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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. The buzz continues to grow at One Buccaneer Place over first-year cornerback Kyle Arrington. Arrington was first recognized by PewterReport.com for an outstanding performance in an OTA on Wednesday, May 13 and we brought you head coach Raheem Morris’ glowing comments on Arrington in last week’s SR’s Fab 5.
Now veteran wide receiver Michael Clayton is getting into the act, heaping a bunch of praise on Arrington, who is currently the Bucs’ fourth-string cornerback, and second-year cornerback Elbert Mack, who has maintained his grip on the nickel corner job after spending a year as a reserve after signing as an undrafted free agent out of Troy.
“I really like Kyle, man. This guy is a competitor,” Clayton said. “He puts something on tape that really impresses everybody in the building. He’s a guy that is going to be able to step up for us. I saw it last year. As a wide receiver, I knew he was a corner that had great hips, great speed and he’s tough. There is a difference between playing under the lights and he’s definitely a guy that is going to get an opportunity to show what he has.
“E-Mack – he’s an animal. He’s a little midget animal. The road that he’s had to take to get here has made him a hard worker. His size isn’t an issue. He’s put that on tape with special teams. He’s made plays for us. Both of those guys are really good cover guys. I’m excited about their opportunity to get their shot. Both of those guys weren’t drafted guys, but they are out there competing like a starter. It’s a good feeling to know that we have reserves. We have guys that can compete and if something happens to our starters, we don’t lose anything. That’s a good situation to be in.”
The confident Arrington can feel his momentum starting to build at One Buccaneer Place.
“I do feel it. Just like Raheem says, every day you are either getting better or you are getting worse,” Arrington said. “Every practice, every rep, I try to go out there like it is my last play. Every time they throw my way I want to pick it off or break it up to keep the coaches’ eyes on me.”
Arrington went undrafted in 2008 and was signed as a collegiate free agent out of Hofstra by Philadelphia on April 28 before being released from its practice squad on September 9. The Bucs subsequently signed Arrington to their practice squad eight days later and he spent the rest of the 2008 season in Tampa Bay.
The fact that Arrington stayed on the Bucs’ practice squad all year long with defensive tackle Dre Moore was a strong indication that he was viewed as more than a practice player to the franchise.
“I saw guys coming in and out of the practice squad, especially the running back situation,” Arrington said. “They were bringing in guys every week, but I kept sticking around. I felt like I had a home here. They’ve seen what I can do and they see my potential.”
Arrington has a big supporter in Morris, who was not only his position coach last year, but also a Hofstra product himself. But while he may be viewed as a favorite of Morris’ because of the Hofstra connection, Arrington said that is not the case.
“There are higher expectations for me in Raheem’s eyes because I’m from Hofstra, but I wouldn’t want it any other way,” Arrington said. “I have high expectations of myself and I’m my toughest critic. A lot of people will tell me that I’m doing a good job after every practice, but I’m not satisfied. There are always a handful of plays that I could have done better with.”
At Hofstra, Arrington was a big hitter, as seen on his YouTube highlight reels (caution – graphic language), but his lack of interceptions – he only had two career picks – caused him to go undrafted. He has been working on his hands in practice over the past year and is looking to improve his ball skills.
“The YouTube clips show a lot of big hits,” Arrington said. “In college I was known as a banger or a bruiser because I was a boundary corner, so I played the run a lot. The physicality is there in my game. I was always a decent cover guy, but I’ve never really embraced what I could become until last year on the practice squad. The type of practices we had last year under [former Bucs head coach Jon] Gruden there were no shoulder pads. We had maybe one padded practice all year, so it forced me to practice different and play different and be a ballhawk.”
In his first set of OTAs with the Buccaneers, which resembled practice last fall with Gruden not electing to have the team pad up, Arrington has had a chance to work on his anticipation and ball skills because contact is forbidden. The 5-foot-10, 196-pound corner is trying to shake his reputation for not being an interceptor.
“I could be more of a ballhawk,” Arrington said. “I’m getting my hands on a lot of balls, but it’s not enough for me. Turnovers are what we’re going to need. Coach (Jim) Bates preaches that every day. It’s not enough to get my hands on the ball. We need turnovers. I get my hands on a lot of passes in practice, but being a young team, we’re going to need turnovers. We’re going to give up some stuff. There’s going to be a learning cover, so we need as many turnovers as we can get to balance things out. We’re not planning on giving up a lot, but it’s the NFL and anything can happen.”
