SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, PewterReport.com publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place and around the NFL:
FAB 1. BUCCANEERS’ HARGREAVES DILEMMA
Let’s cut right to the chase when it comes to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, shall we?
Does Tampa Bay like Hargreaves?
Is he definitely in the mix for the Buccaneers with the ninth overall pick?
Will he be the guy that general manager Jason Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter ultimately take at No. 9?
With cornerback being an assumed big need in Tampa Bay given the problems in pass coverage last year, why wouldn’t the drafting of Hargreaves, who played at nearby Wharton High School in Tampa, be an automatic slam-dunk if he were still on the board?
Simply put, when NFL teams spend a top-10 pick on a cornerback they do so with the understanding that he will be matched up on an opponent’s premier, Pro Bowl-caliber wide receiver, especially within the division.
What Licht, Koetter, defensive coordinator Mike Smith and the team’s scouts and assistant coaches have been discussing in the war room at One Buccaneer Place regarding Hargreaves is how the 5-foot-10 cornerback matches up with the likes of Atlanta’s Julio Jones (6-3, 220) or Mohamed Sanu (6-2, 210), New Orleans’ Brandon Coleman (6-6, 220) or Carolina’s Devin Funchess (6-4, 225) and Kelvin Benjamin (6-5, 240) twice a year.
If the Bucs are going to spend a first-round pick on a cornerback whether – it’s Hargreaves or Ohio State’s Eli Apple – that’s the expectation. Go cover Jones twice a year. Match up with Benjamin for 120 minutes each season. Is Hargreaves capable of battling down in and down out against receivers that are as much as seven inches taller than him?
One of Hargreaves’ biggest positives is the fact that he is perhaps the most battle-tested cornerback in this year’s draft class. Here’s some of the current or future NFL receivers Hargreaves covered during his three years at Florida:
LSU’s Odell Beckham (NY Giants) and Jarvis Landry (Miami)
Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin (Carolina) and Rashad Greene (Jacksonville)
Alabama’s Amari Cooper (Oakland) and Calvin Ridley (2017 draft prospect)
East Carolina’s Justin Hardy (Atlanta)
Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell and Cody Core (2016 draft prospects)
South Carolina’s Pharoh Cooper (2016 draft prospect)
Georgia’s Malcolm Mitchell (2016 draft prospect)
That’s an impressive list. Yet facing big, big-time receivers is one thing. Shutting them down is quite another.
Hargreaves has won some of those battles – obviously enough so to merit first-round consideration and being considered by some teams as this year’s best cornerback prospect. He went toe-to-toe with the likes of Amari Cooper and Ridley at Alabama at times, but Hargreaves didn’t exactly win those matchups. Instead, he was big-boyed by both bigger Crimson Tide receivers. And keep in mind that Cooper and Ridley are only 6-foot-1 – not 6-foot-4 like some of the monster-sized receivers in the NFL. That’s a concern.
Hargreaves had his struggles with Ridley, who caught eight passes for 102 yards and a touchdown in Alabama’s 29-15 victory over Florida in the SEC Championship Game, although not all of that yardage came against Hargreaves. Ridley, a freshman, put up similar numbers (89 catches for 1,045 yards and seven touchdowns) to what Cooper did as a freshman (50 catches for 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns) and could be a future NFL first-round pick.
Cooper abused Hargreaves and the Gators defense for 10 catches for 201 yards and three touchdowns in 2014, although Hargreaves didn’t give up all the yardage and only surrendered one touchdown.
In 2013 when Hargreaves was a redshirt freshman and the 6-foot-5 Benjamin was a redshirt sophomore, the Seminoles star receiver lit up the Gators for nine catches for 212 yards and three touchdowns. Hargreaves wasn’t guilty of surrendering all of Benjamin’s yardage, but he did give up some, in addition to Benjamin’s final touchdown.
Hargreaves is fearless and doesn’t shy away from premier matchups against the likes of Benjamin and Cooper. That’s good, but he did show he can get pushed around because of his size and lose out on 50-50 passes on jump balls. That’s a big concern at One Buc Place although Hargreaves’ 39-inch vertical leap helps make up for his lack of size.
Hargreaves has a good, quick first step and smooth hips that can flip easily so he can turn and run with receivers. However, he does lack elite speed, running a 4.50 at the NFL Scouting Combine, and that’s another concern the Bucs have. He’s not a 4.37 guy like Houston cornerback William Jackson or even a 4.4 guy like Apple.
Just when you want to knock Hargreaves for his lack of ideal speed and size, you realize his movement skills are quite good and he glides around the field. He’s a very instinctive cornerback with great ball skills.
Hargreaves can drive on the ball and make interceptions, evidenced by 10 career interceptions, including a career-high four last year. Hargreaves totaled 27 pass breakups, including a career-high 13 as a sophomore. He had just four last year, but opposing quarterbacks chose not to throw his way very often.
One of those interceptions came against Ole Miss while guarding Treadwell, who has a chance to be the first receiver selected in the 2016 NFL Draft. Yet Treadwell has pedestrian 4.63 speed in the 40-yard dash, and the faster Hargreaves was able to contain him and hold him to just five catches for 42 yards. I think Treadwell will be more like Marques Colston or Sanu at the next level rather than an elite pass catcher due to his lack of elusiveness. The matchup with Treadwell was perhaps Hargreaves at his best last year.
Yet his battles with Ridley and Alabama, followed by a rough outing in a blowout loss to Michigan were Hargreaves at his worst.
