Here are some things that caught my interest this week.
FAB 1. PewterReport.com’s Charlie Campbell posted his first 2011 NFL Mock Draft on Saturday and Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn was Tampa Bay’s first-round choice. Not a bad choice for the Bucs, who will be picking 20th overall due to their 10-6 record in 2010, especially considering that Clayborn was thought of as a top 10 pick heading into his senior season.
The Bucs need help at both left end and right end, and the 6-foot-4, 285-pound Clayborn is better suited to be a left end in the NFL as he is more of a power player rather than a speed rusher. Clayborn’s stock has dropped because he followed up an 11-sack junior season with a four-sack senior campaign.
But a recent look at Tampa Bay’s drafting patterns in the first round over the last four years the Bucs have drafted four underclassmen in cornerback Aqib Talib (2008), quarterback Josh Freeman (2009) and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (2010). The Bucs even took the underclassmen trend a step further in the second round last year in drafting junior defensive tackle Brian Price and junior wide receiver Arrelious Benn.
I have no doubt that general manager Mark Dominik, director of college scouting Dennis Hickey and head coach Raheem Morris will draft the best player available at number 20 regardless of whether that player is a junior or a senior. I just thought that the trend was interesting to point out.
The Bucs have an obvious need for a pass rushing end that can put the heat on opposing quarterbacks’ blindside, and Tampa Bay also needs help at linebacker. If defensive ends like North Carolina’s Robert Quinn, Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan and Missouri’s Aldon Smith aren’t available at No. 20, the Bucs may opt for a pass-rushing linebacker, especially with Morris’ heavy use of the 3-3-5 and 3-4 defensive packages.
Two junior linebackers that fit that description that could be there with the 20th overall pick are UCLA’s Akeem Ayers and Georgia’s Justin Houston. With Tampa Bay looking to upgrade the size of its linebacking corps, the 6-foot-4, 255-pound Ayers and the 6-foot-3, 258-pound Houston would be great options in the first round.
Both Houston and Ayers blitzed from their linebacker positions, but also would put their hands down on the grass on obvious passing downs and rushed as defensive ends. That type of versatility has to excite Morris, who saw Tampa Bay record only 26 sacks last year.
Houston, who had 67 tackles and one interception in 2010, is coming off a 10-sack junior season and has put up 17.5 sacks over the past two years. His 20 career sacks ranks seventh on Georgia’s all-time sack list.
But I think that Ayers is a better athlete, a better draft prospect and a better all-around linebacker than Houston is. Consider that Ayers burst onto the scene as a redshirt freshman in 2008 with two sacks of Jake Locker, a pass defensed and a forced fumble against Washington. In 2009, Ayers made two highlight reel interceptions at the goal line and in the end zone to score touchdowns against Oregon and Temple. He also recovered a fumble and returned it nine yards for a score against Arizona State that year while recording 77 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, six sacks, four forced fumbles and three passes defensed.
In 2010, Ayers had a career-high 68 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, four sacks, four pass breakups, two forced fumbles and two interceptions, one of which he returned 77 yards against Houston. Those big plays pushed Ayers’ three-year career totals to 12 sacks, seven forced fumbles and six interceptions.
Landing Ayers, who reminds me of Julian Peterson coming out of Michigan State, in the first round would give Morris a player that could play linebacker on first and second downs and defensive end on third-and-long situations. The Bucs could then draft a real every down defensive end in the second round and come away with two pass rushers with their first two picks.
My choice for Tampa Bay’s second-round pick would be Texas defensive end Sam Acho, who at 6-foot-3, 260 pounds, has the quickness and agility that reminds me of Simeon Rice to a degree. Acho is not the supreme athlete that Rice was, nor does he have the production that Rice did coming out of Illinois, but he would be the closest thing to him that Tampa Bay would have since parting ways with the Pro Bowl pass rusher prior to the 2007 season.
In four years at Texas, including the last two as a starter replacing Brian Orakpo, Acho racked up 137 tackles, 32.5 tackles for loss, 21 sacks (20 solo), 20 QB hurries, eight passes broken up and eight forced fumbles. He was a model of consistency for the Longhorns, racking up 58 tackles, 15.5 tackles for loss, 12 QB hurries, eight sacks, five forced fumbles and one pass breakup in 2009 and then finishing his senior season with 59 stops, 13 tackles for loss, nine sacks, three pass breakups, three QB hurries and two forced fumbles. Acho also recorded 15 sacks in 26 games over the last two years, which further demonstrates his regularity in getting to the quarterback.
