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. The Buccaneers have high expectations for starting defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers. So much so that the team parted ways with Michael Bennett, the former starting left end and last year’s leading sacker with nine, in free agency in March.
Over the past two years, Clayborn and Bowers have combined for just 12 sacks – mostly due to injury. Clayborn had a standout rookie campaign in 2011 with 7.5 sacks and three forced fumbles before a torn ACL injury in Week 3 last year derailed his sophomore season.
Bowers was coming off knee surgery during his rookie season two years and recorded 1.5 sacks in his NFL debut. Last year, Bowers missed the first six games of the season with a torn Achilles and recorded three sacks and had a fumble recovery as a part-time starter in 2012.
If both Clayborn and Bowers are healthy the duo from the 2011 draft should be able to combine for 20 sacks, especially since opposing quarterbacks will likely be holding the ball longer due to an improved secondary, which features newcomers in Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis and Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson. At least that’s the plan.
Yet if one of those players finds he can’t escape injury again, the Bucs will need one of their reserve defensive linemen to step up and produce. Last year that player was Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who recorded a career-high 40 tackles in his third season in the NFL while starting 14 games in place of Clayborn at left end. Those 40 tackles were the second-most among Tampa Bay defensive linemen, and his career-high four sacks ranks
Te’o-Nesheim, who was a third-round draft pick by Philadelphia in 2010, spent most of the 2011 season on Tampa Bay’s practice squad. He beat out George Johnson and others to win a 53-man roster spot last year with a great preseason and that catapulted him into the starting lineup in Week 3 after Clayborn’s knee injury.
Te’o-Nesheim’s development earned him a one-year, $1.323-million contract as a restricted free agent this offseason. Unless he bombs in training camp this year, Te’o-Nesheim figures to be one of Tampa Bay’s two reserve defensive ends behind Bowers and Clayborn.
The departure of Bennett creates one more roster spot for another young Buccaneers defensive end to become the next Te’o-Nesheim. Tampa Bay selected two defensive ends in the 2013 NFL Draft in William Gholston and Steven Means. Gholston, a fourth-round pick, has a slightly greater chance of making the team over Means, a fifth-rounder, due to his 6-foot-6, 281-pound frame and athleticism.
But there are also a couple of other defensive ends that are vying for a roster spot, including Ernest Owusu and Aaron Morgan. Keep an eye on Morgan, as he could be a wild card in training camp much like Te’o-Nesheim was last year.
Morgan recorded two tackles over the final seven games in Tampa Bay in spot duty after starting the season with Jacksonville. Morgan, who is entering his fourth year out of Louisiana-Monroe, saw some playing time down the stretch as a situational pass rusher, and that helped boost his stock this offseason.
“There’s nothing like playing on Sundays,” Morgan said. “I’m just grateful for the opportunity to play on the Buccaneers defense.
“In the NFL it’s a constant competition it’s a constant competition from Week 1 to Week 17 within the organization and outside of it. Just being an NFL player you learn to compete all year round.”
With Clayborn sitting out team drills as he continued to recover from a torn ACL, Morgan was called on to start at right end in Tampa Bay’s dime defense, which also features Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy at nose tackle and Bowers at left end. Of course, Morgan will yield that starting spot to Clayborn once he returns to full duty in training camp. But in the offseason, Morgan was a starter due to his speed and pass rushing ability, and gained valuable experience as a result.
“I’m just getting the opportunity to go out there with the first group because of Adrian Clayborn’s absence,” Morgan said. “Obviously, Clayborn is the starter, and I’m just filling in for him right now. I’m just trying to work on my craft.”
Morgan was a rush end at Louisiana-Monroe where he recorded 22 sacks in his career, including nine as a senior. He has added some needed weight that will help him anchor better against the run, and is now up to 250 pounds.
“One area that’s my main focus this offseason is being more consistent against the run and playing on run downs,” Morgan said. “I don’t want to be a one-dimensional player. I want to help the team on all downs and whenever they need me. I want to bend the edge tighter and playing with speed. I’m working on my get off and working on consistency and not trying to be lazy and taking any plays off.”
