201 yards and three touchdowns in a dramatic, 27-24 double-overtime victory.
Shaw also operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun in Spurrier’s offense that often featured the quarterback making one read in the passing game. It will take a year for him to learn Tedford’s offense and to learn how to operate under center in the NFL. Shaw could sit for a year or two behind McCown and learn the Buccaneers offense while taking some time off from the physical wear and tear that the quarterback position receives and challenge for the starting job in 2015 or 2016.
Shaw doesn’t look like a prototypical NFL franchise quarterback, but neither did Wilson, who was full of intangibles and was drafted by Bucs director of college scouting Eric Stokes when he was in Seattle. Smith has said before that he thinks he can win with a quarterback who is not considered to be elite, and had Grossman help take his 2006 Chicago Bears to the Super Bowl.
“Do I believe in a franchise quarterback? You’d have to explain [what] ‘franchise’ [means],” Smith said. “I believe you need to have a very good player at that position. Do I think you need a Hall of Fame guy to be able to win in the NFL? No. I think you can still win with a good quarterback.”
Shaw seems like he’s a real good quarterback and a definite sleeper at the position.
FAB 2. RICHARDSON A SLEEPER AT WIDE RECEIVER FOR TAMPA BAYThe Bucs may not be interested in trading for Philadelphia wide receiver DeSean Jackson, who played for offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford at Cal, because they can draft another Jackson in the third round with Colorado’s Paul Richardson. Keep an eye on Richardson, a real sleeper in the 2014 NFL Draft with an interesting tie to Tampa Bay.
New Buccaneers tight end coach Jon Embree coached Richardson, a junior entry, when he was the head coach at Colorado from 2011-12 before being fired after going 4-21 in two seasons. Richardson, a prized recruit out of Los Angeles, had a great freshman season, catching 34 passes for 514 yards and six touchdowns in 2010 before Embree’s arrival.
As a sophomore, Richardson had 39 receptions for 555 yards (14.2 avg.) and five touchdowns for Embree despite missing four games with a knee injury. In the second game of the season Richardson exploded for a career-high 11 catches for 284 yards (25.8 avg.) and two touchdowns against Jeff Tedford’s California Golden Bears in a 36-33 overtime loss.
Richardson tore his ACL during spring football prior to his junior season. Instead of trying to return to action later in the year and miss the start of the season, Richardson made the decision to redshirt in 2012.
That didn’t help Embree’s cause at Colorado as the Buffaloes went a dismal 1-11 that year and led to his departure. The year off did Richardson a world of good as he returned to form and exploded for a career-high 83 receptions for 1,343 yards (16.2 avg.) and 10 touchdowns.
“The first 24 hours out of my surgery were the hardest,” Richardson said at the NFL Scouting Combine. “After that, I was in immediate recovery – bounce back. I was running two months after my surgery.”
Richardson didn’t lose any speed due to his knee injury, evidenced by the fact that he had 12 catches 50 yards or more, including four receptions of 70 yards or longer in his career. Eight of those catches of 50 yards or more came as a junior while playing in an offense that ranked 88th in the nation.
“My injury hasn’t become an issue. I played all last season after tearing my ACL,” Richardson said. “I didn’t miss anything because of my knee or have to sit out because of my knee, so I’ve made great progress with that.”
Another area that Richardson is seeking to make progress is with his weight. The 6-foot-1 receiver admitted to weighing 161 pounds last season, but has gotten up to 175 pounds this offseason and resembles former Buccaneers receiver Tiquan Underwood – only faster and more fluid.
If the Bucs can’t land Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins in the first round, drafting Richardson, who had a great pro day in Boulder, Colo. this week, in the third round may be an option, as the team needs a speed receiver to play in the slot or on the outside.
