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. EVANS MIGHT GET “BIG” CONSIDERATION FOR BUCS’ FIRST PICK
Clemson’s Sammy Watkins may be the best wideout available in the 2014 NFL Draft, but if the Buccaneers miss out on him and still want to draft a receiver in the first round, Texas A&M’s Mike Evans would hardly be considered a consolation prize. In fact, Tampa Bay might even have Evans on equal footing with Watkins, or perhaps rated higher on their draft board.
With troubled wide receiver Mike Williams jettisoned from Tampa Bay in exchange for a sixth-round pick, the odds of the Bucs taking a wide receiver early in the draft – perhaps at No. 7 overall – just increased.
There’s a lot to like about Evans, who is generally regarded as the second-best receiver in the draft, although there are some talent evaluators within NFL teams and the media that have him rated higher than Watkins. For example, Gil Brandt of NFL.com tweeted about Evans’ hands after his pro day:
“Mike Evans has the best hands I’ve seen since Calvin Johnson.”
Evans is so highly thought of by some NFL scouts that those scouts have even downgraded Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel because so many of his throws were jump balls to the 6-foot-5, 231-pound Evans.
“In my opinion, he made Johnny Manziel, not the other way around,” an unnamed scout told NJ.com. “A lot of times, Manziel just ran around and threw it up for grabs, and (Evans) came down with it.”
After a redshirt season in 2011, Evans caught 82 passes for 1,105 yards and five touchdowns in 2012. He then caught 69 passes for 1,394 yards and 12 touchdowns, including seven catches for a school-record 279 yards against Alabama as a sophomore. Against Auburn last year, he beat his own records by catching 11 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns against the SEC champions before foregoing his junior season and declaring for the 2014 NFL Draft.
Here is a highlight video of some of Evans’ spectacular catches over the past two years for the Aggies.
There are many reasons why the Buccaneers could have a strong interest in Evans, but at the top of the list is the fact that Smith likes big wide receivers, evidenced by his track record in Chicago. Smith has received criticism for having sub-par offenses during his time in Chicago, and for going through multiples quarterbacks – the likes of Kyle Orton, Brian Griese and Rex Grossman – before settling on Jay Cutler after trading for him in 2009.
But it wasn’t just the quarterbacks that were holding back the Bears offense under Smith. It was also the wide receiver position, which lacked a big-time playmaker until the Bears acquired Brandon Marshall in a trade with Miami in 2012. Marshall, a 6-foot-4, 230-pound receiver was a two-time Pro Bowler in Denver where he played with Cutler from 2006-09, and was also a Pro Bowler in Miami in 2011. He would go on to earn two more Pro Bowl berths in Chicago in 2012, which was Smith’s last season as the Bears head coach and a year in which Marshall set a new franchise record with 1,508 receiving yards, as well as the 2013 campaign.
But Smith didn’t stop with the acquisition of Marshall. He and new general manager Phil Emery selected South Carolina wide receiver Alshon Jeffery in the second round of the 2012 NFL Draft. After an injury-filled rookie season, the 6-foot-3, 216-pound Jeffery developed into a Pro Bowler in 2013, catching 89 passes for 1,421 yards and seven touchdowns.
“A quarterback doesn’t have to have that ball right in the perfect spot every time if you have a big body to throw to,” Smith told the Chicago Tribune at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2011. “Most guys would tell you they would like to have big receivers, but as much as anything you would like to have good receivers that can do something with the ball.
“Most of our guys … they are smaller receivers, so to have a little bit of a different flavor wouldn’t be a bad idea.”
After years of playing against big receivers that were 6-foot-4 or taller, such as Randy Moss (Minnesota) and Calvin Johnson (Detroit), Smith finally conceded that his smallish Bears receiving corps that consisted of Johnny Knox (5-11), Earl Bennett (5-11) and Devin Hester (5-10) just couldn’t match up in a day and age in which bigger cornerbacks were entering the NFL to contend with the growing trend of large receivers.
Having Jackson line up opposite his clone in Evans would give the Bucs a towering tandem like Smith had in Chicago with Marshall and Jeffery in 2012.
The current trend in the NFL is bigger wide receivers. Out of the eight receivers originally selected for the Pro Bowl last year, only one – Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown – was under 6-foot-2. Brown is 5-foot-10 and weighs 186 pounds. The next smallest receiver was Dallas’ Dez Bryant, who at 6-foot-2, 222 pounds is hardly small.