In a head-to-head matchup between Ayers and Acho when UCLA won at Texas this year, 34-12, Acho had one of his better games with five tackles, a 16-yard tackle for loss, one sack, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Yet Ayers fared slightly better though, registering six tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack, one forced fumble and one interception in the Bruins’ upset win in Austin.
If Acho has a downside, it is that he only has two games in which he recorded more than one sack. He notched two QB takedowns at Colorado in 2009 and three sacks against Florida Atlantic in 2010. And there have been some stretches where he has disappeared, such as one-tackle performances against Texas Tech and Texas A&M during his senior year.
Drafting Acho would give the Bucs four players from Texas, a notion that Crowder, who is good friends with the Longhorns’ leading sacker in 2010, wouldn’t mind at all.
“He’s very talented,” Crowder said. “I really like Sam. We do a lot of stuff together in the offseason to work on our hands. We do boxing and some other things to take his game to a new level. The thing about college football is that guys don’t use their hands well enough or often enough on defense. When you do boxing, karate and kickboxing like I do, you kind of get coordinated and it becomes second nature. Moving your hands becomes a reflex. You throw your hands up to deflect the tackle’s hands. You have to see things out of the corner of your eyes. A lot of time you can’t just look at your guy. You have to look at the quarterback and the guys in the backfield. You need to work on your peripheral vision. He’s doing a good job of developing that.”
Aside from drafting underclassmen in the first round, the other trend the Bucs are partial to is acquiring Big 12 defensive linemen. Dominik, Morris and Hickey all having roots or ties to the conference. Five of Tampa Bay’s defensive linemen – defensive tackles McCoy (Oklahoma), Roy Miller (Texas) and Frank Okam (Texas) and defensive ends Tim Crowder (Texas) and Michael Bennett (Texas A&M) – are all from the Big 12 South. Acho would make the sixth.
FAB 2. Speaking of Tampa Bay’s defensive line, the Buccaneers are still without a new coach for that position after the team and defensive line coach Todd Wash parted ways. Wash, whose contract expired after the end of the 2010 season, was offered an extension, but has something else lined up instead. I wouldn’t be surprised if Wash ends up in Seattle where he would be reunited with Gus Bradley, who is the Seahawks defensive coordinator. Bradley and Wash coached together at North Dakota State before being recruited to Tampa Bay by former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.
Wash came under heavy criticism from Bucs fans and some in the media this year as Tampa Bay’s defensive line failed to generate a consistent pass rush with the line only accounting for 15 sacks. While he was dealt a tough hand with several major injuries, Wash’s players didn’t perform nearly as well as the offensive linemen that Pete Mangurian, who had similar injury problems with his squad, had to coach up during the year.
“It has been a very interesting year to say the least,” Wash said. “We started off with 12 guys including the guys that ended up on our practice squad and injured reserve. We now have four of those 12 guys finish on the active roster. On game day, half of the guys that we have on our roster weren’t even in training camp with us. It’s a credit to them about how they have worked and gotten better. You see all of these rookies get better as the year goes on. At the defensive line position it takes for the most part – there are some freaks out there that have great years as rookies – years to develop and they’ve started to do that.
“We’ve seen guys from other rosters get cut and come in here and start for us. It’s interesting to see how well they have played, but with young guys it’s not consistent. We have to get consistent play from them week in and week out. We have a great month and then Gerald McCoy goes out and then we have two bad weeks and then we play good against Seattle. Some of it has to do with age and how long they have been playing in our system, but at the same time as coaches, we have to have them play consistently each and every snap in order for us to have a chance to win. We’ve been fortunate that we’ve won more games than we’ve lost.”
Before Wash left Tampa Bay, I had the chance to speak with him about some of the lesser-known prospects on the Bucs defensive line rather than just established players like defensive ends Stylez G. White and Tim Crowder, and high-profile rookie defensive tackles McCoy and Brian Price. Wash is really high on second-year defensive end Michael Bennett, who beat out White for the starting right end job over the last two weeks of the season.
“He has the ability to play left end, obviously, but on the right end we are getting a lot of runs to that side and he’s a real good run defender,” Wash said of Bennett, who had 21 tackles and one sack in 2010. “What it does is it really shores up our run game like it did against Seattle. We played it well inside and outside. The defensive ends allowed us to win that game. He also has the ability to pass rush against some of the real good left tackles in this league. He has the ability to play both sides athletically and physically.