FAB 3. JOHNSON WAS SHOWN THE PATH TO SUCCESS UNDER SMITHCincinnati was so afraid that defensive end Michael Johnson would be too expensive to sign to a long-term deal after a career-high 11.5-sack season in 2012 that the Bengals put the franchise tag on him. So sure that Johnson would get away after another big contract year that the team signed fellow defensive end Carlos Dunlap to a big, more modest contract extension and drafted Johnson’s eventual replacement in Margus Hunt, a second-round pick in 2013.
As the 2013 season unfolded, the Bengals’ top priority became re-signing Pro Bowl three-technique defensive tackle Geno Atkins to a long-term deal, especially as Johnson was underwhelming from a statistical department with just 3.5 sacks. Cincinnati owner and team president Mike Brown told PewterReport.com that the team was hopeful to re-sign Johnson, but admitted it would be difficult with Dunlap and Atkins signed to large contracts and the development of Hunt during his rookie season.
Based on his 6-foot-7, 260-pound frame, which oozes athleticism, and his 26.5 career sacks, including the 11.5 in 2012, Johnson was able to land a big deal in free agency with the Buccaneers, signing a five-year, $43.75-million contract, including $24 million in guaranteed money despite only posting 3.5 sacks last year. But Johnson isn’t just about getting a big-dollar deal. He wants to become a great football player and a Pro Bowler now that he’s paid like one.
“We started talking to Michael’s agent, and, Michael, the first couple questions out of his mouth, he said, ‘I’m a right defensive end, right?’ and we said, ‘Yes, Michael, you’re our right defensive end,’” Bucs head coach Lovie Smith said. “We like what Adrian [Clayborn], Da’Quan [Bowers] and some of the guys can do at the left position, but Michael has spent his time [at right defensive end] getting used to that. That’s what he’s done for the most part, is to be able to rush from that side.
“As a general rule, that’s the quarterback’s blindside most of the time. You need a special guy who can rush the passer there and Michael has done some good things, but we still feel like his best ball is ahead of him. As we talk to our defensive line, everything we do is kind of based on being able to get pressure with four guys, and we’ve gotten closer to that.”
So when Smith was able to illustrate the success he’s had with right ends in his defense in stops in St. Louis and Chicago with Leonard Little and Julius Peppers, respectively, Johnson was sold on coming to Tampa Bay.
Before Smith arrived in St. Louis in 2001 Little had five sacks in the 2000 season. In his first year in Smith’s Tampa 2 defense, Little had a career-high 14.5 sacks with two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. The next year, Little had 12 sacks, a career-high nine forced fumbles and a fumble recovery and followed that up with 12.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and an interception in 2003.
Peppers was already a Pro Bowler when he arrived in Chicago, but Smith helped him make a smooth transition to making plays in the Tampa 2 defense. In 2010, his first with the Bears, Peppers had eight sacks, three forced fumbles and two interceptions. The next year, Peppers had 11 sacks and four forced fumbles and posted 11.5 sacks and a forced fumble in 2012, which was Smith’s last in Chicago.
Smith isn’t afraid of the fact that Johnson posted less-than-expected sack numbers given how quickly his right defensive ends have found success in the Tampa 2 scheme. Johnson is also quick to point out that he still had a successful 2013 campaign despite posting eight less sacks in Cincinnati.
“I think I got better last year, even though the sack numbers were not there,” Johnson said. “Anybody who watched the film from 2012 to 2013 could see that my play trended upward. I plan on it continuing to trend upward and hopefully the sacks go up in the number column, as well. I was very disruptive this year, even more so than I was the year before. Sometimes you’re right there and you get him (the quarterback), and sometimes you don’t.
“But the name of the game, like Coach Smith said, is you get turnovers, turn the ball over, and disrupt the quarterback, get him off his spot. However you do that, good things will happen. I’m going to continue to bust my tail and give all the effort I got and we’ll see what happens from there. I’m excited about coming down and playing in this defense and really being able to be aggressive and get after it.”
Bucs general manager Jason Licht pointed out that Johnson has made an impact on the passing game aside from his sacks with 25 career pass defenses, three career interceptions and 59 quarterback pressures over the past two years.
