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. TURNAROUND APPEARS LIKELY WITH BUCS’ 2015 SCHEDULE
The 2015 NFL schedule will arrive in less than a month’s time and we’ll have the exact days and times of the Buccaneers’ 2015 games. Tampa Bay’s 2015 opponents are already known, as is the fact that the team has the fourth-easiest schedule in the league as the Bucs’ foes had a collective winning percentage of .425 last year.
Coming off a dismal 2-14 season that could work for or against Tampa Bay this year. The fact that the Buccaneers have the likes of the Titans, Jaguars, Bears and Redskins on the schedule means that Tampa Bay could at least double its win total from a year ago with a sweep of those teams.
But for general manager Jason Licht and head coach Lovie Smith to feel secure in their respective positions past 2015 the Bucs will need to show real improvement this year – likely a five-game swing to a 7-9 record. That would be a clear step in the right direction, especially with a rookie quarterback at the helm.
Let’s take a look at Tampa Bay’s 2015 opponents:
New Orleans (7-9)
NY Giants (6-10)
New Orleans (7-9)
St. Louis (6-10)
Seems easy, right? Yet a supposed “easy” schedule will certainly mean higher expectations from the Bucs fan base all the way up through the Tampa Bay organization to the Glazers. If the Bucs don’t capitalize on an easier schedule in 2015 there could be another regime change.
Conversely, if the team does improve in 2015 and take full advantage of the NFL’s 29th-ranked schedule, the Bucs could be one of those surprise teams the league fields every year. Buffalo came out of nowhere in 2014 to go 9-7 after finishing 5-11 the previous year.
Having a supposed “easy” schedule can be a double-edged sword due to the unpredictability of the NFL. Just when you think a team has an “easy” schedule bad teams suddenly become good teams, and formerly formidable teams slump. Who would have thought that the NFC South winner would be the 7-8-1 Carolina Panthers in 2014, and that the whole division would suffer through a nightmarish year?
Last year, the Bucs entered the 2014 season with the league’s 19th-toughest schedule (.484), and finished with the NFL’s 21st-ranked schedule (.486) – due in large part to the NFC South division tanking as a whole. And therein lies the perception that the Bucs will have an easier schedule this year.
Carolina has the strongest strength of schedule in the NFC South with .434, which ranks 27th, while New Orleans ranks just one spot ahead of Tampa Bay with the 28th-easiest schedule (.429). Atlanta has the easiest schedule in the league on paper, ranking 32nd with an opponent collective winning percentage of .409.
So while the Bucs’ 2015 task seems easier, the same could be said about the Panthers, Saints and Falcons. Fans in Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina will also be expecting their respective teams to take advantage of weak schedules and bounce back, too.
Recent history shows there is some good news, though. Of the teams that played the four weakest schedules in 2014, three of them – Dallas, Detroit and Pittsburgh – made the playoffs last year, while the other team, Houston, finished with a winning record. That bodes well for Tampa Bay.
Here are some noteworthy observations about Bucs’ upcoming schedule in 2015:
• The Bucs will only play four teams with winning records in 2015 – the Cowboys, Colts, Eagles and Texans. Tampa Bay will only play three teams that made the playoffs in 2014 – Dallas, Indianapolis and Carolina.
• Of Tampa Bay’s 13 opponents in 2015, seven had double-digit losses last year, which is more than half.
• Of the 13 teams that the Bucs played last year, they’ll face six of them – the Falcons, Saints, Panthers, Rams, Bears and Redskins – again this season.
• Tampa Bay only had two wins last year, but one of them was at Washington, and the Bucs will make a return trip to the Nation’s Capital again in 2015 hoping for the same outcome.
• Bucs head coach Lovie Smith lost his homecoming game in Chicago last year, 21-13, but will get a chance for revenge in 2015 when the Bears visit Tampa Bay. Newly signed free safety Chris Conte was drafted by Chicago, as was defensive tackle Henry Melton.
• Tampa Bay will host Dallas in 2015, and not only will that feature a game between best friends Lovie Smith and Rod Marinelli, Dallas’ defensive coordinator, it will also feature several new Buccaneers doing battle with their former team as linebacker Bruce Carter, defensive tackle Henry Melton and nickel cornerback Sterling Moore all played for the Cowboys last year. The Bucs will also face former Panthers Pro Bowl defensive end Greg Hardy, who chose Dallas over Tampa Bay in free agency.
