The Tampa Bay Buccaneers kicked off their 2006 mandatory mini-camp under sunny skies and hot conditions at One Buccaneer Place. Those absent for the Tuesday morning practice included quarterback Luke McCown, who will undergo knee surgery within 48 hours, according to head coach Jon Gruden, guard Tonui Fonoti, whose absence was unexcused, and nose tackle Anthony Bryant, who was excused due to an illness in the family.

Among those spectators in attendance was Jay Gruden, Jon’s little brother – fresh off the Orlando Predators’ appearance in the Arena Football League championship game, and Tampa Bay Storm football coach Tim Marcum.

The team captains for calisthenics were as follows: fullback Mike Alstott, center John Wade, linebacker Ryan Nece, who serves as the special teams captain, linebacker Derrick Brooks, cornerback Ronde Barber and defensive end Simeon Rice. What’s interesting is that neither quarterback Chris Simms nor running back Cadillac Williams was a captain.

The tight ends worked a lot on blocking from being in motion. It’s obvious that veterans Alex Smith and Anthony Becht are the strongest of the bunch. Rookie Tim Massaquoi is a physical specimen, but is a bit undersized. He has quick feet and a good punch. Rookie T.J. Williams obviously needs to work on his blocking skills, especially keeping his legs driving.

Backup quarterback Tim Rattay has a quick release, but threw some very “duck-like” passes today. The arm strength difference between Simms and Rattay is like night and day. Where Simms gets amped up and animated on the field, Rattay’s approach is more nonchalant and laid back.

Gruden has said himself that Rattay isn’t a great practice player, and PewterReport.com can confirm that. However, Rattay still made a few nice plays, especially in the short-to-intermediate part of the field, which is critical for a West Coast offense.

Here are a couple of observations about some of the team’s wide receivers. Wideout J.R. Russell looks like he’s added size and has bulked up. He was a rather skinny player last year, but he’s muscled up this offseason. Russell made a great diving catch during the morning session. It definitely caught veteran Joey Galloway’s attention. “Great catch, kid,” Galloway yelled to Russell after the grab.

Galloway was in fine form this morning and plucked a few passes out of the air with his clutch hands. Galloway shows no signs of slowing down in 2006 and was essentially toying with the Bucs defensive backs that were trying to cover him during practice. Galloway sat out the afternoon practice as part of his regimen to keep him fresh and healthy.

Chas Gessner, who is 6-foot-3, and weighs 215 pounds, looks big and quick. Due to the offseason additions of Maurice Stovall and David Boston, Gessner doesn’t have much of a chance to make the team unless he has an unbelievable camp and takes advantage of some training camp injuries that always seem to plague the wide receiver position. But he’s an interesting looking receiver and may impress enough to earn a practice squad spot.

New wide receiver Ben Nelson is a skinny, 6-foot-2, 188-pounder who has very good speed. But with him being brand new to the offense, he has virtually no chance of making the team.

Wide receiver Larry Brackins has all the physical tools, but might not have the mentality to make it. He’s been with the Bucs for over a year now and as he went to execute a block on cornerback James Patrick, he literally wrapped both arms around him and hugged him. That will draw a holding – or “hugging” – penalty every time. He should know better than to use poor technique like that.

Brackins looks much quicker in and out of his routes compared to last year, but he needs to do a better job of selling them. In fact, Bucs receivers coach Ricahrd Mann yelled at Brackins for giving away the route with his head on comeback routes.

“Don’t give it away,” Mann shouted to Brackins.

Brackins also had a few dropped passes during Tuesday morning’s workout.

David Boston was limited in the morning session, and when he did have a chance to play, he looked somewhat slower than advertised. Boston also dropped a pass early on in warm-ups. However, Boston did show his true speed after catching a short pass on a slant pattern and racing down the sideline for what would have been a touchdown during 7-on-7 drills. He has a second gear and can turn on the afterburners when he wants to. You get the impression that Gruden wants those afterburners going on every play.

