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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. Barrett Ruud has a stranglehold on the Buccaneers’ middle linebacker spot, and the strongside linebacker job will likely come down to Quincy Black and Angelo Crowell. The early guess here is that Black will prevail, but the preseason games will actually decide that training camp battle.
As for Tampa Bay’s weakside linebacker position, it looks like Jermaine Phillips will be the starter, edging out Geno Hayes due to experience. The team is still very high on Hayes and I’m not completely writing him off, but Phillips seems like a man on a mission this offseason due to his one-year deal and the fact that he has embraced the move from safety to linebacker.
The Bucs typically like their linebackers to simmer for a year or two on the back burner on special teams before sticking them into starting roles. That’s what they’ve done in the past with players like Shelton Quarles, Ruud and Black, who led the team in special teams tackles last year and seems poised to claim a starting spot in 2009. Hayes was a rookie last year and missed half of his first NFL campaign on injured reserve with a knee injury. He might need a little more time to simmer, but don’t be surprised to see Bucs coach Joe Barry rotate Hayes in for Phillips sparingly throughout the regular season games.
“Geno is a guy that really came on and played well last year, as the season went on he played more and more and was doing a good job,” Barry said. “I was getting bummed out with him getting hurt. I would have liked to have seen another 100-150 snaps that he probably would have gotten. That’s what young guys need. They need to play. They need exposure. That’s why an offseason is so important to a guy like that. Even though they are practice reps, you need those reps – especially now with all the change with the system and terminology.”
While Hayes continues to learn the new defense and gather NFL experience, Phillips is putting his days as a safety behind him and committing full time to the linebacker position for good.
“In Jermaine’s defense, I think it’s too hard to part-time anything in this league,” Barry said. “Very rarely do you ever have guys that are part-time safeties and part-time linebackers. I don’t think that would be fair to him. Right now, he’s a linebacker. He’s a linebacker as far as he’s concerned and we’re concerned.”
Barry said that Phillips’ physical style of play is the key for him making a smooth transaction.
“Jermaine Phillips is a load,” Barry said. “He will knock your ass off. He’s a big, physical man. The things we’ve asked him to do in this system in the last six or seven years – he’s shown that he has the ability to get down low and take a double team on and damn near two-gap a guard. We’ve seen him physically do that. We’ve seen him go and splatter a fullback and knock him out of the damn game like he did in 2007 against Tennessee. We’ve seen him do those things.”
The decision to move Phillips to linebacker was born out of a conversation head coach Raheem Morris, who used to be Phillips’ position coach, and Barry had during the offseason.
“This is kind of a unique deal for me in the sense that I’m new being back here, but I remember Flip when we drafted him in 2002 and him being a little snot-nosed rookie during our Super Bowl year. I have a great relationship with him and a lot of history with him,” Barry said. “I’m excited about it. I really am. I think the things that Jermaine brings to the table are being a physical presence. He’s a guy that can get down there and mix it up, and when we started talking about, we felt comfortable with it in the fact that we did so much before with our old package with having the safeties in the box. Flip has played such a big role in that the last five or six years. He’s done it from a safety standpoint, let’s see if he can – instead of dropping down into the box – do it four yards off the ball and see if he can play linebacker.”
Barry said that Phillips’ new role as a linebacker won’t be that different from what he played as a run-stuffing strong safety that would frequently become the eighth man in the box in Monte Kiffin’s defensive packages.
“Over the years, we’ve had all types of deployments where we’ve brought safeties into the box and Jermaine has done it on the strongside and on the weakside,” Barry said. “There has been a defense that has been run here the past few years where he actually came in between the Will ‘backer and the Mike ‘backer. So he basically he was a linebacker in that defense. That was something that they ran a lot of. We actually went back and studied tape on him taking on guards and making plays in the ‘A’ gap. He’s shown that he could do that. That’s where we felt his physical presence and the way he plays – he can get down there and mix it up and play linebacker.”
