SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, Pewter Report publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place:
FAB 1. Eyebrows were raised when Pewter Report’s Eric Dellaratta projected Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks as the Buccaneers’ first-round pick in the 2013 NFL Draft with the 13th overall selection. Some NFL Draft experts, including NFL Network’s Mike Mayock, don’t have Banks as a first-round pick – let alone as a top 15 selection.
That could change if the Bulldogs defensive back can run a sub-4.5 time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL scouting combine next week. Banks, who measures 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, has very good size and long arms that enable him to match up against big wide receivers.
As a sophomore in 2010, Banks helped Mississippi State hold Alabama junior Julio Jones, who was a first-round draft pick in 2011, to just three catches for 41 yards.
In 2011 during a junior season in which he had five interceptions, Banks and Louisiana Tech’s Quinton Patton, who is expected to be selected in the second round of the 2013 NFL Draft, dueled in Mississippi’s State 26-20 victory as Patton caught 11 passes, but for only 87 yards (7.9 avg.) and one touchdown. Banks fared better, notching an interception and a sack in that game to go along with nine tackles.
“Johnthan Banks is definitely up there with the toughest cornerbacks I’ve faced. Banks and I had a battle every play even when I was blocking,” Patton said. “Both our helmets came off. It didn’t matter. We were trashing talking up and down the field and battling. I have a lot of respect for him. Neither one of us backed down.”
The Buccaneers really like Banks, who finished his Mississippi State career as the school’s all-time interceptor with 16 interceptions for 320 yards and three touchdowns and 26 pass breakups. He also showed his toughness against the run with 219 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss and five forced fumbles and a fumble recovery, in addition to four career sacks, including three during a breakout junior season.
Banks, who won the Jim Thorpe Award last year, was so dominant as a junior that his teammate, cornerback Darius Slay, benefitted from his presence and saw more passes come his way as they avoided the All-SEC first-teamer in 2012. As a result, Slay recorded five of his six career interceptions last season to lead the Bulldogs. That helped raise the draft stock of the 6-foot-1, 190-pound Slay from the later rounds to the third round.
The duo of Banks and Slay recorded nine interceptions between them and scored two defensive touchdowns during their senior campaigns. Banks and Slay held Tennessee junior Cordarrelle Patterson, who is regarded as the top wide receiver in the 2013 NFL Draft, to just two catches for 25 yards and one touchdown, which was given up by Slay. Patterson’s teammate, senior wide receiver Justin Hunter, who is projected to be a second-round pick, was limited to two receptions for 41 yards.
Alabama’s super freshman receiver Amari Cooper tallied just four catches for 47 yards against Mississippi State, but Banks did give up two touchdowns in the game. One was a 57-yard pass to junior speedster Kenny Bell, and the other was a red zone touchdown to tight end Michael Williams on a play where Banks was expecting linebacker help underneath in coverage.
NFL scouts have downgraded Banks for that performance against the eventual national champions, but Banks tweaked his knee the previous week against Middle Tennessee and was not at full speed against Alabama. He couldn’t keep up with Bell in man coverage on the deep touchdown pass from A.J. McCarron.
Banks’ ball skills and athleticism resemble that of former Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib, but he doesn’t have any of the character concerns or baggage that Tampa Bay’s 2008 first-rounder came with. Banks, who is married with a one-year old son, was a team captain for Mississippi State last year and has a great deal of maturity.
“All the great ones have that ability to go up and make a play on the ball,” ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said. “I also think he’s one of the better run-support cornerbacks in this draft, so depending on the defense that becomes a big value.”
Mississippi State’s leading receiver Chad Bumphis, who led the SEC with 12 touchdowns as a senior in 2012, says that Banks is one of the most competitive players he’s ever faced.
“The one thing he’s going to do every day is compete,” Bumphis said. “That’s all our program is about – competing. He’s going to fight wherever he is and he’s going to make the person in front of him better whether it is in practice or in the game. He’s made me better in practice, that’s for sure. He’s a long corner that once he gets his hands on you it’s over. He adjusts your route for you. You have to be smart when you play him. He’s got ball skills, too. He doesn’t have to touch you. He’s going to be in your hip pocket all the way down the field.”
Bumphis is also fond of Slay, whom the Bucs also like, and says that his skill set is somewhat reminiscent of Banks’.
“They both have good ball skills,” Bumphis said. “I don’t know which one is more physical because they will both come up and hit you.
“When we are in man I don’t think I saw a person catch a ball on Slay all year. He plays with his hands so well that nobody caught a ball on him in man coverage. His technique is so good. It’s scary when you look at it, but it hasn’t failed him yet.”
