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1. DISAPPOINTMENT IN PENN While a lot of attention this offseason surrounding organized team activities has focused on middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, there is a Buccaneer whose absence has bothered the team more than Ruud's, and that is left tackle Donald Penn. There are numerous reasons why Penn's spotty attendance has irritated the staff at One Buc Place.
Penn has had inconsistent attendance in the offseason workout program due to dissatisfaction with his contract. During the 2007 season, Penn was forced into the starting lineup and has started 28 straight games at left tackle for Tampa Bay since then. He also has played extremely well against some of the best pass rushers in the NFL. Last season, Penn shut out the Dallas Cowboys' DeMarcus Ware, who led the NFL with 20 sacks in 2008. Penn also blanked Vikings end Jared Allen. At the same time, Penn has struggled against a division rival in Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham.
After his two successful seasons Penn was a restricted rights free agent, which meant the Bucs could match any offer sheet that Penn signed with another team, and if they didn't Tampa Bay would receive a first-round pick and more in compensation. That high price tag negated the market for Penn's services. Earlier in the offseason, Penn told Pewter Report that he would not sign his one-year tender contract and he wanted a multi-year contract. The Bucs and Penn's representatives could not agree on a long-term deal, and eventually he caved and signed the one-year tender.
While the numbers are not known, Pewter Report believes that Penn is seeking a large contract that is similar to what Penn would get on the open market as a starting left tackle with a solid track record.
During the offseason workouts, Penn has had spotty attendance due to displeasure with not having that lucrative multi-year deal. Missing workouts has not helped endear Penn to the new offense and the new staff. A zone-blocking scheme demands that the offensive line work in harmony while pushing downfield laterally and vertically. If the line is not on the same page it allows for openings for defenders to penetrate behind the line, and that is what kills a zone-blocking rushing attack.
Penn not being at all the offseason workouts has impaired the starting line from getting on the same page. Offensive line coach Pete Mangurian was clear about his feelings regarding Penn's absence in May.
"Donald Penn is the heir apparent at the left tackle," said Mangurian. "We wish he would have been here for more of the offseason program. That's an issue, but it's something we'll just have to deal with as a team and move on.
"There is open competition. I'm not worried about what people on the outside are thinking. I just know what we're trying to accomplish. We look at these guys and grade each play in each practice. We want guys that can compete, we want guys that improve, we want guys that don't repeat mistakes, we want guys that are consistent, intelligent and guys that are aware of what is going on around them and in the game. We want good teammates and guys that will sacrifice for the good of the team and guys that understand it's all about playing as a team, not about the individual."
When Penn has been at One Buc Place working with his teammates it was not without some controversy. On May 20, Penn and cornerback Aqib Talib let their trash-talking go too far with Talib swinging his helmet at Penn, and cutting teammate Torrie Cox, who was trying to split up his teammates, in the face. Penn is one of the biggest trash-talkers on the Bucs, and the chip on his shoulder is from a perceived amount of disrespect has motivated Penn in his career.
The day following the fight, the team was forced to spend a practice running sprints and doing conditioning work as punishment. That session was open to the media and Penn was clearly one of the most out of shape Buccaneers. Some of the rookie offensive linemen were struggling with the running, and that is to be expected because they are new to a professional conditioning program. Penn, on the other hand, is a veteran starter that had to start over numerous sprints because of repeatedly false starting his sprint before the coaches called out to the starting signal. Penn made a number of mental mistakes due to being fatigued.
Penn struggled to finish off the majority of his sprints, and was clearly not anywhere near the shape of the other starting offensive linemen like Jeff Faine, Jeremy Zuttah, Davin Joseph, and Jeremy Trueblood. The other starters were getting a good workout, but were able to do all the sprints and avoid mental mistakes due to fatigue.
At the mandatory mini-camp head coach Raheem Morris and others defended the shape that Penn was in. While the public comments were all on the same page supporting Penn, there was a different kind of chatter going on behind the scenes at One Buc Place.
Sources within the Bucs organization have told Pewter Report that the Bucs have been disappointed in Penn. The team knew that at last week's mini-camp or at training camp that Ruud would show up and be sharp. He keeps himself in great shape and prepared mentally. The team has been disappointed that Penn has not followed suit.