• New Bucs offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will have the chance to battle his former team, Atlanta, where he served in the same capacity for the past three seasons.
• The Buccaneers are expected to draft Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, and there is a good chance that the Titans will select Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota with the second overall pick. Tennessee, which also finished with a 2-14 record, will play in Tampa Bay this year, so there could be a rematch of the Rose Bowl in which Mariota and the Ducks prevailed over Winston and the Seminoles.
• Even if Philadelphia head coach Chip Kelly ends up trading up in the draft for Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota the Bucs will still face off against him as the Eagles will host Tampa Bay in 2015.
• Tampa Bay has struggled to sell out games since 2008, including last year in which the Bucs only had one true sellout. That came against Green Bay, as Raymond James Stadium was full of vacationing Packers fans last December. With national-type teams like Dallas and the New York Giants with huge, rabid fan bases on the home schedule, the Bucs have the chance of getting at least two sellouts in 2015.
• And finally, with Tampa Bay poised to draft Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the first overall pick, expect the Bucs to have one or two nationally televised night games. After winning a Heisman Trophy and a national championship in his freshman season and going 26-1 as a starter at Florida State, Winston is a controversial figure on the national landscape that will generate interest and TV ratings. Last year the Bucs had only one nationally televised game, which was a Thursday night game at Atlanta in which they lost to the Falcons, 56-14.
FAB 2. KOETTER’S HIRE BRINGS SIGNIFICANT ADVANTAGES TO BUCS
In an offseason that hasn’t produced the kind of activity Buccaneers fans have wanted to see following an unacceptable 2-14 season in 2014, the hiring of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter remains Tampa Bay’s best addition in 2015. Koetter is the credible, imaginative, proven play-caller that the Bucs haven’t had in some time following Mike Sullivan and Marcus Arroyo, and it will be a welcome change.
Last year’s dismal offensive performance can be blamed partly on the players, but more so on the play-calling as Arroyo, the team’s quarterbacks coach, wasn’t ready to handle the offensive coordinator role that he was essentially forced into when health problems prompted Jeff Tedford to miss the first half of the season and ultimately quit the Buccaneers. Did you notice how the running game frequently stalled and too often the offensive line was hung out to dry with too many seven-step drops that allowed pass rushers in Baltimore and Green Bay to repeatedly tee off on Mike Glennon and Josh McCown?
It seemed like the only successful passing plays were deep jump-ball throws down the sidelines to Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans. But those only happened when Glennon and McCown had enough time to throw. There were few quick slants or crossing routes designed to get Evans, Jackson and Louis Murphy the ball when they were on the run. When screen passes to rookie running back Charles Sims were called they actually worked, but Arroyo never went back to them in games for some reason, which frustrated some coaches and some in the front office.
As bad as Tampa Bay’s offensive line performed in 2014, Atlanta’s O-line was actually in worse shape, losing three starters – left tackle Sam Baker, right tackle Lamar Holmes and center Joe Hawley – to season-ending injuries early in the year. Koetter had to account for three different starting centers, four different starting right tackles and moving first-round pick Jake Matthews from right tackle to left tackle during the season.
At times Koetter went to a quick, rhythmic passing game so quarterback Matt Ryan could get the ball out of his hands and help the offensive line in pass protection. He involved a healthy does of screen passes into the game plan to help against the pass rush. Arroyo wasn’t as adaptive and the Bucs offense struggled as a result.
Koetter will bring more to Tampa Bay than just competent play-calling, though. One of the advantages the Buccaneers have in signing Koetter is that he spent three years in the NFC South in the same role with the Falcons. Not only does Koetter intimately know Ryan, wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, running backs Donta Freeman and Jacquizz Rodgers and the offensive line intimately, but Koetter game-planned to face New Orleans, Carolina and Tampa Bay twice a year over the past two seasons.
Koetter’s offense scored 37 points and 30 points in two victories against the Saints last year after scoring just 17 and 13 points versus New Orleans in a pair of losses in 2013. While the Saints defense experienced a down year, the Falcons offense showed a lot of improvement against that team in 2014.
Koetter’s offense has struggled against Carolina, scoring just 10 and 20 points in two losses in 2013, and 19 and three points in splitting two contests last year. But the fact that he has experience coaching against Ron Rivera’s defense will help him as he transitions to running Tampa Bay’s offense in 2015.