“We felt we needed a pass rusher off the edge that is disruptive not only in terms of sacks, but pressures, hurries, knockdowns, PBUs (pass break ups) and interceptions – that person is Michael Johnson,” Licht said.
One thing to note about Johnson’s low sack total in 2013 is the fact that he’s not the only Bengal that could get to the quarterback and that some of his pressures resulted in sacks for other Cincinnati defenders. Dunlap and situational pass rushing defensive end Wallace Gilberry each had 7.5 sacks to lead the team, while Atkins had six sacks before tearing his ACL in November. Defensive tackle Domata Peko and pass-rushing defensive lineman Robert Geathers also had three sacks apiece for the Bengals, illustrating the fact that Johnson wasn’t the only pass rusher in town.
Johnson and Atkins, a two-time Pro Bowler and All-Pro, fed off each other’s play for the past few years, creating an inside-outside pressure attack on the quarterback. Johnson is excited that he’ll have the chance to do that with two-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy in the Tampa 2 scheme.
“I’m very excited to play with Gerald,” Johnson said. “I got a text from him and talked to him about how excited we were to get an opportunity to play together. You’re going to see us crashing on the quarterbacks a lot in the next years to come. It’s going to be exciting, I’m stoked.
“It felt like, early on, just looking at all the teams that were getting in the hunt, that this was the best fit for me, personnel-wise, coaching-wise, all of that. Like we mentioned earlier, I feel like one of the common things is not only are we good football players, but good people. And Coach Smith and his staff, they’re good people. And like I said, good things come to good people. When you do things the right way, day in and day out, good things just happen for you. I’m just thankful to be a part of that and I’m excited to see what we do. There are going to be a lot of great things coming this way. Just hold onto your seat.” FAB 4. JOHNSON GETS THE CHANCE TO FACE FAMILIAR FOES AGAINAs fate would have it, Tampa Bay plays the AFC North teams in 2014, including Cincinnati, the former team of new right defensive end Michael Johnson and left tackle Anthony Collins. That’s good news, especially for Johnson, who has put up some of his best performances against AFC North teams.
That doesn’t come as much of a surprise as Johnson got the chance to face Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh twice a year. The familiarity of facing the offensive tackles of the Ravens, Browns and Steelers helped him put up some impressive numbers, but it also worked against him as those offensive linemen were familiar with his pass-rushing moves, too.
Johnson has sacked Baltimore’s Joe Flacco 5.5 times – more than any quarterback he’s ever brought to the ground in his five-year NFL career. Tampa Bay’s new right defensive end has sacked Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger 4.5 times.
Cleveland’s Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas has done a pretty good job of keeping Johnson at bay over the years, evidenced by just 1.5 sacks surrendered. But Johnson did record one of his 3.5 sacks last year against Cleveland.
It’s also notable that Johnson has recorded a forced fumble against Cleveland and all three of his career interceptions have come against the Browns. Johnson has picked off a Browns quarterback once in the past three years.
The Bucs also play against the teams of the NFC North in 2014, which happens to be the division the Bengals played against last season. Johnson will enter the upcoming campaign with some familiarity against that division’s left tackles and quarterbacks, but was not terribly successful against the NFC North foes.
In a 24-21 loss to Chicago in the season opener, Johnson only had three tackles. He fared even worse in games against Detroit and Minnesota in which he only had one tackle in each of those contests. However, Johnson did have success against Green Bay recording a season-high seven tackles, 1.5 sacks, one forced fumble and a pass defensed.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• The recruiting factor of Lovie Smith was not just felt in the caliber of players he and general manager Jason Licht were able to lure to Tampa Bay. It was also felt in the contracts negotiated by director of football administration Mike Greenberg.
