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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. Let me start off by saying that I don’t have a dog in this fight. I’m not taking management’s side (general manager Bruce Allen and senior assistant Kevin Demoff), nor am I taking labor’s side (quarterback Jeff Garcia, running back Earnest Graham and any other free agent-to-be in 2009 that has their hand out for more coin) in the summer of disenchantment at One Buccaneer Place.
Of course, I’m talking about the handful of Buccaneers who are pining for a contract extension.
You do know that Garcia will likely get paid. Graham will also come to terms on a new deal. I also think that cornerback Phillip Buchanon will get a new deal done as long as he doesn’t fall behind Eugene Wilson and rookie Aqib Talib on the depth chart. I even believe that defensive Greg White, who is coming off his rookie season at age 28, may receive a good faith pay increase despite the fact that he is three years away from unrestricted free agency.
In the meantime, Garcia is grumbling to the media about the slow pace of contract negotiations. Graham has been a no-show and has apparently been instructed by agent Drew Rosenhaus to not discuss his contract talks publicly. We haven’t heard from Buchanon yet, and despite spouting off about his contract before, White, who has been tendered a one-year contract as an exclusive rights free agent, has shown up and participated in the voluntary OTAs.
As expected, fullback B.J. Askew was the first to get his contract extension done. Why?
Let me ask you a question, and we’ll figure this out together. Did you think Askew’s contract was fair? I did, and most of the comments on the PewterReport.com message boards thought so, too.
And therein lies the answer. It was a fair deal.
Contracts aren’t agreed upon until both sides – management and labor – feel the terms are fair. Garcia isn’t happy because he doesn’t have a contract extension. He’s unhappy because he doesn’t have a contract extension right now.
It is believed that Garcia’s camp is asking for a contract in the $7 million-range per season, but I can’t confirm that. Still, if my estimation is in the ballpark, chances are it’s not in the Bucs’ ballpark, which is why no deal has been struck yet.
The problem is that Garcia’s representatives have not made their demands public, so we don’t know if the Bucs are being unreasonable but not meeting those demands or are being wise for turning down an offer they deem to be unrealistic.
The same holds true with Graham and Rosenhaus. They haven’t let the media and the public know what they have proposed to the Buccaneers. Are they wanting Michael Pittman-type money (a little over $1 million per year) or Cadillac Williams-type money (in the neighborhood of $4 million per year)? There’s a significant difference, especially over the course of a multi-year deal.
Outward appearances suggest that the Bucs are sitting on a boatload of cash – as the team is approximately $24 million under the salary cap – and they are being stingy. But the reason why the Bucs have this much cap room is because they haven’t been irresponsible with their money over the past couple of seasons.
This is mostly a timing issue. The players want their money right now so they can spend it right now. They don’t want to wait until training camp or the start of the season to have the risk of injury creep in and derail their ability to get a lucrative contract extension. I can’t blame them.
But looking at it from Allen and Demoff’s perspective, they have until the end of February to get extensions done before free agency starts and have very little incentive to get a deal done now unless one of those free agents-to-be threatens to hold out. That might not be a wise idea, though, given Allen’s previous hard-line stance towards Keenan McCardell
Just because the Bucs are flush with plenty of salary cap room doesn’t mean that they have to meet the salary demands of disgruntled players seeking extensions.
Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber wasn’t thrilled with heading into training camp without a contract extension in 2006, but once he agreed to terms on a multi-year deal on August 2, all of the rancor and ill will that goes along with contract negotiations became water under the bridge. The same will hold true with Garcia, Graham and others once they agree to terms, as well.
I believe Garcia, Graham, Buchanon and others deserve reasonable contract extensions and pay increases, especially because the Bucs have some room to reward those players. But any money the team spends in long-term deals in 2008 will be less money Tampa Bay will have to work with in future years when the contracts of offensive linemen Jeremy Trueblood and Davin Joseph and linebacker Barrett Ruud are set to expire and will need to be extended.
Contract negotiations aren’t meant to be pleasant. Ideally, the player wants to get as much as he can and the team wants to get the player signed as cheaply as possible. That’s just the nature of the contract extension process.
This is normal. It becomes abnormal when the sides just can’t see eye-to-eye and come to terms. Then you get a McCardell-type situation. Just remember this the next time you think the Buccaneers organization is being cheap or the player is being greedy.
Unless we know what the player is asking for and what the team is offering, which we don’t know in the cases of Garcia and Graham, it’s impossible to make any kind of valid assumptions and really not fair to do so.