In addition to knowing Atlanta’s personnel and having played against New Orleans and Carolina, Koetter also faced Tampa Bay twice over the past three years. He knows the Bucs defensive personnel and schemed against the Tampa 2 defense that Leslie Frazier and Lovie Smith run in Tampa Bay.
One thing that Frazier needs to do is to spend some time with Koetter going over his notes about how to attack the Tampa 2 and have the Bucs’ new offensive coordinator help the team do some self-scouting. If Frazier has any predictable tendencies in his play calling that Koetter has discovered, there’s a chance that other offensive coordinators have picked that up on film study, too. Making Frazier aware of that will only help the Bucs defense do a better job of being less predictable and disguise what it is trying to do.
Koetter can also help Tampa Bay’s defensive position coaches identify some of the Bucs defenders’ tendencies, too. If Atlanta’s personnel was tipped off to play some of Tampa Bay’s defensive players a certain way due to some predictable tendencies exhibited by those defenders that will help the Bucs in their self-scouting process.
To say that the Bucs organization is thrilled with Koetter’s addition would be a huge understatement. Due to the myriad of ways Koetter will help Tampa Bay in 2015, he’ll make more of a difference this season than any one free agent signing would.
FAB 3. SEFERIAN-JENKINS POISED FOR BREAKOUT YEAR UNDER KOETTER IN 2015
The middle of the field between the hashes was fertile passing ground for Tampa Bay opponents in 2014. Tampa Bay’s linebackers, safeties and nickel cornerbacks were slow to adjust to the discipline that playing in the Tampa 2 scheme requires, and opposing tight ends capitalized on that.
It was a different story for the Bucs’ tight ends last year as they were underused in Marcus Arroyo’s offense, which rarely threw passes across the middle. Veteran Brandon Myers led the unit with 22 catches for a pedestrian 190 yards (8.6 avg.) and no touchdowns, while rookie Austin Seferian-Jenkins caught 21 passes for 221 yards and two touchdowns.
After finishing 2-14 with one of the league’s worst offenses, the Bucs replaced Arroyo with a proven NFL offensive coordinator in Dirk Koetter, and the one player who could benefit the most is Seferian-Jenkins, who is expected to be featured in Tampa Bay’s new offense.
“Obviously not having the offensive coordinator here that signed up for the job not being here due to health issues was not good,” Seferian-Jenkins said. We still had the time to get it going, though, but we are looking forward to next year. It’s 2015 now.”
A new year means new opportunities for Tampa Bay’s second-round pick from a year ago. The Bucs are so high on Seferian-Jenkins that he’s expected to be the starter in 2015 and the team did not go out in free agency and add a new tight end. The Bucs re-structured Myers’ contract to reflect the role of a backup tight end, and also re-signed blocking tight end Luke Stocker, but that’s it. The Bucs aren’t expected to address the tight end position in the draft, either, which means it’s up to Seferian-Jenkins to produce in 2015 and live up to his potential after an injury-riddled rookie campaign that ended with him on injured reserve due to an ailing back.
“I’ll be good for next year,” Seferian-Jenkins said. “I only played about seven games this year, and that was really frustrating because you really want to come out and do a lot of stuff [your rookie season]. Obviously, it didn’t work out that way. You just come back and work harder and do better, and don’t get injured. Just play hard, you can’t really [control injuries]. It just happens. It’s football.
“This offseason is going to help me a lot. This is a big offseason for me. It’s going to help out a lot. I’m excited to see what we’re going to be doing with the whole offense.”
Seferian-Jenkins will be a featured weapon in Koetter’s offense and he should return to the form he showed in Washington when he hauled in 146 catches for 1,840 yards and 21 touchdowns in three seasons for the Huskies. While Koetter has the reputation for developing pocket passers everywhere he’s gone, he has also made stars out of tight ends.
During his coaching career at Arizona State, Koetter helped tight end Zach Miller become an All-American and break Todd Heap’s Sun Devils records with 144 passes for 1,512 yards and 14 touchdowns. After leaving ASU for Jacksonville, Koetter helped Marcedes Lewis have two of his best seasons, catching 32 passes for 518 yards (16.2 avg.) and two touchdowns in 2009 and hauling in 58 receptions for 700 yards and 10 TDs in 2010.
Koetter inherited a Hall of Fame tight end in Tony Gonzalez when he arrived in Atlanta in 2012, but he was able to squeeze as much productivity out of the Pro Bowler as possible. While he was 36 and 37, Gonzalez had two of his most productive seasons in his illustrious NFL career with the Falcons in Koetter’s offense, catching 93 passes for 930 yards and eight touchdowns in 2012 and finishing with 83 receptions for 859 yards and eight scores in 2013.
