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1. PENN COULD HAVE BEEN CHEAP
Even though the contract status of middle linebacker Barrett Ruud has gotten the most attention, and is expected to be the biggest deal if and when it happens, the actual biggest contract that one of the Bucs' prospective free agents could land is likely to be left tackle Donald Penn. The former Utah State product has turned in an excellent season thus far in 2009, after having good seasons in 2008 and 2007. With three years of quality and improving play from Penn he is in line to land a mega-deal.

Penn gave up his first sacks of the season against the Philadelphia Eagles courtesy of defensive end Trent Cole. Still, Penn has shut down the likes of Dallas' DeMarcus Ware, Carolina's Julius Peppers, and Minnesota's Jared Allen. Those three represent the best pass rushers in the NFL, and after shutting down all of them in 2008 Penn wanted a long-term lucrative contract. Penn was a restricted free agent, and the Bucs signed him to a one-year contract. If the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is not extended Penn will be a restricted free agent playing on one-year contracts until he gets to six years of experience.

After speaking with sources, the Bucs could have signed Penn to a long-term extension early in the 2009 offseason for a bargain. Penn, 26, and his agent approached the team about doing a deal, but the Bucs wanted Penn to be a restricted free agent. After Penn accepted the one-year tender worth $2.97 million, his camp approached the team about doing a long-term contract again. The Buccaneers rebuffed those efforts as well.

At that time Penn's price per season was dramatically lower than what it is now. The Bucs probably could have had him for about $ 5-6 million per year. Now after Penn has turned in an excellent 2009 season thus far, his asking price is at the $10 million per season that Philadelphia gave Jason Peters over a six-year contract. The Eagles' left tackle went to the Pro Bowl after allowing 11.5 sacks in 13 games, the most allowed in the NFL last year. Penn fared better than Peters.

Retired Buccaneer-great defensive tackle Warren Sapp knows a thing or two about offensive line play, and he said that Penn is one of the top-five offensive linemen in the NFL.

Sources inside the Buccaneers were disappointed with Penn's offseason conditioning. While Penn could get in better shape, he has been extremely productive playing in the 330-range. That displeasure has led to some hesitancy to sign Penn to a long-term contract, but it looks like it could come back to bite Tampa Bay.

The difference between $5-6 million per year and $10 million per season is very significant when it comes to re-signing other players like, guard Davin Joseph, tackle Jeremy Trueblood, defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson, and free agents from other teams. Considering the Bucs ownership is reluctant to spend big money, paying Penn market value will make them less likely to spend money for other players to upgrade the roster.

Sources have told Pewter Report that if the Bucs don't give Penn a long-term contract after this season there will be problems for the Buccaneers. It sounds like it could get ugly. A holdout may not take place, but it is an option under consideration. Penn wouldn't want to lose money by delaying the signing of his tender. That would cost the Bucs a lot of practice time in the offseason and training camp.

The Buccaneers are banking on the CBA not being extended. If that is the case they get the services of the following players on the cheap for multiple years: Ruud, Penn, Trueblood, Joseph, Tanard Jackson, and more. That is a calculated risk by management and ownership. If the CBA is extended Tampa Bay will be scrambling to get some contracts done because it only have has one franchise tag to place on a player.

In speaking with sources around the league this week, there was some optimism about a CBA extension being struck. There is motivation from players to avoid being denied long-term, lucrative contracts, and neither side wants to have a lockout after the 2010 season.

2. THE EFFECT OF SEARS' ABSENCE

Since center Jeff Faine went out with a torn triceps injury against the Dallas Cowboys in Week 1, the Buccaneers have been getting exploited in the middle of the offensive line. The effectiveness opposing teams had penetrating the A-gap forced the Bucs to make a switch from a statue at quarterback to a mobile signal caller. Backup center Sean Mahan was a big drop off in production from Faine.

While Faine has been out, the lack of depth along the offensive line has been exposed. A year ago Joseph broke his leg and missed the beginning part of the season. Filling in for him was Jeremy Zuttah. While Zuttah was not as good as Joseph, the drop off was not as drastic as it has been this year from Faine to Mahan.

Mahan was on the street when the Bucs signed him, and he was inked to a deal for a reason. While Faine's injury was devastating, it is further proof of how much the Bucs have been missing guard Arron Sears. The Buccaneers have been without Sears all season as he deals with a personal issue that is believed to be along the lines of clinical depression. Zuttah could have replaced Faine when he went out with his triceps injury. The line would have obviously been much better with Sears at guard, and Zuttah at center than they were with Zuttah at guard and Sean Mahan at center.

"I think Zuttah has played pretty well," said Faine. "Taking out a guy like Arron Sears, obviously he is a great player, and has a ton of potential. He was really coming into his game. It is a bit question mark, because I think that in the second to third year there is a big jump in improvement. It is a question to see how good he could have come back, and been better than the year before. It is tough. I think from where Arron was in his second year to where Zuttah is in his second year there are a lot of similarities. It is tough to see because there could have been quite a bit of improvement from Arron.

"It would have been a whole another year of us working together as a group. There are a lot of ‘ifs' there. It is what it is. It is what we got now and we all have to move forward."

Zuttah has not been as effective as Sears, but Zuttah has not been exploited like Mahan. The line of Penn, Sears, Zuttah, Joseph, and Trueblood is undoubtedly better than the line the Bucs have played the last four games. Faine said he tries not to think of what could have been. Does Faine think Sears will ever return to the football field?

"I don't know," said Faine. "I hope so. For him, as a friend and him as a person, I hope he is able to get back out here. We can't worry about it now. It is his own personal issues, and hopefully we'll see him back at some point."

3. DRAFT FOCUS

In the Red River rivalry between Oklahoma and Texas, you can watch one of my favorite prospects in the next draft. Texas wide receiver Jordan Shipley was on Pewter Report's radar last year, but he was granted an extra year of college eligibility. Shipley has made the most of it so far. He has caught 47 passes for 583 yards and three touchdowns. In 2008 he caught 89 passes for 1,060 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also has returned to punts for touchdowns this season.

The Sooners have some quality corners in Brian Jackson and Dominique Franks that will try to stop Shipley. Last year was Shipley's breakout season and he took the Sooners by surprise with 11 receptions for 112 yards and one touchdown, plus two kick returns for 113 yards and a touchdown.

Oklahoma defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and Jeremy Beal will be chasing Longhorns quarterback Colt McCoy. There will be a lot of NFL talent on display in this game.

4. DIRK JOHNSON ALWAYS READY TO WORK
Bucs punter Dirk Johnson had to fight his way into the NFL, and in the years it took to finally make it in the league Johnson worked a lot of jobs. Some times professional athletes have a hard time relating to non-athletes, but that is not the case for Johnson.

"It took me five years to make it," said Johnson. "I think part of the deal was I focused on defensive back in college. I worked on punting a little bit, but not very much. I got an opportunity after college to try out as a punter. I was very fortunate to go to Seattle's camp with Jeff Feagles. He's one of the best of all time, and he taught me all the technique. After that I had to do a lot of odds and ends jobs. I kept trying to get in camps, and find a way to be seen. I worked at parks and recreation, caddied, bartended, I worked for Serve-Pro, a fire and flood restoration company. I worked for Handy-Man-Express. I worked anything that wasn't long-term, and if I left they could find someone else."

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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