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. BUCS TRANING CAMP PRIMER: WHAT TO WATCH ON OFFENSEThe start of the Buccaneers’ 2014 Training Camp – and the first in the Lovie Smith era – begins on Friday, July 24. By most accounts, there hasn’t been this much excitement about the Buccaneers since the Jon Gruden era. Tampa Bay fans are intrigued by the team’s new look – both the new uniforms and the plethora of new faces on the roster.
To help prepare Bucs fans for training camp, I’ve come up with a primer – a list of things to watch for – based on what I saw during the team’s OTAs and mini-camps. Let’s start with Tampa Bay’s offense.
Picking Up The Pace On OffenseIf you thought the Bucs’ tempo on offense was fast-paced during the Jon Gruden era, you haven’t seen anything yet. New offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford maximizes practice time by getting in as many reps as possible. This has helped the offensive players get quickly acclimated to the playbook.
“There are different phases of it from time to time,” Tedford said about the style of tempo he runs on offense. “Everybody runs the two-minute scheme and everybody has to have a two-minute [drill] in their offense, and of course we do. We’ve been able to utilize that a little bit. We’re in different tempos. We huddle quite a bit as well, and so there’s really nothing much different than what you would normally see from time to time of somebody just going into a two-minute offense.”
The O-Line’s Athleticism In order to have an up-tempo offense, it’s necessary for the offensive line to be athletic and well-conditioned with all of the running they’ll have to do downfield to get to the ball and get it snapped quickly. The Bucs got more athletic at left tackle with Anthony Collins replacing the heavier Donald Penn, and the team already has a very athletic right tackle in Demar Dotson.
Evan Dietrich-Smith is set at center, and although there is some uncertainty as to who is going to be manning the guard positions, there are plenty of athletic players to choose from, including Jamon Meredith, who is the best shape of his life, Oniel Cousins and Patrick Omameh. Rookie Kadeem Edwards needs to get in better shape, but he’ll eventually fit the mold.
As for Carl Nicks, I’m not holding my breath that he will be ready to go by the time training camp starts. Because he did not participate in any of the team’s OTAs or mini-camps, I have seen no evidence that he’ll be suiting up on July 24. Even if he does, at 350 pounds, is Nicks an ideal fit for this up-tempo offense? It’s hard to imagine he will be in the desirable condition to keep up the pace with the other starting offensive linemen initially. If Nicks plays – and plays well – it’s truly a bonus for the Buccaneers at this point.
What will be interesting to see is just how physical and tough this athletic offensive line is once the pads come on. With some real brutes on the defensive line this year with defensive tackles Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald and Akeem Spence, and defensive ends Michael Johnson, Adrian Clayborn and Will Gholston, the manhood of the offensive line will be tested in goal line drills early August.
Sometimes athletic offensive linemen are finesse players. The Bucs are hoping they have an athletic, yet physical offensive line.
The Running Back RotationDon’t be surprised to see Bobby Rainey, Mike James or Jeff Demps get the majority of carries in some of the early days training camp while Doug Martin gets a decreased workload. The reason is two-fold – and not because Martin has not fallen out of favor with the coaching staff.
First, the Bucs do want to keep Martin fresh, and with the multitude of talented backs the team has on the roster, decreasing his workload makes sense so he won’t wear out prior to the start of the regular season. And second, the only way to evaluate the other running backs like Rainey, James and Demps is to give them their share of carries in practice and let them strut their stuff.
The next day it may be Martin getting most of the workload and then rookie Charles Sims may be featured during the following practice. Sims, who reminds Smith and running backs coach Tim Spencer of Chicago Pro Bowler Matt Forte, is in position to win the backup running back role. The team loves his blend of receiving ability, speed, size and acceleration through the hole.
The Sudden Speed of the Receiving CorpsThe bad news is that Vincent Jackson is age 31 and is likely among the slowest receivers on Tampa Bay’s roster. The good news is that he is still the Bucs’ best weapon in the passing game and is still capable of producing a 1,000-yard season due to his size, physicality and experience.