The disappointment in Penn also affects the organization's view of his contract. With Penn not being in shape and working out at the practices it hurts the level of commitment that the Bucs are willing to make towards him. The reality is that if the NFLPA and the NFL owners do not agree to a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, players like Penn will not hit unrestricted free agency until they have six years of service time in the league. That delays Penn's big payday by two years, and Tampa Bay can retain him on a series of one-year bargain contracts. If a deal is reached Penn will look for a big deal on the open market, and the Bucs may be willing to let him take it.
Two years ago, nobody knew who Penn was, and now the Buccaneers have James Lee and Xavier Fulton behind Penn. Lee had an impressive 2008 season behind the scenes at One Buc Place, and Fulton was drafted because he is very athletic and a skilled pass protector. Tampa Bay has worked to fortify the left tackle position in case it decides not to keep Penn as a long-term starter. The Bucs may look to draft a left tackle in the first round if Penn does not have a good season.
First things first, though, for the Bucs and Penn. He has to produce another good season in 2009. For that to happen he has to get in better shape, and be working in unison with the rest of his offensive line as they institute their new blocking scheme. If Penn works hard and performs well in 2009, the disappointment will fade and the Buccaneers will feel much better about making a multi-year commitment to him after three quality NFL seasons. 2. CADILLAC, BUCS AT A CROSSROADS Buccaneers running back Cadillac Williams believes he is on target to be ready to return to practice in training camp. While that will be another impressive recovery from a second major knee injury (torn patellar tendon), the Bucs and Williams might be better off if he's placed on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. If Williams does not go on the PUP list and returns to practice in training camp then he has to make the 53-man roster. The reason for that is the numbers game at the running back position.
Earnest Graham, Derrick Ward, and Clifton Smith are assured of making the team at running back. B.J. Askew is a lock at fullback, and Jameel Cook is competing to make the team as a backup fullback. Normally, the Buccaneers have three running backs and two fullbacks, if that were the case this year then Williams would be the odd man out. Typically, those last spots at running back and fullback are influenced greatly by special teams. Smith is already a Pro Bowl special teams ace, and Cook has been a special teams contributor throughout his career. Williams does not play special teams at all.
Working in Williams' favor for a roster spot is that Graham is expected to play some fullback. With Graham getting duty at both spots, it could allow a spot for Williams to be active as the third running back. Williams, Smith, Ward, and Graham could all be active with one true fullback in Askew being active on game day.
If the Bucs place Williams on the PUP list for training camp, then they can keep him on it for the first six weeks of the 2009 season. That would buy the team time to see if they need to fortify the running back position with Williams. It would also give Williams time to build strength and hopefully get his body healthy and ready to take the pounding and avoid another devastating injury.
Keep in mind that Williams was a favorite player of former general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Jon Gruden. General manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris do not have the same investment in Williams, so cutting the injury prone fifth-year back will not be as hard a decision for them.
One thing that would help Williams with making the team is the versatile Graham having the ability to play fullback. With Graham and Askew as fullbacks, that would open up a spot for Williams as a running back. The other aspect that will help Williams that went neglected at the end of last season because of his injury was the improvements he made as a player.
Williams gradually improved his rushing in the six games he saw action in last season. The final game against the Oakland Raiders Williams was on his way to great day when he got injured. He rushed for 78 yards on 12 carries with two touchdowns. For the season, he had 233 yards (3.7 average) and four touchdowns. What impressed this observer though, was how improved Williams was in the passing game.
In his first three seasons, Williams dropped a number of passes out of the backfield and was very shaky as a receiver, and in blitz pickup on third downs. Last season, Williams caught every ball thrown his direction, and made some tough catches on frenetic throws from quarterback Jeff Garcia. He compiled seven catches for 43 yards with a long of 25 yards that came against the Raiders.
"It is something I did work on," said Williams. "It is something that I was labeled on as I don't do good, but it actually is not the case. Actually, I have very good hands, but I got that label. To me it was never a problem. Of course I'm going to continue to work on (it)."