The other six Pro Bowl receivers – Cleveland’s Josh Gordon, Cincinnati’s A.J. Green, Houston’s Andre Johnson, Denver’s Demaryius Thomas, Johnson and Marshall – are all 6-foot-3 or taller. And when it came time for an injury replacement in the Pro Bowl for Calvin Johnson, it was the 6-foot-3 Jeffery that filled in.
The NFL is a big man’s game, and Evans is the biggest receiver in the draft and one of this draft’s most talented, too. And whom does Evans thinks his game resembles?
“Growing up I was a big fan of Randy Moss,” Evans said. “As a player I think my game is similar to Brandon Marshall. I like to be an aggressive, physical type of player.”
That should be music to Smith’s ears. Drafting Evans, who won’t turn 21 until August 21, gives the Bucs a big, young receiver to develop behind Jackson, whom he would eventually replace. What better player for Evans to learn from than another 6-foot-5, 230-pounder in Jackson?
Drafting Jackson also gives Tampa Bay another big, talented receiver with speed. Evans ran a 4.53 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and that’s a respectable time given his massive frame. It’s also a tick slower than the 4.52 time than USC’s Marquis Lee posted. Interestingly, Evans’ 20-yard shuttle time was timed at 4.26, while Watkins’ 20-yard shuttle was actually a bit slower at 4.34. Watkins, who is nearly five inches shorter than Evans and weighs 26 pounds less, ran a 4.43 in the 40-yard dash.
Evans, a Galveston, Texas native is a no-nonsense, team player that is willing to block. He had a couple of pancakes on the perimeter in his final game against Duke in Texas A&M’s come-from-behind victory in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl as my friend, colleague and former Buccaneers defensive end Steve White documented in a must-read analytical article about Evans. That type of attitude aligns with the type of player that Smith wants to have in Tampa Bay.
Evans is not a prima donna wide receiver, either. He’s a hard worker with a big incentive to drive him towards success, as Evans became a father at the age of 19.
“It’s great. It changes your life,” Evans said of becoming a father. “I’m more mature now, and I have something to play for now. I have a high ceiling. I think I’m one of the best players in this draft and I think I can just keep getting better.”
If Smith had any questions about Evans’ work ethic he has the inside track on the Texas A&M star receiver. Smith hired Dave Kennedy, the Aggies’ strength and conditioning coach, to assume that role with the Buccaneers in January. Kennedy has gotten to know Evans and Manziel intimately over the past three years and can give Smith and general manager Jason Licht some first-hand intel into both players.
Keep one thing in mind. Smith and Licht just didn’t attend Manziel’s workout last week in College Station, Texas. Evans was there, too, and he was getting just as much attention as Manziel was from the new Bucs’ brass.
FAB 2. SMITH WASN’T KIDDING AROUND WITH BELEAGUERED WILLIAMS
Some of the headlines from head coach Lovie Smith’s interview with the media at last week’s NFL Owners Meeting with regards to Tampa Bay’s troubled wide receiver Mike Williams suggested that he stood by Williams and wasn’t going to cut him. I wasn’t buying it and my suspicions were confirmed today.
I knew Williams was likely going to be a goner on January 30 when I wrote that he wasn’t taking football seriously and skipping meetings and rehab sessions and drawing fines of over $200,000. Throw in the fact that Williams earned the reputation as a notorious partier under the previous regime and his days were numbered. Then came Greg Auman and Rick Stroud’s report in the Tampa Bay Times in February about the damage to a former house he lived in and all of the havoc his partying lifestyle put his neighbors through and it was clear he was not a Buccaneer Man.
After he was stabbed by his brother in his own house I called for the Bucs to cut Williams immediately. The reason? Even though he was a victim, he was associating himself with trouble-makers, and had to have some involvement in provoking the stabbing. Brothers typically don’t stab each other for no reason – although there is never a reason good enough to justify stabbing someone.
Friends and colleagues in the media, Anthony “Booger” McFarland from the Booger and Rich Show on 98.7 The Fan and Times’ columnist Tom Jones followed shortly thereafter with their own calls for Williams’ ouster. I knew it was only a matter of time before Williams was going to be gone, regardless of what some of the Williams’ apologists around the Internet on various websites said.
