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The quarterback position typically is one of interest, especially this time of year, which is when positions on the depth chart are undecided heading into training camp.
With Brian Griese gone, Chris Simms will enter the 2006 regular season as Tampa Bay’s undisputed starting signal caller. However, the rest of the quarterback depth chart is muddied, and things recently became even more interesting when the Bucs invested a sixth-round draft pick in Toledo QB Bruce Gradkowski.
The addition of Gradkowski gave Tampa Bay a total of five quarterbacks, including Simms, Luke McCown, Tim Rattay and Jared Allen.
At first glance, one would think that Gradkowski would be hard-pressed to make Tampa Bay’s active roster as a rookie. He is, after all, a sixth-round draft pick.
But a closer look at this particular position shows that the Bucs aren’t exactly sold on some of their other signal callers, particularly Rattay, and that they’re quite high on Gradkowski.
Shortly after they lost Griese (knee) for the season, the Bucs traded a sixth-round pick to the 49ers last October in exchange for Rattay, who is well versed in the West Coast offense and brought some starting and playing experience to Tampa Bay.
But that experience didn’t amount to anything for Rattay last year. In fact, McCown, who has just four career starts, held off Rattay for the backup job behind Simms for the rest of the season.
It’s interesting to hear Bucs head coach Jon Gruden and quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett routinely mention McCown and how much potential and skill he has, but the Bucs have been curiously silent on Rattay. Why?
“We see Rattay the same way we saw him in San Francisco,” said Gruden. “You’re going to like him better in games than in practice. He’s not a flashy athlete, and he’s not explosive throwing the ball or running, but he’s a good quarterback.”
Rattay will need to be a good quarterback in practice if he’s going to make Tampa Bay’s active roster this year. He does, after all, carry a $1.25 million base salary, which would be awfully expensive for a third-string signal caller.
While McCown still is unproven, the Bucs love his athleticism and playmaking ability, and unlike Rattay, McCown is pretty consistent in his performances.
“McCown has the explosive and athletic ability,” said Gruden. “We just need him to become a better all-around quarterback, and that’s what we’re after this offseason.”
But after giving progress reports on both McCown and Rattay, Gruden explained why it was too early to deliver a verdict on either one of those signal callers.
“We’re one of the few teams that survived last year while playing a backup quarterback,” Gruden said. “That’s something Paul Hackett and [offensive coordinator/offensive line coach] Bill Muir deserve a lot of credit for. A lot of teams totally go in the tank when they lose their starting quarterback.
“Let’s be honest – when Simms took over we struggled, but we adjusted our style to fit him a little better, and he took so much work that it was hard to evaluate the other two guys. It’s really important for us to get those two more reps this offseason.”
Don’t be surprised if the Bucs only go to training camp with four quarterbacks. If that comes to fruition, Allen likely would be the odd man out as he’s playing over in NFL Europe and would only be an extra arm in camp, just as he was last year. However, this year, the Bucs don’t need an extra arm.
Instead, they need extra reps for their other four quarterbacks. Simms is entering his first season as a starter and will get a nice dose of reps. Gruden also will need to see more from McCown and Rattay, both of whom received a limited amount of playing time in practice last year due to the fact that Simms needed the extra work.
Now the Bucs have added Gradkowski to the picture, and they’re going to want to give him a significant amount of reps in training camp and preseason in an effort to give him a legitimate shot at beating out McCown or Rattay for an active roster spot.
The 6-foot-1, 220-pound Gradkowski had an impressive collegiate career at Toledo, starting 36 of the 49 games he played in.
He posted some impressive stats, completing an NCAA-record 68.2 percent of his career passes and throwing for 9,225 yards while tossing 85 touchdowns and 27 interceptions.
Gradkowski also showed some McCown-like mobility, rushing for 1,018 career yards (4.1 avg.) and 14 touchdowns.
Gruden loves Gradkowski’s production, his love for football and his fiery attitude, and Tampa Bay’s head coach is expecting the rookie quarterback to find a way to earn a 53-man roster spot as a rookie.
“He’s got some traits that fit our system,” said Gruden. “He’s quick, and he’s got elusiveness. He’s got 4.6 speed. He’s the NCAA completion percentage king, so he must be throwing some good passes in there. He’s got a charisma about him. He’s going to learn the offense and find a way to make the team. Then, he’s going to find a way to beat you out, and then find a way to get your job. He’s just not going to go away. He’s definitely an interesting guy.”
Some are concerned about Tampa Bay’s lack of experience and talent at the quarterback position, and understandably so.
