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The National Football League has reached the midway point in the 2006 regular season. It’s no secret that things haven’t gone as planned for the 2-6 Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

However, some inquiring minds still want to know how the members of Tampa Bay’s 2006 draft class that are currently on the team’s 53-man active roster have fared thus far.

That said, Pewter Report uses this Pewter Insider article to give fans a progress report on guard Davin Joseph, tackle Jeremy Trueblood, wide receiver Maurice Stovall, cornerback Alan Zemaitis, defensive lineman Julian Jenkins and quarterback Bruce Gradkowski.

G Davin Joseph
After being sidelined for the first three regular season games, Joseph, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in April, has done a nice job of battling his way back from the severe knee injury he sustained in early September and has settled in to the starting lineup.

The Bucs feel Joseph, who has started four straight games at right guard, is still shaking off rust from the knee injury. As of right now, Joseph is better in the run-blocking department than he is in pass protection. However, the Bucs believe Joseph’s pass protection skills will improve as he gets better acclimated to life in the NFL.

“He’s done a great job of coming back from the injury,” Bucs offensive line coach Bill Muir said of Joseph. “There were four or five weeks where he was injured, and now he’s trying to make up for that time. It’s kind of like a boat – you’ve got to get the barnacles off. That was a valuable time to miss, for anybody, but especially a rookie. But he hasn’t shied away from the competition or the challenge. The skills we thought he had he has. It’s just a matter of getting acclimated to the speed of the game.”

T Jeremy Trueblood
Although he was drafted one round later than Joseph, Trueblood actually entered the starting lineup earlier than the Bucs’ first-round pick. That’s because the injury bug bit Joseph and Bucs starting right tackle Kenyatta Walker, who underwent season-ending knee surgery during the bye week.

Trueblood, who spent his entire collegiate career playing left tackle, has since started four straight games at right tackle. According to Muir, Trueblood has made a somewhat smooth transition.

“He did a good job of transitioning from college to the NFL, from left tackle to right tackle, and just feeling his way through training camp,” Muir said of Trueblood. “You could really see the potential there. The one thing about him is he’s continually gotten better. If you watch the games you’ll see that he’s playing with a little more confidence and a little more awareness. It’s not an easy adjustment for an offensive lineman under these circumstances, especially a rookie. But he’s making a good adjustment and is making steady progress. There’s a lot of upside there.”

Trueblood has been called on to block the likes of Saints defensive end Charles Grant and Giants DE Michael Strahan, and the challenge will get even tougher on Monday night when he lines up against Panthers DE Julius Peppers.

While he’s had his fair share growing pains, Trueblood has embraced the challenge that each new week presents him with.

“The encouraging thing is he hasn’t wilted because of the competition,” Muir said of Trueblood. “He’s risen to each challenge. It’s really encouraging.”

Like Joseph, the speed of the game has made it difficult for Trueblood in pass protection, which has prompted the Bucs to leave an extra tight end and/or chip blocker in to help him.

But Tampa Bay’s need to help Trueblood protect has hindered the Bucs’ ability to open up their playbook in some areas. With Trueblood going through some growing pains now, the Bucs are hoping he’ll be able to hold his own this time next year.

“Well, sooner or later they’ve all got to be on their own,” said Muir. “We’re just trying to give him as much help as we can.”

Not a lot of rookie offensive linemen start in the NFL, let alone two that are starting side-by-side. While they haven’t been perfect, the Bucs feel the right side of their offensive line will be solidified by Joseph and Trueblood sooner rather than later.

“I don’t want to sound like one of those guys that is false advertising, but I’m really encouraged by what I see,” said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. “Both guys are pro football players, and they have a great future. They really do. They’re going to be as good a right side as we’ve ever had since I’ve been here. That’s for sure. They’re seeing something for the first time, and they’re seeing some great rushers.

