Expect significant changes to be made to Tampa Bay’s roster in 2007. Of course, change should be expected after the Bucs produced a 4-12 regular season record in 2006 – their worst since 1991.
The Bucs plan to upgrade several positions through the draft and free agency. When quarterback Chris Simms signed a two-year contract extension last week, some thought the Bucs inked him to the deal with the idea of making him the team’s starting signal caller in 2007.
Simms, who was scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent during the offseason, signed a two-year deal that included a $3 million signing bonus and $2 million base salary in 2007. It could be worth as much as $14.5 million with escalators and incentives.
Simms went on record as saying he thought he’d be the Buccaneers’ starting quarterback next season. While he’ll be given that opportunity, Simms will not be handed the job again.
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said Monday that the team plans to bring in another quarterback to compete with Simms, Bruce Gradkowski and Luke McCown in training camp.
The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Simms struggled as Tampa Bay’s undisputed starting signal caller in 2006, completing 58-of-106 (54.7 percent) passes for 585 yards while tossing one touchdown and seven interceptions through three games.
His season ended prematurely after Simms suffered a ruptured spleen vs. Carolina, an injury that required emergency surgery following the Bucs’ 26-24 loss to the Panthers on Sept. 24.
It was the second time in three seasons that Simms sustained a serious injury while serving as Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback.
Gruden said Simms needs to stay healthy in order to win and solidify the quarterback job in Tampa Bay.
“We have some young quarterbacks here,” Gruden said. “I think Chris Simms is a tough guy. He has talent. Chris Simms, and he would tell you, needs to learn how to take hits better. The number one criteria for a starting quarterback are: to go wire-to-wire and stay healthy. I am not saying that it is always going to be easy to learn how to fall, but Chris has to learn to stay healthy.”
Simms originally entered the NFL in 2003 as a third-round pick out of Texas. He has completed 291-of-492 (59.1 percent) of his passes for 3,087 yards and tossed 12 touchdowns and 17 interceptions while starting 16 games, including one playoff contest.
The Bucs will attempt to re-sign QB Tim Rattay, who started Tampa Bay’s final two games in place of Gradkowski. He completed 60.4 percent of his passes for 748 yards and tossed four touchdowns and two interceptions in a total of four games.
Some question whether Gruden should have replaced Gradkowski, who completed 54 percent of his passes for 1,661 yards and tossed nine touchdowns and nine interceptions, with Rattay earlier with the offense and team struggling.
Tampa Bay’s offense, which finished the season ranked 29th overall, was held without a touchdown in six of its 16 regular season games, and it went 13 straight quarters without getting in the end zone before fullback Mike Alstott snapped that streak in Week 15 against Chicago.
While the offense might have been more productive with Rattay in the lineup, Gruden feels the sixth-round pick from Toledo will reap the benefits of the playing time he received.
“Based on the way Timmy played, you could easily say, ‘You made a tragic error there, coach.’ But I’m going to go back and say this: I think No. 7 [Gradkowski] is going to be a good player, I really do,” Gruden said. “And I thought he had his moments where he was on the cusp of getting it. I can say that if we had caught a couple passes that he laid right in there in New York, if we had caught a couple balls in Pittsburgh that he laid right in there, the results might be different. We never really got any momentum going there. We hit a lull. But I thought his movement, I thought his overall skills showed up a lot. And I thought the promise that he shows is exciting. But it’s easy to say that Rattay clearly is a pretty darn good quarterback.”
With Simms re-signed, Gradkowski and McCown under contract and Tampa Bay interested in signing another veteran signal caller in free agency, Rattay could opt to sign elsewhere as an unrestricted free agent.
The more likely scenario will be Tampa Bay pursuing a proven quarterback in free agency, where the Bucs will have close to $25 million to spend.
There could be several available players, including Mark Brunell (Washington), Drew Bledsoe (Dallas), Brett Favre (Green Bay), Byron Leftwich (Jacksonville), Jake Plummer (Denver) and Kurt Warner (Arizona).