Technically speaking, the biggest difference between Phillips lining up at linebacker and lining up as a safety in the box is not having that running start to be able to see the play develop before reaching the point of attack. Barry said that Phillips will have to diagnose the play and react much faster than he is used to doing.
“There is a difference between inverting down into the box from say 10 yards and being at five or six yards when the ball is snapped – to being at four yards when the ball is snapped,” Barry said. “There’s a big difference. That five-yard window is a big difference. Now those guys are going to be on you right now as opposed to you being able to react. We also had eight-man fronts where he lined up in it and well before the ball was snapped he was at the line of scrimmage or at linebacker depth.”
The Bucs have been impressed with what Phillips has been able to do from a coverage and run fit standpoint in the team’s first mini-camp and OTAs and the Georgia product has shown some improvement each time he steps out onto the field. But the coaches won’t get a firm idea of how he sheds blockers, takes on fullbacks and makes the tackle at the point of attack without a running start until the pads come on in training camp and the preseason. But there is no turning back now. Phillips is a linebacker.
And for those concerned that Phillips lacks the size to play linebacker, Barry says not to worry.
“He’s one of those guys that has always been able to carry a lot of weight,” Barry said. “I remember a couple years ago, we got word that he was probably too big. But he’s always been one of those guys that had the ability to run, the ability to change direction and the ability to be in shape. He’s been able to carry that 220-plus pounds and be fine. When we played and won the Super Bowl, Derrick Brooks weighed 228 pounds and Shelton Quarles weighed 226. Jim Bates is the same way I am. He wants guys that can change direction and be able to run. You have to be big enough to survive. Flip plays big. He’s a physical presence.”
While Hayes will get his shot to compete, Phillips’ progression at linebacker will mean that the second-year player from Florida State likely won’t be thought of as a real candidate to start until the 2010 season.
FAB 2. Under head coach Raheem Morris, the Buccaneers wanted to re-design their strength and conditioning program after failing down the stretch the last three years, finishing 3-11 in the month of December since the 2006 season. Mike Morris (no relation) was fired as the team’s strength and conditioning coach in January after head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen met a similar fate, and his assistant, Kurt Shultz, was promoted to run the program.
Raheem Morris has made no secret of his desire for bigger, stronger and more chiseled athletes since becoming head coach, and that’s a big reason why he went in the direction of the massive Shultz, a bald-headed mountain of a man who looks like he could start at defensive tackle in Jim Bates’ new defense.
“Kurt Shultz had some great ideas that he brought to the table,” Morris said. “He put the weight room together in a different way. He wanted to reformat the way guys lifted by getting them in here in smaller groups at two different times. That way he can work with smaller groups and give them individual attention. He wants them more on the field doing more football-aspect drills rather than just keeping it in the weight room. We’re trying to decrease body fat so maybe you don’t lose your energy and you can finish strong down the stretch and don’t lose whatever it is that we’ve lost down the stretch. That’s going to help us.”
One of the Buccaneers who has already seen some results this offseason from Shultz’s approach is right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, who has really enjoyed the new approach to power lifting and football-oriented conditioning drills.
“He’s a real go-getter and likes to get after it,” Trueblood said. “That’s something that I enjoy doing. So far, so good.”
Trueblood wanted to come in leaner last year after playing at a heavier weight his first two seasons in the NFL. The problem was that he lost too many pounds and that hurt him down the stretch. To rectify that problem, Trueblood has added 15 pounds of rock solid muscle that is easily noticeable in his chest, shoulders and arms.
“Yeah, I added some weight. I’m up to 305,” Trueblood said. “I actually got down to 290 pounds last year. I felt like I was too light last year at right tackle. I went through the wear and tear of last year and I actually got down in the high 280s last year for a couple games. I’m taking control of my diet this year and making sure that never happens again.
“I was really strong last year. I was as strong as I’ve ever been. But being strong doesn’t make up for weighing 288 pounds. I can’t have defensive ends being bigger than I am. I found out that it doesn’t work out that well. I need some size for my base. I need some base weight.”
