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1. OLSON IS BUCS' MOST IMPORTANT ASSISTANT COACH
One of the biggest causes for draft picks to be successful or failures is the coaching that players receive. The same player can become a standout All-Pro, or a monumental bust depending on what team they land with and how they are developed. This is an old fact that Pewter Report subscribers are sure to be familiar with.
Astute NFL teams spend premium picks on positions that have the best position coaches on the staff. Those assistants groom those players and turn them into successful pros. Look no further than Tampa Bay for a great example.
Raheem Morris was the best assistant coach the past two seasons in Tampa Bay, and that led to him being named the Bucs' next head coach. In 2007, the Bucs drafted safety Sabby Piscitelli (round two), Tanard Jackson (round four), and cornerback Marcus Hamilton (round seven). Morris coached Jackson to outstanding seasons in his first two years as a pro. Piscitelli was all over the field last year in training camp, leading the team in interceptions. During the season he saw the field and made progress to the point that he is now in the starting lineup heading into training camp this year. Hamilton developed well under Morris in 2007 and the beginning of 2008, but is breaking into the lineup in Chicago because the Bears claimed him off waivers when the Bucs didn't have a roster spot for him.
A year later the Bucs came back and spent their first-round pick on a cornerback for Morris to coach up. Aqib Talib tied for the lead in interceptions last season with four, and was arguably the team's best cornerback at the end of 2008. Morris also took undrafted free agent Elbert Mack and elevated his play to where he was seeing the field last season and is viewed as a leading contender to be the Bucs' third cornerback.
With Morris now the head coach, the Bucs will need their other assistants to produce in the same manner. This year the assistant that appears to be the most valuable is quarterbacks coach Greg Olson. He will have a big impact on Tampa Bay's future prospects based on his work with first-round pick Josh Freeman. If Olson does a good job of developing Freeman's habits, and teaching him the game then Freeman will have a good foundation to elevate his play in his second season and beyond.
Prior to the Buccaneers hiring Jeff Jagodzinski as their offensive coordinator, Olson was in consideration for that spot. While he wasn't named offensive coordinator, Olson was kept on staff and not permitted to leave when other teams wanted to hire him. Olson is in the final year of his contract with Tampa Bay. If he leaves after this season then Freeman will have a new quarterbacks coach in only his second season, and lack of continuity can have a real negative impact on player development.
Olson is no stranger to developing quarterbacks. Last season he put in a lot of extra time after practice working with Bucs quarterback Luke McCown and fifth-round pick Josh Johnson. Going back further, Olson was Drew Brees' quarterback coach at Purdue from 1997-2000. Olson had Brees as a Heisman Trophy finalist in back-to-back seasons.
Olson has two years of experience as an offensive coordinator. In 2006 the St. Louis Rams offense that he directed ranked sixth in the NFL (10th rushing and third passing). It produced a 4,000-yard passer, 1,000-yard rusher, and two 1,000-yard receivers. That was the best season in a quality career for Rams quarterback Marc Bulger.
This year Olson has been teaching a new system that he had to learn, which wasn't difficult for him considering he is came from his own system, to Jon Gruden's offense, and now Jagodzinski's in the past three years. Now Olson is charged with getting a new starting quarterback ready to play in a new system effectively so that the Bucs will have a competitive season and develop the organization's future franchise quarterback. Olson will undoubtedly get some help from Jagodzinski with the quarterbacks, but he is still the point person for the development of Freeman and the success of Luke McCown and/or Byron Leftwich.
"The great thing about Olie is it is the same old Olie," said McCown. "He's an upfront, honest guy. He's extremely hard working, very involved, and maintains great open lines of communication. There is nothing that I can't talk to him about. There is great trust there. The same with Jags. It has been a pleasure thus far to work with Jags. He is a great coach. He is a great offensive mind. The difference that I see right now is just the lines of communication. They want to know what I think about the plays. They want to know what I think about the offense, and how I think it would come together. They want to hear some of the suggestions, and the things I like to do, and what we have done in the past. The communication is not only with the quarterbacks, but I've observed it between each player and their respective position coach. The communication was tremendous. You build a trust level there. I think it is going to be a good thing."
2. BAKER HAS TALENT, KEY UNIT
Inheriting Morris' productive defensive backs room is new secondary coach Joe Baker. Baker was an offensive assistant in 2008 and linebacker's coach in 2007 with the Denver Broncos. The Princeton graduate has been an assistant in the NFL the past nine seasons working with the Rams, Packers, Saints, and Jaguars before joining Denver.
Pewter Report was the first media outlet to interview Baker and talk with him about teaching his new defense to a room full of players that has had a lot success in the previous Tampa 2 system. Here is a transcript of the conversation with Baker.
PR: How is it working under a fellow secondary coach and coming to the Bucs organization?
Baker: "It is great to be in Tampa and working with Raheem. There is obviously a great tradition of great defensive play. We have a head coach that came from that background. Hopefully I can bring something that will help add to that tradition, and also learn something myself. They've had a lot of success, and specifically with the defensive backs. Hopefully I can learn something from him and can contribute to some success in the future."