The 6-foot-6, 262-pound Seferian-Jenkins has the chance to put up those kind of numbers in 2015 with Koetter at the helm of Tampa Bay’s offense, and that has him excited.
“I want to be an explosive player,” Sefeian-Jenkins told the Tampa Tribune this offseason. “When I catch the ball I want to be explosive and make yards after the catch. I want to be dangerous. I want people to be scared when I get the ball.”
Now healthy, Seferian-Jenkins can’t wait to put his injury-stricken rookie season behind him and become a dynamic, playmaking tight end in the NFL.
“I feel good,” Seferian-Jenkins said. “I’ve met all of my weight goals and body fat percentages and stuff like that. We’ll address [my playing weight], but I feel good, though.
“I don’t plan on playing for a losing team. I don’t think anyone here plans on being on a losing team. The city of Tampa wants winners and we want to win. Next year, we’re going to win.”
And thanks to Koetter’s arrival, Seferian-Jenkins will play a large role in helping the Buccaneers win in 2015.
FAB 4. REALLY ENJOYED KICKIN’ IT WITH MURRAY
To celebrate my 20 years of covering the Buccaneers I’m going to share with you some of the behind-the-scenes encounters I’ve had over the last two decades. These stories will appear in the first 20 SR’s Fab 5 columns of 2015, which encompasses much of the offseason.
One of the best parts of my job over the past 20 years has been meeting some of the more interesting Buccaneers. You would be surprised that some of my favorite Bucs to talk to weren’t Mike Alstott, Derrick Brooks or Warrick Dunn. Some of Tampa Bay’s legends were actually kind of boring to interview.
Alstott and Dunn avoided the media every chance they got and just didn’t have much to say. Brooks was such a company man towing the company line that he would often spout clichés.
Some of the Bucs I really enjoyed talking to were backup safety John Howell, reserve defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson and Ellis Wyms, and punter Mark Royals. I found them to be more enlightening, more forthcoming and more interesting. Royals was a great source for years because he would listen and observe everything in the locker room and he admired my reporting style at Buccaneer Magazine.
In fact, some of the best interviews have been some of Tampa Bay’s special teamers. I remember when Martin “Automatica” Gramatica was one of the Bucs’ most beloved players, hitting 82.1 percent of his field goals during Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl season and making the Pro Bowl. Gramatica really struggled in 2003, costing the Bucs a few games with missed kicks and only connecting on 61.5 percent of his kicks, including going 3-of-6 from 30-39 yards, and going 3-of-8 from 40-49 yards.
If I recall correctly Gramatica had gotten injured that year. Maybe it was a groin injury or a sports hernia, but I remember going up to him in the locker room when he was in the middle of his slump in 2003 and talking to him during the open locker room one day. The Argentinian-born kicker was sitting in front of his locker slouched over with his head in his hands.
Gramatica was an All-American kicker at Kansas State, which is my alma mater, so I had watched him for years prior to his arrival in Tampa Bay. Gramatica had never been in a slump before in high school or college, and when I asked him how was he going to get out of his first-ever slump he looked up at me with a very scared look on his face and said, “I don’t know. I’ve never been here before.”
I got the chills and sensed that Gramatica’s days in Tampa Bay were ultimately numbered. Because he was injured he had lost his confidence, and that’s deadly for a kicker. Gramatica was cut during the 2004 season after hitting 11-of-19 field goals (57.9 percent) and bounced around between Indianapolis, Dallas and New Orleans before retiring in 2009.
The old saying goes that kicking is 90 percent mental and 10 percent physical. Confidence is everything for a kicker or a punter. Every time you kick or punt the ball it’s the cold, stark reality of pass-fail. It’s either a field goal or a miss. It’s either a good punt or a shank.
I had the opportunity to spend a good 10 minutes with Bucs rookie kicker Pat Murray at the end of the season last year interviewing him about his incredibly successful rookie season in Tampa Bay. Murray didn’t get enough media attention from PewterReport.com or other beat writers after making 20-of-24 (83.3 percent) of his field goals in 2014, but that will change in 2015. His rookie season stacks with that of other great Bucs kickers like Gramatica or Connor Barth.
