Copyright 2009

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers took the practice field at One Buccaneer Place on Friday for their first rookie mini-camp workout. The Bucs are scheduled to hold their final two rookie mini-camp practices on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.

The players sported pewter helmets, jerseys and black shorts for Friday afternoon’s two-hour practice.

Just as he did for Tampa Bay’s three-day mini-camp last month, head coach Raheem Morris had music playing from speakers on the field for the players’ and coaches’ entertainment as they stretched and warmed up. One of the first songs that was played was the classic tune from yesterday, “Funkytown” from Lipps, Inc. Was this to supposedly show Morris’ “old school” side?

However, one thing was noticeably different on the practice field Friday. Morris had the offense, led by first-round pick, quarterback Josh Freeman, who was sporting No. 5, wear red jerseys while the defense sported white jerseys.

Pewter Report can’t remember a time when the defense wore white jerseys in practice under former head coach Jon Gruden, but Morris decided to change things up on Friday.

Friday afternoon’s practice was held under clear and sunny skies with temperatures in the mid-to-high 80s. The humidity was in play in Tampa as well.

Tampa Bay’s six picks from the 2009 NFL Draft were present as well as eight undrafted free agents and 33 players signed to try-out contracts.

The Bucs also had a few first-year players participate in the rookie mini-camp, including cornerback Kyle Arrington and defensive tackle Dre Moore.

All eyes were on Freeman, and the observers at One Buc Place didn’t have to look hard to find the 6-foot-5, 248-pound Freeman, who towered over most of his rookie mini-camp teammates.

The media was only permitted to watch the first hour of practice, so we didn’t have the opportunity to see Freeman showcase his strong arm in 7-on-7 or 11-on-11 sessions, but his arm strength is apparent. Freeman has a real nonchalant throwing motion, and has no problem getting the ball down field in a hurry. His arm at 50 percent is stronger than last year’s starting quarterback, Jeff Garcia, at 100 percent.

Before stretching began, Morris met with the wide receivers and tight ends, coaching them up for about five minutes. From there, the players participated in calisthenics.

After team stretching, offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski worked with Freeman, try-out QB Rodney Landers and the team’s running backs and fullbacks in a play-install period.

Freeman was fairly accurate, but the right-handed signal caller clearly had trouble throwing to the right side of the field in the flat at the beginning of practice. His passes were too high for the most part, but Freeman eventually found his stride on those particular passes and recovered nicely.

While Freeman was inaccurate on some of those passes to the flat, it must be stated that he had never worked with the players he was on the field with before today, so timing was an understandable issue on a few errant throws.

Dropped passes robbed Freeman at Kansas State, and those problems followed him into Friday’s mini-camp practice. There were too many dropped passes to count, mostly from try-out running backs, fullbacks and wide receivers.

One of the players that dropped a pass was seventh-round draft pick, wide receiver Sammie Stroughter. That drop took place in warm-ups, but Stroughter didn’t let the ball hit the ground again and turned in an impressive debut as a Buc.

The coaching staff wisely worked the rotation so that Freeman was throwing to Stroughter early and often. Freeman was sharp on his throws to Stroughter on dig and slant routes. Stroughter appears to be a solid route runner and is more sudden than fast on the football field, which is a good attribute to have.

But Stroughter wasn’t perfect. Jagodzinski made a point to get his attention after one particular play when he caught the ball on a slant route.

“Stop right there,” Jagodzinski said to Stroughter as he approached him to coach him up.

While Jagodzinski was working closely with Freeman and the wide receivers, Bucs running backs coach Steve Logan spent a significant amount of time with the running backs.

Logan unveiled a new drill at One Buc Place, tying one end of a bungee cord to polls in the ground and the other end around each running back and fullback’s waist. The backs were then challenged to run forward with the football. This drill helped the backs run with power and good pad level, and tested their explosiveness and strength.

From there, Logan took the backs to the sideline to work on the JUGGS machine. The backs worked on crossing and slant routes and had the ball launched at them as their bodies crossed the JUGGS machine. Some of the backs struggled with this drill, but that was no surprise based on what they did on the actual practice field.

“You gotta catch these,” Logan shouted to his players after watching some dropped passes.

The backs weren’t the only players with problems catching the football. After making an impressive one-handed catch early in practice, Miami try-out tight end Chris Zellner dropped a few passes, including one thrown perfectly over the middle by Freeman.

Of the undrafted free agent players that the Buccaneers signed, four stand out as the most intriguing signings. The first of which is Iowa center Rob Bruggeman, whom Pewter Report had as its second-day Bucs’ Best Bet at center in its 2009 Bucs Draft Preview. Bruggeman was only a one-year starter at Iowa, but paved the way for senior running back Shonn Greene to rush for 1,850 yards and 20 touchdowns on 307 carries (6.0 avg.) last year.

Bruggeman’s career at Iowa was sidetracked due to injuries, but he is an Academic All-American and a hard-worker in the weight room. After recovering from a torn ACL in 2007 when he was poised to become a starter, Bruggeman was voted to become a team captain in 2008 despite never previously starting a game. Bruggeman has a great frame at 6-foot-4, 294 pounds and could really give Sean Mahan a run for his money in training camp for the right to back up center Jeff Faine.

Bruggeman looked the part on Friday, but it is nearly impossible to glean much information about offensive linemen wearing shorts, jerseys and helmets without any hitting.

Richmond running back Josh Vaughan is really interesting because of his size and production. At 6-foot, 232 pounds, Vaughan’s frame fits in with the likes of Earnest Graham (5-foot-9, 225 pounds) and newcomer Derrick Ward (5-foot-11, 228 pounds), who will share the load at running back this year. Despite Tim Hightower being the Spiders’ feature back for three out of his four college seasons, Vaughan was still able to rush for 1,509 yards and 16 touchdowns.