Those apologists were in disbelief that Williams was a bad guy, making excuses like he’s just a young guy with money and he needs to grow up, and that he was just partying in his free time and that he has a right to do that. In case you haven’t noticed, Smith is deadly serious about football.
He sensed early on that Williams wasn’t serious about football, and that his rap career and Cave Man Gang crew were just as important – if not more important – to the receiver. Smith didn’t fool around and traded him to Buffalo for a mere sixth-round pick.
Those same apologists are likely lamenting the fact that the fact that Tampa Bay “only” got a sixth-round pick in return, and that general manager Jason Licht got hosed by the Bills. Nothing could be further from the truth. Williams was only worth a sixth-round pick. That’s the truth. If he was worth more Licht would have gotten more.
Objectively speaking, Williams is “only” a No. 2 wide receiver that has had two good seasons out of four in Tampa Bay, and failed to eclipse the 1,000-yard mark although he came close in 2010 and 2012. Those are facts. Williams is also an immature head case that probably needs a change of scenery to get his focus back.
With 16 traffic citations since 2010, five 911 calls to his residence, $43,000 in damage to a prior rental home and a misdemeanor for trespassing and property damage, not to mention a domestic violence incident in which he was stabbed by his own brother during an altercation, and the fact he’s being sued by his insurance company for $50,000 worth of damage due to his alleged negligence, Williams has a negative pattern of behavior as a Buccaneer and a citizen of Tampa Bay that Smith called “disturbing.”
Smith has been known to give second chances to troubled players before, notably another talented receiver in Brandon Marshall, who had an extensive rap sheet prior to coming to Chicago that was far worse than anything Williams has ever done. Despite his past arrests, the Bears traded for Marshall in 2012, sending a pair of third-round picks to the Dolphins as compensation.
“Perception and reality isn’t always exactly what you think it is,” Smith told the Chicago Tribune a few years ago. “We’ve done our research on all the guys we’ve brought in. And nobody’s past is ever perfect. But I do believe in giving a guy a second chance. I don’t know many perfect people that haven’t made some mistakes, or had it where some things just haven’t worked out for them. Divorce, sometimes, is a good thing. I hate to say it, but it is.
“For us, we give them a fresh start here, we have an excellent locker room, we have an excellent group of teammates. So if you want a second chance, you want to win football games and you want to do it the right way, this is a perfect place for you.”
That’s what Smith had to say about welcoming Marshall into the Bears’ fold three offseasons ago. Marshall followed Smith’s rules and code of conduct and went on to become a Pro Bowl player for Chicago in 2012 and 2013 as a result.
“Be a man, do what’s right. It’s kind of as simple as that,” Smith said. “There’s nothing magical. Everyone knows what’s right. If you make mistakes, you’re gonna be punished for it. But we expect everyone here to be a man. When you’re a teammate, everybody has to do their job or we’re all going to fail. Guys take on that responsibility.”
Forgiveness and grace are some of the tenants of Smith’s faith, and that’s what he might have been trying to show Williams by keeping him on the roster over the last three months. But apparently Williams didn’t listen and didn’t make the necessary changes in his life to be a man and be responsible. Instead, the negative headlines kept popping up, which angered the Glazers.
Williams could have been Smith’s next reclamation project, but in the end, he wasn’t worth it. He’s not even close to being the talent that Marshall was for Smith in Chicago. Smith and Licht had to have been so concerned with Williams’ hard-partying ways that they didn’t want a young receiver – or any rookie for that matter – getting negatively influenced by him. The last thing Tampa Bay wanted was a young, impressionable newcomer to get swept up in Williams’ party scene or become a Cave Man Gang initiate.
My hope is that Williams getting stabbed by his own brother, coupled with less than flattering reports from PewterReport.com and the Tampa Bay Times this offseason about his excessive party lifestyle and the damage it has caused – to not only houses but also to his reputation – has served as a much-needed wake up call. Williams would be deemed as a nice guy by most accounts, and one that has always been friendly with the media and generous with his time and candor. I think he’s a real talent that could be a huge asset to Buffalo – if he can change his life for the better and focus strictly on football.
Williams’ release has been a long time coming, and Smith and Licht are simply following their established protocol of only cutting a player once they have acquired that player’s replacement. That was the modus operandi behind the release of cornerback Darrelle Revis, left tackle Donald Penn and right guard Davin Joseph, and the trading of center Jeremy Zuttah earlier this offseason.
