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Here are a few things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. Between Josh Freeman’s broken thumb and if the team would keep two or three signal callers on its 53-man roster, the one thing that has been lost in the discussion about Tampa Bay’s quarterback position is how well the unit played in the 2010 preseason. Freeman, Josh Johnson and Rudy Carpenter played smart, efficient and productive football for the most part, and that’s a tribute to not only the three young quarterbacks, but also to new quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt and offensive coordinator Greg Olson for developing them.
Here are the final stats from the 2010 preseason:
Freeman – 6-of-8 passes (75 percent) for 74 yards with 1 TD and 0 INTs and a 142.7 QB rating.
Johnson – 23-of-37 passes (62.2 percent) 307 yards with 2 TDs and 1 INT and a 95.2 QB rating.
Carpenter – 33-of-58 passes (56.9 percent) for 391 yards with 3 TDs and 1 INT and a 87.6 QB rating.
The Bucs quarterbacks combined to complete 62-of-104 passes (59.6 percent) for 772 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions and a collective 93.9 QB rating. That’s quite impressive given their lack of NFL experience and the fact that Johnson is the oldest of the quarterbacks at the age of 24.
Take away Jevan Snead’s incompletion on his lone pass attempt against Houston and Tampa Bay’s collective completion percentage moves up to 60.2 and the QB rating improves to 94.8.
This is a huge improvement over what Tampa Bay’s quarterback unit was able to produce better stats than last year’s stable of quarterbacks, which included veterans Byron Leftwich and Luke McCown. Last preseason, the Bucs quarterback play was dreadful as Leftwich, McCown, Johnson and Freeman combined to complete 75-of-150 (50 percent) for 788 yards with five touchdowns and four interceptions and a collective QB rating of 65.6.
Here is how the Buccaneers quarterbacks fared in the 2009 preseason:
Leftwich – 21-of-43 passes (48.8 percent) for 224 yards with 1 TD and 0 INTs and a QB rating of 72.2.
McCown – 15-of-28 passes (53.6 percent) for 108 yards with 2 TDs and 0 INTs and a QB rating of 86.6.
Johnson – 17-of-30 (56.7 percent) for 218 yards with 1 TD and 1 INT and a QB rating of 76.8.
Freeman – 22-of-49 passes (44.9 percent) for 238 yards with 1 TD and 3 INTs and a QB rating of 41.
How head coach Raheem Morris had the gall to start a veteran QB that couldn’t even complete 50 percent of his passes in the preseason last year is beyond me, and proved that the decision to not only sign – but start Leftwich – was an epic fail for the franchise. Morris seemed to put an awful lot of stock into Leftwich’s “Magic Johnson smile” and the way the players gravitated towards him, setting aside the fact that Leftwich is an immobile journeyman quarterback who completes less than 60 percent of his passes and had carries a career QB rating below 80.
It’s a shame that the Bucs won’t be able to face Leftwich, who tore his MCL in the preseason finale, in Week 3 when Pittsburgh comes to town. Anyways, back to present day.
Freeman and Johnson significantly improved their completion percentages and their touchdown to interception ratio this preseason. And to have three young quarterbacks complete 60 percent of their passes and throw four more touchdowns than interceptions speaks volumes about the strides they’ve made this offseason.
Last year during the regular season, Johnson completed just 50.4 percent of his passes and threw four touchdowns and eight interceptions while posting a 50.9 QB rating seeing action in five games. Freeman saw action in 10, starting the last nine games and completing just 54.5 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions and a QB rating of 59.8.
Granted, Freeman would be hard pressed to complete 75 percent of his passes over 28 attempts instead of the eight attempts that he was able to get off before breaking his thumb. Yet based on his improved accuracy in the organized team activities and in training camp, it’s safe to say that he would be completing at least 60 percent of his throws. That’s a huge improvement from last year’s preseason completion percentage of 44.9 and even a marginal increase from his 54.5 percent completion percentage during the regular season.