While Morgan needs to improve his run defense, if he can shine as a pass rusher, he could force the team to keep three reserve defensive ends or perhaps beat out both Gholston and Means and force one – or both – to begin their NFL careers on the practice squad. Nobody outside of the Bucs coaching staff saw Te’o-Nesheim emerge like he did in 2012. Morgan could be a similar surprise player in 2013.
FAB 2. ESPN’s NFC South blogger, Pat Yasinskas, may have put a scare into Buccaneers fans this week when he reported that Tampa Bay is already committed to spend $119 million in 2014, a year when the salary cap will likely remain flat at around $123 million. That $119 million also doesn’t include new contract money for quarterback Josh Freeman or wide receiver Mike Williams.
PewterReport.com’s Mark Cook reported on July 10 that the Bucs might face some tough salary cap choices in 2014 in order to create some salary cap space to possibly re-sign Freeman, Williams and others as Tampa Bay is poised to have as many as 20 free agents after the 2013 campaign. So is the situation as bleak as it seems?
The answer to that question is no, and the reason is because Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik doesn’t give out signing bonus money like most teams do when it comes to signing veterans. Dominik is an NFL trailblazer in the fact that he would rather guarantee the first year or two of a player’s contract and/or include high base salaries rather than dish out signing bonus money.
Dominik learned from the mistakes of former general managers Rich McKay and Bruce Allen that signing bonus money creates the crippling effect of dead cap money when a player is released because the remaining proration of signing bonus money accelerates and hits the cap all in one year.
For example, if a general manager signs a player to a five-year, $15 million contract with $10 million in base salary and $5 million in the form of a signing bonus and the player is released after two years, the team would no longer be obligated to pay out the $2 million base salary per year over the remaining three years, but there would be $3 million worth of dead cap room that would count against the team the following year.
The net result of saving the $2 million base salary for that year, but having the $3 million signing bonus proration hit instead of $1 million being spread out over the remaining three years. The team would have a net loss of $1 million in dead cap money for a player that is no longer on the team.
Instead of that scenario, Dominik would rather give the player a five-year, $15 million deal that averages $3 million in base salary rather than two, and perhaps guarantee the first two years in lieu of a signing bonus. If Dominik needs to cut the player after two years there is no dead cap money like there was that crippled the team for years beginning in 2003 after McKay did a series of contract extensions following the team’s Super Bowl victory in 2002.
So how will Dominik create more cap room when he needs it like he will in 2014? Well, the purpose of teams using signing bonuses is to keep base salaries low early on in the life of a contract to help the team’s immediate salary cap situation. Dominik appears to do the opposite of that with high base salaries throughout the life of bigger contracts.
But what that enables him to do is take a player’s high base salary from the upcoming year and convert it to a roster bonus to take advantage of the roster bonus rules as a way of circumventing the salary cap constraints. It’s an accounting trick Dominik learned from Allen, but he’s taken it to a whole new level.
Because the young Tampa Bay team had a lot of players still on inexpensive rookie contracts, as well as some inexpensive veterans, the Bucs had plenty of remaining salary cap room in 2012 – despite signing wide receiver Vincent Jackson to a five-year, $55.5 million deal, guard Carl Nicks to a five-year, $47.5-million contract and cornerback Eric Wright to a five-year, $37.5 million deal. With the Bucs having around $18 million worth of cap room left at the end of 2012, Dominik created $18 million worth of cap room in 2013 by taking a bulk of the high base salaries Jackson and Nicks were to receive this year and give them the money they were due in 2013 in the form of a roster bonus in December of 2012.
Jackson was supposed to make $13 million in base salary in 2013, but was paid $12.16 million in December in the form of a roster bonus. As a result, he is only on Tampa Bay’s salary cap for $840,000 in 2013. Jackson, who was paid $13 million already ($11 million in base salary and another $2 million in an earlier roster bonus at the start of the season), actually got paid $25.16 million in cash in his first year as a Buccaneer.
