Copyright 2008

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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:

FAB 1. So Jeremy Stevens is back with the Buccaneers. How do you feel about it?

I stated my case on February 1 in this SR’s Fab 5. I won’t bore you too much by repeating myself. I’ll let you read it for yourself again – or perhaps for the first time if you are a new Pewter Insider subscriber.

I’m still unchanged in my position. I’m undecided as to whether re-signing Stevens was the right thing to do by the Buccaneers. I suppose if he stays out of trouble, as he did last year in his first year in Tampa Bay, it will be a good signing. If Stevens, who again signed a one-year deal for league minimum ($700,000) with no signing bonus, gets back into trouble, general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Jon Gruden will face the wrath of the media and the public for taking yet another chance on a high-risk player.

I don’t like the idea of NFL teams like the Bucs rewarding bad guys for bad behavior. But as I stated in that SR’s Fab 5, I haven’t heard Stevens’ side of the story. That is something that the Seattle Times didn’t report regarding the allegations of rape when Stevens was at the University of Washington.

Perhaps Stevens didn’t want to share his side of the story with the Times and won’t ever discuss that with the media. But you can bet that he told his side of the story to Allen, Gruden and the Buccaneers and they believed him enough to sign him last – and this year, too.

It has been well documented that Allen has taken chances on players with dubious pasts before. He explained why he does it to me for a SR’s Fab 5 that was published on May 17. You can read Allen’s reasoning in that column, but here’s an excerpt:

“If the players are willing to abide by our rules – which are stricter than NFL rules – and they can be a good teammate on and off the field, then you feel good when you give someone a chance,” Allen said. “There are some other players that we have given a chance to that have had some issues that other people have said negative things about one way or the other, and not only have they succeeded, but they have flourished in our system. It makes you feel good.”

I thought the signings of John Gilmore and Ben Troupe were a sign that Stevens’ days in Tampa Bay were over, but apparently that wasn’t the case. In fact, last week at Thursday’s OTA, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden revealed that he was peeved that Stevens wasn’t re-signed. I reported that in last week’s SR’s Fab 5, and Pewter Report’s Charlie Campbell filed a similar report in Friday’s PI Quick Hits.

The Bucs believe Stevens has changed his ways primarily because he got engaged last year and was a model teammate. They also believe that he was just scratching the surface of what he could do in Gruden’s offense. The fact that he caught 18 passes for 189 yards and four touchdowns, including the game winner at New Orleans in a come-from-behind victory in a key divisional game, is not lost on Tampa Bay. Those four touchdowns came in the last month of the season and there is the feeling that Stevens could pick up where he left off.

I would like to hear what Stevens has to say about his past, but I have a feeling that he won’t address it. Therefore, I’ll be forced to believe that the Bucs have done their due diligence regarding Stevens’ past and I’ll have to believe that Stevens’ good behavior in Tampa Bay will continue.

Still, there will probably be some Sunday columnist who will throw a fit and say how Allen and Gruden have no conscience and aren’t interested in high-character players (despite the Bucs having Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Barrett Ruud, Chris Hovan, Jeremy Trueblood and Ryan Nece on the team – among other good guys – and that Tampa Bay just re-signed Warrick Dunn). And come Monday morning, I’m sure there will be some on sports talk radio that will condemn the Bucs for re-signing Stevens.

Keep in mind that Tampa Bay did not pursue NFL bad boys Tank Johnson, Chris Henry and Pacman Jones over the years despite needing help at defensive tackle, wide receiver and cornerback. Allen and Gruden carefully choose the troubled players that they wish to rehab.

Time will ultimately tell if re-signing Stevens was the right move for the Buccaneers. But with Stevens getting engaged over the past year and settling down, and with him being a good teammate and a productive football player on the field, I’m going to guess that this move will turn out for the best.