Since entering the league as a second-round pick out of Boston College in 2006, Trueblood has gone from being overweight with excess fat to being too lean. Trueblood is hoping that a more muscular frame carrying 305-310 pounds this year will pay off with a more consistent season with Shultz’s help.
“I came in at 325 pounds my rookie year, but that was a bad weight,” Trueblood said. “That was the college beer and pizza weight. Now I have taken control of my diet. That’s why I lost so much weight last year. I was eating so healthy compared to the old junk stuff. Now I just have to eat even more healthy stuff and bigger plates of it and get in the weight room and keep banging.”
Morris has expressed his desire for a bigger, more physical and violent Buccaneers team in 2009. Trueblood has always been physical and violent. Now he’s getting bigger thanks to Shultz’s new offseason program.
FAB 3. One of the Buccaneers getting a tremendous amount of buzz this offseason is second-year cornerback Elbert Mack. When asked which player is catching his eye the most this offseason, middle linebacker Barrett Ruud doesn’t hesitate to say, “E-Mack.”
Tampa Bay’s coaches feel the same way and he has quickly become a favorite of new defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Mack has always been a favorite of head coach Raheem Morris, who was his position coach last year.
At the team’s mandatory mini-camp at the start of April, Mack was the third cornerback on the field behind starters Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib and showed he belonged. During the most recent round of OTAs, which Talib missed with a minor injury, Mack was elevated to the role of starting corner and played exceptionally well.
Every rep going against the likes of receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton is pushing him closer to winning the nickel corner job and playing on Sundays, but Mack is keeping a level-headed approach about his ascension up the Tampa Bay depth chart.
“I’m approaching this the same way I approached last year. I’m going to continue to go out and work hard and try to make plays,” Mack said. “If I am fortunate enough to step up into the lineup or whatever my role is on the field then I just have to do it for the best of my ability. You have to compete for your job every year. The front office’s job is to bring someone in to replace you every year. As long as you stay on top of your game, you’ll be alright.
“It’s really going to come down to who makes the most plays in training camp and who impresses the coaches the most and who works the hardest. Nothing is given in this world. You have to go out and get everything. You have to be hungry and fight for each bone. Whoever gets it, gets it. It’s just playing football at the end of the day.”
Mack used that hungry mindset to go from being an undrafted free agent out of Troy to making the Buccaneers’ 53-man roster last year. But the Wichita, Kans. native isn’t just happy to be on an NFL roster. The departure of Phillip Buchanon in free agency has created the opportunity for a young player like him to rise up the depth chart and play regularly in Tampa Bay’s nickel defense.
“Everybody’s dream is to get on the field and start,” Mack said. “Your dream is not just to be in the NFL, but also to play. Everybody wants to step into the limelight. Everybody wants the chance to make plays, help the team and become all-stars. Whenever I have the opportunity to get out there and make a play for the Buccaneers, I’m ready to do it.”
Mack is currently fighting the likes of seven-year veteran Torrie Cox and unheralded practice squad player Kyle Arrington for the right to be Tampa Bay’s third cornerback on the field in the nickel package. Seventh-round draft pick E.J. Biggers will join the fight in a week or two after Western Michigan has its commencement ceremony.
When asked what he has to improve on in order to nail down the nickel corner job, Mack said: “Classroom work. I’ve got to do a better job of getting ready for the game and scouting my opponents and learning what they want to do.”
Mack, who is well versed in playing man coverage from his college days at Troy playing opposite Leodis McKelvin, is really gravitating to Bates’ new bump-and-run coverage scheme.
“It’s going to be fun. It’s going to be exciting,” Mack said. “I will really get to use my quickness and get on top of people. It’s going to be a track meet every week. We just have to go out there and make sure we are winning it.”
It is still early, but the way the depth chart currently stands and the praise he has heard from Bates and Morris on the practice field, Mack is winning the battle for the nickel corner job.
FAB 4. The forgotten man at One Buccaneer Place this offseason hasn’t been quarterback Brian Griese – or even signal caller Josh Johnson. It’s seven-year veteran cornerback Torrie Cox.
