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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. Earnest Graham deserves a pay raise, but he’s going about getting it the wrong way. In fact, he’s screwing himself – royally.
Instead of holding out – likely under orders of agent Drew Rosenhaus – Graham should be at Tampa Bay’s OTAs (organized team activities).
John Romano had a great column in Friday’s St. Petersburg Times where he appropriately mentioned how Graham isn’t going to win his contract battle with the Buccaneers, and tied Graham’s decision to stay away from One Buccaneer Place to another former Gators running back that decided to hold out for a new contract with the Buccaneers – Errict Rhett, who ironically had Rosenhaus as his agent.
Yet there’s more to tell on this subject.
The problem is that Rhett was three years younger than the 28-year old Graham has, who was an undrafted free agent, when he was asking for more money, and Rhett, a former second-round pick, had come off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons – totaling 2,208 yards and 18 touchdowns from 1994-95.
Entering the final year of a two-year contract that will pay him $605,000 in 2008, Graham decided to ask for more money after entering the starting lineup as the Bucs’ third-string runner only due to the fact that starter Cadillac Williams was placed on injured reserve and Michael Pittman had sustained a serious ankle injury last year. In his first time to carry the load, Graham rushed for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns during the 2007 season. Graham’s production over two thirds of a season don’t come close to what Rhett did after two years as a starting running back.
In 1996, Rhett, who was earning $336,000 that year, held out for 93 days as Rosenhaus turned down a reported six-year deal worth $2.3 million per season. Rhett and Rosenhaus were looking for a deal that paid $3 million per year and included a $5 million signing bonus. This would likely prove to be the biggest mistake of Rhett’s life as during his holdout in ’96 allowed some rookie fullback named Mike Alstott to start showing his stuff as a ballcarrier, a receiver and a touchdown producer.
When Rhett finally reported, he had to split carries with Alstott and he had already fallen out of favor with new head coach Tony Dungy, which prompted the Buccaneers to select Warrick Dunn, Rhett’s eventual replacement, in the first round of the 1997 NFL Draft. Dunn had a terrific preseason and all of a sudden, Rhett was yesterday’s news. The Bucs didn’t even bother to continue contract talks with him and he was traded to Baltimore after a 1997 season in which he received very little playing time.
I could see the same thing happening to Graham and his situation is even more tenuous. Without a new contract, he will hit the free agent market as a 29-year old running back in 2008 with a thin resume` as an offensive ballcarrier in the NFL (really only his production from 2007). Because the age of 30 is considered to be the death knell for rushers, 29-year old running backs don’t get big contracts in free agency, especially unproven ones.
I don’t know what Graham and Rosenhaus have asked for, and I don’t know what the Bucs have countered with, but whatever general manager Bruce Allen has proposed, I’d take it if I were Graham. I also would have been at every OTA session there was this year.
Allen and Bucs head coach Jon Gruden have already come out and said – publicly and purposefully – that Graham didn’t attend many OTAs last year. To me, that’s code for “that’s why he’s been a third-string runner.”
Think about it. While players like Michael Pittman have been regular participants in the Bucs’ offseason workouts, Graham has been absent. So how in the world could he ascend up the depth chart when Pittman had over a dozen more full practices on him each year? No wonder he’s been running third-string all these years.
Graham hasn’t given Gruden and the Bucs coaches enough reason to make him a bigger part of the offense. You know the old saying – “out of sight, out of mind.”
It isn’t like Graham has been punished for his offseason absence over the years. It’s just that Pittman was rewarded for his offseason participation.
Remember that the OTAs span the months of April, May and June. It’s over those three months when Gruden and the Bucs install the offense for the coming season. Training camp and the preseason, where Graham has historically starred, only lasts about six weeks, which is a fraction of the offseason time.
If I were Graham, I would have made it my mission to attend all of the OTAs and not give Gruden any reason to replace me. Why work all of these years, finally crack the starting lineup and then not defend your spot atop the depth chart? It doesn’t make any sense.