Third-year receiver Michael Clayton is in fantastic shape. He ran very hard and sharp routes, and looks much quicker than last year. However, he still has room for improvement in terms of catching passes. He dropped a few on Tuesday. Injuries and dropped passes plagued him in 2005. Clayton appears to be over the injury hurdle, but he must focus more in practice and catch every pass thrown his way.

Clayton was seen working a lot with Stovall, who is working at the Z (flanker) position, which is the same one Clayton starts at. Stovall got a lot of reps at receiver and the team is very pleased with his no-nonsense, business-like approach to football. Stovall ran some excellent routes, and his big frame certainly makes him easy to notice on the field. However, like several other receivers, Stovall also was guilty of dropping a pass on Tuesday.

Wide receiver Mark Jones is undersized at 5-foot-9 and just doesn’t have the physical presence that pass-catchers need to have in Gruden’s offense. Jones’ asset is his speed, but with his lack of size and underwhelming strength, he can get re-routed easier than the team would like. If Jones doesn’t win a return job, he could be out of a job – especially with the addition of Boston and Stovall this offseason.

Gruden, as usual, emphasized the importance of getting the offense up to the line of scrimmage and getting the play off in a timely manner.

“Come on, 17 seconds, 17 seconds!” Gruden repeatedly shouted.

The point is for the offense to get to the line with about 15 seconds left on the play clock so the players have time to shift and go in motion prior to the snap. Gruden made the offense huddle up again on a few different occasions because of false starts and/or missed assignments.

“Am I a [expletive] elementary school teacher or what,” Gruden asked in frustration after rookie running back Andre Hall appeared to line up wrong.

Hall has made more mental errors than the team would like to see and he hasn’t been creating much of a buzz this offseason. While he has good hands, Hall shows well as a running back and ripped off a couple of nice runs today.

Smith has definitely improved in the run-blocking department, evidenced by him opening up a huge running lane for Hall on the outside during 11-on-11s. The run would have easily been for 20 or more yards.

Running back Cadillac Williams didn’t stand out much in today’s practice. One back who did was new fullback Jerald Sowell, who looks like a freight train when he has the ball in his hands. Sowell is thickly built and will be a load to bring down as a receiver on flare passes.

Tampa Bay’s starting offensive line from 2005 was virtually intact today. The only difference was that it appeared that Sean Mahan and John Wade were splitting the first-team reps at center. When Mahan was starting at center, Jeb Terry was playing right guard instead of rookie Davin Joseph. However, when the second-string unit was in, Terry moved to left guard to replace the absent Fonoti while Joseph slid into the right guard spot.

Joseph and rookie right tackle Jeremy Trueblood have already formed great chemistry and work well together. They were working on pulling in individual drills, and both players showed good movement skills. Trueblood, who has a great punch, looks more athletic and fluid in person than he did on game film.

Torrin Tucker looks heavy and a bit lackadaisical out there. He wasn’t too impressive today. It’s doubtful that he will beat out Anthony Davis in training camp for the left tackle position. Tucker has great size, but Davis is powerfully built and has a great work ethic. The Bucs paid a lot to get Tucker, but they’re really paying for his versatility rather than his starter ability, which he likely doesn’t have.

Davis and left guard Dan Buenning were practicing pulling to the right during individual drills, which is something that Tampa Bay rarely did last year. The Bucs would usually pull Mahan from the right guard position and run him around left tackle. It will be interesting to see if Buenning or Davis pulls more often in 2006.

Simms had an outstanding practice. Although he misfired on a few passes, Simms has a great grasp on the playbook and knows where every receiver is supposed to be. Simms looks as though he’s added arm strength this offseason, which is impressive seeing as he had a very strong arm before.

His best throw of the day came in the morning session when he threw a rocket down the left sideline for wide receiver Derek McCoy, who hauled in the perfectly thrown pass for a touchdown. On one play, Simms drew praise from the offense for a pump-fake that caused veteran linebacker Jamie Winborn to bite on a wicked juke.