“I don’t want to get too overanxious or too excited about the numbers, but it is definitely some evidence that there has been improvement,” said Bucs center Jeff Faine. “A lot of it is due to the carryover on offense. The quarterback is still the same. The coordinator is still the same. We have a guy that has come in and done a great job of coaching quarterbacks in Alex Van Pelt. For those guys just having some continuity in the system and just having some carryover makes them focus on just throwing the ball and not have to worry about everything else. It’s just becoming second nature to these guys.”
Faine is very high on Van Pelt and credits him for not only helping the quarterbacks become more accurate, efficient players, but also for assisting offensive coordinator Greg Olson.
“Alex and I sit down quite a bit and go over protections to make sure that we are all seeing the same thing,” Faine said. “I think it’s invaluable to have a guy like that in their room so that a guy like Coach Olson can focus on the things that he has to do rather than coach up a rookie quarterback like he had to do last year. It’s going to make things a lot easier and he can put more time into that while Alex is putting in the time with the quarterbacks because that is his only focus. I think Alex was a very, very valuable pick up for us.”
While Faine’s main focus in the season opener is to cautiously and securely snap the ball to Freeman without reinjuring his right thumb, the veteran center wouldn’t sweat the notion of Johnson playing against the Browns in case Freeman’s thumb flares up again.
“These guys are very, very, very capable backups,” Faine said. “Josh Johnson, I believe one day could be like a Steve Young-type player where he sits behind a Joe Montana for years and when he gets his opportunity he makes the most of it. If he keeps developing his craft he could be a really good starter. He’s got a rocket of an arm and he’s a great athlete. Josh Johnson not just a strong-armed quarterback that will make an occasional good pass. He’s a guy that can make the precise passes as well. I think he’s a very, very intelligent player. That’s the thing that gets looked past – he’s very intelligent and his football IQ is very high. Obviously it doesn’t hurt coming in under Jon Gruden and having to learn the system the way he installs it. Greg Olson is an extension of that and has a very similar offense. He’s done a great job of picking it up. They’ve all improved this preseason.”
Freeman agrees with Faine’s assessment.
“We have put in a lot of time, and with the addition of Alex Van Pelt, we have an older guy as a coach in there helping me out,” Freeman said.
The numbers don’t lie, and that’s a testament to the hard work the quarterbacks and Van Pelt have put in this offseason.
FAB 2. Here’s a thought. With all of the talk of the Glazers being cheap and refusing to spend money in free agency due to being stretched too thin financially with Manchester United, maybe they just don’t waste any more money.
After all, were the collective tens of millions of dollars that were paid to quarterbacks Chris Simms, Brian Griese, Jeff Garcia, Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich spent wisely? Including two home playoff losses, the Buccaneers have 41-55 record since 2004 when Griese was acquired in free agency. Quarterbacks are judged on wins and losses. Despite two NFC South championships, the Bucs haven’t won a postseason game since Super Bowl XXXVII.
How about another $15 million-plus worth of contracts and wasted money? In 2004, former general manager Bruce Allen signed the likes of offensive tackles Derrick Deese and Todd Steussie, guards Matt Stinchcomb and Matt O’Dwyer and running back Charlie Garner. All but Deese have to be considered Buccaneer busts, and Deese’s play was only mediocre at best.
It’s safe to say that the Glazers haven’t seen many positive returns from their investments. From a return-on-investment standpoint, punter Josh Bidwell, kicker Matt Bryant, wide receiver Joey Galloway, center Jeff Faine, tight end Kellen Winslow and long snapper Andrew Economos have probably provided the most bang for their free agent buck since 2004. Due to the fact that the Bucs have signed scores of free agents over the last seven years, that’s sad.
Either general manager Mark Dominik was either “encouraged” to cool it in free agency by the Glazers to limit the team’s financial mistakes or he took it upon himself to show some fiscal restraint in order to avoid any more pricey mistakes. Of course all of this fits conveniently – and validly – with the team’s build-through-the-draft strategy, and that’s a good thing for Tampa Bay’s young general manager.
If Dominik were a black cat, he has to figure that he went through half of his lives last year by paying franchised wide receiver Antonio Bryant $9.8 million last year, spending $5 million in signing bonuses alone on McCown and Leftwich, dishing out a four-year, $17 million contract to disappointing running back Derrick Ward and committing $23 million over five years to wide receiver Michael Clayton, who had his worst NFL season in 2009. Did I mention that kicker Mike Nugent was paid a signing bonus of $2.4 million before being cut after the first four weeks of the 2009 season?