With each carry and catch that Dunn and Bennett get, Gruden falls more in love with their speed, which Graham doesn’t have, evidenced by the fact that he didn’t have a run over 28 yards last year despite 274 career carries. And yes, Dunn and Bennett looked pretty darn good during Thursday’s open practice at Raymond James Stadium. Bennett looked much more comfortable in the offense and was quick and explosive as ever, and Dunn looked like he hasn’t lost a step the way he just glides through the hole in the line of scrimmage and away from defenders.
If Graham reports for the mandatory mini-camp after missing most of the three months of the offseason workouts, do you know where he will be on the Bucs’ depth chart? Third string.
You can bet that’s exactly what Allen will be telling Rosenhaus when he says, “Drew, you want your client to be paid like a starter, but Dunn is our starter and Bennett is splitting carries, too. I haven’t seen your client since January and because of the hard work that Dunn and Bennett are putting in right now, Earnest is third on our depth chart.”
Again, it’s not about punishing Graham, it’s about rewarding the players who are there in the offseason. In the end, Graham has only punished himself throughout this process, and Rosenhaus has done him no favors. Graham should just ask Errict Rhett.
The real irony in all of this, as Romano also pointed out in Friday’s St. Pete Times, is how Dunn’s presence helped amplify Rhett’s bad decision. Twelve years later, Dunn is doing the same thing to Graham.
Take what the Bucs are offering and get in the offseason program before it’s too late, Earnest.
FAB 2. One of the most talked about positions in Tampa Bay this offseason from the media’s and fans’ perception is wide receiver. Count me as one of those media types who didn’t think the Bucs did enough at the receiver position during the spring.
The problem is that the pickings were real slim in free agency and the draft, so on one hand I can’t complain about the lack of activity from One Buccaneer Place. I would not have felt comfortable paying any of the bigger name receivers – Javon Walker, Bernard Berrian, Donte` Stallworth and D.J. Hackett – what they received in free agency, despite the fact that the Bucs are flush with salary cap room.
The only two receivers that really appealed to me in the draft were Houston’s Donnie Avery and Virginia Tech’s Eddie Royal, and they weren’t available in the second round when Tampa Bay was on the clock. Neither player carried the same grade as Aqib Talib, so I wouldn’t have selected either receiver instead of the Kansas cornerback.
So the Bucs are rolling the dice that Joey Galloway will continue to produce 1,000-yard seasons, Ike Hilliard won’t start showing his age, Michael Clayton will rebound into rookie form, Maurice Stovall will finally emerge on offense and Paris Warren bounces back from a broken ankle, right? Oh, and Tampa Bay is counting on second-round pick Dexter Jackson being a valuable spot duty player on offense, in addition to Antonio Bryant staying out of trouble and shaking off the rust of being out of football for a year.
That sounds like a scary plan. Yet, during Thursday’s open practice at Raymond James Stadium, the reason for the Bucs’ relative inactivity at the receiver position was on display. Yes, the new, slimmer, 208-pound Clayton looked good, but it was a pair of unheralded receivers that were catching my eye. For your consideration, I give you Taye Biddle and Cortez Hankton.
That’s right. Biddle and Hankton.
Is either one of them destined to win a roster spot? No, but on a team that saw the likes of former Arena Football League defensive end Greg White, undrafted free agent and former practice squad left tackle Donald Penn and undrafted free agent and former practice squad running back Earnest Graham step into the spotlight as big-time contributors in Tampa Bay’s NFC South championship season last season, anything is possible.
Pewter Report’s Jim Flynn did a great job of outlining the Buccaneers’ current wide receiver situation in his Flynn’s Focus, but there is a good chance that one of Tampa Bay’s young, unheralded wideouts could rise up and steal a roster spot. If Biddle and Hankton have been practicing all offseason like they did on Thursday when Hankton made an acrobatic catch off a deflected 50-yard bomb from Luke McCown in the end zone and Biddle was routinely smoking cornerbacks down the sideline, then the battle at the wide receiver position could become very interesting at training camp.
Maybe the reason why the Bucs didn’t feel compelled to overpay for an average receiver in free agency or spend a first-round pick on a receiver in the draft was because they were excited about some of the lesser known players they already had in-house. In speaking with Tampa Bay’s long-time pro personnel director Mark Dominik, that appears to be the case.