I found Murray to be incredibly interesting and engaging, and in honor of St. Patrick’s Day this past week and Murray’s Irish heritage, I wanted to include his story in this week’s SR’s Fab 5. What you know is that the unheralded kicker out of Fordham beat out Barth during training camp and the preseason, which sent shockwaves through the Bucs fan base, and surprised some in the media, including myself.
What you don’t know is that Murray may be the most confident player on the Buccaneers. The 5-foot-7, 160-pounder is borderline cocky, but in an engagingly fun way.
“He has a fighter pilot mentality,” Bucs punter and holder Michael Koenen said. “I’ve always said you have to be a little bit like a DB and have a short-term memory. You have to think that the next time you’re going to win. He’s got a real quiet cockiness about him.
“He’s got a good head on his shoulders and he’s got the physical ability to do his job, and he does it well. A lot of it is between the ears and just being confident and putting good kicks up. He’s not lacking any confidence – that’s for sure.”
Murray’s first NFL field goal attempt – a simple 24-yarder in Week 2 – was blocked by St. Louis in a 19-17 loss. It could have proven to be the game-winner, and it could have ruined the start of a promising career if not for Murray’s resolve.
“It would have rattled some people, but he did a great job of coming back composed,” Koenen said. “It’s all about the next one and forgetting about the last one. That’s what he does so well.”
Murray encountered his second blocked kick of the season in Cleveland and missed a 55-yarder in a game Tampa Bay lost 22-17. But he ended that game with a 40-yarder and didn’t miss a field goal for the rest of the season, finishing on a hot streak with 13 consecutive field goals.
“The goal was to end on a high note,” Murray said. “Obviously you want to be 100 percent, but that’s not going to happen during the season. I’ve just tried to consistently improve and take advice from the coaching staff. They have put me in different situations in practice so I’ll be comfortable in games and it has worked and it will continue to work.”
“Making consecutive kicks is always great whether it’s at the beginning of the season, the middle of the season or the end of the season,” Koenen said. “But this will definitely give him confidence entering next season.”
Confidence can be a fragile thing, but the cocksure Murray has plenty of it. When I asked him about his remarkable leg strength after making 5-of-6 from beyond 50 yards, including a 55-yarder Murray said he got stronger as the season progressed.
“The strength and conditioning staff has really helped me gain leg strength,” Murray said. “It’s made me a better athlete and in turn a better kicker, so it’s a credit to those guys. I was confident from 60 yards before the season started. Now I’m comfortable beyond 60.
“I’m not scared to kick any ball. That’s just the way it is.”
Koenen said that Murray’s leg strength is quite remarkable, and that fans have yet to see what the Irish kicker can really do.
“He hasn’t showcased it yet, but I’ve seen him hit some really deep balls in practice,” Koenen said. “I saw him hit two 65-yarders in practice, so he definitely has the leg strength to move back if he needs to.”
Murray has yet to kick a true game-winning field goal in the NFL, and that’s one of his goals. But let’s face it. The Bucs finished 2-14 last year, so he didn’t have too many opportunities.
The best chance Murry had to nail a game-winnner was in Week 13 in Tampa Bay’s 14-13 loss to Cincinnati. The Bucs had moved close to the Bengals’ 20-yard line, but the infamous 12-men on the field penalty negated a big catch by wide receiver Louis Murphy and pushed the offense back out of Murray’s range in the closing seconds of the ball game and he never got the chance.
Aside from kicking a game-winner, the diminutive Buccaneer also wants to go down and make a tackle on kickoffs.
“Without a doubt, I can’t wait to do kickoffs and go down and make a tackle,” Murray said. “That’s just the mentality I grew up with. We grew up hitting each other, so I’m certainly not scared to go in there and mix it up. I’m ready to handle kickoffs whenever they need me to. I want to show them that I have a very strong leg and I can kick the ball through the back of the end zone or put the ball wherever they want me to. I did that throughout college and high school. I can do it at this level, too.”
Koenen snickered at Murray’s un-kicker-like desire to make a tackle on special teams.
“It is a bit different to want to go down there and mix it up on a kickoff,” Koenen said. “I can admire that, but that’s my job and he can’t have it yet. He does enjoys the competition that football brings, though. That’s for sure.”
Despite his size, Murray is both mentally tough and physically tough due to his upbringing. Murray didn’t play soccer as a child like most NFL kickers did, nor did he play American football.