Bryant, McCown, Leftwich, Nugent, Ward and Clayton are gone. That’s nearly $30 million in mistakes. If you were the Glazers, would you be real anxious to open up the wallet in the 2010 free agency season, especially knowing you would have to pay a king’s ransom to the third overall pick in the draft?
So when the Bucs went out in free agency to sign safety Sean Jones, linebacker Jon Alston and guard Keydrick Vincent, acquired wide receiver Reggie Brown in a trade and signed left tackle Donald Penn to a contract extension, the team shelled out very little in terms of collective signing bonuses and real guaranteed money.
After one year, Dominik learned the same lessons Allen did, which is that there is no shame in bargain shopping because it doesn’t amplify your free agency mistakes if you end up making them. Getting productive play on the cheap from the likes of Bryant, Galloway, cornerback Phillip Buchanon and nose tackle Chris Hovan on their initial Buccaneers deals over the last few years was actually a stroke of genius by Allen.
Before we can use the genius label on Dominik, let’s see how Jones and Vincent perform in their starting roles. Unfortunately, Alston is on injured reserve and Brown was waived after dropping too many passes during the preseason. If this incredibly small free agent class pans out and become more productive than the 2009 class was – which won’t be much of a stretch – then perhaps Dominik and the Glazers will take more of a leap of faith in free agency in 2011 provided there isn’t a lockout.
For a lot of Bucs fans and even some media pundits, the Glazers won’t be able to shake the “cheap owner” label until they start spending a lot of money in free agency or spend a lot of it re-signing the team’s own players. Giving Penn a hefty contract was a step in the right direction, as was doling out tens of millions of dollars to third overall pick Gerald McCoy, but that hasn’t convinced everyone.
Yet after remembering the scores of millions spent – and in some cases spent unwisely – there is a compelling case to argue that the Glazers aren’t cheap. Maybe it’s not about not wanting to spend money. Perhaps it’s about not wanting to waste it and to spend money wisely.
FAB 3. One of the young players that the Buccaneers defensive coaches are excited about is reserve defensive end Michael Bennett. The 6-3, 274-pound defensive end is coming off a great training camp and preseason and is making a real push for some playing time ahead of fellow reserve Tim Crowder, a veteran entering his fourth year.
Both players were claimed off waivers after the 2009 preseason with Crowder joining the Bucs in early September and Bennett’s acquisition coming a month later on October 12. Crowder got more playing time, finishing with 47 tackles, 3.5 sacks, one tackle for loss and one fumble recovery. Bennett was sidelined for most of the season due to his youth and inexperience, in addition to a foot injury, but finished his first NFL season with five tackles, two quarterback pressures and one sack in limited action.
However, Bennett has clearly out-played Crowder during the preseason, recording 10 tackles, two sacks, two quarterback pressures and a forced fumble, while Crowder only had five tackles and one quarterback pressure.
“Training camp was pretty good,” Bennett said. “I’ve been getting to know the plays better and getting to know the guys and just focusing on football. I’m more comfortable now that I’ve learned the defense over the last year. Now I’m just reading offenses and getting after it on my plays and getting with my coaches. When you get more comfortable the plays will come easier.”
Bennett recorded Tampa Bay’s first sack of the preseason in the first game against Miami on a play in which he actually did some freelancing.
“I did blow my assignment, but I saw it so quick that I couldn’t miss that opportunity,” Bennett said. “I got a plus-plus, minus-minus on that play.”
Tampa Bay defensive line coach Todd Wash marvels at Bennett’s athleticism, but reveals that the thing holding him back is the fact that he is still learning the defensive scheme. Because Bennett was acquired in midseason, he has only had one offseason and training camp to master the details of the playbook.