Keep one thing in mind, though. Garcia has always been about the money. In the past, he has turned down less money to play in perhaps more ideal situations that were condusive to winning, such as Tampa Bay, for bigger paydays to play for perennial losers such as Cleveland and Detroit.
The lone exception may have been Oakland last year. The Gilroy, Calif. native loved the idea of playing for his hometown team and the Raiders may have offered comparable money – or perhaps even more money – but in the end he wanted to go to a team that had a chance to win. And he didn't want to keep the seat warm for quarterback JaMarcus Russell, who was projected to go number one overall to the Raiders.
The Bucs are hoping Garcia realizes how perfect a situation this is in Tampa Bay and will not let an unreasonable amount of money get in the way of another great season.
FAB 2. Just as Tampa Bay did when it signed center Jeff Faine in free agency, the Buccaneers used a lot of their own players for input and character references when it came to signing wide receiver Antonio Bryant, who has had well-documented disciplinary and alcohol-related issues. Faine had played with quarterbacks Luke McCown and Jeff Garcia in Cleveland, and squared off against nose tackle Chris Hovan – all of whom helped the Bucs’ evaluation process when the team to sign the free agent center.
When it came to Bryant, he had caught passes from McCown and Garcia in Cleveland in 2004, as well as played alongside Joey Galloway in Dallas from 2002-03. All three players gave Tampa Bay’s front office their endorsements and vouched for him.
“We have some players that have played with him on other teams who will vouch for him as a talent and as a worker,” Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen said. “We’ll see what he can do for his career. We’re just giving him an opportunity to get his career on track.”
Given the fact that the Bucs didn’t sign any other wide receivers in free agency or draft anyone other than Appalachian State’s Dexter Jackson, who is expected to be a return specialist as a rookie, it appears as if the Bucs are banking on Bryant to make the team where David Boston, a former Tampa Bay wide receiver project with character concerns, failed to do so last year following a DUI arrest. I don’t think the Buccaneers did enough to upgrade their receiving corps this offseason and the team is putting an awful lot of faith in Bryant, a player who sat out 2007 due in part to a league suspension due to the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Another year, another problematic project for Allen and Co., right? Defensive tackle Darrell Russell, tight end Jerramy Stevens, Boston and now Bryant.
However, Allen won’t take on any wayward soul who can catch a pass or make a tackle, though. The Bucs had no interest in NFL bad boys Chris Henry or Pacman Jones. But don’t expect Allen to stop reaching out in a low-risk way to select talented players who have had character issues in the past.
“I’ve said for a number of years that coaching in our business is no different than teaching,” Allen said. “A lot of times our high school or our grade school teachers have challenges with young students. They don’t pick them. They don’t pick their students. They give them an opportunity to learn and succeed.
“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. 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.”
Allen is probably talking about Stevens, who signed a one-year deal in Tampa Bay last year and led all tight ends with four touchdowns in 2007. But despite staying out of trouble with the Buccaneers, Stevens’ past caught up with him as Seattle Times ran a story revealing to the public what NFL teams knew about for years – allegations of rape and violence in college. That story shocked the Buccaneers fan base, and from a public relations standpoint, it likely kept Tampa Bay from re-signing him.
Instead, the Bucs signed blocker John Gilmore and receiving tight end Ben Troupe. Stevens remains on the free agent market, but sources tell Pewter Report that he is on Tampa Bay’s short list at the tight end position.
The Bucs are hoping that Bryant can have the same type of impact in Tampa Bay that Stevens had last year.
“Antonio signed a one-year, league minimum contract, but I hope he does well enough to get one of those crazy contracts that we’ve seen this year in free agency,” Allen said. “[His role] will really be determined as we proceed through the offseason. He’s had some issues with coaches and he’s had some issues with some teams before – on and off the field – but he’s looking for an opportunity and he’s assured us that his troubles are in the past.”
Some view Allen and Bucs head coach Jon Gruden as win-it-all-cost types who will hire bad boy mercenaries just to improve the total in the win column, character be damned. Allen scoffs at that notion and states that he and Gruden genuinely want to help players like Bryant find the right path personally and professionally.
“Whether it is us or someone else, we would be proud to resurrect that career,” Allen said of Bryant. “I think we owe it to these young men who have worked so hard their entire life – it’s their dream to be successful. If we can help them be successful, it’s good for the Buccaneers and it’s good for the young man. I do not have a problem with that.”