FAB 3. WOULD THE BUCCANEERS DRAFT JOHNNY FOOTBALL?
Would Tampa Bay draft Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, a former Heisman Trophy winner, the seven overall pick if he’s still available? That’s a great question and one that has me thinking about the scenario quite a bit. Here’s what we do know.
• The Buccaneers will select a quarterback in this year’s draft and some believe that Manziel is the best playmaker at the position.
• Bucs head coach Lovie Smith is a native Texan from a town called Big Sandy and likes to acquire good football players from his home state. Quarterback Josh McCown hails from Jacksonville, Texas. Left tackle Anthony Collins is from Beaumont, Texas. Fullback Jorvorskie Lane is from Lufkin, Texas and went to Texas A&M.
• While in Chicago, Smith drafted seven players from Texas schools, which was more draft picks than from any other state.
• Smith was at the Texas A&M pro day last week and had favorable things to say about Manziel’s much-ballyhooed workout.
• The Bucs hired Dave Kennedy to be the team’s strength and conditioning coach and he previously held that position for the Aggies program. He knows Manziel and wide receiver Mike Evans intimately and could give Smith and general manager Jason Licht the best form of intel – good or bad – about any of the Texas A&M draft prospects.
• Tampa Bay director of college scouting Eric Stokes was in Seattle when the Seahawks drafted undersized, scrambling quarterback Russell Wilson, who helped the team win the Super Bowl last year. Stokes is a big believer in quarterbacks that have a high intangible quality, and Manziel’s intangibles are off the charts.
Having said all that, we don’t know what offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford and quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo think of Manziel and if he would be a good fit in Tampa Bay’s new offense, which is a complex, quarterback-driven scheme. There are some in the NFL scouting community that knock Manziel for only making one read rather than go through his progressions, and the fact that he relies too much on chucking the ball up for the 6-foot-5, 231-pound Evans too many times.
The Kerrville, Texas native won the Heisman Trophy as a redshirt freshman after completing 68 percent of his passes for 3,706 yards with 26 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He also used his 4.68 speed in the 40-yard dash to rush for 1,410 yards and 21 touchdowns.
As a sophomore, Manziel improved his stats, completing 69.9 percent of his passes for 4,114 yards with 37 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. He has a good arm with better accuracy than you might think. Manziel didn’t scramble as much as he did in 2012, but still picked up 759 yards and nine scores on the ground.
After upsetting Alabama as a freshman, Manziel completed 71.8 percent of his passes for 464 yards with five touchdowns and two interceptions in a 49-42 loss last year. He also added 98 yards on 14 carries. In a 45-41 loss to eventual SEC-champion Auburn, Manziel completed 73.7 percent of his passes for 454 yards with four touchdowns and two picks, in addition to 48 yards on the ground and a rushing TD. Outside of two ugly losses to LSU, Manziel showed up big in the Aggies’ big games.
In his final collegiate game, Manziel willed Texas A&M from 28 points down to beat Duke, 52-48, in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl. He completed 78.9 percent of his passes for 382 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions. He also had 73 yards and one touchdown on the ground.
With NFL defensive linemen getting bigger and faster, Manziel’s mobility has great appeal to NFL teams. He has 14 games with 70 yards rushing or more, highlighted by a 17-carry, 229-yard, two-touchdown performance against Oklahoma in a 41-13 win in the Cotton Bowl during his freshman campaign.
But not every NFL decision-maker is a true believer in Manziel. Aside from durability questions with his slight, 6-foot, 206-pound frame, he didn’t handle the fame and notoriety from his “Johnny Football” moniker and the Heisman Trophy award very well after the 2012 campaign.
There were rumors that he partied too hard at Peyton Manning’s football camp and had to bow out. He was investigated for taking money for autographs prior to his sophomore season and was suspended for the first half of the season opener against Rice.
After already befriending NBA star LeBron James and hip hop entertainer Drake, Manziel said he wanted to hang with some notorious partiers when asked by the Texas A&M sports information department about what folks he would like to party with.
“I’m gonna have to go with Charlie Sheen, Rob Gronkowski, and we’ll add Tiger Woods to the mix,” Manziel said.
