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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened up their rookie mini-camp at One Buccaneer Place under sunny and hot conditions with temperatures in the high 80s. Because Tampa Bay drafted 12 players over the weekend and signed nine players as undrafted free agents during the week, the Bucs only had 20 try-out players in attendance.
Former Bucs defensive coach and Detroit Lions head coach Wayne Fontes was in attendance on Friday for the two-hour practice. Fontes, who lives in the Tampa Bay area, was a guest of Jim Gruden, Jon’s dad, along with another former Bucs assistant coach, Frank Emanuel.
Before practice started, I had the chance to shake Bucs director of college scouting Ruston Webster’s hand and congratulate him on a solid draft. I asked him about the rumors on profootballtalk.com that have him going to Miami or Seattle. He shook his head and said that he’s “not liking the Internet too much these days.” Webster indicated he isn’t going anywhere and seemed genuinely happy to be in Tampa Bay working under Bruce Allen.
Webster is a dynamite college talent evaluator and is an asset the Bucs simply can’t afford to lose. This is the guy that understands what types of players Gruden is looking for on offense, which is something Rich McKay and Tim Ruskell simply couldn’t do (see Marquise Walker and Travis Stephens).
Webster is also good for a funny story. He said the running joke at the downtrodden One Buccaneer Place is that Larry Brackins, a receiver from Pearl River Community College, would be the only player who thought that training facility known as One Buc Place would actually be an upgrade.
Tampa Bay’s number one pick, running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, was sporting a number 24 jersey. Williams was assigned number 22 until he negotiates with Torrie Cox for the rights to the number 24, which he wore at Auburn, but somehow, Williams wound up with number 24 today.
As warm-ups began, four players were leading the calisthenics today – offensive linemen Chris Colmer and Dan Buenning, linebacker Barrett Ruud and defensive lineman Lynn McGruder.
Former Ole Miss fullback Rick Razanno, who was the first of Tampa Bay’s four seventh-round picks, is put together pretty well and moves fairly quickly for a big guy. He looks the part of a fullback. Although it’s going to be a long time before the coaches and scouts will be able to truly evaluate him. He’s not a runner and he’s a marginal receiver. His strength is lead-blocking, and that can’t be evaluated until the pads come on in training camp.
Razzano did get chided several times by Gruden for lining up in the wrong position on Friday. But with Razzano’s assault trial ending in a 9-3 hung jury the other day, there’s no doubt that his head is swimming right now.
I spent a great deal of time watching the most intriguing player in this year’s Bucs’ rookie class – Larry Brackins. This guy is raw. I mean really raw. Receivers coach Richard Mann has a real project on his hands. Brackins had several dropped passes today and seemed to beat himself up over each one. It was obvious he was trying to make a big splash instead of just playing football.
That’s what made Michael Clayton stand out in last year’s rookie mini-camp. He just went out and played football. He caught the ball effortlessly and ran smooth routes. It was no big deal. Today was clearly a big deal for Brackins, who probably wanted to prove that he belonged in an NFL camp a little too much today.
The thing that really concerns me about Brackins is Gruden’s lack of patience in general. Will Gruden ride this kid into the ground? Will Gruden put up with him running wrong routes, running sloppy routes and dropping passes while the kid makes a Herculean leap from Pearl River Community College to the NFL? The kid has some real talent, he just needs to be coached up a lot by Mann and Gruden. If Gruden is counting on this kid in 2006 and is willing to let him develop for a year, Brackins will succeed. If Gruden is counting on this kid to see significant playing time in 2005, there is a real danger of the Larry Brackins Project failing in Tampa Bay.
Brackins runs with a hunched over running style and with his head down. He body-catches and leaps up for just about every ball caught – even the ones thrown right at his numbers. By leaping to make every catch – even the routine ones – Brackins is taking away the ability to get yards after the catch, which is so vital in the West Coast offense.
I’m rooting for Brackins. He’s a good kid who comes across very humble, yet very confident in interviews. Either he really doesn’t realize how hard his transition to the NFL will be just yet, or he’s confident that he will be able to make it. If Mann thought he had a task on his hands last year prepping Clayton to be a number one receiver as a rookie, Brackins presents a whole new bouquet of challenges.