“There are some guys that can stretch the field if that’s what Jon wants to do with them,” Dominik said. “But then there are guys that we haven’t got to see a lot of yet like Dexter Jackson, who is able to do the same thing. I think there is some speed out here, but it’s also important that guys run precise routes and run stuff underneath that Jon likes to do to be able to clear things out. I think we have some guys in this group that can be able to handle both roles. I like our group. They may not have a lot in terms of catches and experience, but I do like the group of guys that we are working with.”
Biddle is a player the Bucs signed to their practice squad last year after having an eye-opening preseason with a division rival in 2007.
“Taye really flashed with the Carolina Panthers,” Dominik said, “He had big games in the preseason. He was playing special teams as a flyer, so he got noticed as a kickoff and punt coverage guy. What he did in the preseason, statistically, he had 27 yards per catch and you could see that this guy could flat out fly. We were excited that he wanted to come join our practice squad and see if he could develop. He certainly has all the traits that we’re looking for because of what he can do on special teams and on offense.”
The 6-foot-1, 185-pound Biddle had two catches for 108 yards (with touchdowns of 87 and 25 yards) against the New York Giants last preseason and he finished with seven catches for 190 and two scores. If you are wondering why he didn’t stick in Carolina, keep in mind that Steve Smith is a Pro Bowler and the Panthers had draft picks invested in Drew Carter, Keary Colbert, Dwayne Jarrett and return specialist Ryne Robinson. The fact that Biddle was an undrafted free agent out of Misssissippi where he was a teammate of Micheal Spurlock, didn’t help his cause.
On Thursday, Biddle was seen getting separation downfield on a frequent basis, and when the ball was thrown to him, it was caught cleanly. He certainly made a bigger impression than Bryant in the eyes of this Pewter Reporter, but keep in mind this was one isolated practice.
Still, if people in power like Dominik are noticing, that has to be a good thing for Biddle.
“Guys like Taye Biddle – they are all in the same playing field,” Dominik said. “Micheal Spurlock got to do kickoff returns last year, and Chad Lucas got to play in the last two games and made five big catches. We’re just waiting to see who is going to emerge out of that young group, including guys like Brian Clark. Guys are starting to step up and we’ll see this continue in training camp.”
FAB 3. As impressive as Taye Biddle was during Thursday’s practice at Raymond James Stadium, another relatively unknown Buccaneers receiver – Cortez Hankton – was making quite a splash, too. If Hankton’s name might sound a bit more familiar to you, it’s because he has been on Jacksonville’s roster from 2003-06 and he spent part of last year in Minnesota even though he did not play in any games.
The 6-foot, 200-pound Hankton has 34 career catches for 310 yards, two touchdowns and an underwhelming 9.1-yard average. That low average must have come from good coverage or a product of the short and underneath routes he was required to run at Jacksonville because during his final season at Texas Southern, Hankton averaged 19.8 yards per catch while hauling in 64 passes for 1,270 yards and 13 touchdowns.
“Cortez is an exciting guy,” said Dominik. “We felt that when we scouted him last year – he ended up signing with Minnesota – but we brought him in before and worked him out and he was probably the best receiver workout we had. We targeted him as a guy that we wanted to sign when the season was over, and he was a guy that we feel has the skill set to do all the things that [Bucs coach] Jon [Gruden] wants to do. We felt he would be able to come in and learn all of the different positions and he has done a great job of learning the system and becoming a movable part, which is what gave – and I hate to compare guys – but gave guys like Karl Williams his longevity in the league because Karl was able to learn multiple positions. Right now, I think Cortez has really grabbed a hold of that concept and he has more speed than you realize. I’ve been very excited about what Cortez has done.”
Dominik wasn’t the only one excited. Gruden singled out Hankton after he excelled in a gunner drill on special teams.
“Hey Hank!” Gruden yelled from across the field. “Hey Hank! Hanker! You’re my kind of guy. You’re going to help us, Hanker.”
Hankton appreciated Gruden’s positive comments in front of his teammates, but also knows that Thursday’s practice alone won’t put him on Tampa Bay’s roster this season.