Simms entered the league as a third-round draft pick and has started 12 of the 16 games he’s played in as a pro. Gradkowski, McCown and Rattay were each acquired by the Bucs for sixth-round draft picks, and they have started a combined 20 games in the NFL.
However, Gruden has already proven that he doesn’t need a quarterback that was drafted in the first round or previously made a Pro Bowl to have a successful offense.
“Every year I’ve been in this league I’ve known guys that might not be highly touted but can play,” said Gruden. “In Philadelphia, we had Ty Detmer, and I think we led the NFC in offense and went to the playoffs with Ty, who was a [ninth-round] pick. Rodney Peete was our quarterback. Rich Gannon was a fourth-round pick and wasn’t a highly touted guy coming into the league. Brad Johnson was a ninth-round pick.
“We got McCown in the sixth, Tim Rattay, who is a sixth and now Zeke (Zeke is Gruden’s nickname for Gradkowski) in the sixth. When you get a guy in here that has the traits and can make the completions and make plays, sometimes you say, “Hey, that guy is pretty good.” Then you forget about when the guy was drafted.”
Gruden has earned a reputation around the league as a coach that has a knack for taking journeymen quarterbacks and turning them into Pro Bowlers in his system. In addition to getting the most out of Detmer, Gruden turned Gannon, a fourth-round pick, into a Pro Bowler and record-setter in Oakland, and helped Johnson return to the Pro Bowl and win a Super Bowl in Tampa Bay.
Those are a few of the feats and success stories Gruden points to and smiles at when someone questions if the Bucs will receive good enough play from their stable of quarterbacks this year.
“I’ve never coached a first-round draft pick at quarterback except for Jeff George,” said Gruden. “And he wasn’t with me long – he got hurt early that season. I take pride in that. I take pride in finding guys that can play at that position on the second day of the draft because they do get overlooked a lot.”
Both Simms and Rattay are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in 2007. If Simms shows he is capable of successfully leading Tampa Bay’s offense this year, the Bucs likely will attempt to sign him to a long-term contract.
Rattay, on the other hand, might not even make it to the 2006 regular season, depending on how he fares in training camp and preseason.
The Bucs plan to give McCown, Rattay and even Gradkowski a significant amount of playing time in preseason, but it won’t just be in an effort to better evaluate them or help them improve.
If they have successful training camps and are able to showcase their talent for the rest of the league in preseason, McCown, Rattay or Gradkowski could become trade bait.
“[Former Green Bay Packers general manager] Ron Wolfe made a living in Green Bay drafting young quarterbacks, whether it be Mark Brunell, Aaron Brooks or Matt Hasselbeck, and bringing them along and eventually trading them in the preseason,” Gruden said. “They got some really nice returns on those picks. If you have good quarterbacks people are going to come calling. If you don’t, you’re going to be the one calling.”
Gruden makes an astute observation regarding the Packers, whom he worked for as a wide receivers coach from 1992-94.
With Brett Favre becoming a legend in Green Bay, the Packers made a habit out of showcasing some of their talented quarterbacks in preseason and then trading them away for compensation that proved to more valuable than what they had originally invested in the player.
That trend started in 1995 when the Packers traded backup QB Mark Brunell, a 1993 fifth-round pick, to Jacksonville in exchange for the Jaguars’ third- and-fifth-round draft picks.
In 1998, the Packers invested a sixth-round pick on Matt Hassebeck, who became a quality backup behind Favre. Three years later, former Green Bay coach Mike Holmgren came calling for Hasselbeck in Seattle, and the two teams made a deal. Seattle sent its second first-round pick (10th overall) to Green Bay with Seattle receiving Hasselbeck and Green Bay’s first-rounder (17th overall). In addition, the Seahawks gave the Packers their third-round draft pick.
The trend continued when the Packers selected QB Aaron Brooks in the fourth round of the 1999 NFL Draft, and traded him away to the New Orleans Saints in exchange for a third-round pick one year later.
The Bucs might have to make a tough decision in terms of which quarterbacks to keep on their active roster. Do they want two inexperienced quarterbacks in Gradkowski and McCown behind Simms on their active roster this season, or will they keep Rattay as the veteran backup behind Simms and leave Gradkowski and McCown to battle it out for the third-string job? Or, is there even a possibility that the Bucs could keep all four quarterbacks on their active roster this season?
“Yeah, if they’re four good ones,” Gruden said.
No one knows for sure how the competition at quarterback will turn out for the Bucs. But it’s quite clear that this particular position battle will be one to keep an eye on in training camp and preseason.
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