Cox has played in four games over the past two seasons. After a four-game suspension to start the 2007 campaign due to testing positive for alcohol and for his past DUI arrests, Cox played in only four contests before tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee against Jacksonville to sideline him for the season. It was the same ACL he had injured in the preseason of 2003, which ended his rookie campaign. And last year, on the first day of training camp, Cox once again tore the ACL in his left knee.
At some point in time, this cat is going to run out of lives, but you have to admire Cox’s upbeat personality and his positive outlook despite the numerous and painful setbacks in his six seasons in the NFL due to that tricky knee.
Cox had season-ending surgery last August and his left knee is fully rehabbed once again. After an eight-month healing and rehab period, Cox and his surgically repaired knee are at it once again and he has been practicing with the team on the field since late March.
So given the history of multiple DUI arrests and torn ACLs, why do the Buccaneers keep giving Cox a chance? Former Bucs general manager Bruce Allen believed that Cox needed the structure and family atmosphere that football provided, otherwise his self-destructive behavior could lead him down the road of peril. Yes, Allen actually has a heart, which some observers may actually find hard to believe.
But Cox wasn’t the team’s charity case. His ultra-quick feet allowed him to star on special teams as a return man and on Tampa Bay’s coverage unit, and he often threatened to become the team’s nickel corner before injuries set in. Through the arrests and the injuries, Cox had the talent to be a Buccaneer.
Cox admits he has grown up and he has not had any brushes with the law since 2006, and as his son, Torrie Cox, Jr., gets ready to turn seven in September, the veteran cornerback is more serious about playing football than ever. Now only if his left knee would cooperate.
“Last year I got hurt on the first day of training camp, as you know,” Cox said. “I’ve been taking my time trying to prepare myself for this season and spend a lot of time with my family. I’ve been trying to focus on that, but now I’m back and feeling good. I have a little bounce in my step. My knee is feeling good. My big thing is just to stay healthy and not to have the same injury every year. It was the ACL in my left knee both times. It was a freak accident last year, but things happen for a reason. I couldn’t even tell you how it happened last year.”
Even though Allen had a great deal of compassion for Cox, a player he did not have a hand in drafting, and is no longer with the Buccaneers, Cox has another ally in head coach Raheem Morris, who used to coach Tampa Bay’s defensive backs.
“I’m excited about this season with Raheem Morris as the head coach,” Cox said. “We’ve got a lot of new players and a lot of new coaches. It’s exciting to see what our team is going to look like this year. I just want to fit in and find my groove.
“I have a great deal of respect for this organization. Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden and everybody have helped me stay around. They took a chance on me and I feel good about that. Now we’re in a new year with a new head coach in Raheem Morris and a new general manager in Mark Dominik. It’s been good fortune. They do see something in me, but this is going to have to be a big year for me. I need to help this team with the old Torrie Cox. When I’m Torrie Cox, I can make a lot of things happen and that’s what I plan on doing this year.”
While Cox knows he has experience on his side, he does see the raw talent in players like Elbert Mack and Kyle Arrington that will give him a run for his money in trying to claim a roster spot.
“We have a lot of young guys on this team – a lot of good cornerbacks,” Cox said. “I’m just trying to compete with them. I can give them some advice and they can also give me some advice. We’re all out competing. You know how some guys leave and get a fresh start elsewhere? I’m staying here, but I think I’m getting a fresh start. I want a spot on this team and I’m going to bust my butt.”
Cox said he feels no lingering effects from ACL surgery. In fact, his body feels rested and ready and his speed has actually increased with all of the rehab and strength training he has done.
“I feel quicker and faster than ever,” Cox said. “It’s a new year, but I’ve been out of the game for two years. I feel like myself again. I can move around real well. I’m a fast guy, but I’m also a quick guy. I can make a lot of things happen with my quick feet. I’m excited to get an opportunity to get out there and help the team. Once we get rolling, I’m going to be out there having fun. People will be saying, ‘That’s the Torrie Cox that we’re used to seeing.’”