With Joey Galloway turning 36 and coming off shoulder surgery, Ike Hilliard breaking down physically last year and turning 32 in April, Maurice Stovall coming off a broken arm and failing to establish himself on offense last year and Michael Clayton failing to become the Michael Clayton of 2004, Tampa Bay’s wide receiver situation is in a fragile state heading into 2008. Counting on the 27-year old Bryant to find his old form (he has had three seasons with over 700 yards receiving) and stay out of trouble is quite a risk for a team that is trying to defend its NFC South championship title and return to the playoffs.
While Bryant has yet to address the media about becoming a Buccaneer, sources tell Pewter Report that he has looked good in practice and is coming off a great week of practice. Let Bryant’s turnaround begin.
FAB 3. With the talent level elevated in Tampa Bay this offseason there will be some fierce training camp battles at Disney’s Wide World of Sports this summer. The starting running back job, the starting left tackle assignment and the right to be Jeff Garcia’s backup will be among the most contested clashes come late July.
But the competition for the left cornerback position opposite Ronde Barber may take the cake as the toughest training camp battle, especially with the arrival of Aqib Talib – Tampa Bay’s first-round draft pick in 2008.
Talib was a big-time playmaker at the University of Kansas and will expect to be in the mix for playing time during his rookie season. The same could be said for Eugene Wilson, a big-name free agent signing from New England who signed a one-year deal. And don’t expect Phillip Buchanon to give up his starting job without a fight.
The only player whose role as a starter is secure is Barber, who told me in early April that he thought Talib was the best cornerback in the draft. The Bucs’ all-time interception leader knows that the talented Talib will be in the thick of the competition with the veterans.
“Believe me, there are no guarantees there,” Barber said. “If I know [Tampa Bay defensive backs coach] Raheem [Morris], his deal with T-Jack (free safety Tanard Jackson) last year proves that he’s not scared to pull the trigger and put the best guy in there.”
Barber has yet to see Talib in red and pewter, but will get to meet the 6-foot-1, 206-pound KU star next week for another round of OTAs. But Talib will have to make quite a splash to have a chance to unseat Buchanon, who is in a contract year, and push aside Wilson, who has really impressed Barber thus far in the offseason.
“He’s a good player, man,” Barber said of Wilson. “He’s got some football in him, and by that I mean he is a football player. Some guys get out there and are just great athletes and wow you with that. I don’t think he’s that at all. I don’t think he’s an overly superior athlete, but he’s got some serious football in him. He’s a player. You can tell his instincts are there. It’s kind of cliché, but he has them and they show up. I think there is a reason he played so well in New England.”
You can tell that Barber has a real appreciation for Wilson’s game because he doesn’t have elite athleticism either, yet he has become one of the best cornerback’s in NFL history and the prototype corner for the widespread Tampa 2 defense. Barber relies on technique, intelligence, anticipation and instincts instead of foot speed, agility and vertical jump.
Wilson, who played safety in New England after a stellar career at cornerback at the University of Illinois, is cut from the same cloth. Barber noted how important Wilson was to New England’s defensive scheme and that the Patriots had to get him on the field even if it meant having him play out of position.
“I think it was a need thing in New England where somebody got hurt and they said they were going to put their best other player on the field,” Barber said. “Kind of like what we did with Dwight Smith. Dwight was a great corner, but when you need your best players on the field, you couldn’t have him on the sidelines. I wouldn’t be surprised of anything that comes out of him, to tell you the truth. He has great movement. He has great instincts. And if he gets his feet back under him at corner, you never know what will happen this preseason.”
Because Tampa Bay spends over 40 percent of its snaps in nickel defense, there will be playing time for two of the three corners squaring off opposite Barber while the loser will likely be relegated to the role as the fourth corner in the seldom used dime package. Will it be Wilson and Buchanon? Will it be Wilson and Talib? Or will it be Buchanon and Talib? We’ll find out in August.
FAB 4. The offseason is the time for players to maintain their physical fitness, enhance their physical fitness or completely fall out of shape. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, Pewter Report hasn’t heard of a single player who is so out of shape that they have endangered their chance to win a roster spot in 2008.
But a quick poll of some of Pewter Report’s sources reveals that the player that has done the most to transform and enhance his body is third-year defensive end Charles Bennett, who was a seventh-round draft pick out of Clemson in 2006. Bennett saw very little action during his rookie season, notching just two tackles while seeing spot duty in three games, and was on the verge of making an impact in 2007 before a torn ACL during the Bucs’ OTAs (organized team activity) kept him out of training camp and landed him on injured reserve.
