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1. DRAFT PROJECTION: FIRST PICK
After speaking with sources in and around the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in recent weeks, the team's draft strategy is becoming more evident. The top two needs on the team are quarterback and defensive line. At this time, it sounds as if the Bucs will be addressing those needs with their first two picks in the draft, but not in that order.
Sources have told Pewter Report that a defensive lineman in the first-round is the strategy that the team is planning on employing. There are a group of defensive linemen that are thought to have first-round grades at this time. They are:
Texas defensive end Brian Orakpo
Boston College defensive tackle B.J. Raji
Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson
Mississippi defensive tackle Peria Jerry
Florida State defensive end Everette Brown
Northern Illinois defensive end Larry English
LSU defensive end Tyson Jackson
Jackson is considered by many to be 3-4 defensive end, and not a good fit in the Tampa 2, but no one knows for sure how much that system will change under new defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Perhaps he could be a solid left defensive end, but Jackson has limited pass rush production and you should not spend a first-round pick on a defensive end that has a limited ability to get after the quarterback.
The Buccaneers have interviewed with Raji, Jerry, and English. Raji has had people at One Buc Place talking for months, but after his dominating senior season and Senior Bowl performance it looks like an extreme stretch to think he will be close to the Bucs' pick. Jerry is the second-rated defensive tackle and the Bucs like him, but usually the top-two defensive tackles in a draft are gone by the 19th pick.
The Buccaneers were disappointed that Johnson pulled out of the Senior Bowl because they were eager to get an up close view of him for new head coach Raheem Morris. Brown is similar to Johnson from a pass rushing perspective, and there are many that project both Brown and Johnson to be selected by the time the Bucs pick.
At this time, English may be the most likely name on that list to land in Tampa Bay. The pass rushing dynamo will have to add some muscle in the NFL. The 6-foot-2, 254-pound product is undersized, but he is bigger than Indianapolis Colts defensive end Robert Mathis (6-2, 245), who just had his third double digit sack season this year with 11.5 sacks (Mathis also had 9.5 in another season).
Mathis produced that pass rush in the Colts' version of the Tampa 2, and there have been other elite, undersized pass rushers like English to have success in the NFL recently. Denver's Elvis Dumervil is one, and Chicago's Mark Anderson had one phenomenal season in 2006 before disappearing the last two years after the league adjusted to him.
Some scouts and draft analysts thought English, who had eight sacks and 31.5 sacks in his career, would be a good candidate to become an outside linebacker for 3-4 teams in the NFL. At the Senior Bowl, English was having his way as a pass rusher when he put his hand in the dirt and exploded off the snap. When he was put through linebacker drills for the 3-4 English had less success and did not look like a player that could make that transition.
English may have helped his status to become a Buccaneer at the Senior Bowl through his dynamic play as a 4-3 rush end, and his struggles as a 3-4 outside linebacker.
2. DRAFT PROJECTION: SECOND PICK
The Bucs' second pick could easily involve a trade to the top of the second round or even the end of the first round to select a quarterback, and the player that is being targeted with that selection is Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman.
One of the reasons former head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen were fired was because they did not build enough of a good core to lead the team to contending for a championship. A big part of that was the quarterback position, where a series of band-aids were used and the team never had any consistency at the position.
New general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris understand that addressing the quarterback position is vital to their long-term success. If they do it well, they could have a longer shelf life then the past regimes. Finding a quarterback is the top need on the Bucs roster right now, and Tampa Bay will most likely have to do that through the draft.
The top free agent quarterback, New England's Matt Cassel, will receive the franchise tag. Sources indicated to Pewter Report that the price to trade for Cassel would probably be too steep for the Buccaneers, and there are few other options on the open market. The top two quarterbacks in the draft are Georgia's Matthew Stafford and USC's Mark Sanchez, and many believe that both will be long gone by the time the Bucs are selecting in the first round.