One of the disappointments in Cox missing the 2008 season was the fact that he didn’t get to share in Antonio Bryant’s on-field success and he didn’t get to cover his lifelong friend each day in practice.
“Me and him go back to Little League,” Cox said of Bryant, both of whom grew up in Miami. “We played in high school together and then we went to Pitt together. It’s good to have him back on my team. That’s something that rarely happens with a Little League teammate. Every time we played together dating to way back when, we would always say, ‘It’s TV time!’ We weren’t playing on TV back then in the backyard, but we tried to play as if we were. It was our time to shine and go out there and make plays. I really missed playing with him last year, but I’m happy he had a wonderful year. I was rooting him on. I knew that was going to happen. I knew with him sitting out a year that he was going to do something special. He had something to prove – not to other people, but to himself.
“I’m coming back like him, too. I hope to have a good year like him so we both can do a lot of chest-bumping and high-fiving and winning. It’s going to be fun to go out there and compete against him in practice. I haven’t done that much since our Pitt days. It’s going to be fun.”
Cox said he has embraced Jim Bates’ new defensive scheme, which calls for much more press-man coverage and less zone that Tampa Bay has mainly been known for. The idea behind bump-and-run coverage is that with the cornerbacks blanketing the receivers from the snap, quarterbacks will have to wait a little longer for their targets to present themselves.
“We’ll be the defensive line’s best friend and they’ll be our best friend,” Cox said. “With this bump-and-run, the quarterback is going to have to hold the ball an extra second or two and that will give our defensive line an extra second to get the sack. The defensive line can also get back there and flush the quarterback with pressure and that will help us make a play. That’s going to be fun. Every day I look at our D-line and just say, ‘Pass rush! Pass rush!’ Sometimes as a DB you get beat, but if that quarterback is scrambling he may not see his receivers or have time to throw. Other times I can lock a receiver down and make a quarterback hold that ball an extra second. Seconds turn into sacks. Sacks turn into sack fumbles. If you get those, you have a good chance of winning the game.
“Playing bump is up my alley. It’s kind of funny because I came from playing a lot of man coverage at Pitt to Tampa Bay where we played a lot of Cover 2. Now I have man-to-man and Cover 2 under my belt, but now we’re going back to my old stomping grounds with the man coverage. My quick feet are going to help me out playing man. It’s going to be fun. I’m ready to compete. I’m a competitor. I like a challenge. I’m excited about the bump-and-run. Let’s go.”
And let’s hope that left knee holds up.
FAB 5. Here are some things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• While Elbert Mack and Torrie Cox are the “name” players vying for the nickel cornerback role, don’t dismiss Kyle Arrington, a former practice squad player from a year ago. As noted in Pewter Report.com’s Inside Bucs’ OTAs article on Wednesday, Arrington stood out with his physical style, speed and coverage ability. Arrington, a Hofstra product, didn’t just have a good day on Wednesday, he has been making several plays during the offseason. As a reporter covering this sport, there’s not a better feeling than a coach or player validating what you see out there on the field. And when I asked Bucs head coach Raheem Morris about Arrington after Wednesday’s practice he said, ““That’s funny … were you in my team meeting this morning? I gave Kyle Arrington some kudos this morning. He’s one of the guys that has been putting his hands on a lot of balls and making a bunch of plays – whether it has been at rookie mini-camp or practice today or the practice yesterday. I had a little feature on him today and brought his name up in the team meeting. I just brought it to everyone’s attention today. We challenged the DBs to touch more balls. We want everybody on this defense to be more ball-disruptive. That’s what he’s been doing the last couple of weeks. He’s been shooting up the board and making some plays. As you saw, he went out and did it again today.” Yes, Arrington has a soft spot in Morris’ heart because they both went to Hofstra, but what really has the head coach excited about Arrington is his fight – not his fight song. Mack wasn’t the only reason why the Bucs felt comfortable enough to wait until the seventh-round to draft a cornerback. The Bucs like Arrington, who possesses sub-4.4 speed, quite a bit, too. If he maintains this level of play throughout training camp, he’ll make the 53-man roster as Pewter Report’s Jim Flynn has already forecast. If you haven’t had a chance to watch the 5-foot-10, 196-pound Arrington play, here’s a highlight film. (Warning – the song playing over the highlight reel contains some profanity).