“They’ve had their asses yelled at. They’ve been beaten at times. They’ve had some penalties. They’ve made some errors. But they’ve competed and shown some progress. They have a lot of pride. This has been good for them. These guys are mentally going good. They’re holding up physically. Their upside is exciting.”

WR Maurice Stovall
Stovall received quite a few reps during training camp and preseason, and he even got into a regular season game in Week 4 in New Orleans. However, Stovall was derailed by a back injury he sustained in practice during the first quarter of the season, and that ailment has kept him sidelined for Tampa Bay’s last four games.

However, with Tampa Bay’s offense struggling and Stovall on the mend, look for the Bucs’ third-round pick from Notre Dame to return to action on Monday night in Carolina.

“I think he’s going to play this week,” Gruden said of Stovall. “The game day roster has been a concern of mine since the beginning, especially when it comes to special teams. We’ve got some veteran guys that really don’t contribute to special teams much, so we’ve had to supplement our roster. We’ve carried a couple more linebackers than we normally have. We’ve had injuries to [Simeon] Rice and [Ellis] Wyms, so we’ve kind of loaded up the D-line, There’s Brian Kelly’s injury. We’ve kind of dipped into a group of guys that we didn’t expect to be all active together. We’ve taken some numbers from the wide receivers. Obviously, Jerald Sowell hasn’t played, and we’ve gone down to seven offensive linemen and two quarterbacks. I don’t think there’s any doubt that Stovall is going to be a player here. He just needs a chance to play and show you.”

While they expect him to contribute on special teams, the Bucs have been crosstraining Stovall at all four receiver positions. He spent the offseason, training camp and preseason working mostly at the Z (flanker) position behind Michael Clayton. But that likely will change in 2007 as the Bucs want to groom Stovall and his 6-foot-5, 220-pound frame to eventually succeed Joey Galloway.

“You can watch him and you’ll see that he’s going to have a on-the-line-of-scrimmage presence,” Gruden said of Stovall. “I think a year from now he’s going to be an ‘X.’ He’ll be a split-end, where he can use his size on the line of scrimmage, much like Keyshawn and [Joe] Jureviciius did for us. He’s learning all four positions and he’s playing on special teams. He’s going to be good.”

CB Alan Zemaitis
The Bucs aren’t as optimistic that Zemaitis, the team’s fourth-round pick out of Penn State, will see the football field this year.

While he’s healthy, Zemaitis has had a tough time digesting Tampa Bay’s defensive scheme. Zemaitis has been inactive for all eight of Tampa Bay’s regular season games because of the fact that he’s still learning Monte Kiffin’s defense and isn’t one of the team’s better special teams contributors.

The Bucs seem resigned to the fact that Zemaitis won’t be ready to make an impact on the football field until 2007, which wouldn’t be that unusual seeing as Bucs cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly struggled to find their way in Kiffin’s defense for their first couple of seasons.

“Zemaitis is learning our defense,” said Gruden. “Unfortunately, breaking into this defense is like breaking into Fort Knox. He’s going to be a guy that gets his shot next year. There’s a chance we could get him onto the field late this year for some snaps. He struggled early in the preseason learning the system. It’s completely foreign to him because he was a shuffler at Penn State. We knew it would be a transition for him. He’s a tough guy, and he has some good instincts. You can’t help but like him, but like I said it’s tough to break into this defense, especially as a rookie.”

DL Julian Jenkins
Jenkins has had little impact on the Bucs since the team invested a fifth-round draft pick in him back in April. He’s been active for five games and has seen very little action on defense while playing mostly on special teams, where he’s notched one tackle.

That has some wondering if the Bucs made a mistake by drafting Jenkins, who played in a 3-4 scheme during his senior year at Stanford, instead of Alabama defensive end Mark Anderson, who has recorded 7.5 sacks as a backup with the Chicago Bears.

But the Bucs had a plan when they drafted Jenkins, whose 6-foot-3, 277-pound frame suggested he could play either defensive end or defensive tackle. With Ellis Wyms’ salary cap value escalating and Dewayne White scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in 2007, the Bucs felt the need to draft a player that could play both end and tackle.