While cornerback is the Bucs’ top need, Banks is not the 13th-best player in the 2013 NFL Draft. However, I think he’s the best cornerback in the draft and prefer him over junior Dee Milliner, who had six career interceptions in three seasons at Alabama, because of his playmaking ability and physical presence.
So how could the Bucs justify taking Banks in the first round? Because Tampa Bay linebacker Lavonte David should have been a first-round pick, Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson should have been drafted higher than the third round, and Redskins running back Alfred Morris should have been a first-rounder – not a sixth-rounder. In every draft there are plenty of players that wind up being first-round picks that shouldn’t be, and players drafted after the first round that should have gone higher.
I would prefer the Bucs drafting an offensive tackle like Oklahoma’s Lane Johnson or Alabama’s D.J. Fluker, or a defensive end like BYU’s Ezekiel Ansah because this year’s draft is deep at the cornerback position. But if those players aren’t options and if Tampa Bay can’t trade down to take Banks later, he has the production, size and ability to justify being drafted that high – if he runs a fast 40-yard dash.
Yet even if Banks does not run anything faster than a 4.5, he plays faster on the field than he times and I still believe he is a first-round talent who would look good in red and pewter. Check out Banks’ highlight videos by clicking here, here and here.
FAB 2. Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano supposedly made some news on Thursday when he said that Josh Freeman was the team’s quarterback in the 2013 season. While Schiano cleaned up his remarks from his season-ending press conference on January 1, in which he suggested that the Bucs were going to get Freeman some competition in the offseason, Tampa Bay general manager Mark Domi
nik admitted that there wasn’t much out there in free agency in terms of legitimate competition that would come in and challenge Freeman.
Keep in mind that Schiano’s remarks about Freeman were about the 2013 season only. The team hasn’t changed its mind about making Freeman play out the coming year before negotiating a contract extension, so the Bucs will be looking for a quarterback that can come in and challenge current backup Dan Orlovsky and be a candidate to take over in 2014 if Freeman doesn’t do what is necessary to earn an extension and the team opts to move in a different direction.
One player the Bucs should strongly consider is Miami backup quarterback Matt Moore. The 28-year old signal caller has good size at 6-foot-3, 216 pounds, and has been a productive fill-in starter during his five-year career. He has appeared in 45 games in the NFL with a record of 13-12 as a starter. Moore has thrown for 5,268 yards with 33 touchdowns and 28 interceptions during his stints with Carolina and Miami.
Moore made an impression on the Buccaneers during his rookie season when he guided Carolina to a 31-23 victory at Tampa Bay in the 2007 season finale, completing 15-of-24 passes (62.5 percent) for 174 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. Two years later, Moore logged another victory for the Panthers, 16-6, over the Buccaneers, completing 14-of-20 passes (70 percent) for 161 yards with one interception. Moore went 5-2 as a starter in 2009 with Carolina.
In 2011, his first season with the Dolphins, Moore went 6-7 as a starter, but finished the season strong by going 6-3 down the stretch. Despite losing more games than he won that year, Moore completed 60.5 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and just nine interceptions.
Moore is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March and adding him to Tampa Bay’s roster wouldn’t require the team surrendering a draft pick like acquiring Alex Smith from San Francisco or Matt Flynn from Seattle would. With the draft lacking any quality passers past the second round – there aren’t any Russell Wilsons or Nick Foles-type players this year – Moore might be the best option for Tampa Bay’s desire to upgrade the talent at the quarterback position.
Moore wants the chance to start again in the NFL, and with Freeman being forced to play out a contract year coming to Tampa Bay might be a risk worth taking for the former Oregon State star as he could be primed to take over in 2014 if Freeman doesn’t play well and earn a contract extension during the 2013 campaign.
The Bucs would likely have to pay Moore between $2-3 million per season to lure him to Tampa Bay, which would be more than the team is currently paying Orlovsky. But Moore would not only give Freeman better competition, he would also be capable of winning more games in the regular season in case Freeman gets injured.
It says a lot about Moore’s character that several Dolphins players, including starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill, have reached out to him, asking him to re-sign with Miami before hitting free agency. But with Tannehill, the Dolphins’ first-round pick last year entrenched as the starter, Moore will likely look elsewhere. Perhaps four hours north of Miami?
FAB 3. The Buccaneers are going to have a hard time finding a quality quarterback outside of the second round in the 2013 NFL Draft. The reason is because there are a lot of QB-needy teams this year and not many great prospects. Desperation will force teams to draft quarterbacks rated in the second round in the first round, and third-round prospects will be drafted in the second round.
West Virginia’s Geno Smith will likely be the first quarterback drafted in the first round, followed by USC’s Matt Barkley and North Carolina State’s Mike Glennon, who could also rise into the later part of the first round. Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson and Syracuse’s Ryan Nassib and Florida State’ E.J. Manuel are expected to be taken in the second round, as could Tennessee junior Tyler Bray.