Sources tell Pewter Report that the Stevens signing does not signal the team’s unhappiness with any of the primary tight ends on the roster. Alex Smith will be the starter in 2008 and I expect the Bucs to carry four tight ends – Smith, Stevens, Gilmore and Troupe. Out of that foursome, Troupe may be the most vulnerable to not making the 53-man roster.

FAB 2. The release of quarterback Bruce Gradkowski should have come as no surprise to Pewter Insider subscribers. And no, he was not competing with Luke McCown for a roster spot. That was made clear when Gradkowski, a former sixth-round pick, was cut Friday night.

McCown really elevated his stock in 2007 by putting up some very good statistics and showing some real playmaking ability. He needs to eliminate some bone-headed mistakes, such as untimely turnovers and holding on to the ball too long, which usually wind up as times when he is sacked, but McCown has positioned himself to be a potential franchise quarterback in Tampa Bay and was not in danger of losing out on a roster spot to Gradkowski.

Barring a mental and physical collapse in training camp and the preseason, McCown’s roster spot is virtually assured, which runs counter to what you may have recently read elsewhere. Although McCown was 1-2 as a starter, he was saddled with the burden of playing with former practice squad receivers in the regular season-ending loss to Carolina. In 2007, McCown completed 94-of-139 passes (67.6 percent) for 1,009 yards with five touchdowns and three interceptions and generated a QB rating of 91.7, which is less than three QB rating points off Jeff Garcia’s rating (94.6).

As I have stated before, the most impressive part of McCown’s performance was his performance in the first quarter of his three starts at New Orleans, at Houston and against Carolina in which he completed 22-of-22 passes for 361 yards and one touchdown with no interceptions. That computes to a QB rating of 133.9, and if you add a 1-yard touchdown pass to tight end Anthony Becht on the first play of the second quarter at New Orleans, McCown’s QB rating inches closer to the perfect mark of 158.3.

So what did McCown attribute his first quarter performance to?

“Just a great game plan,” the humble McCown said. “Coach Gruden sets up the first 15-20 plays of each game and really gives us a chance to be successful early. That’s the biggest part of it. From my side, I try to set a tone for the offense that we’re going to take what the defense gives us and we’re going to be aggressive and move the ball down the field. That kind of gets everybody going. You don’t force things that aren’t there early. You take your shots certainly if they are there.

“Coach Gruden does a great job of game planning. When you take what the defense gives you and move the ball you create that confidence and that poise early and it sets the tone for the rest of the game. That’s my mindset. I know these guys have confidence in me, but they haven’t seen me play. So I’m going to present the poise and confidence I have in myself to them by getting them the ball as quick as I can to give us the chance to be successful.”

If you penciled McCown in for the third-string job this year, you better make sure that pencil has an eraser. Bucs quarterbacks coach Greg Olson and head coach Jon Gruden have told me that McCown is certainly in the mix for the backup job behind Garcia and that Griese won’t be handed the job due to his experience. There will be legitimate competition for the No. 2 spot.

“I’m competing for playing time,” McCown said. “Everybody wants to play. Jeff is our starter and apparently there is no competition there. He’s our starter and he proved that last year. He’s the leader of our football team, but that doesn’t keep Brian and I from competing for that backup spot. The rest of it will take care of itself. When you go out and compete and you’re loving what you do, all you can do is go out and put your best foot forward and let your play speak for itself.”

In order to nail down that backup spot, McCown will have to eliminate some of the foolish mistakes he made in his first playing time since his rookie season in Cleveland in 2004. The good news is that he’s going up against Griese, who despite a high completion percentage, has shown that he can make the same drive-killing and game-killing mistakes, too.

“I look at the four or five things that I did that I would like to get better at and they are all correctable,” McCown said. “The sacks are certainly correctable. As I played last year, I wasn’t going to throw something blind. Turnovers will kill you. We know that. Sacks won’t necessarily lose you games, but turnovers will. The statistics back that up. I wasn’t going to throw something blind if I didn’t see it clean and that made me hold on to the ball longer than I wanted to. But you get better at that with anticipation and playing with guys for a while. They are all correctable.