Yet the fact that Jackson is still so dangerous and is not as fleet-of-foot as other Bucs wideouts means that Tampa Bay has greatly increased the speed of its receiving corps. Newcomer Louis Murphy, who timed a 4.32 in the 40-yard dash, may be the fastest receiver on the roster next to rookie Robert Herron, the team’s sixth-round pick, who reportedly ran a 4.29 during his pro day. Fellow rookie Solomon Patton ran a 4.31 at his pro day at Florida, while holdovers Skye Dawson (4.33) and Chris Owusu (4.36) have speed to burn, in addition to 6-foot-5 newcomer Tommy Streeter, who has 4.4 speed.
While first-round draft pick Mike Evans is not a burner – he ran a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash – he’s another big, 6-foot-5 target similar to Jackson that can out-leap and out-muscle the competition for the football. Like Jackson, Evans will seem slow compared to some of the blazers the Bucs have acquired this offseason, and that should take fans by surprise come training camp.
The Accuracy of McCownNot surprisingly, some Bucs fans that have not seen Josh McCown may not feel too good about Tampa Bay’s quarterback situation heading into 2014. Once you see McCown throw the ball in practice that will change.
The Bucs have not had this accurate of a quarterback since the days of Jeff Garcia when the team was making its last playoff push in 2008. Although he has completed just 59.4 percent of his passes throughout his nine-year career, McCown competed 66.5 percent of his 224 throws last year in Chicago while tossing 13 touchdowns and just one interception subbing for the injured Jay Cutler.
Keep in mind that Marc Trestman’s offense featured a good deal of downfield throws to Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffrey, whereas McCown will be asked to get rid of the ball even quicker in Tedford’s offense, which features a multitude of one-step and three-step drops. It’s feasible that McCown could complete close to 70 percent of his throws in Tampa Bay’s new scheme.
McCown will be asked to be a point guard like John Stockton in the Bucs offense – not a shooting guard like Michael Jordan. His job is to quickly distribute the ball to his playmakers on offense, which will be open in this scheme, and let them score the points with the Bucs not necessarily relying on McCown to score points himself with the amazing kind of throws that only the class of Peyton Manning, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Tom Brady can make.
FAB 2. BUCS TRANING CAMP PRIMER: WHAT TO WATCH ON DEFENSEWhile the Bucs offense may be brand new to Tampa Bay fans, the Tampa 2 defense will be quite familiar. It’s Lovie Smith’s version of the defensive scheme that helped the Bucs win a Super Bowl in 2002 under former coordinator Monte Kiffin.
While the scheme will seem like a blast from the past for some, there are still some facets and caveats that fans will need to become aware of. Here are a few things to watch for during training camp at One Buccaneer Place this summer.
A Better Pass RushDefensive line coach Rod Marinelli has been missed in Tampa Bay since the day he left to become the head coach of the Detroit Lions in 2006. While Marinelli is currently the defensive coordinator of the Dallas Cowboys, he recommended his former protégé, Joe Cullen, to his good friend Lovie Smith. Cullen has an outstanding track record of developing young players in Detroit, Jacksonville and Cleveland over the years and should work wonders with Tampa Bay’s revamped defensive line.
Newcomer Michael Johnson is a fast, athletic right defensive end, and he will pair with new nose tackle Clinton McDonald, who has more pass rush capability than Akeem Spence does. Adrian Clayborn shifts to left defensive end where he will compete with Will Gholston, a real up-and-comer.
Last year, the Bucs recorded just 35 sacks, including only 21 from the defensive line. The fact that Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recorded 9.5 – nearly half of that total – shows that the pass rush needed a big-time upgrade, in addition to better coaching. That’s where Cullen comes in.
Under his leadership, it’s feasible to see the Bucs have two double-digit sackers in McCoy and Johnson with McDonald and Clayborn, who is in a contract year, combining for another 10. The starting defensive line of the famed Bucs defense of 1999 had 32, led by Warren Sapp’s 12.5, and the entire defensive line accounted for 36 of the team’s 43 sacks. In 2002, Tampa Bay’s starting defensive line had 28, led by Simeon Rice’s 15.5, and the entire line accounted for 35 of the defense’s 43 sacks.