PR: You are taking over the defensive backs room, which enjoyed the coaching of Morris the past two seasons. How has the transition gone from your perspective?
Baker: "It has been real good. It is nice when you are taking over a group and the guy that coached them is still in the building because you know what they have been told. Whenever there is a question I can go right to the source. That has been great, and also I can get a lot insight into the personalities. What makes them work, things to look out for as well, but at the same time we are doing some different things. We've all had to be open minded moving forward."
PR: You are also reunited with defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who you coached with in Denver.
Baker: "It has been great. Coach Bates is a good football coach, and a great man even more importantly. It is good to be back with him."
PR: You have some somewhat unknown cornerbacks like Kyle Arrinton who was on the practice squad last season, undrafted free agents DeAngelo Willingham, Evan McCullough, and Marshall McDuffie, and seventh-round pick E.J. Biggers challenging holdovers Elbert Mack and Torrie Cox for roster spots and the nickel cornerback role. How have those unknown guys been performing thus far?
Baker: "They have been great. At this point they are spending a lot of time in the weight room, running and lifting with the strength and conditioning coach. That has been the first place that you see their commitment. Those guys have been here every day busting their butts to get better. They passed that test right away, and then when we have gone on the field and done football stuff they have made great strides as well. I definitely see them being in the mix. Willingham, McDuffie, McCullough, and Biggers all those guys really did a nice job (at the rookie mini-camp)."
PR: How is the nickel cornerback battle shaping up right now?
Baker: "Our actual nickel is Ronde [Barber] and he is probably the best nickel in the league. In terms of the third guy coming into the game, they are all in the mix. I can't tell you who that is going to be right now."
PR: When you were evaluating cornerbacks in this year's draft class what stood out to you about Biggers' play and made him the corner that the team invested a draft pick in?
Baker: "The number one thing is we like to press the corners a lot. We got to see evidence of him doing that on his college film. Just the way he plays the game. He plays up-tempo and throws his body around. He's got a physical style of play. He also has great length and that helps to be a good press corner in the NFL to have long arms."
PR: It doesn't hurt that he has the speed to turn and run with receivers.
Baker: "Yeah, that is an obvious prerequisite to play the position."
PR: How have your starters, Barber and Aqib Talib, been doing in their adjustment to the new system?
Baker: "They've been great. First of all they are good people, and they are good players. Good players can play in more than one system, so they see the value in some of the things we are going to do a little bit differently, and it is not like we are totally throwing out the great things that they have done here over the years in terms of schemes and the Tampa system. We'll do some of that, too."
3. DOES RB VAUGHAN HAVE A CHANCE TO MAKE IT?
One of the standouts of the rookie mini-camp was Richmond running back Josh Vaughan. Vaughan played behind Arizona Cardinals running back Tim Hightower for the majority of his college career. For a number of reasons, Vaughan is a good fit for the Buccaneers. Watching him in practice he seemed very comfortable with the reads during the Bucs running game drills for their zone-blocking scheme.
"My senior year we switched to a power run scheme, but my first three years in college we ran mostly a zone-blocking scheme," said Vaughan. "I'm pretty accustomed to running a zone-scheme."
As a senior Vaughan got his shot to standout as the starting running back, and that's exactly what he did, rushing for 1,884 yards on 355 carries (5.3 avg.) and 20 touchdowns. He finished his collegiate career with 3,393 rushing yards, 46 receptions for 369 yards and a total of 35 touchdowns.
Vaughan (6-0, 232) also has the size to see some time at fullback. He is a few inches shorter than starter B.J. Askew (6-3, 233) but is the same weight. Vaughan is similar in size to Byron Storer (6-1, 219) and Jameel Cook (5-10, 238). Vaughan has what the Bucs would describe as a good "teams body." That is in reference to special teams. Vaughan has the size and strength to make impact blocks and the speed to get downfield on coverage units. Special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia has used running backs regularly on his special teams units. Earnest Graham starred on special teams for years before breaking into the offensive lineup in 2007.
"We are all working in a on special teams," said Vaughan. "I'm definitely looking forward to playing special teams here. When you are a rookie, or undrafted, special teams can set you apart. I'm going to bust my tail on special teams and try and make my mark there as well."
"I feel pretty good being out here playing football again," Vaughan said. "Running around with the guys. Learning the offense, and everything, is a little bit different than in college. I'm adjusting on the fly and will do everything I can to make sure I'm on the this team when the season starts."
One thing going for Vaughan is the Bucs don't have a big stable of running backs. Earnest Graham and Derrick Ward are the top two backs that Tampa Bay is planning on relying on in 2009. Clifton Smith is primarily a returner, but is getting more involved with the offense. After those three, running back Cadillac Williams is a question mark while rehabbing from another knee injury. Williams anticipates a faster recovery this year, but he still could be a candidate for the physically unable to perform list to start training camp and the season. If Williams is on the PUP list, and Graham or Ward suffers an injury in training camp then Vaughan is in prime position to make the team.
"That was part of my decision as well," said Vaughan. "I felt like this was a good spot for me to crack the lineup at running back, fullback, and special teams. Here there wasn't a big logjam of backs. Other teams had five, six backs and the Bucs only had three or four so I felt this was the best place for me."