“The fumbled snap in Houston was a miscommunication between John Wade and myself. It’s a command mistake. That comes with more experience. It was the same thing in New Orleans. I gave Joey Galloway a signal and he runs something else and I throw a pick-six [to Saints cornerback Mike McKenzie]. That’s miscommunication and it’s a command issue. It’s making sure that he knows what I want him to do and being on the same page. I’m working hard on those things.”

When asked to pick out the one turnover that he would love to have back, McCown settled on one that has stuck with him throughout the offseason.

“It’s hard for me to pick out one, but the one that probably mattered the most for me and for us was the one at the end of the Carolina game,” McCown said. “If we score there, we were going to win the game. We put together a great drive. That was a throw – regardless of the miscommunication between Ken Darby and I – that I walked into the meeting the next day and I told Coach Gruden that I should have hit that. He said, ‘I expect you to hit that.’ That’s a throw that I have made 100 times out here on the practice field. If I put a little more on it and throw it to the back of the end zone, it’s a touchdown.”

McCown said that Gruden has given him some pep talks this offseason that lead the young quarterback to believe that he could have a long, bright future in the league with continued improvement and continued patience while Garcia remains the starter in Tampa Bay.

“Coach Gruden has commented to me more than a handful of times that Steve Young wasn’t a starter until he was 30, and Rich Gannon wasn’t a starter until he was 30,” McCown said. “You see a lot of guys like Trent Green and Brad Johnson, who didn’t establish themselves as starting quality, consistent quarterbacks until much later in their careers. I’m not saying that’s what I want. I would love to be the guy this year. It just gives you a little perspective to work hard and be patient. I’m surrounded by two great guys in Brian and Jeff. I’m around guys I can learn from.

“I’ve spoken with Coach Gruden and he’s assured me that the mistakes I made last year – the sacks – that comes with experience. That comes with playing time. Those are the things that I am working on. I’m looking forward to this year and building upon what I was able to do last year.”

If he can erase those mistakes and position himself for the future starting quarterback role, McCown could have an effect on the Bucs' long-term plans with Garcia. Garcia is not the only QB who is in the last year of his contract. McCown will also be an unrestricted free agent in 2009 and is playing for a bigger contract.

“The contract will take care of itself if I do what I’m supposed to do,” McCown said. “I come out here and work hard to become the franchise quarterback every day and become that six-, seven- or eight-year guy that they are looking for. That’s my goal and it’s been my goal since I came here four years ago. I had a detour two years ago with my knee, but I got a chance to play last year and I’m looking forward to building on that. There are a lot of things I need to do. All excuses aside, I’m in my fifth year and I’ve got seven starts, which is a little strange. I’ve got a lot of room to grow.”

The Bucs are hoping McCown can eventually grow into a capable starter. When Tampa Bay passed on drafting Louisville QB Brian Brohm and Michigan QB Chad Henne in the second round, that was a clear indication that the Bucs have high hopes for McCown.

FAB 3. When Jon Gruden took over as Tampa Bay’s head coach in 2002, the Buccaneers were a defensive-oriented team from a salary cap standpoint. Players like defensive end Simeon Rice, defensive tackle Warren Sapp, linebacker Derrick Brooks, safety John Lynch and cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly were among the top five or six highest-paid Buccaneers.

Aside from wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, quarterback Brad Johnson and fullback Mike Alstott, there weren’t many offensive players that were on Tampa Bay’s top 10 salary list back then.

My how things have changed. Tampa Bay’s salary cap money has been reallocated over the past few years as players like Lynch, Sapp, Rice and Kelly have gone by the wayside, in addition to Anthony McFarland and Shelton Quarles, who were also paid quite handsomely by the Buccaneers.

In 2008, only one defensive player is in the top 5 salary cap values, and that’s Barber, who comes in at number five earning $3,955,280. The top four salary cap values are all offensive players – center Jeff Faine ($7,006,360), quarterback Jeff Garcia ($5,006,360), running back Cadillac Williams ($4,143,610) and left tackle Luke Petitgout ($4,006,360).