“Michael is such a great athlete, and he flashed some of that during the preseason,” Wash said. “He makes some plays that, realistically, some of our other ends could not make. He’s got some natural rush ability. The thing with Michael, he’s continuing to learn the package. He’ll go on, he’ll make a splash play, but realistically, he made that sack, he was wrong in what he did. But it’s a splash play, so everybody gets really excited. And we get excited about it, and say, ‘Hey, hell of a job, but…’ and then two plays later he gives up a long gain because he jumps out of his gap. So with him, right now, it’s about consistency within the scheme and being disciplined within the scheme. He’s a little bit of a wild horse at times, but if we can get him to play within the scheme, he’s going to be a damn good player.”
With Crowder not flashing much pass rush ability during the preseason and starting ends Stylez G. White and Kyle Moore not generating any sacks, the opportunity is there for Bennett to not only become the first defensive end in the game at either the left or right position, but also perhaps take over a starting job in time. What’s helping fuel Bennett is the fact that he entered the league as an undrafted free agent out of Texas A&M.
“I think I carry a chip on my shoulder every day because of that,” Bennett said. “That chip has helped me out a lot. Every day is numbered for me and I can’t take anything for granted.”
After an accomplished career for the Aggies, Bennett suffered a leg injury while training for the NFL Scouting Combine. That injury hurt him in Indianapolis when he chose to run the 40-yard dash.
“I ran a 4.78 at my pro day, but I ran a 5.0 at the combine,” Bennett said. “I got hurt before the combine. It knocked me down in the draft because before my senior season I was listed in the top 5 defensive ends. It was weird for my agent and I. We were kind of surprised. We thought that the worst-case scenario was going in the fourth round. It didn’t work out like that then, but it’s worked out pretty good for me now.”
After being signed by Seattle after the draft, Bennett recorded two sacks in the preseason while playing defensive tackle. That caught the eye of general manager Mark Dominik, who claimed Bennett while the Seahawks were trying to sneak him to their practice squad.
“That was a weird situation,” Bennett said. “Walter Jones got hurt and they were going to bring me down for one game and try to bring me back up for the next one. They told me, ‘We know you aren’t going to be here on Monday’ and it was true. I was claimed right away by Tampa Bay. It was a weird situation, but it worked out good for me. I’m in Tampa.”
Bennett’s ascension up the ranks in the NFL is aided by words of wisdom from his brother Martellus, who is a tight end for the Dallas Cowboys and was selected in the second round of the 2008 draft.
“I talk to my brother every day when we are not practicing,” Bennett said. “We’re real tight. We lived with each other in college. We live close to each other in Texas. We talk about becoming a pro. That’s the key to becoming a good player – is learning how to be a better pro. You have to treat this as a job and not so much as a game like it is in college. You have to realize that if you make a mistake it affects somebody else’s job. If the coach doesn’t trust you, he’s not going to put you in because his kids might not be able to eat if he’s out of a job. It’s a chain reaction.
“My brother tells me to come out here and not flash, but be a complete player. I know if I work on the little things that the big things will come for me.”
Aside from learning the plays within the context of the Buccaneers scheme, Bennett needs to work on the fluidity of his movement and eliminate wasted steps while pass rushing.
“I need to work on my steps every day and keying the right thing,” Bennett said. “If the tackle steps down on me, I can’t hesitate. I need to get better there. I can’t hesitate. Hesitation is what keeps you from getting a sack or a quarterback hit.”
With so much youth and inexperience at the defensive end position except for 31-year old Stylez G. White, Bennett has just as much chance as anyone to get sacks for the Buccaneers. Keep an eye on him in obvious pass rushing situations and don’t be surprised if he gets more playing time as the season goes on.
FAB 4. For a team like Tampa Bay that is desperate for more talented edge rushers, you need to know and remember the name Aldon Smith, a redshirt sophomore at Missouri. Smith burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman last year, racking up 11.5 sacks, including a career-high three against Colorado.
The thing I liked about Smith’s game last year is that he showed consistency in recording sacks in eight of the Tigers’ 13 games, in addition to 64 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, five passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. To me, that accounts for much more than physical talent and ideal measurables of an underachiever like Clemson’s 6-foot-4, 275-pound Da’Quan Bowers.
Although Smith is no slouch at 6-foot-5, 260 pounds, and he is oozing with athleticism.