“Gaelic football is actually where my background is,” Murray said. “My two uncles, Brendan and Ciaran Murray, were national-caliber Gaelic football players. My dad wasn’t a bad player himself. Gaelic football is a combination of rugby and soccer. It is the national sport of Ireland, and it’s all over YouTube. I showed a couple of the guys here and they couldn’t believe that’s what I grew up playing. It’s full contact, no pads and a lot of fun.
“My dad got me into American football. He came over from Ireland about 25 years ago, and if he would have tried out for an NFL team when he came over here he would have definitely made it as a kicker. There’s no doubt about it. He’s 53 years old and he can still make 45-yard field goals. He can punt the ball over 50 yards. He has a cannon for a leg. He got me into kicking during my freshman year of high school. It was an outlet to see if it would lead somewhere, and fortunately it did. I’m blessed to be doing it now.”
Murray not only got his kicking leg from his father, but also his confidence.
“My father is a blue-collar, hard-working guy that is never going to take no for an answer,” Murray said. “That’s the way he grew up and raised my brother and I when we were younger. It’s a never-say-die attitude that he’s passed along to us.”
It’s that confident attitude that allowed Murray to bounce back from two blocked kicks in 2014 and end the year on such a promising note. Keep in mind that two of Murray’s four misses were blocked due to poor blocking up front. He also had a miss from 55 yards in Cleveland. Murray was so close to connecting on 23-of-24 kicks (95.8 percent) during his rookie campaign in the NFL.
Bucs fans love a good kicker, and I’ve had the good fortune to cover some big legs in Michael Husted and Gramatica (in his “Automatica” days), watched Matt Bryant nail a franchise-record 62-yard field goal in 2006 and have four good years in Tampa Bay, and witnessed “Barth Vader” rise to prominence from 2009-12 before tearing his Achilles tendon in 2013. I think 2015 is the year when Murray becomes a breakthrough star in Tampa Bay and winds up being a fan favorite.
“Obviously the goal is to be the best kicker in the history of the NFL,” Murray said. “But I want to make a difference off the field as well as on the field. It’s what you do with the position that you hold off the field in the NFL that I think makes the greatest difference. Guys like Vincent Jackson and Gerald McCoy – they are so involved in the community and I hope to follow in their footsteps and make my own path and help people any way I can.”
With another strong season in 2015, Murray is going to help the Bucs turn their franchise around.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• One of the best lines from Tampa Bay kicker Patrick Murray that I just had to get in this week’s SR’s Fab 5: “I was a finance major at Fordham and I graduated with a 3.8, so I’ve got a brain in my head. That’s what my mom is most proud of. My dad likes my leg.”
Bucs fans, climb aboard the Murray train now. Follow him on Twitter at @patmurray723
• I spoke with former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik following the first day of the 2012 NFL Draft. After selecting strong safety Mark Barron with the seventh overall pick, Dominik was thrilled to trade back up into the first round to grab Boise State running back Doug Martin. Dominik was crowing about the foresight of getting Martin at the end of the first round rather than waiting until the second to grab him – not just to avoid him being drafted by the New York Giants, but due to the fact that teams can retain first-round picks with an optional fifth year tacked on to their four-year rookie deal.
Dominik and former head coach Greg Schiano believed that the Bucs had drafted a franchise-type running back in Martin at the time, and to be able to keep him for a fifth season at a reasonable price was a huge value. Dominik’s line of thinking was right, but he had the position wrong as the lifespan for running backs in the NFL isn’t long, and Martin has already shown signs of wear after a 319-carry season as a rookie in which he rushed for 1,454 yards and a franchise-record 11 touchdowns.
The right position to trade up into the first round for is an offensive tackle, which is a major position of need this year in Tampa Bay. The average price for an offensive tackle hitting free agency is over $7 million per season, while the average price for a good free agent running back is closer to $4.5 million. If the Bucs have their eye on a specific offensive tackle at the end of the first round – and Florida State’s Cameron Erving, Stanford’s Andrus Peat, Miami’s Ereck Flowers and LSU’s La’el Collins could be targets – don’t be surprised if the team packages its second-round pick with another and moves back up into the first round. I’m not saying it will happen, it’s just a possibility if the right opportunity presents itself.
• One more note about Tampa Bay’s upcoming 2015 schedule. The Buccaneers have really struggled over the past two seasons against NFC South opponents. The Panthers and Saints are 4-0 against the Bucs over the past two years, while the Falcons are 3-1. New Orleans has been a real challenge for Tampa Bay as the Saints own a seven-game winning streak over the Bucs. The last time Tampa Bay prevailed was a 26-20 upset in New Orleans on October 16, 2011 when Raheem Morris was Tampa Bay’s head coach.