Before playing a down in the NFL, Manziel has already cashed in on his fame with a lucrative Nike deal, and he’s shot a handful of commercials for various companies. He trademarked the “Johnny Football” nickname, and has also put in a trademark for the phrase “The House That Johnny Built” and seems just as interested in marketing as he is playing quarterback.
At his pro day, Manziel earned praise for wearing a helmet and shoulder pads in front of NFL scouts, but also earned skepticism because some viewed it as a marketing opportunity for Nike, which began selling his black pro day jersey and camouflage shorts.
“I guess it maybe brings a few questions marks in,” said Minnesota head coach Mike Zimmer, who owns the eighth overall pick right behind Tampa Bay. “Is he going to conform to typically what the NFL is or what everyone else has done before him including what the great players in the game have done before him, or is he going to try to be the celebrity man guy that he was maybe a year-and-a-half ago?
“We asked him all kinds of questions. We went to dinner with him the night after (his pro day). We talked to him at the combine. There are some flags that come up – all of the things that happened out in Los Angeles with the commercials and all that stuff. The position of quarterback in the NFL is such an important position and the reason these guys need to be a totally football-minded guy is the pressure of the position and being the face of an NFL team and doing everything right. That’s the thing you want to know about him: Will he be into work early every single day? Will he be the last to leave? Will he be the guy that is working the hardest to get better? There is a change, otherwise all of these other quarterbacks that have come up through the years would have made it, from the college game to the NFL game as far as the speed of the defense and some of the complexities of the different defenses. So that position has got to be a position that really eats, breathes, and sleeps football where he is going to take it upon his shoulders to win. At least the Peyton Mannings and Drew Brees of the world have done that, and really that’s all we have to go on in the NFL is past history.”
The off-field decision-making concerns Zimmer and some NFL teams. The Bucs just got rid of a notorious partier in wide receiver Mike Williams. And didn’t the team already have enough trouble with a former supposed franchise quarterback in Josh Freeman, whose excessive partying cost him his career in Tampa? Keep in mind that during this offseason Dan Orlovsky was signed by an NFL team before Freeman. In fact, Freeman is still available – not that the Bucs are interested, though.
There are whispers that Manziel could actually slip out of the top 10 and see his draft stock freefall in the first round. ESPN NFL analyst Ron Jaworski said he wouldn’t draft Manziel until the third round. But there will be a team in the first round that will see more boom than bust in what could be the draft’s biggest boom-or-bust prospect this year.
If Manziel were to be drafted by Tampa Bay he would likely start the season on the bench where he could learn for a year or more behind McCown, a savvy veteran that could teach the frenetic quarterback a thing or two. McCown was asked about his development over the years when he signed with the Buccaneers and his words of wisdom and patience could be applied to the brash and improvisational Manziel.
“Physically, I’m a little more accurate passer. I think that is key,” McCown said. “The way I handle the pocket, the protection of the ball in the pocket. And, past the physical, it’s decision making. That’s the main thing. As a young player, you come into the league and you rely on athleticism to get you out of things. You try to rely on your arm to get you out of things. That leads you into bad decisions sometimes.
“For me, as I’ve grown, and fortunate to still be playing, and have grown enough to go, you know what, I can be more accurate. I don’t have to rely on my feet all the time; I can move in the pocket subtly. Those are the biggest things I would point to that will help me get that done.”
Will the Bucs see Manziel’s intangibles, playmaking ability and “it” factor? Or will they see smallish quarterback and a potential problem child once he makes millions with his first NFL contract?
Will they even have a chance to draft Manziel, or he is destined to be drafted in the top five – perhaps going first overall to Houston? We’ll find out on May 8.
FAB 4. THE CASE FOR TAMPA BAY DRAFTING THE BEST PLAYER AVAILABLE
The intended byproduct of Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht and head coach Lovie Smith filling so many of the team’s holes in free agency was to be able to select the best player available in May with Tampa Bay’s seventh overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Smith said he could make the case for the Bucs drafting any one of six positions with the team’s first-round pick.
Here’s a look at the positions that make the most sense for the Buccaneers to address in the first round, either at No. 7 or later in the first round if Tampa Bay trades down.