Freeman is the third-rated quarterback in the draft and has all the physical tools that will cause NFL scouts to be wowed in the workouts leading up to the draft. In college his play was inconsistent, but between his good games and skill-set Freeman is believed to be a late first-round to early second-round pick, hence the need for the Bucs to trade up to get him.
The team that could ruin that plan for the Buccaneers is the Detroit Lions. Two years ago, the Lions spoiled the Bucs' attempt to draft dynamic wide receiver Calvin Johnson. Tampa Bay settled for defensive end Gaines Adams, who could still turn into a Pro Bowl player, but Johnson is already one of the best in the league at his position and looks to be one of the best offensive players in the NFL for years to come.
This year the Lions could spoil drafting Freeman with one of their two picks at No. 20 or 33. If Detroit decides to pass on Stafford with its first pick to take a franchise left tackle, like Baylor's Jason Smith or Alabama's Andre Smith, they then could select Freeman with one of their next two picks. If they grade Freeman close to Stafford and Sanchez then that would make the most sense to get a top player at another position and then get a quarterback with one of their next two picks.
It will take some luck and some shrewd moves by Dominik for the Bucs to land the pass rusher and quarterback that they are looking to acquire with their first two draft picks.
3. BLACK MAKING PROGRESS
In last week's PI Quick Hits the development of linebacker Geno Hayes was discussed and how the Bucs organization views Hayes as the heir apparent to future Hall-of-Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks. The other young linebacker that has created positive buzz at One Buccaneer Place is backup Sam (strongside) linebacker Quincy Black.
The 2007 third-round draft pick led the team in special teams with 24 tackles in the 2008 season and was an integral part of all of the return and coverage units. Leading the team in special teams tackles was a good sign for Tampa Bay that Black has made a big jump in improving his instincts on the field. The progress made by Black as a special teams player was symbolic of the progress that Black was making as linebacker as well, according to sources.
They were passionate that Black was really coming along well, and they believe he could be a productive starter in the NFL as a Sam backer. The organization understood there would be a learning curve with Black because he played the ‘lobo' hybrid linebacker/safety position at New Mexico. Sources said Black is sharp in the meeting room and made big strides in his second season.
They believe after another strong offseason and training camp, Black will be ready to start as the Sam linebacker. The Bucs have incumbent starter Cato June coming back next season, but he is in the final year of his contract with Tampa Bay. Black could also be a better fit in the molding of the Bucs' new defense between defensive coordinator Jim Bates and the Tampa 2 that has been run for years.
Bates likes to blitz linebackers, and Black is a good blitzer. He also gives the Buccaneers more size at 6-foot-2, 240-pounds. He is extremely fast, and physical tools have never been in question with Black. Now that he has made strides mentally and has honed his instincts Black is ready to push for playing time on defense.
4. BLOCKERS ARE PRO BOWLERS FOR SMITH
This week, rookie kick and punt returner Clifton Smith will go to Hawaii as a Pro Bowler after only half a season of standout play. In the next Pewter Report magazine that focuses on a preview of free agency, Smith sits down for a conversation with the Pewter Report staff. Here is an interesting excerpt from that session.
PR: You said you wish you could take your teammates with you to Hawaii because they got you there with the blocks they made for you during the season. Which teammates stood out to you as being the best blockers?
"Everybody did a good job really, but the one that really stands out to me came from Aqib Talib, racing downfield against the Detroit Lions. He got a block then caught up to me downfield and made another great block to spring me loose. That is one that I really do remember."
PR: One special teams ace that flies under the radar because he doesn't return punts kicks or make tackles is tight end John Gilmore. In watching the games he really excels as a blocker and opens holes for his returners. He also did that in Chicago for Bears returner Devin Hester. Did he help you get adjusted to your new role when you were given the return job?
"During practices Gilmore would pull me aside and tell me how he would block a guy in certain situations. Sometimes I would check in my peripheral to watch Gillly and see what he would do, but most of the time he did what he said he would do and that would spring another hole for me to get into. Gilly is a great player, and is a Pro Bowler for me."