Nicks was set to earn $12.5 million in base salary in 2013, but was paid $11.785 million in December in the form of a roster bonus. His new cap figure for 2013 will be a modest base salary of $715,000. Nicks was paid a total of $24.285 million in 2012 with $12.5 million coming from his original deal ($6.5 million in base salary and $6 million in roster bonus money), followed by another $11.785 million roster bonus in late December that used up available cap space.
This is a practice that Dominik can use over and over again each year to create available cap room for the following year by going to players with big base salaries at the end of the season and using up the available cap room for that year by converting base salary money for the next year into a current roster bonus.
Here are some candidates with high base salaries in 2014 that Dominik might target at the end of 2013 to clear out some salary cap space for next year:
CB Darrelle Revis – $13 millionDT Gerald McCoy – $10.295 millionWR Vincent Jackson – $10 millionLG Carl Nicks – $7 millionLT Donald Penn – $6.4 millionRG Davin Joseph – $6 millionFS Dashon Goldson – $6 millionC Jeremy Zuttah – $4 million
Dominik sees the potential to create tens of millions worth of cap space next year, so the challenge of re-signing Freeman, Williams and others doesn’t seem nearly as daunting as it does at first glance.
FAB 3. This is a make-or-break year for Tampa Bay tight end Luke Stocker, who is entering his third year with the team and his first as an NFL starter. Newly signed Tom Crabtree will try to unseat Stocker as the starter in training camp, but the 6-foot-5, 253-pound Tennessee product has two fourth-round picks invested in him and will be given the first crack at replacing Dallas Clark, who departed via free agency.
Stocker has 28 catches for 257 yards and a touchdown in his NFL career, including 16 receptions for 165 yards and his lone score that came in 2012. Stocker ended the season on a high note with a career-best three catches for 50 yards in Tampa Bay’s surprising 22-17 win at Atlanta on December 30.
After seeing the most action of his career down the stretch, catching half of his passes (eight) last year for 89 yards in the final three games of the 2012 season, Stocker wants to pick up where he left off this year.
“I’m looking for an opportunity to play a bigger role in the offense,” Stocker said. “The last couple of years I’ve been utilized as a blocker here. This year I really hope to get the opportunity to be a pass catcher and a threat in the passing game. That’s what I’m working towards this offseason.”
While he will enter training camp as the starter, some within the Bucs’ brass have expressed some disappointment with the way Stocker performed during the organized team activities (OTAs) and mini-camp. While his size helps him as an in-line blocker in the running game, Stocker is not a fluid athlete and lumbers down the field while running pass routes.
He also doesn’t have the athleticism or leaping ability to go up and get passes the way former tight end Kellen Winslow and even Clark could in the end zone. In the open practices that PewterReport.com watched during the offseason, Stocker and quarterback Josh Freeman were struggling to connect on passes and find a rhythm.
The good news for Stocker, who was primarily a backup used in blocking situations last year, is that he knows Mike Sullivan’s offense inside and out this year.
“The tight end has a big responsibility to really know this offense,” Stocker said. “You have to know what’s going on conceptually as far as protections in the run game and the pass game, and I feel like I do. There’s a lot of responsibility on the tight end’s shoulders. I’m ready for my shot.”
Now it’s just a matter of getting on the same page with Freeman and executing.
FAB 4. While the tight end does not play a huge role as an offensive weapon in Bucs offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan’s system, the team would like more play-making ability and production from the position. Luke Stocker needs to really show he can be a starter in the NFL this season or the team will lose faith in him. Tom Crabtree, who was signed in free agency to a two-year, $1.6 million deal, was a backup in Green Bay and has yet to prove that he can be an every down player in the NFL.