Whether it’s Clemson’s Sammy Watkins or Texas A&M’s Mike Evans with the seventh overall pick, or USC’s Marquise Lee, LSU’s Odell Beckham or Oregon State’s Brandin Cooks later in the first round if Tampa Bay can trade down, the Bucs will definitely be in the market for a wide receiver – or two – in the 2014 NFL Draft. Watkins has a great mix of size and speed, and the 6-foot-5, 231-pound Evans is even bigger and represents the future of the wide receiver position in the NFL.
Vincent Jackson, the Bucs’ resident big receiver at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, turned 31 in January and won’t play forever. Jackson is a true, legit No. 1 wide receiver, but with more than a few dropped passes and a huge price tag, he needs to be more consistent or he could be a targeted for release due to his age and salary in 2015.
The off-field problems Mike Williams created for himself prompted him to be traded to Buffalo on Friday. The Bucs don’t have much proven depth behind Jackson outside of journeyman receiver Louis Murphy, who signed a one-year deal this offseason. Tiquan Underwood, the team’s No. 3 wide receiver last year, signed with Carolina in the offseason.
The wide receiver position is definitely a high priority in Tampa Bay, and will be addressed early and often in the draft – perhaps in the first round with Watkins or Evans, and then again later with another pick.
Whether it’s UCF’s Blake Bortles, Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel or Fresno State’s Derek Carr, the Bucs could very well be in the market for a quarterback. Tampa Bay didn’t show much loyalty or confidence in Mike Glennon, who passed for 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions in 13 games as a rookie in 2013, by anointing newcomer Josh McCown as the team’s immediate starter rather than suggesting there will be an open competition in training camp for the right to start.
With McCown, a journeyman, turning 35 this year and being viewed as a stop-gap player that can serve as a bridge to Tampa Bay’s quarterback of the future, it makes sense for new head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Lovie Smith to take advantage of a top 10 pick by drafting a possible franchise quarterback this year – if the team deems someone worthy of such a pick. McCown signed a two-year deal and will serve as a mentor to the team’s young quarterbacks, who will have the luxury of sitting on the bench for a year or two and developing behind the scenes without the pressure of immediately starting and carrying the franchise.
For that reason, the Bucs could conceivably take a chance on two of the more developmental prospects at the quarterback positions in Bortles and Manziel. Smith and Licht attended both of these quarterbacks’ pro days. Smith, a native of Big Sandy, Texas, has a history of drafting players from his home state, and Manziel could offer the Bucs with a dynamic playmaker at quarterback. Keep in mind that Bucs director of college scouting Eric Stokes was in Seattle and was on the staff that drafted short, scrambling, non-orthodox signal caller in Russell Wilson.
Bortles, who might have the most potential out of any quarterback in this draft, is probably best suited to sit and learn behind a veteran quarterback like McCown. He has drawn comparisons to Pittsburgh’s Ben Roethlisberger, but he is far from a finished product. If Bortles slips to them at No. 7 it could be a blessing or a curse for the Bucs. To have a chance to grab a talented thrower like Roethisberger is enticing, but if he slips past QB-needy teams like Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland and Oakland, alarm bells should be going off for Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay signed Michael Johnson to be the big-time pass rusher the team has lacked since the days of Simeon Rice. He is expected to team with Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy to give the team a one-two punch in terms of getting after the quarterback.
But the Bucs could use another edge rusher to line up opposite Johnson. Adrian Clayborn will get the first chance to play left defensive end with Da’Quan Bowers and Will Gholston also in the mix. Both Clayborn and Bowers are entering the final year of their rookie contracts and may not be re-signed after 2014. Thus there is a need for another defensive end.
It’s doubtful that South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney would fall to Tampa Bay with the seventh overall pick, and the next-best pure defensive end is Missouri’s Kony Ealy, who is only viewed as a mid-first-rounder at best. If the Bucs were going to draft an edge rusher with the seventh overall pick, it would most likely be a converted 3-4 outside linebacker like Buffalo’s Khalil Mack or UCLA’s Anthony Barr.
Mack has the better motor and is more of a turnover machine, evidenced by his NCAA-record 16 forced fumbles. Barr has more natural athleticism, but can coast and loaf on occasion when the play is on the opposite side of the field.
With both Mack and Barr just under 255 pounds, the ability to play left end on a down-in, down-out basis seems far fetched as either would get trampled in the running game going against mammoth offensive tackles that out-weigh them by nearly 100 pounds. There is a chance that either player could get drafted by the Bucs and play strongside linebacker on suspected run downs and then move up to the line to rush the passer as a defensive end on obvious passing downs. That’s the only way Tampa Bay could justify taking an outside linebacker in the first round as that position is usually off the field in nickel defense situations, which occur nearly 40-45 percent of the time.