“It definitely helps motivate you and makes you want to go harder,” Hankton said after practice. “At the same time, you have to stay humble in this game. You can’t relax and get complacent. You can’t be satisfied with what you do. You have to keep pushing.
“I happy I am back in Florida and in good weather. It’s been a very challenging experience, especially because of Jon Gruden’s offense and learning the playbook. I’ve been studying pretty hard and I’ve been able to pick it up. It’s something that you have to do every day just to keep up.”
My first impression of Hankton was that he was a very bright, articulate guy.
“I feel like one of my strengths is my IQ and being able to pick up offenses and being able to apply it to what defenses do,” Hankton said. “I feel like I bring a complete game, not only on offense, but on special teams, too. That’s where I’ll make the team.”
If Thursday was any indication, he should fare well on offense, too – once he fully digests the playbook. The 27-year old receiver has a look of determination about him and after years of toiling in Jacksonville, Hankton seems ready to stick in Tampa Bay. After all, with players like Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard in their 30s and in the twilight of their careers, and younger players like Michael Clayton, Maurice Stovall and Paris Warren yet to emerge, the Bucs’ roster is wide open for a hungry player like Hankton.
“With any situation, there is competition,” Hankton said. “I’m here to compete. No matter, what you have to compete every day on every play. That’s just the mindset that you have to have.”
Patrick Crayton was a seventh-round pick by Dallas that came out of nowhere to develop into a starting receiver. The same could be said of New Orleans’ Marques Colston. They were given a chance to compete and they emerged.
Players like Paris Warren and Micheal Spurlock are not guaranteed roster spots by any means. Keep an eye on players like Hankton and Taye Biddle in training camp. They could shake things up. Actually, the Bucs are counting on that to happen.
FAB 4. When Barrett Ruud finally got the opportunity to become a full-time starter at middle linebacker in 2007, he lived up to his second-round draft billing. Out-tackling future Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, the best player in Tampa Bay history, is no small feat. But that’s what Ruud did, with his 169 tackles beating Brooks by seven stops last year.
In addition to all of those tackles, Ruud forced three fumbles, recovered three fumbles and picked off two passes. He started off the season with a bang, being named the NFC Defensive Player of the Month in September before a knee injury slowed him down for the final three months of the season. Still, Ruud was able to be productive down the stretch and started every game except for the season finale` against Carolina as Tampa Bay rested a lot of their starters for the playoff contest against the New York Giants.
So after such a stellar debut as a full-time starter, what is Ruud planning for an encore? An even better season thanks to being able to watch even more tape of his game, which should help him improve and prepare for his second full year in the middle of Tampa Bay’s defense.
“The improvement part is the biggest thing,” Ruud said. “The more you play on film, the more you find things you can improve on. I’ve watched the games I played in last year very closely and there are a lot of things that I want to do a lot better.
“If I’m thinking about one thing … working out-wise, it’s mobility and flexibility. I improved that last year, but I’m still working on that the most – getting more explosive. I want to get my hips looser. As a linebacker, that’s real essential. You can’t be a real stiff guy – especially in this system – and play well. I think that’s going to allow me to be more mobile in going sideline-to-sideline. There’s always little stuff like getting off blocks. Heck, Derrick Brooks is still working on stuff like that. Some of this stuff is a never-ending process, but the flexibility part is what I’m working on the most.”
One would think that sharing the huddle with Brooks for an entire season would accelerate Ruud’s development, but the Nebraska product denied that was the case.
“I think I learned more my first couple of years from him than I did last year,” Ruud said. “You still learn things from watching him in the meeting room and in the weight room and watch him in prepare. But I think someone like Geno Hayes could come in and just learn a lot more from him in training camp than I would at this stage.”
One thing that Ruud learned last year was not to push his body to the limit in training camp. He thinks that contributed to a sore knee that bothered him during most of the 2007 campaign.
“I feel great right now,” Ruud said, noting that he is perfectly healthy. “One of the things I’m doing this year is that I’m being a little bit smarter. I’m not trying to plant and cut too hard right now and save myself for the season. I banged myself up a little bit in training camp and it’s not too fun to go through a full year nursing little injuries. I’m trying to be smart out here and at the same time I’m trying to improve.”