During that unexpected time off, Bennett, who was an undersized pass rusher at Clemson, was able to really bulk up and get an NFL body.
“Yeah, I’ve had a lot of time off. I was in the [weight room and training room] since last August when we broke camp,” Bennett said. “I’ve been staying here and rehabbing all offseason. Right now I weigh 272. At the Combine when I came out of college, I weighed 252 pounds.”
I had a chance to speak with Bennett at the end of the 2006 season and I asked him about possibly reuniting with his former Clemson teammate, defensive end Gaines Adams, if Tampa Bay selected him in the 2007 NFL Draft. That ended up happening, although their on-field time together was limited to just a few months in the offseason before Bennett’s knee injury.
“It was kind of tough,” Bennett said. “In school, we were both talking about playing with each other at the next level. That happened then I got hurt. It was tough watching him on Sundays and wishing you could be out there with him. I hope we can do that this year. Right now, I’m trying to make sure I’m 100 percent healthy and be with the fellas and put in a full day’s work. That’s what I’m focused on.”
Not only was Bennett really making some good progress last summer prior to the injury, but he had to watch an unheralded player like Greg White emerge to become a surprise starter and post some impressive statistics. Bennett feels like that could have been him.
“That was real tough,” Bennett said. “I saw that I would have had an opportunity to contribute and I was unable to. That was tough. I tore my ACL in my left knee. I was out here doing good and improving and then that had to happen. I have to come out here now and be better than I ever was before. I want to contribute and make the sack total go up.”
From the looks of him, Bennett is on is way to being better than ever before. He arrived in Tampa Bay as a scrawny 6-foot-3 defensive end that some NFL teams had projected to outside linebacker. But a year of hitting the weight room, using last year’s missed opportunity as motivation, has fueled him to muscle up. Now his former Tigers teammate and roommate, the 260-pound Adams, looks scrawny by comparison.
The added size has helped Bennett hold his own against NFL-sized offensive tackles like Luke Petitgout, Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood.
“I think I’m a more confident player now,” Bennett said. “I used to get stuck on a bad play, but now I can move on from that and put that behind me. But the way I feel now, I’m confident that I can make a good play out there to replace the bad one.”
Bennett will need a healthy dose of confidence heading into training camp this year as he is in for the fight of his life for a roster spot. With Adams and White as locks to make the team based on last year’s production, along with newcomers Marques Douglas and Jimmy Wilkerson, Bennett will likely have to beat out veterans Kevin Carter and Patrick Chukwurah to remain on the team.
“You can only control what you can control,” Bennett said of the pressure of heading into a very important training camp. “I just come out here every day and do what I do. At the end of the day, I can’t worry about that. I just have to do what I’ve been doing all my life, which is play football.”
Adams would love nothing more than to make up for lost time from a year ago and line up across from Bennett and wreck havoc once again like they did at Clemson.
“You see he’s out here working hard to get better,” Adams said. “And I can say he’s coming along very well. From the past, he’s a dominant pass rusher. He’s got quick feet and great hands and he’s strong. He’s a good defensive end and he knows the system. I can see he’s very motivated, he loves football and he misses football, and he’s out here every day working hard and trying to get better and in the training room to get that knee better.”
Bennett appreciates Adams’ encouragement and admitted that it was tough for the former college roommates to connect last year due to his torn ACL.
“It was a little distant between us because I was here every day and he was here every day, but I was in the training room and he was in the meeting room,” Bennett said. “We were also here at different times. I was gone before he hit the field. We spoke and hung out some, but we didn’t hang out as much as we would have done had I not been injured and if I was with the team all day. There was no love lost, he’s still my dawg.”
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next SR’s Fab 5 column.
• Veteran defensive end Patrick Chukwurah’s roster spot is in jeopardy this year with the addition of Jimmy Wilkerson and Marques Douglas and the return of Charles Bennett. Chukwurah signed a five-year, $5.5 million deal last year, but only received a signing bonus of $400,000, which makes him expendable. Chukwurah, who was one of the star’s during the offseason in his first year in Tampa Bay in 2007, injured his knee in the preseason and later injured his shoulder. The 6-foot-1, 250-pounder was supposed to bring speed off the edge, but due to the injuries, he was limited to only 16 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery. If Chukwurah doesn’t make an instant impact in the preseason, the 29-year old’s stay in Tampa Bay will be a short one. One of the factors working against Chukwurah is the fact that Larry Coyer is no longer the team’s defensive line coach. Coyer, who will advise Jon Gruden on both sides of the ball as an assistant head coach, coached Chukwurah for several years in Denver, but without him as his position coach in 2008, the former Bronco has lost a key ally in the defensive line room.