Oklahoma’s Landry Jones and Miami (OH)’s Zac Dysert are projected to be third- or fourth-round prospects and it’s a crapshoot after that. There don’t appear to be any players like Seattle’s Russell Wilson, who was a third-round sleeper, or Philadelphia’s Nick Foles, who was also drafted in the third round last year.
Finding a top quarterback past the first round can be a challenge. Take a look at the teams that qualified for the 2013 NFL playoffs. Super Bowl champion Baltimore had a first-round pick in Joe Flacco guiding the team to victory, while the runner-up, San Francisco, used first-round pick Alex Smith and second-round pick Colin Kaepernick to get to the championship game.
Green Bay, Atlanta, Denver, Washington, Minnesota and Indianapolis had first-round draft picks leading those teams in Aaron Rodgers, Matt Ryan, Peyton Manning, Robert Griffin III, Christian Ponder and Andrew Luck leading the way. Houston, Cincinnati and New England were the only playoff teams that didn’t field first-round quarterback. The Bengals’ Andy Dalton was a high second-round pick, Texans’ Matt Schaub was a third-round pick, while the Patriots’ Tom Brady was a sixth-rounder over a decade ago.
New Bucs director of college scouting Eric Stokes was in Seattle last April and was part of the decision to draft Wilson in the third round, despite the fact that the Seahawks had signed Matt Flynn in free agency. Wilson wound up as the starter and led Seattle to the second round of the playoffs as a rookie.
“It’s hard to truly target intangibles,” Stokes said. “It’s hard to measure intangibles. Sometimes you give it too much credit. Sometimes you give it not enough credit. Quarterback is truly an intangible position. You can’t get too caught up in the arm strength.
“One thing about Russell Wilson was that he had incredible intangibles – absolutely incredible intangibles. Not a bad arm, but that wasn’t his calling card. That’s why you see the most struggles at that position. There are so many intangibles and it’s such a complex position.”
While players like Smith are getting knocked for coming from a pass-happy system at West Virginia, Stokes said that the NFL has become a passing league and drafting QBs that come from high-octane offenses isn’t such a bad thing as long as the player has talent and intangibles.
“You have to factor in the system they come from, but teams are passing more,” Stokes said. “You see it in the college game and how wide open it is. Everyone is throwing it around. I think that’s one of the reasons why some quarterbacks have had some success. The repetition of throwing and seeing things and reading coverages over and over and over is one of those underrated values. Then you have all the reps you have in practice. Even though you might have some reservations about the system a quarterback comes from, you can’t underestimate reps.”
While many believe the Bucs will draft a quarterback in 2013, don’t count on it. With Freeman still in the fold the team won’t want to possibly waste a second-round pick on a signal caller, especially if Freeman earns a multi-year contract extension and truly becomes a franchise quarterback.
The 2014 NFL Draft looks more promising in terms of quarterbacks as Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, Georgia’s Aaron Murray, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, Fresno State’s Derek Carr, San Diego State’s David Fales, and possibly Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas being among the top senior prospects. Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater and Utah State’s Chuckie Keeton may leave for the NFL after their respective junior seasons in 2014.
The Bucs will likely have a better chance of drafting a better quarterback by being patient and waiting a year to find out if Freeman is the long-term answer.
FAB 4. Buccaneers fans have become big fans of Rutgers outside linebacker Khaseem Greene since I began profiling him in a couple of my SR’s Fab 5 co
lumns – most recently two weeks ago. Greene, who has been the Big East’s leading tackler the last two seasons, totaled 387 tackles, 12 forced fumbles, 11.5 sacks, nine pass breakups, six interceptions and one fumble recovery during his Scarlet Knights career. He’s projected to become a second-round pick.
But there is a linebacker with similar production and a similar frame (6-foot-1, 230 pounds) that will be a late-round pick if he’s lucky. Houston’s Phillip Steward, whom I first wrote about in my SR’s Fab 5 column on November 14, put up similar stats to those of Greene during his four-year career with the Cougars, but isn’t getting the notoriety he deserves.
In fact, he’s one of the biggest snubs by the NFL combine committee this year after recording 378 tackles, 40 tackles for loss, 18 pass breakups, 14 sacks, 11 interceptions, six forced fumbles and a fumble recovery at Houston. As a senior in 2012, Steward, who was a team captain, notched 128 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, five forced fumbles, three interceptions and three fumble recoveries.
Against UAB, Steward tallied 13 tackles, 2.5 sacks and an interception. Against UCLA, Steward recorded 13 tackles, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. Versus East Carolina, Steward notched seven tackles, a sack and an interception. In 2011, he recorded a pair of interceptions against East Carolina.