The starting defensive line on any real quality defense should get around 28, and this 2014 Tampa Bay unit has the talent to approach 30.
An Improved Foster At MLBThe Buccaneers have gotten inconsistent play at times from middle linebacker Mason Foster over the years, but that’s about to change. After spending his summer break working out in the Tampa Bay area instead of vacationing, Foster, who is in a contract year, could be poised for a breakout season.
After producing 92 tackles, three interceptions, including two returned for a touchdown, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery last year, Foster is looking to build on those numbers under the tutelage of legendary Bucs middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who is now the linebackers coach in Tampa Bay.
Foster, who will be expected to blitz more in the Tampa 2, is in the best shape of his career, and that should pay dividends for both he and the Buccaneers. He’s had a track record of starting off the season hot and then fading as the year wore on. With Foster training so hard this offseason, the goal is for him to be able to play at a higher level throughout the entire 2014 campaign.
If Foster can’t take his game to another level under Nickerson, I’m not sure anyone else can. Foster will have newcomer Dane Fletcher to compete with him and push him, too.
New Nickelback Role In Tampa BayThe legendary Ronde Barber made the role of the nickel cornerback – or slot cornerback – famous in Tampa Bay and throughout the NFL. Barber is the team’s all-time leading interceptor with 47 picks, and also has 28 sacks. But what made Barber unique is that he was the team’s right cornerback in base defense and then he would move inside to the slot when the Bucs went with nickel personnel.
Under new head coach Lovie Smith, the nickel cornerback is more specialized in different ways. First, the nickel back is a position unto itself with its own coach in Larry Marmie. The second difference is that players like D.J. Moore, Leonard Johnson, Deveron Carr and Quinton Pointer will only practice together as nickel cornerbacks, while Alterraun Verner, Johnthan Banks, Mike Jenkins, Rashaan Melvin and Keith Lewis will work with cornerbacks coach Gil Byrd. Danny Gorrer will cross-train with the nickels and the cornerbacks.
In years past in the Tampa 2 scheme in Tampa Bay, the third cornerback on the depth chart came in to replace Barber at right cornerback in nickel situations while he moved inside to the slot. In Smith’s version of the Tampa 2, the nickel cornerback position will only play inside in the slot. What that means is if Jenkins loses the starting cornerback job to Banks this August, he won’t automatically become the team’s nickel corner – he’ll sit on the bench.
Only the winner of the nickel cornerback position will play inside the slot. That starter will likely be Moore, Johnson or Gorrer.
FAB 3. BUCS TRANING CAMP PRIMER: WHAT TO WATCH ON SPECIAL TEAMSBucs special teams coordinator Kevin O’Dea is in his third stint with Lovie Smith. The two coached together back in the day on Tony Dungy’s staff in the late 1990s and again in the 2000s in Chicago when Smith was the Bears head coach. To say that O’Dea and Smith are kindred spirits might be an understatement.
Both men like fast, physical units and want to see two big plays come from the special teams unit each game. O’Dea and Smith believe so strongly in special teams that they feel like the kicking game and the return game can be the difference in a couple of wins each season.
Here’s a look at some of the things to watch for on special teams in training camp.
Star Search On Special TeamsIn an effort to overhaul the roster following a 4-12 season, the Buccaneers re-signed only three of the team’s 19 free agents this offseason. But among those former Bucs that moved on were five of the team’s top nine tacklers on special teams, including long-time special teams captain Adam Hayward, who led Tampa Bay with 11 special teams stops in 2013.
Also gone is Dekoda Watson, who had five special teams tackles last year in addition to blocking a punt and recovering a fumble. Fullbacks Brian Leonard (three tackles, forced fumbles) and Spencer Larsen (three tackles) are also gone, as is long snapper Andrew Economos (three tackles).
The good news is that Jonathan Casillas, who had was the team’s second-leading tackler last year with nine stops, returns to lead Tampa Bay’s special teams, but the team will need to find some more aces that can run down and cover kicks and punts. Safeties Kelcie McCray (five tackles) and Keith Tandy (three stops) and tight end Tim Wright (two tackles) should be able to pick up the slack, in addition to new linebacker Dane Fletcher.