Conversely, Paris Warren, the Bucs’ second seventh-round pick, is a pretty polished wide receiver. He doesn’t take false or wasted steps, and runs good routes. You can tell that he’s been well coached. Warren looks like a classic possession receiver as he is not overly fast, yet he does manage to get separation.
I was expecting fellow seventh-round rookie receiver J.R. Russell to be a bit more polished, given his success at Louisville. Based on today alone – and that’s all I have to go by – I can see why he fell to the seventh round. Not particularly fast. Not the greatest hands. Runs too upright. Good, but not great. I really liked what he did at Louisville, and I’ll keep an eye on him.
As usual, Gruden spent a lot of time with the receivers today. There were a lot of dropped balls today, causing the head coach to have a “Chucky” moment and yell, “Keep the ball off the ground!”
But the dropped passes weren’t always the receivers’ fault. The quarterbacking was awful. Florida Atlantic’s Jared Allen and Florida State’s Fabian Walker were the try-out passers in this camp, and it is easy to see why neither was drafted. They made former USF quarterback Marquell Blackwell, who served in the same capacity last year, look like a Pro Bowler.
One receiver who had a decent day was 6-foot-4 target Kevin Youngblood, who was a practice squad player last year. He drew Gruden’s praise after one play, with the head coach saying, “What a difference a year makes, eh?”
Youngblood has to be more consistent with catching the ball and getting in and out of his breaks at full speed. Because he is so big, it takes him a while to “gear up” and “gear down.” He could be a training camp sleeper if he has a good round of OTAs in May and June.
DeAndrew Rubin, another practice squad player from a year ago, didn’t impress, which was disappointing because I was hoping he could step up in this camp and be a consistent playmaker. But there are two more days to try again.
Williams and rookie tight end Alex Smith, the Bucs’ third-round tight end, were as good as advertised. Smith made a real nice one-handed catch running full speed down the middle of the defense, while Williams was everything you see on tape – quickness, vision and speed. Williams wasn’t thrown the ball a lot today, but he didn’t drop a pass, either.
He’s also not the skinny kid that I thought he was. He’s bulked up from 205 pounds to 217 pounds and is more muscular than he was in college. That extra weight will help him absorb the pounding he’ll take in the NFL. Williams, like Razzano, is pretty well put together.
Smith needs to work on his run blocking and be more aggressive in that phase of his game. I spoke with him after practice and he came across being very intelligent and articulate, which you would expect from a Stanford man. However, tight ends coach Ron Middleton wants Smith to show a nastier side on the field and that will translate into better blocking.
The Bucs are counting on Smith to be ready to go by opening day, as the two-tight end set will be prominently featured in Gruden’s game plans this year. Don’t be surprised if Smith is the fourth-leading receiver on the team behind Clayton, Joey Galloway and Williams this year. He’s a very polished pass-catcher and has been well-coached.
I have a good feeling about the Bucs offensive line this year, and not because they added some good players in the draft. I think the line will be better coached by Bill Muir and Aaron Kromer. Kromer, whose title is “senior assistant,” will be assisting Muir this year due to Jim Pyne, who was last year’s offensive line assistant, heading to New Orleans. Pyne wasn’t really hands on and seemed to defer too much to Muir. In my opinion, Pyne didn’t do much coaching.
Kromer, on the other hand, appears to have Muir’s confidence, and he seems much more comfortable working with Muir than Pyne did. In fact, Kromer and Muir split the offensive line into two small groups so that they could pay more one-on-one attention with the linemen. Kromer is a very hands-on coach and I suspect that he and Muir will compliment each other nicely in the meeting room, too.
Don’t forget that Muir is also the offensive coordinator and is charged with the responsibility of putting in the running game packages and the pass protection sets while Gruden handles the passing game element of the game plan. Muir can’t be doing two things at once, and Kromer will be able to step in and instruct when Muir is off game-planing and the offensive line will be better off because of his presence.
It is very hard to evaluate offensive line play without pads on. That being said, center Scott Jackson, who was a practice squader last year, really seemed to step up his play from a year ago. The other three players who caught my attention were Colmer, Buenning and his Wisconsin teammate Jonathan Clinkscale. Buenning and Clinkscale need work on their lateral movement, but both are adept at straight-ahead run blocking for a power running game.