Of the top 10 2008 salary cap values, the offense now makes up 50 percent of those numbers with wide receiver Joey Galloway checking in at number eight with $3,506,800.

Tampa Bay has 13 players with a salary cap value of $3 million or more, which I presume is a fairly low number league-wide. Because I don’t have salary cap information of every team in the NFL I can’t compare it, but I would hazard a guess that because Tampa Bay is currently $28 million under the salary cap the Bucs do in fact have the fewest players with salary cap values at $3 million or more.

Here is the list of the top 13 Bucs salary cap values in 2008. The top 10 salary cap values are in bold:

C Jeff Faine $7,006,360
QB Jeff Garcia $5,006,360
RB Cadillac Williams $4,143,610
LT Luke Petitgout $4,006,360
CB Ronde Barber $3,955,280
LB Derrick Brooks $3,756,360
LB Cato June $3,673,026
WR Joey Galloway $3,506,800
DE Gaines Adams $3,312,610
CB Phillip Buchanon $3,161,360

RB Warrick Dunn $3,006,360
QB Chris Simms $3,000,000
DE Kevin Carter $3,000,000

The reason for so few players’ salary cap values at $3 million or more is because Tampa Bay has become such a young team with a lot of players playing under their rookie deals. The Bucs also signed a lot of their core players to reasonable, or perhaps even below market value, deals a week or so into free agency (Petitgout and June) after the big money had been spent by most teams. The only players that are the exception to this are Faine and Garcia, who were both signed within the first 48 hours of free agency in 2008 and 2007, respectively.

And keep in mind that Tampa Bay had only one Pro Bowl player last year, and that was Garcia. Pro Bowl-caliber players are usually paid handsomely.

So what can we make of this reversal in salary cap balance? Well, Tampa Bay’s defense was the top-ranked NFC unit despite not having the high-paid megastars of yesteryear. That means that the Bucs personnel department has done an outstanding job of finding the right talent and the coaching on the defensive side was back to its superb standards.

On the offensive side, Tampa Bay made some strides, finishing in the top half of the NFL on offensive unit rankings as the Bucs running game ranked 11th in the NFL and the passing game ranked 16th. It also means that the offense needs to step up and match the production of the defense and become an elite unit that scores more touchdowns and finish the season in the top 10.

For years Gruden moaned about the imbalance of dollars spent on offense in the Rich McKay era when he got to Tampa Bay. Under current general manager Bruce Allen, balance has been achieved, if not favoring the offense seven years later. It’s time for the offense to step up and earn their paychecks in 2008.

FAB 4. Speaking of salary cap stuff, aren’t you still pleased that Rich McKay is doing the contracts in Atlanta, Bucs fans? Surprise, surprise.

The Falcons’ new general manager, Thomas Dimitroff, is now in charge of picking out the players, as McKay was stripped of this duty. Yet it is McKay who apparently is handling the contract negotiations and player signings.

That’s great news, Bucs fans. It was recently revealed by Sports Illustrated’s Peter King that McKay negotiated the record six-year, $72 million contract – that included $34.75 million signing bonus – for Atlanta’s first-round pick, quarterback Matt Ryan. I would be beside myself if I were Dimitroff, because there are two ways to kill a franchise – messing up in personnel acquisition and messing up the team’s salary cap.

If you are a new Pewter Insider subscriber, you should know that Pewter Report first exposed McKay as the real culprit for Tampa Bay’s salary cap woes several years ago when most media members and fans were lamenting his departure from the Buccaneers. Over time, what happened in Atlanta has taken the bloom off McKay’s rose.

If you have followed the Falcons from afar, you’ve seen the cap-busting deals McKay gave to quarterback Michael Vick, middle linebacker Edgerton Hartwell, cornerback Jason Webster and fullback Ovie Mughelli. All were overpaid by league standards, but even some of the lesser deals McKay negotiated were ridiculous in nature.