Smith picked up where he left off on Saturday as his two sacks helped Missouri edge Illinois. He also had 10 tackles and three tackles for loss against the Fighting Illini. That performance earned him the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week Award after a redshirt freshman season in which Smith was the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, the Big 12 Freshman of the Year, and a second-team All-Big 12 selection.
I think Smith is the second-best pure pass-rushing defensive end behind North Carolina’s Robert Quinn. Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn is more of a power-rushing defensive end and I don’t like the motor of Pitt senior defensive end Greg Romeus, who I think is too inconsistent.
Because Missouri is still rebuilding, the Tigers won’t likely be featured on television for the next couple of weeks until conference play starts in October. As it stands right now, the Tigers are only scheduled to be on TV once more, which is the season finale against Kansas on November 27. Yet if the Tigers keep winning, Fox Sports Net or ESPN will likely pick up more of Missouri’s games so you can keep tabs on Smith.
If the Raytown, Mo. native posts another year of double-digit sacks, don’t be surprised if he bolts early for the NFL. Good pass rushers are hard to find and as a redshirt sophomore, he would be eligible for the NFL Draft.
I’ve already outlined how the Buccaneers have been focused on the talent coming out of the Big 12 Conference over the last few years, so you can bet that the scouting department is all over Smith already. Keep in mind that general manager Mark Dominik is a University of Kansas alum and naturally keeps tabs on the Big 12 Conference. Also, director of college scouting Dennis Hickey was the Bucs’ Midwest scout before his promotion, and that Seth Turner, the man who took over Hickey’s territory, is considered to be one of Tampa Bay’s top college scouts and resides in Columbia, Mo., which is where the University of Missouri resides.
For those of you draftniks that are already scouting defensive ends for the 2011 Buccaneers, make sure Smith is on your list. He’s high on mine.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Keeping with the Big 12 theme, the conference had some outstanding rushing performances during the first weekend of college football. In fact, the nation’s top three running backs are all NFL Draft prospects from the Big 12. Oklahoma running back DeMarco Murray rushed for 218 yards and two touchdowns on 35 carries (6.2 avg.) in a narrow win over Utah State, while Kansas State’s big back Daniel Thomas trucked past UCLA with 234 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries (8.4 avg.).
But the nation’s top runner in the first week was Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter, who rushed for 257 yards and four touchdowns on 21 carries (12.2 avg.). Hunter had a breakout season in 2008 as a sophomore, rushing for 1,555 yards and 16 touchdowns on 241 carries (6.5 avg.) before suffering a high ankle sprain in the second game of the season in 2009. That injury cost him six and a half games and he finished with just 382 yards and one score on 89 carries (4.3 avg.).
Hunter, a muscle-bound 5-foot-8, 197-pounder, reminds me of Jahvid Best in some ways. He has incredibly quick feet, great balance, a nice burst through the hole and superior vision that allows him to set up his blocks properly. If Hunter stays healthy and has a productive season that rivals his 2008 campaign, he could go in the second or third round if he runs in the 4.3-4.4 range.
Here is a highlight video of Hunter from the 2008 season. And here are some highlights of Oklahoma State’s season-opening performance against Washington State. It’s a long video and Hunter’s highlights are mixed in between other defensive and offensive clips. He’s number 24.
Also, keep an eye on sophomore wide receiver Justin Blackmon, who is replacing Dez Bryant as the top pass catcher at Oklahoma State. He’s number 81. The 6-foot-1, 207-pound leaper had eight catches for 125 yards and three touchdowns in the season opener. The athletic Blackmon added a fourth touchdown by scooping up the ball on a blocked punt and scoring in the second half.
• One of the few disappointing aspects of Tampa Bay’s preseason came in the final game at Houston when backup right tackle Demar Dotson injured his left knee and had to be placed on injured reserve. Thankfully for the Bucs, Dotson did not suffer a torn ACL. Instead, it was likely an MCL tear or some meniscus damage that will only sideline him a couple months.