“He has all the ability in the world. He’s athletic and he’s strong, even though he’s not a big defensive end. He’s a powerful-type player. He plays bigger than he is. For him, he had a play during one practice where you go, ‘What are you doing?’ We need to have him eliminate some of those plays and just have consistency play in and play out. He has the ability, we just need him to play consistently within the package.”
The most consistent player Wash had in 2010 was nose tackle Roy Miller, whose 60 tackles led all of Tampa Bay’s defensive linemen.
“We have been talking as a staff that he has been very consistent all year,” Wash said. “He’s gotten washed sometimes in some things that we do, but that’s within our scheme and how we play him. But when he gets the double teams, you ain’t moving him. As a staff we are really pleased with how he’s played for us all year.
“At the nose guard position you don’t always get those impact plays, but he has the ability to be an impact player at the nose for us. I’m very pleased with the way he’s played all year.”
Wash then discussed some of the young, up-and-coming reserve defensive linemen that could develop into better players in 2011. Defensive end Alex Magee finished with 11 tackles, but had two sacks, including one of New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees, who fumbled on the play.
“Alex is a guy that has a lot of athletic ability,” Wash said. “He’s a very strong player for his size. He’s learning our package as we go and we’re spot playing him because he came from a completely different system. We’re seeing a lot of good things from him. He’s in our four down rush package, even though we’re not playing a lot of that right now. We’re doing a lot of rushing out of a 3-3 or a 3-5 – or whatever you want to call it – front. When we are getting in our four down [linemen] rush you are seeing some good stuff out of him rush-wise.”
Reserve nose tackle Al Woods has a frame similar to that of Miller’s and finished with 20 tackles and half a sack in 2010 after being signed from Pittsburgh’s practice squad during the year.
“Al Woods has been playing a lot for us and he usually plays between 20-30 snaps for us a game,” Wash said. “He’s a consistent backup for Roy at the nose. We’ve really seen him grow within our package. He is such a big, strong guy and we’re really excited to see more from him in the future.”
Wash also touched on the progress of Doug Worthington, a practice squad player that was signed to the active roster for the last week of the season, and Frank Okam, who was also on the practice squad and started at the three-technique tackle spot for the last three games of the year, notching three tackles.
“Doug is a guy that is still developing,” Wash said. “He was on our practice squad and was just activated at the end of the year. He’s another guy that is really big. Just look at how the size of our room has changed. That’s going to only help us as players like Doug continue to develop. It’s totally different from guys we’ve had inside for us in the past. We have some guys that are 350 pounds like Frank Okam, and they are doing a really good job. These aren’t guys that can just play in a 2×2 box. Frank can really move. You saw that in the Seattle game. They can play tackle-to-tackle and that’s all we need to ask those guys to do. We’re excited about the guys we acquired during the season even though we don’t have the guys we started with.
“In the offseason, hopefully everything goes well and we have a real good offseason. The offseason is going to be crucial for those guys to continue to develop and work each and every day. Once you get these guys during the season there is not a lot of technique time. It’s mostly scheme-based. Once these guys get in the offseason and we work technique, then you will see these guys get better and better in 2011.”
Although it will be a new defensive line coach leading the way in place of Wash.
FAB 3. After gaining a reputation as an outspoken, mercurial tight end that prefers to work out at his home in San Diego rather than with the team, Kellen Winslow has become nothing short of a hard-working, productive member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Winslow prefers not to speak to the media and likes to avoid the limelight.
But at the conclusion of the season, the Buccaneers’ leading receiver with 66 catches for 730 yards and five touchdowns touched on a variety of topics that Tampa Bay fans might find noteworthy.
“I could say so many good things about him,” Winslow said of Bucs head coach Raheem Morris. “He’s why I’m here. He brought me here. I would go to battle with that guy any day. We met our goals and that’s all we can do. Usually with 10 wins you definitely get in [the playoffs], but we have a tough division. It was not surprising to us [to get to 10 wins] because we put the work in.
“With a coach like Raheem, it’s very easy to follow him. It’s funny how we have so many young guys and we are able to do this. It’s crazy when you think about it. We are so young, but next year we have a lot to build on. It’s real exciting. He is doing a great job with the defense, but all of the players have his back. I think everybody has come together and set a goal in mind and we have reached it, but we just didn’t make the playoffs.”
Winslow also chimed in about the play of quarterback Josh Freeman and admitted that the two didn’t really get in sync until the second half of the year.
“I think we can double our numbers next year just [because] things were not clicking,” Winslow said. “I think we can double our numbers next year. I really do.”