Jenkins hasn’t proven anything yet, but the Bucs are optimistic that he can become that player in time.

“He really hasn’t play much on the defensive line, I think he has two snaps,” Gruden said of Jenkins. “We looked at him as an under tackle when he got here and we wanted to see if we could create a hybrid, a Ellis Wyms or Dewayne White-type of guy. We moved him to defensive end, and with Simeon Rice’s shoulder hurt there’s a chance you see some of him this week. He’s a great kid and he’s a high energy guy. He played the 3-4 defense at Stanford last year, so some of the things he’s done here are new. He’s become a dual position guy.”

QB Bruce Gradkowski
Tampa Bay’s sixth-round pick out of Toledo has seen the most significant action of any of the team’s 2006 draft picks. In fact, he’s played in seven games and started five of them at the midway point in the season.

With Chris Simms on injured reserve recovering from a Splenectomy, the Bucs have turned to Gradkowski, who has had mixed results.

Gradkowski, who became the first quarterback in Division 1-A history to complete more than 70 percent of his passes in two consecutive seasons, has completed just 52.7 percent of his passes for 857 yards. While he has great mobility, Gradkowski has struggled at times to hit open receivers, especially on deep throws.

As a result of Gradkowski’s inconsistent play and Tampa Bay’s lack of a running game, the Bucs offense ranks 31st overall and is scoring an average of just 12 points per game, which also ranks 31st in the NFL.

However, Gradkowski has done some good things, too. He engineered both of Tampa Bay’s game-winning scoring drives against Cincinnati and Philadelphia, and more importantly, Gradkowski has taken care of the football.

After watching Simms throw seven interceptions in the first three games of the season, Gradkowski has tossed six touchdowns and just one interception in five starts.

“He’s doing pretty good,” Gruden said of Gradkowski. “This is not easy. Ask [Bengals QB] Carson Palmer how many snaps he played as a rookie. The one thing Bruce is doing is not turning the ball over, and by God that’s the one thing he’s going to walk out of this season understanding. ‘Don’t turn the ball over.’ He’s made some great throws. He’s made some bad throws. He’s made some good audibles. He’s made some bad audibles. He’s made some good decisions, and he’s made some bad decisions. He’s seen the best teams there are in football. He’s seeing the best schedule there is to play. But Bruce is hanging in there. He’s doing well. That’s a credit to him.”

Gruden’s offense has gone conservative since Gradkowski entered the starting lineup, and it has the rankings and point production, or lack thereof, to prove it.

But Gruden hopes to have his playbook open up as Gradkowski gets more playing experience under his belt. If Gradkowski remains Tampa Bay’s starting signal caller for the rest of the season, he will have played in 15 games with 13 starts.

To put that number in perspective, Simms has played in 19 games and has 15 career starts since entering the league in 2003.

“I watched all the films of the Bucs in 1999, 2000 and 2001,” said Gruden. “There were  a lot of games where the Bucs just waited to get a turnover, and they’d capitalize on it. But we’ve struggled. We have really struggled. I think we’ve had five or six possessions the whole year that have started inside the other team’s 50.

“When you’re a rookie quarterback and you’re being trained to be careful with the football and execute the game plan and keep our defense around, sometimes you have a tendency to be ultra conservative. I think he has been at times, and he should be at times because that’s his role right now. And one of these days maybe we’ll open it up a little bit. We’ll be wide open and it will be exciting.”

By the time the 2006 regular season ends and the 2007 offseason begins, there’s a good chance Gradkowski will have gone from the most inexperienced quarterback on Tampa Bay’s roster to the most experienced signal caller the Bucs have as Simms and backup QB Tim Rattay are scheduled to become unrestricted free agents in 2007. Luke McCown has played in just five games (four starts) during his career.

This story is intended to be read by Pewter Insider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.



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