We all know the current contract status of Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia and running back Earnest Graham, both of whom want new deals before they hit free agency in 2009. Garcia has taken his displeasure about the slow pace of contract talks to the media, while Graham has yet to show up for a single voluntary offseason workout session this offseason while 98 percent of his teammates have.

But have you seen what is going on in Atlanta? Falcons wide receiver Joe Horn, who is 36 years old, is holding out of voluntary workouts. The reason? He wants to be traded to a Super Bowl contender.

When Horn came to the Falcons in 2007, he was coming off a decent season in which he averaged 18.4 yards per catch while hauling in 37 passes for 679 yards and four touchdowns. But Horn’s days as a dominant receiver were over. His last big year was a 94-catch, 1,399-yard season in which he caught 11 touchdowns in 2004. That preceded a 49-catch, 654-yard campaign that saw him catch only one touchdown.

So after that, McKay signed him to a four-year contract worth up to $19 million. That deal included a $1 million signing bonus and a base salary of $1 million. What did the Falcons get in return for that season? How about 27 catches for 243 yards (9.0 avg.) and only one touchdown?

In 2008, Horn is set to make $2.5 million. That’s almost as much as the salaries for former number one pick receivers – Roddy White and Michael Jenkins – will make this year, in addition to wideout Brian Finneran.

So one of the least contributing players on the Falcons – a 36-year old receiver – is the highest-paid player in the unit? I’m sure that can’t be sitting well with Jenkins, White and Finneran and that could prompt the Falcons to part ways with Horn from a team chemistry standpoint.

This is just one more example that as long as McKay has influence over the football side of things in Atlanta – especially contract negotiations – Bucs fans should be very happy.

FAB 5. Here are a couple of things to hold you over until the next SR’s Fab 5:

• Just to show you how creative general manager Bruce Allen can get when doing contracts, he wanted to sign another good cornerback to compete for the starting job opposite Ronde Barber or the nickel corner spot. Instead of locking up a free agent who may (see Phillip Buchanon) or may not be a good fit (see Mario Edwards) in Tampa Bay with a long-term contract, Allen likes to sign players to one-year “prove it” deals. He’s done this with the likes of nose tackle Chris Hovan and tight end Jerramy Stevens among others. Wilson, who signed a one-year deal and is making the transition from safety back to cornerback, has a cap value of $1.626 million in 2008. Wilson will earn a $1 million base salary and was given a $300,000 roster bonus on March 24 when he signed his contract – but it wasn’t a signing bonus. Wilson will earn another $200,000 roster bonus if he is on the 53-man roster for the first game of the season. In case he absolutely flames out in training camp or suffers a preseason injury that lands him on injured reserve, the Bucs won’t have to pay that $200,000. It’s a nice safeguard for the team, although with $28 million in cap room, it’s rather meaningless this year. Still, it’s a nice, well-disciplined approach that has helped Allen get Tampa Bay out of cap trouble and keep it out of cap trouble. Allen is fond of putting performance incentives in contracts (it’s a shame that Earnest Graham didn’t ask for any in 2006 when he negotiated his own contract extension), and Wilson has $638,000 in NLTBE (not likely to be earned) incentives for making the Pro Bowl in 2008. He also has $126,000 in playing time incentives. Should Wilson become a Pro Bowler and hit that extra $764,000, he would have made a cool $2.264 million in 2008 with Tampa Bay and be well-positioned to get a big raise from the Bucs or another team in free agency in 2009. Allen’s approach is sensible and ensures that the Bucs won’t make a cap mistake. In fact, the worst-case scenario is that the player has a fantastic, Pro Bowl-caliber year for the Bucs and commands a huge payday the following year and it costs a lot to re-sign him. But given all of the salary cap room Allen has created over the past two years, even that is not as cumbersome as it seems. Wilson’s deal is the type of deal that Rich McKay should have given someone like aging wide receiver Joe Horn instead of a lucrative, four-year $19 million deal.