• Sometimes members of the media get caught up in big names and automatically think their arrival to Tampa Bay means they will win a starting job or a roster spot. There have been some big names that flopped in Tampa Bay, including linebacker Dwayne Rudd, cornerbacks Terrell Buckley and Tom Knight and last year’s duo of defensive lineman Marques Douglas, who was beaten out by Greg Peterson, and cornerback Eugene Wilson, who was beaten out by Elbert Mack. I’m telling you right now that the addition of Byron Leftwich does not make him the favorite to beat out Luke McCown for the starting quarterback spot, nor does the arrival of Angelo Crowell mean that he is the favorite to beat out Quincy Black for the starting Sam (strongside) linebacker role. In fact, McCown and Black have the early lead and I expect them to carry their roles as starters into the preseason. Another “name” player arrived in Tampa Bay this offseason in middle linebacker Niko Koutouvides, a former third-round pick out of Purdue, who was drafted by Seattle six years ago. Koutouvides is currently running third string behind Barrett Ruud and Rod Wilson, and with the way Wilson was playing in practice in place of Ruud this week, he may stay on the bottom rung of the ladder. Sometimes what a coach says (or doesn’t say) about a player can give you an indication of how the coaching staff and the front office feel about him. I asked Bucs linebacker coach Joe Barry about Koutouvides and Wilson. Here’s what he said about both. “I guess the Bucs tried to get him a year ago and didn’t. He went to Denver,” Barry said about Koutouvides. “He’s a very good special teams player. I remember him at Purdue. They had a very good linebacking corps. They had him, they had Landon Johnson and Gilbert Gardner, who is at Indy. I’ve got a nice group to work with. I’m excited.” Now here’s what Barry said about Wilson. “He’s a guy I’m fired up about. I remember the last draft I took part in here. It was late in the draft and [director of college scouting] Dennis [Hickey] and the scouts were talking about this guy that moved from safety to linebacker for a year and he can really run. I’ll admit that I hadn’t spent a lot of time on him and I didn’t know that much about him, but his name started popping up in the draft. I don’t know where we were picking at the time, but we threw a highlight tape on real quick and right before we were up Chicago drafted him. So you don’t get a guy, you move on. I actually kept tabs on him with my relationship with [Bears head coach] Lovie Smith. Then ironically, I come back here and Rod was signed late last year and I finally get to coach him. The first thing he brings is speed and athleticism. Secondly, he’s aggressive. Third, I’ve done my homework on him by talking with the guys in Chicago and talking to Gus Bradley and Rod is sharp as a tack. He’s no-nonsense, loves football and you tell him something once and he picks up on it. He’s been an outside linebacker – a Sam or Will type – but his football I.Q. is what prompted us to put him at Mike. He’s a smart guy. The ability to run is really something. He’s got the quick twitch, the change of direction ability and he can accelerate. I’m excited about him. I don’t really know him well yet, but I’m pumped up about him.”
• The Buccaneers were working out a couple players at long snapper during Wednesday’s OTA in case of an injury to Andrew Economos, including linebacker Quincy Black and defensive tackle Ryan Sims. For the Buccaneers’ sake, let’s just hope nothing happens to Economos.
• The widely criticized decision to cut veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks seems to have been justified by the rest of the NFL as he has not been signed after two weeks have passed since the draft. Seattle was the most likely landing spot for the all-time greatest player in Bucs history due to Brooks’ relationship with former LBs coach Gus Bradley, who is now the Seahawks defensive coordinator. But the drafting of linebacker Aaron Curry in the first round quickly killed that idea. It seems now that Brooks will have to wait until a training camp injury to take place or perhaps after Week 2 of the 2009 season when salaries aren’t guaranteed. That’s a clear indication to me that at age 36, it’s time to hang up the cleats, Derrick. That’s what the league is telling him by not signing him.
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