• Maryland defensive tackle Dre` Moore, who was Tampa Bay’s fourth-round pick this year, and Florida State linebacker Geno Hayes, who was the Bucs’ sixth-round selection, have already done something that Aqib Talib was specifically drafted to do – pick off quarterback Matt Ryan. Ryan, who was the third overall pick by Atlanta and the new face of the Falcons franchise, have already recorded interceptions against the quarterback they will be facing twice a year for the foreseeable future. Moore picked off Ryan last year by dropping into zone coverage when Maryland squared off against Boston College. Hayes’ pick last year was even more dramatic as it came when Florida State upset the Eagles at Boston College and knocked them out of the number two ranking. Hayes’ interception was returned for a touchdown on B.C.’s final drive to end any comeback attempt. I have a feeling that Ryan, who tossed an eye-opening 19 picks during his senior season, will throw a great deal of interceptions for the Falcons over the years. And yes Talib should get his share. I don’t think Ryan is an elite quarterback, and Atlanta would have been much better off selecting LSU defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey in the first round and then nabbed either Louisville signal caller Brian Brohm or Michigan’s Chad Henne in round two. Once Talib and his red and pewter cohorts get their hands on a couple of Ryan’s passes, the Falcons will be thinking the same thing.
• I can’t believe this is the first post-draft SR’s Fab 5. Sorry it took so long. If you read Pewter Report’s Bucs Draft Preview, you realized that Pewter Report had its best year ever in terms of accurately forecasting which players the Bucs were targeted and ultimately drafted. Pewter Report landed wide receiver Dexter Jackson, offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah and quarterback Josh Johnson as Bucs’ Best Bets, and had defensive tackle Dre` Moore in its mock draft in the issue. No other Tampa Bay media outlet even came close to matching our projections. In case you are wondering, here’s the scorecard for Pewter Report (formerly Buccaneer Magazine) through the years:
1996 DE Regan Upshaw (magazine mock draft) 1997 OT Jerry Wunsch (magazine mock draft) 1998 WR Jacquez Green (magazine mock draft) 1999 QB Shaun King (Bucs’ Best Bet) 1999 RB Autry Denson (Bucs’ Best Bet) 1999 WR Darnell McDonald (Bucs’ Best Bet) 2000 QB Joe Hamilton (Bucs’ Best Bet) 2001 No accurate prediction 2002 No accurate prediction 2003 CB Torrie Cox (Bucs’ Best Bet) 2004 No accurate prediction 2005 LB Barrett Ruud (Bucs’ Best Bet) 2006 WR Maurice Stovall (Bucs’ Best Bet) 2006 TE T.J. Williams (Bucs’ Best Bet) 2006 QB Bruce Gradkowski (Bucs’ Best Bet) 2007 DE Gaines Adams (Bucs’ Best Bet) 2007 SS Sabby Piscitelli (magazine mock draft) 2007 LB Quincy Black (Bucs’ Best Bet) 2008 WR Dexter Jackson (Bucs’ Best Bet) 2008 OL Jeremy Zuttah (Bucs’ Best Bet) 2008 DT Dre` Moore (magazine mock draft) 2008 QB Josh Johnson (Bucs’ Best Bet)
• I remember taking my fair share of grief over selecting Houston wide receiver Donnie Avery as Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2008 in Pewter Report's mock draft. Some Bucs fans grumbled that ESPN’s super scout Todd McShay had Avery rated as a fourth-round prospect. He ended up being the first receiver taken this year, going to St. Louis with the 33rd overall pick. Oops, McShay. If Tampa Bay hadn’t drafted Kansas cornerback Aqib Talib with the 20th overall pick, the Bucs would have considered taking Avery, whom Bucs head coach Jon Gruden really wanted. He also liked East Carolina running back Chris Johnson, who was the fastest player in the draft with a 4.24 time in the 40-yard dash. Johnson went in the first round to Tennessee. “We didn’t get them, so what’s the point, you know?” Gruden said when asked about Johnson and Avery. “Johnson would have been a dynamic return guy for us. Avery is a guy we really liked at Houston. We really liked him a lot, but you only get to pick once in every round.”
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