When Tampa Bay passed on re-signing Phillip Buchanon or signing any other corner in free agency, and didn’t draft a corner until the seventh round, the team was making a bold statement that it believed in Mack and Arrington as its reserve corners.
“I think it speaks volumes,” Arrington said. “It’s comforting and it shows that they have confidence in E-Mack and I. We have depth already, so they didn’t have to go out and get anybody. We’re younger players and we have a lot to learn, but they see the potential for what we could be. It’s comforting to know that trust is there.
“This year they want to put more young players into prominent roles. We still have a lot to learn and we’re young. We’re going to make mistakes, but we’ll learn from them. We all have the same mentality. It’s not a rebuilding year or whatever the critics are saying. We’re underdogs, but I’ve been an underdog all my life. I’m looking forward to the challenge and I’m looking forward to stepping up.”
But don’t pencil in Arrington for the fourth cornerback spot just yet. While it is not a guarantee that he makes the team, there’s also not a guarantee that Mack can hold off the bigger and more physical Arrington, either. Like Mack, Arrington thrived in playing man coverage in college and that has helped his transition into Bates’ style of press-man coverage, which features bump and run technique.
“With Coach Bates we are playing lot more man-to-man. At Hofstra, we ran a lot of man if we weren’t running a lot of Cover 2,” Arrington said. “I bumped a little bit, but I didn’t do it a lot at Hofstra. It was mostly off man with a cushion. I feel this is my style of play. E-Mack feels the same way. We are gifted, young players and this defense really suits us. We are young and we can run all day. I’m a 4.38 guy. This scheme benefits us. As a DB, you would like to key the quarterback a lot more, but you can only do what you can do. We’ll have to key on the receiver.”
Throughout the offseason, Morris and general manager Mark Dominik have been keying on Arrington and they have loved what they have seen from him thus far.
FAB 2. Don’t worry. The Buccaneers don’t have much interest in signing former New York Giants receiver Plaxico Burress. Pewter Report has learned that yes, a phone call was made from the Buccaneers personnel department to inquire about Burress’ health, but that was the extent of it. It was nothing more than an inquiry about Burress’ physical condition. After all, he did shoot himself in the leg in a New York nightclub – a move that has him in legal hot water and possibly facing jail time.
Multiple team insiders tell me that the Bucs were doing their due diligence in checking up on the health of a free agent wide receiver and nothing more should read into the situation. The team is under the firm belief that Burress, who will turn 32 in August, will in fact go to jail and that his playing days in the NFL could be over. New York mayor Michael Bloomberg appears to be on a witch-hunt in prosecuting a high-profile athlete like Burress, and the mandatory penalty for being found with a loaded illegal gun, which is a second-degree felony in New York, is 3.5 years in jail. If convicted, Burress wouldn’t be out of jail until he was 36 years old.
Even if he escaped jail time, one source told me that the chances are far greater that veteran wide receiver Ike Hilliard would return to Tampa Bay before the team signed Burress, who has had behavioral issues in both Pittsburgh and New York. But even that is a bridge the team will likely not cross unless a long-term injury to a veteran receiver like Antonio Bryant or Michael Clayton occurred. The reason why is because the plan of general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris calls for a host of young, unproven players already on the roster to showcase themselves when given the opportunity to vie for a starting job. That’s why players like Hilliard and linebacker Derrick Brooks were released and a player like defensive end Kevin Carter was not re-signed.
While it’s too soon to rule out Hilliard re-joining the Buccaneers should an injury occur, the team wants to avoid that because it would justify bringing Brooks back in the fans’ eyes. But know this, should Hilliard ever return, it would be in a reserve role for leadership and depth – which are the two main elements he brought to the Bucs as their third wide receiver for several years. He would simply be reprising his role, and that is far different than bringing Brooks, a long-time starter, back as a reserve.
On Thursday, Morris told the media that right now four receivers have caught his eye, but he wouldn’t reveal those names to the media.
“I’ll give you guys a preview of what I’m about to talk about in our team meetings,” Morris said. “There are four guys playing well at wide out, that are really fighting their butts off. That has really got me wired in. I’m not going to tell you who those four guys are because I haven’t told my team yet. Once I present that in a team meeting they’ll probably come out bragging about how great they are. I’ll tell you next week.”
According to the Bucs defensive backs I spoke with, the four wideouts that are starring at One Buccaneer Place are veterans Bryant and Clayton and newcomers Kelly Campbell and Sammie Stroughter, who was one of Tampa Bay’s seventh-round picks.