Each of those players would have to be released by their respective teams in order to become free agents. The one player the Bucs could have their eye on is Philadelphia QB Jeff Garcia, who is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March.
Garcia, 36, has been playing in place of Donovan McNabb, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL. Garcia has started six of eight games, completing 61.7 percent of his passes for 1,309 yards and tossed 10 touchdowns and two interceptions while leading the Eagles to the NFC East division title and playoffs.
The 6-foot-1, 210-pound Garcia is well versed in the West Coast offense and has started 92 of the 99 games he’s played in since entering the league in 1999. Garcia has completed 60.9 percent of his career passes for 20,385 yards and 136 touchdowns and 73 interceptions.
Whether it’s Garcia or another veteran signal caller, Tampa Bay is determined to acquire a proven quarterback that can either win the starting job or push the team’s starting signal caller to become an even better quarterback for the Bucs.
“Isn’t that the way it should be?” Gruden said when asked if Tampa Bay would have an open competition at the quarterback position in training camp. “I think that based on where we are right now we are looking for a quarterback to come in here and take over the position for a period of years; a guy that can dominate. Not be good, be great. I think what Drew Brees did for the New Orleans Saints speaks volumes about how important that position is. I think that the teams that are in playoffs all have stability for the most part at that position. That is something that we have to achieve in Tampa Bay.”
In the meantime, Gruden plans on working with Simms to help the young quarterback improve and remedy some of the inconsistencies in his game, including batted passes at the line of scrimmage.
“We have been accused of throwing three-step drops. You’ve got to throw the three-step drop in pro football these days because of the blitz,” said Gruden. “The ball has to come out quick. There are guys coming from everywhere. A lot of the balls that we had batted down weren’t even in the quick game. They were on five-step drops. So, adjusting your arm angle sometimes, not being able to give it a full delivery as opposed to a sidearm or awkward delivery. Altering your arm angle is something he’s got to get better at, sensing passing lanes, not telegraphing throws. Those are things he’s got to really get better at because he’s going to function in the pocket. He’s not a guy who’s going to be on the perimeter, moving and dashing and dodging all the time. He’s a guy who really going to flourish in the pocket throwing the football. I think those are areas he’s really got to work at.”
In fact, Gruden seems more open to molding his version of the West Coast system around the talent he has to work with. That includes the possibility of the Bucs implementing the shotgun formation into their offense, which is something Gruden has resisted doing since becoming a head coach in 1998.
“For all the shotgun people out there, we will be looking at the shotgun here in the offseason,” Gruden said.
The Bucs aren’t ruling out the possibility of drafting a quarterback, either. The team will either have the third or fourth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft, depending on the outcome of a coin flip that will be held in March. That means the Bucs could find themselves in position to draft Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn or Ohio State’s Troy Smith.
“It’s a possibility,” Gruden said. “There’s no question about it. You are going to be involved in a coin flip with Cleveland to see where you pick, third or fourth. There’s a big game. I don’t know if it’s today or tomorrow, Louisiana State playing Notre Dame. There’s a couple interesting guys that are going to be flipping the ball around. But you want to run out there with a guy that you know is going to be there every Sunday, and a guy that’s really going to play great. And that’s what we’re after.”
Some question whether the Bucs can afford to take a quarterback with their first-round pick since the team is coming off such a disappointing season and has other pressing needs on offense and defense.
But one thing is for sure – the Bucs will be in position to draft a pretty good player in April, and they plan to address their quarterback position through free agency and/or the draft.
“We’re in a position to draft high. We’re going to draft a heck of a football player,” Gruden said. “The guy we think is the best player available. A guy that can dominate would be great. Whether it’s a quarterback or a wideout or a defensive end, we will see. But, I’m not going to worry about we have to win tomorrow or we have to win next week. I just want to get it right. I want to get it right and not worry about all that other stuff because that will take care of itself.”
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