Bucs’ Replacement BatteryTampa Bay’s special team battery, which consists of a long snapper, a holder and a kicker, has seen some changes in 2014. With Economos, the team’s long-time long snapper not re-signed this year, either Jeremy Cain or Andrew DePaola will handle the hiking duties.
Punter and kickoff specialist Michael Koenen is currently the only one of his kind on the roster, but he’s the only constant from a year ago. Kicker Connor Barth is back after missing the 2013 campaign with a torn Achilles tendon. The most accurate kicker in Tampa Bay will have some competition in the form of Patrick Murray just in case he hasn’t or can’t return to form.
Positions like long snapper, punter/holder and kicker may not be sexy to most fans, but considering that most NFL games are decided by three points or less, the Bucs’ battery is quite important indeed.
Speedy Return Specialists GaloreUnlike last year when Tampa Bay lacked team speed and the Buccaneers had to settle for Eric Page to return punts and kicks. Page, who only has 4.6 speed and is more quick than fast is considered to be a long shot to make the roster in 2014 because the team has acquired faster players.
With no favorites heading into training camp, the competition for the punt and kick return duties is wide open. Page will get a shot to do both, but the presence of Jeff Demps, who has world class speed and is considered to be the fastest player in the NFL, will make it challenging for the second-year player to hang on to his kick return role.
Rookie Solomon Patton dazzled as a punt returner during the summer, and has 4.3 speed. Robert Herron, another rookie receiver, has similar speed and has been practicing returning punts along with Demps. There will be others that join the mix to handle punt or return duties during training camp, and all of those candidates will have sub-4.4 speed, which will make it difficult for Page to stick around as a return specialist.
FAB 4. BUCCANEERS MUST CLEAN UP PENALTIES IN 2014Ask any coach and they’ll tell you the first rule of football is “don’t beat yourself.” The two quickest ways to beat yourself are with turnovers and penalties. While the Bucs did a good job with turnover margin last year, they absolutely stunk in the penalty department.
Of course the 2013 campaign started off with a huge penalty in the closing minutes of Tampa Bay’s season opener at New York when linebacker Lavonte David pushed quarterback Geno Smith when he was out of bounds on the Jets’ last minute drive. That 15-yard infraction put the Jets in field goal range. New York came back to beat Tampa Bay in the closing seconds, 18-17. That loss was the first of eight straight to start the year and sink head coach Greg Schiano, who presided over a 4-12 mark in 2013.
The Buccaneers had the fourth-highest penalty total in the NFL in 2013, racking up 121 infractions for 1,136 yards, which was the third-highest in the league. Tampa Bay simply wasn’t talented enough to overcome the penalties like other teams can.
It’s interesting to note that the most penalized team last year, Seattle, won the Super Bowl despite incurring 152 penalties for 1,415 yards. The second-most penalized team was actually Denver, the AFC champion, which had 132 flags for 1,128 yards.
While penalties affect the entire team, they are quite personal in nature as poor technique, poor timing or lack of concentration by one player can result in a 5-yard, 10-yard or 15-yard penalty that can negate the positive efforts and effects of his teammates.
It might come as a surprise to know that Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, perhaps the team’s most talented player, was the most penalized Buccaneer in 2013, getting flagged 10 times for 91 yards. McCoy got nailed for roughing the passer three times, encroachment three times, defensive holding twice, unnecessary roughness once, unsportsmanlike conduct once and one neutral zone infraction.
McCoy was actually flagged 11 times, but one penalty was declined. In order for the Bucs to win more games in 2014 than they did a season ago, McCoy is going to have to play smarter – not just better.
Free safety Dashon Goldson was the second-most penalized Buccaneer, getting flagged seven times. Goldson was the poster child for targeting last year by the NFL as he drew five unnecessary roughness penalties, one defensive pass interference and one other personal foul. Goldson, whose nickname is “The Hawk” for his reputation of landing big hits on unsuspecting wide receivers, was suspended for the second game of the season after a targeting foul in the season opener against New York, but won his appeal with the league.