“Kelly Campbell has definitely been impressive,” said Bucs cornerback Kyle Arrington. “You’ve seen him make a lot of plays. He even made a play on me, to my dismay. I can’t stand anybody making a play on me. I take it personally – even if we are all just teammates. I don’t want anyone making plays on me. I want to be the one making plays, but Kelly Campbell is a burner. He’s definitely one who has caught everyone’s attention.
“Sammie Stroughter is another one. His potential is through the roof. Kelly is just a straight-line guy. He doesn’t need to do a lot of moving or juking at the line. He gets his first step and then just goes. You just try to keep up. But Stroughter is a mixture. He’s a hybrid. He’s a fast guy too, but he has a lot of juking to his game. He’s shifty. Those two guys are really making some plays. Too many plays sometimes.”
Should Campbell and Stroughter keep it up, they will make the team as reserve receivers behind Bryant and Clayton. Of course it is still almost four months until the start of the season. Even training camp is still a ways off and a lot can change during August. But the Bucs will need at least one or two more receivers – and whoever comprises the final spot(s) on the depth chart will have to be a special teams star.
Right now, Brian Clark and Maurice Stovall are vying for the fifth wide receiver job. The other will likely be cut or saved depending on whether or not the Bucs keep six receivers. The 6-foot-2, 204-pound Clark really came on for the Bucs on special teams last year, returning three kicks for 54 yards, blocking a punt at Atlanta, recovering a fumble and recording eight special teams tackles.
As a receiver, Clark caught one pass for 12 yards and has five catches for 35 yards in his two-year NFL career. In three years, Stovall has 20 career catches for 213 yards and one touchdown, but was limited to just three catches for 25 yards last year before finishing the season on injured reserve for the second year in a row.
Despite being placed on IR during the Bucs’ bye week following the Kansas City game last year for a torn hamstring, Stovall still managed to record seven special teams tackles. In 14 games in 2007, Stovall’s career-high 18 special teams tackles ranked second on the team. Unless the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Stovall can emerge as a weapon on offense this year, his fate will likely rest on whether he can beat out Clark as a special teams ace for special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia.
So why isn’t Dexter Jackson in the mix? Well, he technically is, along with Cortez Hankton and newcomers Amarri Jackson, Joel Filani and Patrick Carter. But they will have to step up their game as receivers and special teams aces to outduel the likes of Clark and Stovall.
The Bucs will be looking for a mix of big, physical wide receivers and smaller, speedier receivers to play in the slot in Jeff Jagodzinski’s offense. Filani is 6-foot-2, Carter is 6-foot-3 and Jackson is 6-foot-5 and they will primarily battle Stovall and Clark for roster spots. Meanwhile, the 5-foot-9, 182-pound Jackson has a steeper climb as he will have to battle the 5-foot-10, 172-pound Campbell and the 5-foot-9, 191-pound Stroughter, and it’s already been established that both Campbell and Stroughter have impressed the coaches and scouts.
Perhaps if the Bucs’ wideout situation was more dire, Dominik would have more interest in Burress, but he and Morris believe in the young talent on the roster and aren’t as interested in Burress as the media is trying to make it seem. Besides, Burress’ pending legal situation makes it doubtful that he will be suiting up for any NFL team any time soon.
FAB 3. It’s really hard not to like Tampa Bay’s seventh-round pick Sammie Stroughter. The Oregon State star receiver and return man was a big-time playmaker with a big-time smile and infectious personality. In the media session during the rookie mini-camp, Stroughter came across humbled by his seventh-round draft position, but feeling upbeat about his faith in God and about his chances of making the Buccaneers roster.
Unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of nice guy wide receivers finish near last in the NFL and not live up to their athletic potential. Horace “Hi-C” Copeland wasn’t as physical as his 6-foot-3, 200-pound frame indicated he could be. The same could be said about the 6-foot-5, 220-pound receiver Maurice Stovall, who is currently on the roster.
Former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden told me at the 2008 Senior Bowl that Stovall played like a beast on special teams when covering punts, sometimes beating and beating up two or three vise blockers when Stovall was a gunner. Yet what baffled Gruden was how Stovall became passive on offense and could not beat a 5-foot-9, 190-pound cornerback off the line of scrimmage despite having an eight-inch height advantage and a 30-pound weight advantage.
But when I got Stroughter in a one-on-one situation, the humble nice guy act disappeared and the hungry, junkyard dog in Stroughter came to the surface, which was nice to see. I asked Stroughter how his game compared to another speedy Pac-10 star receiver and return man – Cal’s DeSean Jackson, who had a successful rookie season as a second-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles. The hard-edged Stroughter wasn’t too thrilled to the comparison of Jackson, who had a reputation for being a soft receiver at Cal.