In his effort to continue to improve, Williams has a goal on making a similar jump in the Bucs' new offense.
"Third down, getting familiar with the blitz package," said Williams. "Getting familiar with the passing scheme. As a back you want to do everything well and have all kinds of options. I'm working on it all."
Fortunately for Williams, the shift in offense to a zone-blocking scheme should not bother him. Williams ran in that system in college at Auburn, and said that is the best system for a running back if it is run correctly.
However, this is a make-or-break year for Williams in his football career. Williams is entering the final year of his contract with the Buccaneers. Not only does Williams have to make the team at some point, but he also has to prove that he can stay healthy. Considering he has never played a full season, that is a big challenge. If Williams suffers another injury or does not have a good season, he could be a free agent that garners little to no interest on the open market. 3. MILLER UPDATE All of the Bucs' holdover defensive linemen have been adjusting to the new defensive scheme employed by defensive coordinator Jim Bates. For years now, linemen like Chris Hovan, Ryan Sims, Gaines Adams, Greg Peterson, and Stylez G. White have been used to playing in the Tampa 2. Last year, Dre Moore and Jimmy Wilkerson learned that scheme as well. With the switch to the Bates' 4-3 scheme all of Tampa Bay's defensive linemen have adjusted to new techniques. The ends are split out wider, and the tackles are lining up directly over the guards. While that is new for the holdovers, it is new for the rookies as well.
Rookie defensive tackle Roy Miller talked about that change recently with Pewter Report. Miller agreed that it has been a big change for him from the scheme that he was used in at Texas.
"At Texas, it was completely different for me," Miller said. "This is a complete different change for me. They have been fine-tuning some things and helping me to learn a new technique. Coach (Robert) Nunn has done a great job with that. Coach Wash has been the same way. They've been like ‘Throw your hands,' and it has really been helping with my transition with this defense. Everyday we watch film. They are great coaches. I'm excited everyday that I come [in]. I learn a lot. It is exciting for me.
"I mostly played a one technique (at Texas), right on top of the center. Here is more of a two- and a three-gap, but generally I'm staying on the guard and kind of playing two gaps."
It is not completely foreign to Miller as he occasionally got some snaps as a three technique for Texas. Miller said he has been working predominantly as the left defensive tackle behind starter Chris Hovan. Miller said that Hovan and Sims have been great mentors for him and he is learning a lot from them.
"Those guys, if you watch them, they do all the little things," said Miller. "Hovan and Sims, they are going to training room, and getting ready early before practice. They are coming early in the morning to warm up in the hot tub. You really get to see a pro, guys that really take this seriously and come in here and do what they have to do. Just watching [Hovan], Sims, and a lot of these guys that is how you stay around."
Miller is getting help from his teammates on the other side of the ball as well. The coaching staff seems to be focused on accelerating his development by having him scrimmage against the starters rather than the young backups.
"Number one, I've been going against Davin Joseph and Jeff Faine a lot," said Miller. "They are probably the two best I've played against, as far as they never stop, and technique-wise they are very consistent. They are fast and strong. They know exactly what they are doing every play. It is tough to make plays against them. It is a big difference, these guys are All-Pro players at the top of this league and they have everything. I've been getting a lot of good work in practice. I'm excited to go against them everyday because I know I'm going up against the best."
Miller and fourth-round pick defensive end Kyle Moore could make the biggest impact as rookies in Tampa Bay this season. Both figure to get a good amount of playing time and be rotated in regularly to keep the starters fresh. Moore is running on the first team in the pass-rushing "Go" package. Miller is a top-notch run defender that figures to get a large amount of work as a run stuffer on first and second down. 4. DOMINO EFFECT IN BAD DRAFTING One mistake in the draft begets another. For example, in 2005, the Bucs passed on Troy defensive end DeMarcus Ware to take Auburn running back Cadillac Williams. In 2007, the Bucs needed a defensive end and took Gaines Adams and passed on a stud Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson because they had drafted Williams two years earlier.
I think Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden would still have their jobs if they had not passed on the NFL's leading rusher (Peterson ran for 1,760 yards) and leading sacker last season (Ware had 20 sacks). Ouch.