However, Goldson was suspended for the Detroit game in November after supposedly hitting a Falcons player in the head after a catch. Goldson has been targeted by the league and its officials as a high hitter and his next infraction of that kind will likely draw another suspension.
Tying Goldson as the second-most penalized Buccaneer in 2013 was center Jeremy Zuttah, who was flagged seven times for 60 yards. Zuttah, who was traded to Baltimore this offseason, was called for holding five times and a false start twice.
Right guard Davin Joseph had six flags for 60 yards and was released this offseason, but Jamon Meredith, who also committed six penalties for 40 yards in 2013 was re-signed and is in contention for a starting job. Meredith had three penalties for offensive holding, two false starts and one illegal use of hands last year.
Right tackle Demar Dotson was the Bucs’ least penalized offensive lineman with four for 32 yards. He drew just two false starts, one holding infraction and one personal foul.
If Smith can get his biggest violators to reduce their season-long penalty count to Dotson’s level of just four the Bucs will surely win more than four games in 2014.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• The acquisition of safety Major Wright, who played for Lovie Smith in Chicago, is crucial because starting free safety Dashon Goldson will likely get suspended for at least one game if he gets flagged for another targeting hit. He had five last year. Each successive infraction could mean another game’s worth of suspension.
If Goldson misses one or more games in 2014 the Bucs will have Wright, who has three years worth of starting experience under his belt, to turn to. Wright also has the flexibility to play strong safety, too. That versatility will help the Bucs as Mark Barron missed two starts last year due to injury.
Keith Tandy is a heck of a player, who did a great job filling in for both Barron and Goldson last year. He’ll battle Wright for the right to be the first safety off the bench as the free safety and strong safety positions are interchangeable, but Wright has years of experience in this system and might be better suited coming off the bench earlier in the season.
• Bucs head coach Lovie Smith is thrilled with the staff that he has put together and loves all of his assistant coaches. But he admits that he has a soft spot for Tampa Bay linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson, who he coached from 1996-99.
“Special relationship with Hardy Nickerson, and I don’t hide it at all,” Smith said. “Love the guy, love what he stands for. As a young coach, having an opportunity to go into the room and be around a guy like that, I’ve talked about Derrick Brooks and Hardy Nickerson and how much they helped me. You think you know what you’re doing as a coach and you put a product on the field, you tell the guys what to do. But when you have guys like Hardy and they do everything the right way, it gives you confidence.
“Hardy was a coach on the field when he was playing. It’s a natural move for him to become a coach. I hired him in Chicago, and I got an opportunity to come back here and I knew what he could do with the group. We have a young linebacker group. Young players listen to guys that have played the game. If you’re a Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker, you’re going to listen to what Hardy Nickerson has to say. We can talk about Hardy the rest of the time, he’s doing an outstanding job.”
• Buccaneers director of football operations Shelton Quarles now serves as Lovie Smith’s right-hand man after spending the last seven years exclusively in the front office working on the pro personnel side as a scout and then being in charge of that department for the past several years. One of the things he has witnessed that will help him in his future role as an NFL general manager is the excellent job of salary cap management by former G.M. Mark Dominik and director of football administration Mike Greenberg.
Over the last few years, Dominik and Greenberg have created an innovative salary cap management system that the team still uses today even after Dominik’s departure at the end of the 2013 season. The salary cap practice consists of paying guaranteed money over the first year or two of the contract instead of signing bonus money that is prorated over the life of the contract and can negatively impact the cap if a player is released.
“A lot of other organizations will in turn try to structure the salary cap management the way we’ve done it because it’s been so successful,” Quarles said. “It all goes back to the owners. They are the ones that have to make the sacrifices and pay out the money that they’ve done. But I believe we’re a franchise that will be modeled after for years to come [regarding salary cap management].”
• And finally, I had a great two week vacation and am glad to be back in time for Bucs training camp. A lot of things have happened on PewterReport.com over the past two weeks, here’s a recap.
I hope that you all enjoyed PewterReport.com’s two summer series – PR’s Greatest Buccaneers of All-Time and the Ultimate Bucs Teams. We got a lot of great feedback from Bucs fans, which is great. If you are just getting back from summer vacation like myself, go back and check out both series on PewterReport.com.
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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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