When Hightower became a member of the Arizona Cardinals last year, Vaughan stepped in as the feature back and rushed for a career-high 1,884 yards and 20 touchdowns on 355 carries (5.3 avg.). Vaughan runs with power and speed and could be a nice option for the practice squad, which became the breeding ground for both Graham and fellow running back Clifton Smith.

Vaughan was clearly the best running back on Friday, although Hofstra’s Kareem Huggins displayed a good burst and short-area quickness. Vaughan caught the ball extremely well out of the backfield, which was something some of the other backs struggled with.

Florida International cornerback Marshall McDuffie brings great size to the Buccaneers on the outside at 6-foot-2, 207 pounds. The local Valrico, Fla. product played football at Durant High School had three interceptions as a senior after being kicked off the FIU football team for the 2007 season after a well-publicized melee on the field against the University of Miami in which McDuffie kicked a Hurricane in the head.

But after his dismissal from the football team, McDuffie did a few missions to Haiti and spoke to youth groups about his mistakes. That turnaround in his behavior got him reinstated to the football team in 2008 and he made the most of it.

During practice, McDuffie was the tallest defender, and despite his long, lanky frame, he was able to drop his hips, bend his knees and backpedal pretty well. Morris likes tall corners like McDuffie and starter Aqib Talib, and with the lack of proven depth at the cornerback position, McDuffie has a chance to vie for a roster spot.

The interesting thing about McDuffie is that he played safety at FIU and is making the transition to corner. Typically, it’s the other way around with a player like Tampa Bay’s Tanard Jackson making the switch from cornerback to safety.

“I was a safety at FIU. We did a lot of blitzing and I had to cover the slot a lot, so I can cover,” McDuffie said. “The transition for me seems more natural. At corner, you are allowed to be more fluid and have less responsibility than at safety. Once I grasp the main concepts, I’ll be able to do some things at corner.”

One of the reasons why McDuffie chose to sign with the Buccaneers over other clubs was the opportunity that presented itself on the team’s depth chart and the opportunity to learn from Tampa Bay’s all-time interceptor, starting cornerback Ronde Barber.

“I’m excited to just learn from one of the greatest corners ever in Ronde. That was one of the reasons I came – just to learn from the best,” McDuffie said. “(Aqib) Talib is a big-time corner, too, and he plays much the same style of corner that I would love to play. Just to learn from those guys and compete with those guys will put me in the best position to be the best cornerback I can be.”

When asked what he brought to the Buccaneers, McDuffie said, “Aggression.” But don’t think this guy is a bad ass just because of the brawl between FIU and Miami back in 2006. McDuffie has a charming smile like Talib and is a nice, well-spoken young man who doesn’t want his role in the melee` to define him. At the same time, he is not easing up the legal means of aggression on the football field

“I’m an extremely aggressive corner or safety,” McDuffie said. “I love the football, so I attack the football whenever the opportunity presents itself. Hopefully I get in the mix and make some plays.”

The last interesting undrafted free agent is Tennessee cornerback DeAngelo Willingham was a starter at cornerback at Tennessee for a year and a half after transferring from College of the Desert where he tallied eight interceptions in two years, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He also returned a blocked field goal 90 yards for a touchdown against San Bernadino Community College.

Once at Tennessee, he started eight of 14 games at cornerback in 2007, forcing two fumbles and recovering a fumble while deflecting four passes and making 31.5 tackles. During his senior season, Willingham recorded three interceptions, broke up four more passes and notched 33 tackles.

Willingham, at 5-foot-11, 217 pounds, is an intriguing athlete who should be a factor on special teams while making the transition to safety on defense at the NFL level. He looked solid and thick and showed pretty good quickness. It would have been easier to evaluate the defensive players had Bates not been spending a lot of the time allotted to the media installing plays in a walk-through fashion.

One of the drills defensive backs coach Joe Baker had the rookies do was shadowing a fellow DB, who was playing a receiver, and jumping in front of him to pick off or break up the pass. This drill centers on the defensive backs’ timing and anticipation and Willingham and seventh-round cornerback E.J. Biggers may have performed it the best.

Biggers looked like an NFL cornerback. He was smooth in and out of his back pedal and displayed some quick feet. The way he carries himself you can tell he’s a confident player.

Former South Florida wide receiver Amarri Jackson was back for his second stint as a tryout player in the rookie mini-camp. The 6-foot-5 Jackson was a favorite of general manager Mark Dominik’s last year, which was probably the reason for the invite. But like last year, and throughout his USF career, Jackson had a couple dropped passes that will likely prevent him from becoming a Buccaneer or an NFL player for that matter.

Rookie right tackle Xavier Fulton, who was the team’s fifth-round pick, didn’t get much of a look on Friday. Fulton is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery and after going through warm-ups, he practiced one-on-one with strength coach Kurt Schulz.

Because of the way the Buccaneer practice on the field it was extremely difficult to evaluate the play of rookie defensive linemen Roy Miller, the team’s third-round pick, and Kyle Moore, who was the Bucs’ fourth-rounder. The defensive line practices on the far side of the field and reporters have to look directly past the defensive backs and linebackers to even try to catch a glimmer of what is going on down there.

After practice, Miller and Moore met with the media and certainly pass the eyeball test. Miller looks like a cannonball with thick arms, chest, lower torso and legs. Moore easily has the frame to put on another 10-15 pounds and needs to hit the weight room to add some bulk and muscle to his arms, shoulders and upper torso.

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