“No disrespect to DeSean Jackson – he’s a great player – but that was just one year,” Stroughter said. “I don’t try to compare myself to anyone, but if I had to I would say someone like Hines Ward or Steve Smith. I’m short, but I can get in between defenders, catch the ball and make plays. I’m short, but I’m not small. I’m 191 pounds and proud of it. I have the mental toughness necessary. This is football. You are going to get hit. You have to be the hammer before the nail. That’s the attitude I have and the approach I take.”
It’s too early to say that the Bucs have a Steve Smith-type player on their hands in Stroughter, but I have heard the comparisons between Smith and Stroughter whispered around One Buccaneer Place after just one week of practice. The reason why is because it seems like the Bucs have a real find in Stroughter. But any early success he has from the rookie mini-camp and his first week of OTAs hasn’t gone to his head. Stroughter knows that as a seventh-round pick his roster spot is not assured and he’ll likely have to be a factor on special teams to make the team and see some early playing time.
“I want to be on the field all the time. The more I’m on the field, the better I can help my teammates,” Stroughter said. I will cover punts and kicks, return them – I know I’m a seventh-round pick. I know I’m at the bottom of the barrel. I’ve got to work hard. My work ethic has got to come up even further. I understand that. I know the position I’m in. I’m not afraid of hard work and I’ve never been scared of a challenge. I went up against Mike Hass – a great receiver at Oregon State – and I’ve never been afraid of a challenge. I’m going to push whoever is in front of me and he’s going to push me. As long as everyone is trying to get better at the same time, the sky is the limit for this team.”
Stroughter did return kicks and punts at Oregon State, returning three punts for touchdowns in 2006, but he knows that Pro Bowl return man Clifton Smith is the incumbent return man. But he is ready to show off his toughness and become a tackling machine on special teams if that is what it takes to impress the coaches.
“The coaching staff and the scouts knew exactly what they were doing in this draft,” Stroughter said. “They knew how they had to set it up and wait for me. They got the bang for their buck. They know what they got. They know they got a great steal. Thank the Lord that he put me in this position. I couldn’t pray to be in a better position than this. I understand that. I also have a chip on my shoulder, so the sky is the limit for me.”
Personally, I can’t wait to see how this guy fares in one-on-ones against Ronde Barber, Aqib Talib, Elbert Mack and Kyle Arrington to see if all this hype is justified. But after having that intense one-on-one with the extremely focused Stroughter, I’m betting it is.
FAB 4. I couldn’t figure out why some media outlets were suggesting that linebacker was a big need for the Buccaneers heading into the draft. Pewter Report had linebacker as the team’s sixth-rated need in our 2009 Bucs Draft Preview in April.
Why? A quick look at the roster revealed 10 linebackers already on the team, including newcomer Angelo Crowell and Jermaine Phillips, who had moved from safety to linebacker. That coupled with the fact that the Bucs had already spent a third-rounder on Quincy Black in 2007 and two sixth-rounders on Adam Hayward and Geno Hayes over the past two years told me that the position was already stacked and filled with former draft picks that haven’t had a real chance to emerge as starters yet.
Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry agreed with that assumption.
“Right now we have 10 linebackers on our roster,” Barry said. “As a linebackers coach throughout the draft, especially on the second day, I would say, ‘If we draft this guy, who is he better than that is already on our roster? If he’s not better than the 10 guys we have on our roster, why should we draft him?’ I think the decision-makers upstairs felt the same way.”
With middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who is currently staying away from the voluntary OTAs due to wanting a contract extension, as first reported by PewterReport.com, as the only starter remaining from a year ago, the starting strongside and weakside linebacker positions are up for grabs.
“Everybody is kind of starting with a clean slate because everyone is brand new to the system,” Barry said. “No one is going to have a leg up on anyone else. That, to me, is great for competition.”
Quincy Black and Phillips are currently running with the first team at strongside and weakside linebacker, respectively. But Crowell participated with the team on defense for the first time this week, three weeks later than expected, and it will be interesting to see how his offseason operation has helped his chondromalacia, which is a chronic condition in which the cartilage under the knee cap becomes inflamed and swells up. Crowell’s knee and his late start will give Black an advantage in training camp, in my opinion.