• One more salary cap-related note this week. There was a big uproar on the Internet at the start of free agency when came out with the notion that Tampa Bay was so far under the salary cap floor, which is $86.4 million this year, that it might not spend the minimum this year and thus face penalties. Keep in mind that the NFL’s salary cap for all teams this year is $116.729 million. The Bucs have already spent $101.8 million in 2008, which is 87.2 percent of the cap. Thus, Tampa Bay is already above the required spending limit, and the team has yet to sign its rookie class and do extensions for the likes of quarterback Jeff Garcia, running back Earnest Graham and cornerback Phillip Buchanon. When those deals are done, that will be even more money that Tampa Bay will have paid out in 2008. So why are the Bucs $28 million above the salary cap despite spending 87.2 percent? Because the 87.2 percent figure is in relation to the league-wide number of $116.7 million. The Bucs have a salary cap adjustment of $13.3 million due to general manager Bruce Allen cleverly rolling over that money in the form of LTBE (likely to be earned) bonus money that wasn’t obtained in the contracts of running back Lionel Gates, wide receiver Chad Lucas and running back Kenneth Darby. All of those contracts were done in December and what became of the LTBE bonus money (for Lucas it was $7 million)? Well those players had to block four or five punts in a game to reach it. When they didn’t (of course) that turned into $13.3 million worth of extra cap room that artificially made Tampa Bay’s salary cap $130 million in 2008.

• I don’t know if Bruce Gradkowski is cut out to be an NFL quarterback or not. I think he is. He’s been extremely productive in the preseason and seems destined to be a third-string quarterback in the NFL due to his lack of accuracy throwing the deep ball. But should he not last long in the NFL, I think Gradkowski could star in the Arena Football League. Think about it. A 40-yard pass in the AFL is basically a touchdown. Gradkowski is mobile and accurate with short and intermediate passes. I could see him dominating the AFL. It’s a league that’s built for quarterbacks like Gradkowski. But first, the former Toledo product will get a chance to remain in the NFL. He will get signed before training camp due to the fact that he already has 11 career starts under his belt. But will he last?

• One player worth keeping an eye on in Tampa Bay’s training camp is former Fresno State running back-returner Clifton Smith. The 5-foot-8, 190-pound undrafted free agent starred at the Bucs rookie mini-camp and he could be a training camp sleeper, especially if he outperforms second-round draft pick Dexter Jackson in the area of punt and kick returns. Smith isn’t as fast as Jackson is, but he may be more agile and shiftier. Smith was also more productive as a return man, averaging 16.6 yards per punt return and returning five punts for touchdowns. Jackson only scored twice on punt returns, didn’t have Smith’s average, and played against lesser competition. Smith wasn’t a factor on offense until his senior year when he rushed 100 times for 625 yards (6.25 avg.) and scored five touchdowns. He also scored on a two-point conversion and caught 33 passes for 352 yards. Although he didn’t have much offensive production at Fresno State due to the presence of some better backs, Smith does bring a nice skill set to the Buccaneers. “He was invited to our rookie mini-camp and he had a very good mini-camp,” said Bucs director of pro personnel Mark Dominik. “We liked his ability out of college and the reports from our area scout. We liked his versatility. He proved that in our mini-camp by catching the ball, being a returner and was really an attention to detail kid. He excelled in the classroom. That means a lot also, that he could pick up a system quickly.” To familiarize yourself with Smith, here are a couple of his highlight tapes: Film 1 Film 2 Film 3

• Finally, one thing that may be derailing the New Orleans Saints a little bit this offseason is the uncertainty of running back Deuce McAllister’s effectiveness in 2008 after rehabbing a torn ACL, the contract holdout by defensive end Will Smith and the involuntary manslaughter charge in Georgia affecting defensive end Charles Grant. Those have to be distractions down on the Bayou that may wind up helping Tampa Bay.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for 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:
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