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1. LEFTWICH A LONG-SHOT TO WIN THE STARTING SPOT Many national media pundits like Sports Illustrated's Peter King and ESPN's John Clayton have stated that they think quarterback Byron Leftwich will win the Buccaneers starting quarterback competition. Pewter Report has been hearing otherwise. In fact, we've been hearing that the team would be surprised if Leftwich beats out Luke McCown for the starting quarterback spot.
The team is very pleased with how McCown has performed this offseason, and he has clearly been the sharpest of the three veteran quarterbacks (McCown, Leftwich, and Josh Johnson). Rookie Josh Freeman has yet to practice with the full team, and saw his only action during the rookie mini-camp. Veteran Brian Griese does not look to be on the team much longer. They tried to trade him on and since draft weekend, but have found no takers.
Leftwich is on his fourth team in four years, and people with Tampa Bay have not shied away from calling a spade a spade and saying that Leftwich is a journeyman quarterback. The slow-delivery and slow feet Leftwich possesses are said to greatly impair his status as a starting option. With Leftwich being viewed more as a veteran backup it makes for a different kind of quarterback competition.
Based on what we have heard, McCown is in the drivers seat to be the starter. Freeman is the future franchise quarterback and will be developed slowly and not forced to play prematurely. The only way that Freeman would see the field early in 2009 is if the team has a rash of injuries or the veterans have a complete breakdown in their play. Thus, McCown and Freeman are assured to make the team, and one of the other two quarterbacks will serve as the third quarterback. Right now that looks to be the primary spot where the competition is a battle with the quarterbacks.
The belief here, based on what we are hearing, is that Leftwich and Josh Johnson are competing for the same roster spot. Whoever wins that final roster spot between Leftwich and Johnson is likely to be the game-day backup early in the season. Depending on how the season goes, Freeman could become the starter or backup as the year progresses.
From what Pewter Report has heard, it is good news for McCown and Johnson. McCown has a leg up in terms of earning the starting spot, and the team is confident he will keep up the progress and win the starting job. Johnson is still in contention to make the roster, and he has another thing going for him: cost. The team would save money by choosing Johnson ($426,833 base salary) over Leftwich ($2 million base salary). On the other side, Johnson is a fifth-round pick of the previous regime so he does not have the same investment going for him with the new staff.
If Tampa Bay goes with McCown, Freeman, and Johnson it would be extremely inexperienced at quarterback. That may not be as bad as it sounds. All three are good athletes that have strong arms. That cannot be said of Leftwich, who has the arm, but not much athletic ability. Also, Leftwich is not really a long-term option to be the franchise quarterback. All of the other quarterbacks have more upside, and if the young quarterbacks develop into good players the Bucs could have some valuable trading commodities in the seasons to come. 2. ADAMS AND DOUBLE TEAMS At the Bucs rookie mini-camp defensive coordinator Jim Bates said the team had to get pressure from both defensive ends. If only one defensive end is consistently getting to the quarterback opponents can role their protection to that side to take away that pass rusher.
Last year that seemed to be an issue in the second half of the season for the Buccaneers. Defensive end Gaines Adams started out the season strong with impact plays. He had two sacks in Week 2 against the Falcons, and followed that up with an interception returned for a touchdown in Week 3 at Chicago. The following week against Green Bay, Adams intercepted another pass and made seven tackles. He had another multi-sack game at Dallas in Week 8. Halfway through the season Adams was on pace to record eight sacks and four interceptions.
In the final eight games, Adams notched only 2.5 sacks and no interceptions. On the season Adams did not force a fumble. Adams registered 6.5 sacks in 2008, only a half sack more than 2007 when he received much less playing time. Could the dip in production have been because opponents sent some double teams Adams' way after the fast start from the Buccaneers second-year pro? According to head coach Raheem Morris, double teams were not the reason for Adams' quiet performance in the second half of the season.