Ruud showed he had Pro Bowl potential last year, and if he truly achieves improvement in his game, he could turn that potential into reality.
FAB 5. Here are a couple of things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Bucs defensive end Patrick Chukwurah is absolutely ripped. He’s bigger this year in terms of being muscle-bound than he was a year ago. Now that running back Michael Pittman is gone, Chukwurah probably has the biggest, most-chiseled guns on the team. But does that mean anything on the football field? Not really, although at 6-foot-1, 250 pounds, Chukwurah needs all the bulk he can get. The problem with Chukwurah may be the fact that he is so muscle-bound that he is a tightly wound athlete that lacks fluidity in his movements. He’s still quick and fast off the ball, but not fluid like Gaines Adams is going around the corner in pass rushing drills.
• New Tampa Bay defensive end Marques Douglas has the body of Greg Spires, and wearing the number 94 jersey, he looks like Spires. By that I mean that he is short (6-foot-2), squatty and a little heavy, although his 292 pounds is 18 pounds more than Spires carried around at 274 pounds. The 31-year old Douglas did not look overly impressive in Pewter Report’s first extended exposure to him. In fact, Wilkerson – not Douglas – has been the new defensive end getting rave reviews from the folks at One Buccaneer Place with one source saying he had been “a pleasant surprise.” Wilkerson looked very quick and agile, and is well put together in individual and team drills. Douglas has been lining up at defensive tackle and left end behind Kevin Carter and Greg White, while Wilkerson has been lining up at right defensive end ahead of Charles Bennett as the backup to Gaines Adams.
• Rookie cornerback Elbert Mack is very thin, and despite leading the nation in interceptions last year with eight after playing opposite first-round pick Leodis McKelvin, it’s easy to see why he went undrafted. Mack is listed at 5-foot-10, 175 pounds, but he might be closer to weighing 168 pounds, which he played at in college at Troy. With a good showing in training camp, he may be a candidate for the practice squad this year in Tampa Bay.
• The Buccaneers now have four players from the University of Oklahoma with right guard Davin Joseph, linebacker Teddy Lehman, safety Donte Nicholson and defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson. It’s interesting to note that Wilkerson, a six-year veteran, played with Lehman, Nicholson and Joseph for the Sooners, and that Lehman, Nicholson and Joseph also played together. There used to be days when Florida and Florida State players dominated the Buccaneers’ roster. Now it’s … Oklahoma. Go figure.
• Ben Troupe is a quality tight end, but I’m not sure if he’s better than Jerramy Stevens, who was playing great ball in the last month of the 2007 season, catching four touchdown passes, including the game-winner at New Orleans. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden loved Stevens’ 6-foot-7 frame and the matchups he could create with it. At 6-foot-4, Troupe is a pretty big target, but doesn’t have the wingspan that Stevens possesses. Behind the scenes, Gruden is a bit peeved that Stevens wasn’t re-signed by Bucs general manager Bruce Allen. The reason, of course, was largely due to a public relations hit the team would take after a Seattle newspaper report that detailed some alleged criminal behavior by Stevens in college at the University of Washington and in the pros as a member of the Seattle Seahawks.
• Bucs rookie quarterback Josh Johnson is not going to see the field in 2008. He’ll make the team as a fourth quarterback, but he will be inactive for all 16 games this year barring a rash of injuries at the quarterback position. He is not in position to compete for the backup job, nor the number three quarterback spot. He’s not as good as Luke McCown or Brian Griese at this stage of the game. I bet he dazzles in the preseason, and when he does, I’ll remind you that Bruce Gradkowski did the same in 2006. The plan for Johnson this year is to redshirt. He won’t see the field as a Kordell Stewart Slash-type player, either. To do so would be to have him active on game days and the Bucs can’t afford to do that from a numbers standpoint. Perhaps that concept could come to fruition in 2009 after he’s had a full year to learn the offense and really compete for the number three QB spot. But as of right now, Johnson is glued to quarterbacks coach Greg Olson and he’s learning how to be a quarterback in this system.
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org