The Bucs don’t have any tight ends on their roster that make more than $800,000, which means that the team has yet to show enough faith in anyone to make any type of a long-term investment in. That leaves the door wide open for drafting a tight end in 2014 – possibly in the first round. Sources tell PewterReport.com that the Bucs would have considered taking Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert with the 13th overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft if the team hadn’t traded away the pick to the New York Jets to acquire Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis.
The Bucs thought so little of the crop of players at the position, which consisted of only three players the team liked – Eifert, Cincinnati’s Travis Kelce and Rutgers’ D.C. Jefferson – that Tampa Bay didn’t even select a tight end in the 2013 NFL Draft. However, the 2014 class of tight ends could be much better if a couple of key juniors elect to forego their season seasons and head to the NFL a year early.
For you draftniks out there that closely follow college football and scout upcoming draft prospects, here are some tight ends you need to familiarize yourself with, as one of them could be a Buccaneer next year.
The top tight end prospect is Washington junior Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who is an athletic monster at 6-foot-6, 266 pounds. His size is reminiscent of former Bucs tight ends Rickey Dudley and Jerramy Stevens, who also played for the Huskies. Seferian-Jenkins is currently suspended from the Washington program while he awaits a trial this summer for a DUI arrest in March. Huskies coach Steve Sarkisian said that Seferian-Jenkins has done everything asked of him by the program and that he is not a bad character guy, and that the DUI arrest was a mistake the young man made.
There is a chance that Seferian-Jenkins could be suspended to start the season, which begins against Boise State on August 31, but once he gets on the field he will show the talents that enabled him to catch 110 passes for 1,390 yards and 13 touchdowns in his two years with the Huskies, including 69 receptions for 852 yards and seven scores last year as a sophomore.
Seferian-Jenkins had several big games, including a nine-catch, 82-yard effort against San Diego State, an eight-catch, 110-yard game with one touchdown against Arizona, and an eight-catch, 154-yard game with a crucial score in a 21-13 win over California. Seferian-Jenkins has proven to be a Cal killer as he had four catches for 54 yards and two touchdowns in a 31-23 victory over the Golden Bears as a freshman.
Seferian-Jenkins has notched five catches of 30 yards or more, including a career-high 47-yarder against Hawaii as a freshman. With another solid season, Seferian-Jenkins has a chance to be a top 15 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. Check out Seferian-Jenkins’ highlight reel by clicking here.
Another probable first-rounder in next year’s draft is Oregon junior Colt Lyerla. The 6-foot-5, 250-pounder has caught 32 passes for 539 yards and 11 touchdowns in his first two seasons, including 25 receptions for 392 yards and seven scores as a sophomore. He caught three passes for 71 yards and two TDs against Washington last year, in addition to three passes for 58 yards and two scores against Cal.
Lyerla also saw some time at running back in Chip Kelly’s offense, rushing seven times for 63 yards and a touchdown against Arizona in 2012. In addition to a 23-yard run in that game, Lyerla also has five catches of 30 yards or more in his career, including a career-high 48-yarder against Washington.
An athletic freak, Lyerla possesses a 35-inch vertical jump and a team-best 11-3 mark in the broad jump. He gained YouTube fame recently for jumping 62-inches onto a plyo-box. Here is Lyerla’s Oregon highlight video that shows off his athleticism and versatility.
North Carolina junior Eric Ebron is widely regarded as the third-best tight end in the nation after catching 40 passes for 625 yards and four touchdowns as a sophomore. After a four-catch, 55-yard game in a 28-27 loss to Wake Forest in which he also scored a touchdown, Ebron caught five passes for 38 yards and two touchdowns in a narrow, 39-34 defeat to Louisville. His speed has enabled him to record eight catches of 30 yards or more, including a career-long of 49 last year.
Ebron, who is 6-foot-4, 245 pounds, produced 64 yards against East Carolina, 67 yards against Idaho, 87 yards against Miami and 79 yards against North Carolina State before ending the season with a three-catch, 57-yard effort against Maryland that included a critical touchdown in the Tar Heels’ 45-38 victory. Here are Ebron’s highlights against Maryland.