The effective running of rookie LeGarrette Blount over the second half of the season really opened up Tampa Bay’s passing game.
“LeGarrette Blount is just a great talent,” Winslow said. “Once he really knows what he’s doing, the sky is the limit for that guy. We’re so young. We have so much to build on here. He came in and all odds were against him. Coach Morris gave him a chance and he ran with it.
“I wish I was able to do [hurdle defenders] still. I don’t even think he knows what he’s doing yet. That’s what is so amazing about him. I can’t wait until he really gets it because he’s unstoppable. Arrelious Benn, LeGarrette Blount, [Erik] Lorig, Mike Williams, [Ted] Larsen, [Derek] Hardman – there are so many young guys and so many young guys on defense. When you get to grow together a lot of good things will happen.”
Winslow also discussed the Detroit game, which featured a touchdown catch that was erroneously taken away by a bad call from an official. That 23-20 overtime loss essentially cost Tampa Bay a playoff berth this year.
“Most definitely – [the officials] have taken two away from me this year,” Winslow said. “What can you do? You have to control what you can control and move on.
“When we lost to Detroit it was kind of out of our hands anyways. That was a hard loss for us. When we found out we couldn’t do anything about it. It just sucks. We were happy with the win [in New Orleans], but there was nothing we could do about it.”
Winslow said not making the playoffs in 2010 would serve as motivation for the following year.
“We’re already hungry,” Winslow said. “It sucks because me and [John Gilmore] were talking and it’s like, ‘Dang, it’s over.’ We feel like we were just reaching our potential. Just when it was getting good – it was over.
“When you look at the teams we beat, it’s about getting to that next level – the elite teams. The Steelers, the Saints, the Falcons, the Ravens – those are the type of teams that we have to beat to get to that next level. We’re right in the middle I think, but to get to the elite teams we have to do some things and get there and we will.”
FAB 4. Good friend, colleague and ESPN’s NFC South ace reporter Pat Yasinskas recently disclosed that with $58.7 million in committed salaries the Buccaneers are way below the estimated 2011 salary cap floor of approximately $100 million if a new collective bargaining agreement can be worked out. The estimated salary cap will likely between $140-$150 million per Yasinskas.
The Buccaneers have earned the reputation as one of the cheaper teams in the league over the last few years because their payroll has been amongst the NFL’s lowest. With a team payroll of just over $83 million in 2010, the Buccaneers have spent the second-lowest amount on team salaries this year, trailing only Kansas City.
Interestingly enough, the Bucs and Chiefs both finished with 10-6 records with Kansas City winning the AFC West and Tampa Bay one win away from the postseason as a wild card team. It’s not surprising that Tampa Bay has the league’s second-lowest payroll due to the fact that it has the youngest team in the NFL with 18 rookies on the Bucs’ season-ending 53-man roster. With the exception of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who was the third overall pick in 2010, rookies come cheap.
Out of the 66 Buccaneers that finished the season on the active roster or injured reserve, Tampa Bay has 47 players that have only played in the NFL three years or less and the vast majority of those players are on their rookie contracts, which also makes them incredibly cheap.
At first glance, it would appear that the Buccaneers have to be big-time spenders in free agency to add approximately $42 million to their payroll to meet the estimated salary cap floor. Keep in mind that Tampa Bay has a ton of potential free agents in 2011, including:
Projected unrestricted free agents
CB Ronde Barber
MLB Barrett Ruud
TE John Gilmore
RB Cadillac Williams
MLB Niko Koutouvides
DE Stylez G. White
LB Quincy Black
DE Tim Crowder
LB Adam Hayward
RG Davin Joseph
WR Maurice Stovall
RT Jeremy Trueblood
Projected restricted free agents
K Connor Barth
RT James Lee
FS Corey Lynch
CB Elbert Mack
DT Frank Okam
WR-KR Micheal Spurlock
Exclusive rights free agents
DE Michael Bennett
QB Rudy Carpenter
RT Demar Dotson
RB Kareem Huggins
Who knows which players from these lists will be re-signed and for how much, but it would be a safe bet that the 2011 cap values of those that are re-signed will total close to $20 million. That means the Bucs will have to only spend about $22 million on other players in free agency to reach the supposed salary cap floor.
Actually, set aside approximately $6 million that the Bucs will need to sign their draft picks and the number drops to $16 million. A big-name free agent or two with decent signing bonuses like cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha or defensive end Ray Edwards could gobble up that amount pretty quickly.