"I don't know if they rolled their protection to him as much as he just slowed down and didn't finish as strong as he should have," Morris said. "He still had his shots, his same looks at one-on-ones that he had in the beginning of the season, just for whatever reason he won the one-on-ones early and lost them later. He's got to come back and be ready to finish faster. Be stronger down the stretch. Get his body in better shape at the end of the season. When you come out of training camp everybody is in the best shape, you have to find a way to maintain that during the season, and then finish strong at the end."
Morris' blunt public comments are a taste of how he is riding Adams to raise his game this season, and it is critical for the Bucs' chances in the 2009 season that the fourth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft comes through with a banner season. Bates has said that defensive linemen make their biggest adjustment and jump in production from the second to the third season. Former Buc Warren Sapp agreed with that. Sapp also said that it took being pushed by defensive line coach Rod Marinelli to do that, and follow up with 16.5 sacks in his fourth season.
Multiple sources have told Pewter Report a few things regarding Adams. One, he struggled getting his hips turned to the quarterback after getting a step on the offensive tackle. Not getting his hips turned is what caused him to go outside and around the quarterback. That allowed the quarterback to take a step up and avoid Adams completely.
Another criticism of Adams from sources is that he has not developed enough pass rushing moves. Outside of a quality spin move that Adams and the Bucs save for critical situations, he does not have a repertoire of moves to use against tackles. Adams needs to get more physical and tenacious. Right now it would not be a stretch to say that he is a finesse player. Sources have also said that he needs to get more physical and better at beating double teams when a running back chips him.
All of that has to change for the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay must get a high yield of consistent steady pass rush from Adams this season. As the fourth overall pick in the draft six-sack seasons are not enough. Adams and the Bucs know that, and the pressure is on Adams in 2009 to arrive as the pass rushing stud he was expected to be. There is no doubt that he has the ability to do it. His first step off the snap is excellent, and his quickness is of the level of other top defensive ends. In fact it is better than many ends that produce good sack totals year in and year out. For Adams, the time is now. 3. LEFT DEFENSIVE END The battle to start opposite Adams is raging on between three defensive ends. Stylez G. White, Jimmy Wilkerson, and rookie Kyle Moore are all vying for the spot. The latter two have the ability to lineup inside at defensive tackle and rush the quarterback on passing downs. Morris clarified which player is the starter right now.
"Right now you have to say it is Jimmy Wilkerson," Morris said. "He is out there balling. He's doing everything you can do. He's practicing hard. He's finishing. Right now we got a young guy coming in behind him in Kyle Moore. You got Chris [Bradwell] out there working it in. He can swing inside. You always got to put White in that mix. Once he gets back to being healthy and up and running. We have a few guys out there competing. I can't wait to see them all finish it out."
Bradwell is an interesting player. He performed well in training camp last year, and outperformed fourth-round pick Dre Moore on a daily basis. Sources voiced that at the conclusion of camp, however both were cut. At 6-foot-4, 280-pounds Bradwell is generally too small for Bates as a defensive tackle so he is being worked in at defensive end while still taking some snaps at tackle. A Troy product, Bradwell was on and off the practice squad last season. The team likes him, but he seems to be a better fit as a Tampa 2 defensive tackle.
Wilkerson has a few things going for him over the competition. For starters he is coming off the best season of the veterans. While White and Wilkerson tied for second on the team with five sacks, most of White's came early in the season. Wilkerson was arguably Tampa Bay's most consistent defensive linemen last season. He is also the biggest of the defensive ends at 6-foot-2, 290 pounds. Bates is known to prefer larger defensive linemen, so Wilkerson at left end gives the Bucs a larger front four. Wilkerson has the ability to rush from defensive tackle as well, and coaches love players that have position flexibility.
It wouldn't be surprising if Wilkerson were an every-down player next season, paying left end on first and second down and moving inside on third down, with White coming in to rush the quarterback from defensive end. Moore will rotate in for Wilkerson for a series of plays. However it shakes out, it will be critical for the Bucs defense to get a better pass rush next season, and the left end will figure heavily into that becoming a reality.