During his first three seasons at Houston, Steward was often asked to drop into coverage, which would allow him to be a perfect fit for Tampa Bay’s strongside linebacker role despite being a bit undersized. Steward recorded eight interceptions and three sacks combined during his sophomore and junior seasons, including six in 2011 as a coverage linebacker.
Despite being undersized, Steward runs in the 4.6-range in the 40-yard dash – although he will have to do that at his pro day at Houston rather than the combine in Indianapolis. And this after being invited to the Senior Bowl late in the week due to an injury to another participant, and also showcasing his wares at the Texas vs. The Nation college all-star game.
Steward finished the season strong with a splash play in the final five games of his Houston career. Against UTEP, he recorded eight tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble. Versus East Carolina, Steward notched seven tackles, one tackle for loss, one sack and one interception. Versus Tulsa, the Houston linebacker recorded 13 tackles, one tackle for loss and a forced fumble. The following week against Marshall, Steward had 16 tackles, two tackles for loss and a sack, before finishing his Cougars career with eight tackles, a sack, an interception and a pass breakup against Tulane.
The Bucs would be fortunate to have a multi-talented linebacker like Steward on their roster next year, and could probably be had in the seventh round.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5 next Friday:
• An interesting player that the Bucs should keep an eye on at the wide receiver position is Mississippi State’s Chad Bumphis, who is the all-time leading receiver and led the SEC with 12 touchdowns in 2012, while catching 58 passes for 922 yards. He caught 159 passes for 2,270 yards and 24 touchdowns in his Bulldogs career with seven 100-yard receiving games. At 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Bumphis doesn’t have ideal height to play on the outside, but thrived as a slot receiver at Mississippi State.
Bumphis caught four passes for 92 yards, including a 57-yard touchdown pass from Arizona quarterback Matt Scott to help the West beat the East, 28-13, in the East-West Shrine Game.
“It was big for me to come out here and compete against some of these great players,” Bumphis said. “I wanted to see where I measure up and what I have to work on. The thing that everybody likes about me is being in the slot and being able to make plays. I have good hands and I understand reading defenses and pick up the offense quickly.
“The one thing that everybody has questions about is what I will run in the 40. That’s all I’ve heard. That’s what I’m going to work on when I leave here. I’m going down to Naples, Fla. to train. I’ll be working on my 40 there. I couldn’t tell you. I’m expecting a 4.4, but we’ll see.”
• Everyone knows that Buccaneers defensive end Michael Bennett led the team in sacks with nine and forced fumbles with three. But what many not know is that he played the entire season with a banged up shoulder and sprained ankle without missing a game. That’s the sign of a true professional, and one of the reasons why Tampa Bay is interested in re-signing the unrestricted free agent.
“It’s hard to come out here and play each week with injuries, but that’s part of the game,” Bennett said. “As a player, a true professional goes out there regardless of what their injury is. Young guys stay out with nicks and bruises and let them keep them down. But true professionals, you see guys like Ronde Barber that have been here for years and has played through everything. That’s how you have to be to become a great player.”
Bennett not only did a great job of getting to the quarterback, he also made a ton of other plays in the backfield. In fact, he was second on the team in tackles for loss behind rookie linebacker Lavonte David with 18.
“We just tackled better this year,” Bennett said. “It was one of those things where we made the tackles. We tackled better. Last year, we didn’t tackle as well. It was just like with sacks. We were in position, but we didn’t make them. This year we made more plays than we made last year. Next year we’re going to try to make more plays than we made this year.
“Coach Schiano instilled a hard-nosed attitude of just putting your face on somebody. I did a better job of that and we did a better job of that. Next year we need to do a better job of making even more plays so we’re not in position to have this conversation [in January.] We can have this conversation in February.”
• This will be the first draft with new Tampa Bay director of college scouting Eric Stokes in the war room. While he oversees the college area scouts and has a great deal of input in the draft, Stokes must answer to director of player personnel Dennis Hickey and general manager.
“I’ve worked with Dennis for a long time and the one thing we understand is that when we disagree it’s not personal – it’s professional,” Dominik said. “You have to have people that understand that and Eric is very good about listening to different thoughts and different mindsets, but not taking it personal. It’s all about getting better as an organization and he’s definitely helped us.”
One commonality that Stokes has with Dominik and Hickey is the upbringing he had growing up in the Midwest, which gives the trio a grounded nature and plenty of common sense.
“The one thing we all have in common is we are Midwest guys,” Stokes said. “We’re pretty basic, ego-less guys. I grew up in Nebraska in Lincoln. I know Mark and Dennis have their ties to the Kansas City area and that’s what we’re all about. That brings us together. We’re pretty easy going guys that just happen to live in Tampa now.”
Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd 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 enjoys 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: [email protected]
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