Still, losing a young, developing player is tough for both the team and for Dotson, who never played organized football until his senior season at Southern Mississippi after his basketball eligibility expired. Dotson has made a lot of progress over the last couple of years after coming to Tampa Bay as an undrafted free agent, but needs every rep he can get in order to accelerate his development.
According to Bucs center Jeff Faine, who is one of Dotson’s biggest fans, the 6-foot-9, 315-pound tackle also needs some confidence.
“His confidence is fragile,” Faine said. “When things are going great, it’s awesome and he’s a great player. But he hasn’t played long enough to really be able to let a bad series or a bad couple of plays go and realize that he is a good player and that he’s not a bad player. Sometimes he makes himself out to be a bad player, which he’s not.
“I told him that this injury could be a blessing in disguise or the worst thing that ever happened to him. It’s up to him and how he looks at it. If he comes back and gets healthy and really internalizes the offense and takes steps forward and becomes the player a lot of us think he can be, then that’s a good thing. I’ve said this before, but if he can internalize the offensive line positions and the system and play with confidence, I think he can be the best offensive lineman to ever play the game. He has elite physical tools. He has the best feet I’ve ever seen in person. He is an extremely huge person that can move extremely well. If he can learn how to play offensive line the right way, he’ll be special. Right now, he’s just surviving on natural ability. But if he can get technique, who knows where he could go.”
• The suspect drafting of former Bucs general manager Bruce Allen continues. After missing on almost every second-day prospect during his five-year tenure in Tampa Bay (the lone exceptions being free safety Tanard Jackson and linebacker Geno Hayes), Allen saw only two of his six 2010 draft picks make the team in Washington – first-round tackle Trent Williams and fourth-round linebacker Perry Riley.
In the two years since Allen’s absence, Bucs general manager Mark Dominik and director of college scouting Dennis Hickey have seen all but one of their 2009 and 2010 draft classes make the 53-man roster. The exception is 2009 fifth-round offensive tackle Xavier Fulton. Not only have Dominik and Hickey fared better on the second day of the draft, they have found some seventh-round steals in Sammie Stroughter, the team’s starting flanker, and E.J. Biggers, Tampa Bay’s nickel cornerback.
• One of the Bucs players that is thrilled with the roster that general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris have put together is veteran center Jeff Faine. A four-year team captain and de facto leader of the locker room, Faine said that Tampa Bay’s roster is full of high character players.
“There are a lot of good guys, and a lot of guys that are buying into the program,” Faine said. “You have to have that. You have to have guys that buy into the system. I’m not saying anything about the guys that were here because a lot of the stuff happened in the media more than in our locker room. I had a good relationship with [recently released veteran running back Derrick Ward and wide receiver Michael Clayton] and they worked hard, but the guys that are here are great. I’ve been on teams where you have had dirt bags – guys that you just didn’t like to hang out with off the field. You work with them and that’s it.
“There’s not a guy on this team that you wanted want to hang out with and watch a game with or shoot the breeze with. From top to bottom we have quality people and I think that there has been a big onus on that from the NFL Commissioner, but also on our team from our general manager, Mark Dominik, and Coach Morris. There is an emphasis on good, quality, character guys. Let’s face it – you are guilty until proven innocent as it is now. You need to have a good, solid 53 guys all the time and that’s what we’ve got.”
Of course, Faine told this to me before meeting newly acquired running back LeGarrette Blount, who has had two highly-publicized punch-throwing incidents over the last two years – one at Oregon and one in the Tennessee Titans training camp. Hopefully Blount will be a good teammate in Tampa Bay. He’s a supremely talented running back and the Bucs could use his ability in 2010 and beyond.
The hope here is that Blount responds well to the Bucs’ notorious trash talker, Aqib Talib, otherwise known as the “Mouth of the NFC South.” While most of his trash talk is good-natured, Talib’s mouth has gotten him involved in two fights with teammates – former Bucs running back Cory Boyd at the NFL Rookie Symposium and left tackle Donald Penn during the 2009 offseason – not to mention the cornerback punching a cabbie.
Talib’s temper has cooled off over the past year since his incident with the cab driver got him arrested, but he still runs his mouth in practice. The fact that Talib is on defense and Blount is on offense … may be kind of a scary proposition.