Phillips has been receiving all the offseason headlines at weakside linebacker, but don’t count out Geno Hayes, who is fully recovered from his torn MCL (medial collateral ligament) and PCL (posterior cruciate ligament). Phillips has the experience of playing in the NFL, but Hayes has the experience of playing linebacker in high school and college. It will be interesting to see how the competition plays out in training camp, and Barry feels like the Bucs had enough of it this year without adding another draft pick.
“The only thing you want is great competition in training camp,” Barry said. “You want that first-team guy to think if he has a bad day that the second-string guy can jump him (on the depth chart). And you want the second-string guy looking over his shoulder and thinking the same thing about the third-string guy. That’s all you can ask for and we have that right now. Those guys come to work every day and they are wired in. That’s how it should be, but sometimes guys – due to human nature – get a little comfortable. There will not be any comfort in training camp this year. I guarantee you that. It will be really interesting to see how this whole thing shakes out.”
FAB 5. Here are some things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Buccaneers linebackers coach Joe Barry has been a disciple of Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense since becoming an NFL position coach in 2001. After leaving Tampa Bay to become Detroit’s defensive coordinator in 2007, Barry tried to indoctrinate the Lions with the Tampa 2 scheme. Now eight years after sticking with the same defense, Barry is in the process of learning Jim Bates’ system “We’re still working through that as a staff,” Barry said. “Jim is running a different system than what has been run here before. We’re all excited about it. The staff is fired up about it. We’re just getting started in implementing it. But yeah, it is different. No doubt about it. We are going to try to incorporate the things that the Bucs have done well with over the years, but Jim Bates has been very successful as a coordinator wherever he’s been. I’m excited and the players are excited to get the new package underway. At first you shy away from new stuff because you don’t know it. It’s foreign to you. The thing that’s neat is that all of us are new here together. I knew Todd Wash, but I’ve never worked with him. The entire staff – Todd, Joe Baker, Robert Nunn, Jim and I – we had never worked together. I think the neat thing is that this is different from what we’ve done before. But in saying that, I’m finding out that there are so many similarities. It’s a blast. It’s very exciting. We were going crazy because for the first six weeks it was just the five of us banging things out. Now with the players back, we are getting to implement it and teach them.”
• Speaking of new schemes, Jeff Jagodzinski’s new passing game is being embraced by the team because it is a stark contrast to the complex scheme that Jon Gruden deployed in Tampa Bay for years. When asked what he liked most about the new offense, Bucs wide receiver Antonio Bryant said: “The simplicity. It’s less thinking for the quarterback so they don’t have to get up there and stall. They can just go through the progressions. With us having a lot of young guys with less playing time, they will be able to see everything a bit smoother. I like the offense because we have some real good guys out here. Michael (Clayton) looks really healthy and he’s moving around real good. A lot of the young guys like Dexter (Jackson) are kind of stepping up. He is catching a couple of deep balls. It’s encouraging to see a young guy like that advance and get better and not be where he was last year.”
• A lot of times the listed heights and weights of players can be misleading in the team media guides. For years, defensive tackle Warren Sapp was listed at 303 when he was clearly in excess of 315 pounds. Defensive tackle Greg Peterson currently weighs 310 pounds despite being listed at 286 pounds on Buccaneers.com. Defensive end Gaines Adams is generously listed at 260 pounds on the website, but revealed his true weight to me during the OTAs. “When the season starts I want to be around 255 pounds,” Adams said. “I’m at 248 pounds right now, but I’ve gotten rid of all the baby fat I’ve had and now I’m building back up. I’ve got a nutrition lady working with me and I’m feeling a whole lot better. I’m trying to take the little steps to get in the best shape and when the season starts.” That’s a good sign for Adams, who started the year strong, but faded down the second half of the season.
• Bucs wide receiver Maurice Stovall needs a big year. Not just because he was singled out in front of his peers and challenged to perform by head coach Raheem Morris in a team meeting to start the offseason program, but also due to the fact that Stovall is entering a contract year – provided a new Collective Bargaining Agreement can be worked out by the start of next season (otherwise he won’t be an unrestricted free agent until after 2010). But the thing that has held Stovall back in year’s past – injuries – have struck again. Stovall has missed several OTAs due to an undisclosed injury, but he should be back on the field in time for the mandatory mini-camp in mid-June. One team insider told me that the team doesn’t necessarily mind Stovall missing some time in the offseason because he is always in great shape and sometimes over-trains to the point where he physically runs out of gas or hits a wall during the season. But with all of the praise being heaped on newcomers Kelly Campbell and Sammie Stroughter, Stovall needs to get healthy quick, stay healthy and start making some plays.
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