Given the fact that the Bucs have such an incredibly young team, they are lucky that they already have $58.7 million worth of spending committed to 2011. Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik knew that a new CBA could be coming in 2011, and that could mean the return of the salary cap. So he and lead contract guy, director of football administration Digger Daley, made sure to have the salaries for some of the highest paid Buccaneers escalate this year to help the team more easily achieve the salary cap floor.
McCoy’s base salary escalates from $2,295,000 in 2010 to $8,737,500 in 2011, which represents an increase of $6.442 million.
Quarterback Josh Freeman’s base salary climbs from $3,950,000 in 2010 to $7,400,000 in 2011, which represents an increase of $3.45 million.
Penn’s base salary rises from $4,500,000 next season to $7,200,000 next season, which represents an increase of $2.7 million.
Tight end Kellen Winslow’s base salary shoots up from $6,721,000 this year to $8,259,000 next year, which represents an increase of $1.538 million.
Collectively, the Bucs’ payroll will rise a collective $14.13 million next year just with the increases in base contracts of Freeman, McCoy, Winslow and Penn.
Cornerback Aqib Talib’s base salary increases from $1,417,500 in 2010 to $1,653,750, but that gain is wiped out by the fact that the $5 million base salary of center Jeff Faine will decrease to $4.75 million.
The $14.14 million in salary escalations that Dominik and Daley planned for will greatly help reduce the amount of money Tampa Bay will have to spend on new free agents in 2011 – if there is a new CBA and if there is even a free agency season this spring and summer.
FAB 5. Here are some things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Some have speculated that the sensational rookie seasons by running back LeGarrette Blount and wide receiver Mike Williams could have either or both player going to general manager Mark Dominik demanding a pay raise. That won’t happen because it can’t happen. Per NFL rules, new contracts for rookies cannot be renegotiated for a period of two years.
So even though Blount had a 1,000-yard season and Williams nearly had 1,000 yards and posted a franchise-record 11 receiving touchdowns and will certainly outperform the $405,000 in base salary they will receive in 2011, they’ll have to settle for it. There is no recourse and they will have to wait until 2012 to renegotiate with Dominik.
• With Earnest Graham missing Tampa Bay’s 2010 regular season finale, rookie Erik Lorig was called on to be the starting fullback for the fourth time this year. Graham missed the St. Louis game due to a hamstring injury, re-injured it against Arizona and missed most of that contest, and then missed games at Atlanta, home against Carolina and at New Orleans. In those contests, the Bucs rushed for 124 yards (Rams), 154 yards (Cardinals), 96 yards (Falcons), 186 yards (Panthers) and 84 yards (Saints).
That’s not a knock on Graham, who was in the lineup for the 176-yard rushing day against Detroit, as well as the 208-yard rushing effort against Seattle. Instead, it is merely recognizing that there has been no drop off in rushing production when Lorig, who was playing fullback in the second half against the Seahawks when LeGarrette Blount ripped off his big runs, has been in the game. In the season finale, Lorig absolutely pancaked veteran linebacker Danny Clark on Blount’s 16-yard carry in the first quarter, and then held Clark at bay with a stiff arm on Freeman’s 11-yard scramble down the right sideline to pick up a first down on Tampa Bay’s third quarter touchdown drive.
With the Bucs needing to spend money to reach the salary cap floor if a new collective bargaining agreement is in place in 2011, it’s a safe bet that Graham will be on the team – despite his $2 million base salary. However, if the 6-foot-4, 270-pound Lorig keeps lead blocking as well as he did during his rookie season, it’s not a lock that Graham will remain the starter.
• Count legendary Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber among those impressed by the roster management of G.M. Mark Dominik. Is a front office position in the future for Barber, whose contract expired at the end of the 2010 season? He certainly has taken an interest in some of the team’s acquisitions over the years, but he’s better served as one of Tampa Bay’s starting cornerbacks in 2011 after recording 102 tackles, three interceptions and one sack this past year.
“Getting over a dozen guys up from the practice squad, that speaks to Mark’s ability,” Barber said. “I remember talking to him last year about the way to build a team, and that’s from the bottom. You turn over your roster at the bottom and put the guys on your practice squad and on the 53 that you know will have the ability to play for you one day. We’ve found a lot of those guys – a ton of those guys – that are playing for us right now. That’s a credit to Mark and the front office for those signings.”
Dominik can keep his hot streak going by signing Barber to a one- or two-year deal this offseason due to the fact that the 14-year cornerback is playing at such a high level.