Defensive tackle may not appear to be a glaring need for the Buccaneers given the fact that the team has a two-time Pro Bowler in Gerald McCoy, a second-year nose tackle in Akeem Spence and newly signed Clinton McDonald. But McCoy is entering a contract year and the team lacks proven depth at the three-technique tackle spot, which is the most important position in Smith’s Tampa 2 scheme.
While talented, McDonald only has one year of production as a pass rusher in the NFL. Spence had just three sacks in three years at Illinois and only one last year as a rookie. He’s more of a run stuffer.
Don’t be surprised if Tampa Bay considers picking Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald with the seventh overall pick, or trades down to try to draft him later in the first round. The 6-foot-1, 285-pound Donald is the winner of the Outland Trophy, the Chuck Bednarik Award and the Bronko Nagurski Trophy after recording 11 sacks with 28.5 tackles for loss last year, and amassing 66 tackles for loss and 29.5 sacks during his Panthers career. With 4.68 speed in the 40-yard dash and a wicked swim move, Donald’s penetrating style of play is a perfect fit for the Tampa 2.
Another defensive tackle that could garner some attention if the Bucs trade down in the first round is Florida State’s Timmy Jernigan. A junior entry, the 6-foot-2, 298-pound Jernigan recorded 63 tackles and 4.5 sacks last year for the national champion Seminoles. Both Jernigan and Donald are classic three-technique defensive tackles that could line up next to McCoy in nickel rush situations or provide depth behind him in the Bucs’ base defense.
While the offensive tackle position appears to be set in 2014 with Anthony Collins manning the left side and Demar Dotson set at right tackle, the Bucs are one injury away from quarterback Josh McCown being under constant fire from opposing edge rushers. Keep in mind that Collins, who is entering his sixth year in the NFL, has yet to start all 16 games wire-to-wire in an NFL season. As for Dotson, he’s in his prime, but he’ll be 29 this year and has yet to sniff a Pro Bowl for as good as he is.
Tampa Bay is in the unenviable position of having one of the top 10 picks in the first round this year, so they better take full advantage of this opportunity. Usually only teams that have top 10 have the chance to select a franchise offensive tackle, and if either Auburn’s Greg Robinson or Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews are available with the seventh overall pick, the Bucs have to seriously consider drafting one of them, or possibly selecting Michigan’s Taylor Lewan if the team were to trade down into the first round.
By acquiring one of the top offensive tackles in the draft, the Bucs would shore up the position for years to come with a prime talent to develop behind a couple of established NFL starters. The rookie would not have to endure the trial-by-fire life of starting right away in the NFL, which could aid in his long-term development.
Drafting an offensive tackle in the first round isn’t sexy, and may not pay off immediate dividends, but it’s great for the long-term prospects of Tampa Bay’s offense. Smith struggled to build an effective offensive line in Chicago and whiffed on first-round picks like Chris Williams and Gabe Carimi, so he knows the importance of finding quality in the draft at the tackle position.
In order for the Bucs to successfully rush four defensive linemen and drop seven into coverage, superb cornerback play is a must. During the early years of the Tony Dungy era, Tampa Bay routinely lined up the trio of Ronde Barber, Donnie Abraham and Brian Kelly to do battle twice per year with the stellar receiving corps of Minnesota, Detroit and Green Bay in the old NFC Central Division.
The Bucs signed Pro Bowler Alterraun Verner and have Johnthan Banks, who is entering his second year, as the other starter at cornerback. Newly acquired Mike Jenkins is in line to become the team’s nickel back, but the Bucs would like to add another starting-caliber corner for depth and development – if not to play right away in a division that features aerial assaults in New Orleans and Atlanta with Pro Bowl quarterbacks Drew Brees and Matt Ryan.