USC junior tight end Xavier Grimble is a big target at 6-foot-5, 250 pounds, and has benefited from teams spending a lot of time covering talented Trojans wide receiver Marquise Lee and Robert Woods. Like Grimble, Lee has returned for his junior season, but Woods has departed, which could mean more opportunities for the starting tight end in 2013.
Last year, Grimble caught 29 passes for 316 yards and five scores after posting 15 receptions for 144 yards and four touchdowns as a freshman. Grimble has done most of his damage in the red zone, evidenced by the fact that he only has two catches longer than 30 yards and none longer than 36. Here is Grimble’s highlight reel at USC.
At 6-foot-3, 240 pounds, Arizona State senior Chris Coyle has the size and playing style that resembles former Bucs tight end Dallas Clark in his prime. Coyle, who played H-back as a move tight end and also in the slot as a junior, had a breakout year in 2012, catching 57 passes for 696 yards and five touchdowns.
Coyle has four catches for 30 yards or more in his Sun Devils career, including a 49-yard reception in last year’s season opener against Northern Arizona. Coyle rocked Illinois for 10 catches for 131 yards and two touchdowns the next week, and also had standout performances against USC (five catches for 85 yards and one touchdown) and Washington State (three catches for 53 yards and two TDs). Here is a highlight tape of Coyle in action against Illinois.
While Seferian-Jenkins and Lyerla are poised to become first-rounders if they enter the 2014 NFL Draft, Ebron, Grimble and Coyle could be interesting options for the Bucs in the early to middle rounds if neither Stocker nor Crabtree asserts himself as a starting-caliber tight end in Tampa Bay this year.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week’s edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• A year into working with Vincent Jackson, Bucs wide receiver Mike Williams is still gaining experience from Tampa Bay’s resident Pro Bowler.
“Don’t drop the ball with him, though,” Williams said. “He’ll make you pay for it [with push-ups during practice]. But I’m learning a lot from him.”
After years of learning how to play both the split end and flanker spots, Williams has now mastered the slot receiver position thanks to seeing how a big receiver like Jackson can play it.
“I can play in the slot now,” Williams said. “Seeing what he can do in the slot, and he’s a big receiver that can go way down and even get in at tight end and play there the whole game. It’s really helped me.”
Now both of the Bucs’ starting receivers can operate from all three wide receiver positions. That will only make Williams and the team’s offense more potent in 2013.
• Count Bucs assistant defensive coordinator Bob Fraser among those on the coaching staff that are thrilled with the additions of the team’s defensive rookies, including second-rounder, Johnthan Banks, who is in line to be Tampa Bay’s nickel cornerback during his initial season in the NFL.
“I know our scouts and secondary coach were excited about Johnthan,” Fraser said. “You don’t draft him as high as we did without being excited about him. With what he’s shown so far you can see why they were so excited. He’s practiced well and he’s done a great job.”
Fraser, whose specialty is the front seven, is especially excited about the rapid development of fourth-round pick Akeem Spence, who is in line to start at nose tackle.
“All of the rookies have done well and fit in well thus far, and Akeem is doing a great job and really working hard. I can’t wait to see him in pads during training camp.”
• Tampa Bay defensive end Aaron Morgan is the envy of many. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, Morgan is the lightest defensive lineman on the team, and getting to – and staying at – 250 pounds has proved to be quite a challenge.
“I’ve been doing a good job in the weight room,” Morgan said. “This is the first year I’ve been able to put on a few pounds in the offseason. I’m feeling good. I’m up to 250. At Louisiana-Monroe I played at 230 or 235. It’s been a constant fight for me to gain as much weight as I can. I guess my metabolism is really high. It’s just a constant struggle for me to gain weight.”
Morgan has a problem that many of us wish we could have. Prepare to be jealous.
“To maintain my weight I have to try to eat 3,000 – 4,000 calories a day,” Morgan said.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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