Colmer showed the speed to get to the next level and tag a linebacker on a running play, and the footwork to shut down an outside speed rush on a pass play. He’s got good footwork and some nastiness to his game, but sometimes he overextends and gets too wide of a base.
Because the Bucs have Williams as their halfback now, the team will likely run a lot of stretch plays like the New York Jets and Kansas City Chiefs have run. That zone blocking scheme will create some natual cutback lanes that a runner with good vision – like Cadillac has – should be able to exploit. The Bucs offensive line practiced the stretch play quite a bit today.
The last offensive player I’ll talk about is a try-out guy – tight end Rod Flowers from Tennessee State. Flowers stands out at 6-foot-9, 240 pounds and used to play college basketball as a power forward. Tampa Bay – like every NFL team – is searching the hardwood for the next Tony Gonzalez or Antonio Gates. But after one day, Flowers doesn’t look like the second coming of Gates.
He’s got great size, but runs heavy legged, which makes it tough for him to get separation. He’s rawer than raw, expecially his hands, but his size is intriguing. If there is one try-out guy the Bucs bring to camp, Flowers may be the guy – even though he has not played organized football since middle school. With the team cutting tight end Billy Baber on Friday, there may be a spot for Flowers if he shows more improvement over the next two days of practice.
The most impressive player on the field today, in my opinion, was Ruud. There is a scouting term called “processing information,” which means diagnosing the play and quickly putting yourself in position to make a play. Ruud was doing this all day long. This kid has instincts. Big-time instincts.
He took one or two snaps at Sam (strongside linebacker), but played the majority of practice session at Mike (middle linebacker), where he is a natural fit. For a 241-pounder, Ruud has very good closing speed and is smooth and natural dropping into coverage. This guy is a very alert and savvy player and he’s going to be a great playmaker in about a year or two. Ruud is the real deal – and I don’t care if this was Day One of the rookie mini-camp, either.
Former USC linebacker Matt Grootegoed displayed a great nose for the ball by recovering a fumble in 11-on-11 drills. The problem with him and ex-Kansas State linebacker Josh Buhl is the lack of ideal size. Both linebackers are about 210 pounds and great in coverage, but how well will they shed blocks when the pads come on in August? That’s the big concern with small linebackers. Buhl has good instincts, and from what I could tell, Grootegoed does, too.
I will say this, Buhl is much bigger in person than I thought he was going to be. He reminds me of how big Derrick Brooks was when he came out of Florida State 10 years ago. Boy, has it been that long?
New middle linebacker Byron “Bam” Hardmon is smallish in size, too, but has very good lateral quickness. He has the reputation of being a good hitter, but has some trouble diagnosing plays, and that was evident today on a few snaps.
McGruder, an undrafted free agent defensive tackle, looked a bit tentative and sluggish in the bag drills, but showed better hustle in team drills. McGruder has great traits and size at 6-foot-2, 305 pounds, and good quickness. He earned praise from defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin after practice.
Sixth-round draft pick Anthony Bryant looks the part of a nose tackle, especially with his massive 31-inch calves. But Bryant will loaf and take a play off, which he did today and at Alabama last year. He’s quick for a big 330-pound man, but doesn’t use his size to anchor well. He got driven out of his gap on more than one occasion, which you wouldn’t think is possible for a guy that big.
Bucs defensive line guru Rod Marinelli, who is charged with the responsibility of getting this guy’s motor turned up a couple notches, implored Bryant to show more effort today during the middle of the hot practice.
“One snap, Anthony,” Marinelli screamed. “On this one snap give me everything you’ve got.”
If Bryant can “play big” and play each down as if it was his last, he’ll make the team. If not, he’ll be an easy cut for the Turk in August.
In the secondary, former Vanderbilt cornerback Dominque Morris, who is an undrafted free agent, looked good making plays on the ball, while ex-Oklahoma safety Donte Nicholson, a fifth-round draft pick, also made some splash plays. I really like Nicholson and think he will give Jermaine Phillips a run for his money for the starting job in two years. He has to get better in coverage, but Nicholson’s instincts near the line of scrimmage in “the box” are razor sharp.
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