The Bucs no longer had to over pay (see wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Darrelle Revis) to get quality players to want to come play in Tampa Bay. Smith was able to attract players like Pro Bowl cornerback Alterraun Verner, left tackle Anthony Collins and defensive end Michael Johnson to become Buccaneers for very reasonable price.
Johnson’s five-year contract averages $8.75 million per season (five years, $43.75 million, $24 million guaranteed). While that is more than what Lamarr Houston received ($7 million average in Chicago) and what Michael Bennett got ($7.125 million average in Seattle), it’s far less than DeMarcus Ware’s $10 million average in Denver.
Collins’ deal averages $6 million per season (five years, $30 million with $15 million guaranteed), which was $1 million less than left tackle Donald Penn was scheduled to make in 2014, and less than the likes of St. Louis’ Rodger Saffold ($6.125 per year), Arizona’s Jared Veldheer ($7 million per year), Baltimore’s Eugene Monroe ($7.5 million) and Miami’s Branden Albert ($9.4 million). And Collins graded out as Pro Football Focus’ top free agent offensive tackle.
Verner’s deal averages $5.2 million per year (five years, $26 million with $14 million), and that’s a steal for a 25-year old Pro Bowler. Denver’s Aqib Talib got overpaid on a deal that averages $9.5 million per year. Green Bay’s Sam Shields cashed in with a four-year deal that averages $9.75 million. Darrelle Revis will make $12 million in New England this year. Verner is an absolute steal.
• Newly acquired Dane Fletcher is expected to compete with Mason Foster for the middle linebacker spot this year in Tampa Bay. Foster gets the early nod due to his experience, but it’s not like the cupboard is bare at middle linebacker. The 6-foot-1, 245-pound Fletcher has 4.61 speed and is an underrated player. In three seasons in New England, Fletcher recorded 81 tackles, four sacks, three forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and an interception.
• While the Bucs are signing a slew of free agents this offseason, some newcomers, such as cornerback Mike Jenkins and guard Oneil Cousins, are not necessarily guaranteed to make the roster. The same could be said of players Tampa Bay re-signed, such as cornerback Danny Gorrer and kick returner Eric Page.
In 2002, one of the big free agent signings was tight end Marco Battaglia, but he was beaten out by Ken Dilger in training camp, and Rickey Dudley was signed prior to the season opener to replace Battaglia.
• It was interesting how ProFootballTalk.com’s latest mock draft featured Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald going to Tampa Bay at No. 7 in the first round. The reasoning for picking Donald, who was nearly given the nod as Tampa Bay’s first-rounder in PewterReport.com’s most recent 2014 Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft, was spelled out in a recent SR’s Fab 5 column. If Donald ends up as the Bucs’ first-round pick it makes an awful lot of sense, given how tailor-made he is for the Tampa 2 scheme and the sheer importance of the three-technique defensive tackle.
• Not only would it not be terribly surprising if the Bucs pulled the trigger on Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who won the Outland Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy, but don’t be shocked if the Bucs are interested in drafting an offensive tackle and pull the trigger on Auburn’s Greg Robinson or Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews. On the surface, the Bucs have a good, young left tackle in Anthony Collins, and a very good right tackle in Demar Dotson.
The reason is because Collins is somewhat unproven and hasn’t started 16 games in a season yet, and because Dotson hasn’t sniffed a Pro Bowl yet and will turn 29 in October. Drafting a premier left tackle candidate to develop in 2014 and offer depth could also make sense for Tampa Bay. Bucs head coach Lovie Smith said that the acquisition of Collins doesn’t preclude the team drafting an offensive tackle.
In fact, Smith said he could make the case for the Buccaneers drafting as many as six different positions and that the team’s gains in free agency open the door for Tampa Bay truly taking the best available player in the first round.
“It’s always about the best available,” Smith said. “You have to not just look at the small picture, but the big picture, too. We have a great three-technique and a great defensive end. But does it take [those positions] off the board? No, we’re not going to do that. Offensive line? No, we’re not going to do that. I guess I better mention all other positions, too (laughs).”
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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