You can see how confident Simms has become with playing time under his belt. He really showed the ability to create plays out of nothing today. Whether it was a sidearm throw to a back in the flat when blitzed, or a quick toss to a tight end when pressured up the middle, Simms is showing some real playmaking ability – especially when it looks like there is no way to make a play to begin with.

Rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski had his fair share of errant passes during the morning practice, but he thrives on the run, evidenced by some of the great throws he made while scrambling on the practice field. The one thing Gradkowski must refrain from doing is scramble too much. This ain’t Toledo and Gradkowski is going to be able to pick up an occasion first down on a 7-yard scramble, but he needs to run only when there is a running lane. Gradkowski needs to learn how to throw the ball away, which likely goes against his competitive nature.

There weren’t any changes to the starting defensive lineup. The second-string defensive backfield through the morning 11-on-11’s was typically safety Kalvin Pearson and Donte Nicholson, and cornerbacks Juran Bolden, Torrie Cox and Blue Adams.

The second-string linebackers were Jamie Winborn (weakside), Barrett Ruud (middle) and Marquis Cooper (strongside).

The second-string defensive line featured Dewayne White at left defensive end, Lynn McGruder at under tackle, Ellis Wyms at nose tackle and Jon Bradley, who typically plays defensive tackle, at right defensive end.

Under tackle Anthony McFarland looked lighter and quicker today than he was last year during the summer. But McFarland’s quickness was noticed as he moved laterally. He still needs to work on his upfield penetration. Nose tackle Chris Hovan got some great pressure up the middle and would have recorded a sack after he beat Mahan, who was playing center. Mahan also got beat by Wyms on another play, and gave up a would-be sack.

Bucs rookie defensive lineman Julian Jenkins, safety Jermaine Phillips, Keith Wright, Hovan and Wyms each made outstanding plays in the offensive backfield during 11-on-11s.

Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber made two great pass breakups during 11-on-11s while Simms was at quarterback.

Cox had a nice pass breakup on a pass intended for Edell Shepherd in 11-on-11 drills.

Tampa Bay’s linebackers were active during 11-on-11s. Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin blitzed the linebackers quite often. In fact, Wesly Mallard got off clean into Tampa Bay’s offensive backfield and would have easily registered a sack had the drill been contact.

Ruud displays excellent communication skills for a second-year player. He makes sure that everyone knows his calls and audibles. He also has honed his great instincts and is reacting to the ball even faster this year.

Bucs Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks ended the morning’s practice with a great pass breakup in the flat.

In the special teams portion of practice, Bucs kicker Matt Bryant was 4-of-4 on field goal attempts. Punter Josh Bidwell displayed an extremely strong and accurate leg during the morning session.

Wide receivers Ike Hilliard, Shepherd, Jones and Galloway were fielding punts from Bidwell. Jones displayed great fluidity and body control in dodging on-coming tacklers while returning punts.

Terry had a few mishaps at the long snapper position, including a snap that went about 5 yards over Bidwell’s head and deep into the backfield. Another Terry high snap was barely fielded by Bidwell. That drew the wrath of special teams assistant coach Ron Middleton.

Rookie cornerback Alan Zemaitis was playing personal protector on punt plays.

One last note on McCown’s injury. McCown was walking around the afternoon practice with his right knee wrapped up, but was not sporting a brace. He also played golf with Rattay and Gruden on Monday, so reports of a torn ACL may be a bit premature. We may not know the extent of McCown’s injury until the doctors go in and do the surgery, but the team is preparing for him to miss a significant part of the season.

The Buccaneers’ afternoon practice was shortened due to lightning. Due to the abbreviated practice and the fact that a lot of the drills took place on the far practice field, PewterReport.com will not file an afternoon Insider practice report.

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th 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 spent six years 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: sr@pewterreport.com
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