The fact that the team was 1-5 against the NFC South in 2013 and was completely swept in the division, which hasn’t happened in Tampa Bay since the inaugural 1976 season, doesn’t sit well with the Buccaneers.
“Those division games are the key games on our schedule every year,” Tampa Bay defensive tackle Akeem Spence said. “Carolina, Atlanta and New Orleans – we have to play better against them. We’ve had some close games that didn’t go our way and that has to change. I don’t like the feeling of losing every game at home. I don’t like the feeling of losing every division game, either. We’ve got to play harder at home and win these divisional games. That’s the key to getting into the playoffs.”
• Just how were interested were the Buccaneers in free agent defensive end Greg Hardy? The team was prepared to go all-in from a financial standpoint to match whatever Dallas was offering, but somehow through the recruiting process either Hardy or his agent, Drew Rosenhaus, let it slip that the 2013 Pro Bowler ultimately wanted to play for the Cowboys. Once Tampa Bay got wind of that they backed out as the team was ultimately being leveraged to drive Dallas’ price tag up.
Free agency is a two-way street, and as much as the Bucs wanted Hardy to be in red and pewter, he wanted to have a star on his helmet more and chose to sign with Dallas instead. Throwing even more money at a risky player that will likely miss the first six games of the 2015 season may not have even landed Hardy, though.
I also don’t think the Bucs would have been interested in signing a player of Hardy’s caliber without wanting the right to franchise him. That doesn’t sound like Tampa Bay’s kind of contract, and that language is in his contract with Dallas. The Cowboys could be renting Hardy for just 10 games and then he hits free agency again.
• What’s the latest on Tampa Bay’s interest in Minnesota Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson? The Bucs would like to have a game-changing runner like Peterson, who played for defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier when he was the Vikings head coach, but the compensation is the sticking point.
Minnesota said that it won’t release the 30-year old Peterson and is holding out hope for a high draft pick. The Bucs have a lot of holes on the roster and need all of their high picks to draft offensive linemen and a pass-rushing defensive end. If Peterson is willing to come down from his $12.75 million base salary, and the Vikings would be willing to settle for a Day 3 pick and Bucs running back Doug Martin perhaps Tampa Bay would be willing to make a deal.
• PewterReport.com told you the Bucs weren’t going to be actively pursuing high-priced free agents this year, and wouldn’t be making any “splash signings.” But I really like Tampa Bay’s approach and stand behind the philosophy that general manager Jason Licht and director of player personnel Jon Robinson have embraced this offseason. Both spent time with the New England Patriots organization and help build several Super Bowl-caliber teams. Robinson has two Super Bowl rings from his days with the Patriots.
The value-driven signings the Bucs have made this year haven’t thrilled fans, but have made Tampa Bay more competitive and deeper at several positions. It’s this limited type of approach to free agency that has helped the likes of New England, Green Bay and Baltimore become perennial playoff teams because those franchises rely on finding talent to develop through the draft.
The draft has been a sore spot in Tampa Bay for years with a bunch of costly misses in the Mark Dominik-Raheem Morris-Greg Schiano years, and even some failed drafts prior to that in the Jon Gruden-Bruce Allen era. The Bucs believe that the current scouts in the front office under Licht will be the difference-makers this franchise needs to finally turn the corner and get back to the playoffs.
Keep in mind that Robinson and director of college scouting Mike Biehl didn’t arrive until May last year, so this is their first draft with the Buccaneers organization. The new scouts and Licht are very encouraged by the talent available in this draft and expect to capitalize on it with the high, premium picks Tampa Bay has courtesy of its 2-14 finish in 2014.
This is the offseason formula that has worked so successfully before in Green Bay, Baltimore and New England – draft and develop, and only supplement your roster through free agency. With Robinson and Licht’s ties to Bill Belichick, the Bucs will be following the Patriots’ way – right to the playoffs sooner rather than later.
• If you want more inside scoop on what happened, didn’t happen and what almost happened in free agency, check out this article from earlier in the week. And if you are looking for a very entertaining and enlightening read on the Buccaneers’ brushes with futility, PewterReport.com’s Mark Cook turned in a real gem this week. Click here to read it and be prepared to laugh.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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