There isn’t a cornerback worthy of selection in the top 10 this year, but if the Bucs trade down into the middle of the first round, Oklahoma State’s Justin Gilbert and Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard would be great additions. If the Bucs trade down even further for more draft picks, TCU’s Jason Verrett and Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller make sense if Tampa Bay is focused on improving its secondary even more with another cornerback.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• One final thought on last week’s SR’s Fab 5. I’m still a bit stunned that my research has led me to the conclusion that the Bucs only have one player left from any draft prior to 2011 on their roster – Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. It was two until the Bucs’ wisely traded away receiver Mike Williams on Friday. The offseason exodus of right guard Davin Joseph (2006), offensive lineman Jeremy Zuttah (2008), linebackers Adam Hayward (2007) and Dekoda Watson (2010) and fullback Erik Lorig (2010), coupled with the release of quarterback Josh Freeman (2009) last October, has officially wiped out every player on Tampa Bay’s current roster from any Buccaneers draft before 2011.
What’s worse is that the only thing the Bucs will have to show for any of those departures is a fifth-rounder next year from Baltimore that was acquired in a trade involving Zuttah and sixth-rounder this year for Williams. The Bucs couldn’t trade any other players acquired from the draft, nor will the team get any compensatory picks from losing Hayward, Watson and Lorig in free agency this offseason. Technically, the Bucs did not lose any of those players, as Tampa Bay didn’t really wanted to keep any of them to begin with.
Only five players remain from the team’s 2011 draft – defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers, middle linebacker Mason Foster, tight end Luke Stocker and cornerback Anthony Gaitor. By the time the final roster cutdowns are made in September, the guess here is that Gaitor, Stocker and perhaps even Bowers could be released, reducing Tampa Bay’s 2011 draft class to just two – Clayborn and Foster.
With a draft record like that, coupled with a 28-52 record from 2009-2013 and it’s not a big surprise that general manager Mark Dominik was fired, and that Dennis Hickey, the team’s director of college scouting and director of player personnel during that span, wasn’t even considered worthy enough to interview for the vacant G.M. position in January. In fact, when Hickey was surprisingly hired by Miami to be the team’s general manager, replacing Jeff Ireland, it saved the team from having to fire Hickey as the Bucs were much higher on the futures of current director of college scouting Eric Stokes and director of pro scouting Shelton Quarles.
• The Buccaneers are looking for a dedicated nickel cornerback in Lovie Smith’s Tampa 2 scheme, and newcomer Mike Jenkins appears to be the front runner with Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks set to start on the outside at the cornerback position. Former Bears cornerback D.J. Moore will also get a look inside, as well as Anthony Gaitor. But I wonder if Keith Tandy will get some consideration for the nickel back role, too.
Tandy, who played cornerback at West Virginia before being drafted by Tampa Bay in 2011, got a few starts as the team’s third safety last year when the Bucs went to dime coverage (six defensive backs) and played remarkably well. He even outperformed Dashon Goldson at times and finished with more splash plays. In limited duty Tandy finished 2013 with 40 tackles, three interceptions, one forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
With Goldson and Mark Barron set to start at the safety positions this year and Tampa Bay not playing any more dime coverage, Tandy might not see the field on defense unless he wins the nickel cornerback spot. While he does have value as a backup safety and on special teams, Tandy displayed a good nose for the football and deserves to see some time on the field on defense.
• Tampa Bay had former Chicago strong safety Major Wright in for a visit this week and he left without signing a contract. Wright, a three-year starter with the Bears, likely wants starting money, and he didn’t find that in Tampa Bay where the team has two starting safeties in Mark Barron, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2012, and Dashon Goldson, a prized free agent signing last year.
The Bucs need depth at the safety position as the team only has five safeties on the current roster, including Barron, Goldson, Bradley McDougald, Kelcie McCray and Keith Tandy. Tandy proved to be a valuable reserve last year while starting a handful of games for both Goldson and Barron and recording three interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. McCray and McDougald have less playing time and are still relatively inexperienced.
Signing a player like Wright would bring some necessary experience to Tampa Bay, and that’s something head coach Lovie Smith, who drafted Wright four years ago in the third round, wants. Smith doesn’t like having inexperienced players on the field, and he knows with Goldson’s penchant for drawing flags, fines and suspensions for high hits that he will be without the player known as “The Hawk” for probably a game or two this season.
There isn’t an overly high demand for safeties in free agency this year, so it’s not surprising that Wright wants to continue to test the market. If he can’t find the contract he wants, don’t be surprised if he comes back to Tampa Bay and settles for a smaller contract than he anticipated, or perhaps even a one-year, prove-it deal. The Bucs could use the help of the former Florida Gators star.