I give credit to Hargreaves for being physical and feisty in both pass coverage and against the run. He’s a willing tackler and that’s an important trait to have in a division where teams like Carolina and Atlanta like to run the ball. Check out his highlight video, which shows how an effective tackler he can be on the perimeter.
Assuming the Bucs drafted Hargreaves with the ninth overall pick, he wouldn’t be under immense pressure to start right away. He could begin his NFL career at nickel cornerback in the slot, which is where some scouts believe he’s best suited instead of out on the perimeter. Peter King had an interesting graphic in his Monday Morning Quarterback column this week that showed the steady increase in the amount of nickel defense teams play now as opposed to just eight years ago.
In 2008, NFL defenses deployed a nickel defense 43.4 percent of the time. Last year, that number was 63.4 percent, which is an all-time. So Hargreaves would see plenty of action on the field as Tampa Bay’s nickel cornerback, assuming newcomer Brent Grimes starts at one cornerback spot and Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner challenge for the right to start at the other corner position.
The fact that Hargreaves can learn from a similar-sized players, such as Grimes and Vernon, is a huge plus during his rookie season. Yet does Tampa Bay really want to have three 5-foot-10 cornerbacks in a division with some giant receivers? That’s a good question.
Of the eight cornerbacks that were voted into the Pro Bowl last year, only one – Denver’s Chris Harris – was 5-foot-10. The remaining six corners were all 5-foot-11 or taller. In fact, the median size for Pro Bowl cornerbacks last year was 6-foot.
2016 Pro Bowl Cornerbacks – Voted In
Seattle CB Richard Sherman – 6-3
Arizona CB Patrick Peterson – 6-1
Denver CB Aqib Talib – 6-1
Carolina CB Josh Norman – 6-0
Kansas City CB Marcus Peters – 6-0
New England CB Malcolm Butler – 5-11
NY Jets CB Darrelle Revis – 5-11
Denver CB Chris Harris – 5-10
2016 Pro Bowl Cornerbacks – Actual Participants
Seattle CB Richard Sherman – 6-3
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – 6-2
Kansas City CB Marcus Peters – 6-0
Atlanta CB Desmond Trufant – 6-0
Indianapolis CB Vontae Davis – 5-11
Miami CB Brent Grimes – 5-10
Cincinnati CB Adam Jones – 5-10
San Diego CB Jason Verrett – 5-10
Yet when Norman, Davis and Talib were removed from the Pro Bowl roster due to their participation in Super Bowl 50 and Peterson opted not to go due to injury, a trio of 5-foot-10 cornerbacks in Grimes, Jones and Verrett, in addition to the 6-foot-2, Rodgers-Cromartie replaced them.
It’s also worth noting that the best cornerback in Tampa Bay history, and one of the most decorated cornerbacks in league history was Ronde Barber, who stood just 5-foot-10. Barber carved out a future Hall of Fame career by playing both outside and nickel cornerback in 15 of his 16 NFL seasons.
I covered Barber’s entire career with the Buccaneers and there isn’t anyone more qualified to speak about cornerback play than the legendary No. 20 in my opinion. In 2010 I asked Barber who the best cornerback he ever played with was, expecting him to say Donnie Abraham or Brian Kelly. Instead, Barber said Talib, who was just three years into his NFL career at the time.
Barber, a five-time Pro Bowler, was right, evidenced by the fact that eight years later Talib has been to three Pro Bowls, has 30 career interceptions, scored eight defensive touchdowns and won a Super Bowl. If Talib, 30, plays for six more years he’ll easily surpass some of Barber’s career numbers.
So who better to ask about Hargreaves, whom Barber calls the best cornerback prospect in this year’s NFL Draft?
“I only watched his scouting film, but he is a confident dude, apparently,” Barber said. “He wants the best match up – isn’t scared. You’ve got to appreciate the guys he’s played against. He’s got fantastic short area quickness and looks like a technician on tape. Plus, he was productive.
“You know I like players that aren’t shy about contact and he is a more than willing tackler. If his measurables were greater, he’d be one of the top 5 players in this draft. I like his attitude. I like his game. I would want him on my team.”
That’s good enough for me, and if Tampa Bay drafted Hargreaves I would applaud the pick. Drafting a cornerback in the first round would allow the Bucs to draft a defensive end, a defensive tackle and a safety among its remaining picks.
So why haven’t I forecasted Hargreaves to the Bucs in any of PewterReport.com’s mock drafts? I’m not sure that Tampa Bay doesn’t prefer Apple, who is 6-foot-1, over Hargreaves. There’s also a good chance that the Bucs have a higher ranking placed on a defensive tackle, such as Louisville’s Sheldon Rankins given that defensive tackle could be considered a greater area of need due to the depth chart.
Aside from Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay has Clinton McDonald coming off a season-ending pectoral injury and Akeem Spence, who is entering a contract year, as the only truly experienced players at the defensive tackle positions. The Bucs have just five defensive tackles listed on the roster, whereas the cornerback position is actually deeper.
Grimes, Verner, Banks and free agent addition Josh Robinson have significant NFL experience, and Jude Adjei-Barimah played quite a bit as a rookie last year. The Bucs also have newcomers C.J. Roberts and Joel Ross on the depth chart.
I wouldn’t be shocked if the Bucs took Hargreaves at No. 9, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they went in a different direction either with another position or even drafting Apple in the first round instead. I just don’t think Tampa Bay is sold on Hargreaves.
I could be wrong. We’ll find out in a couple of weeks.
FAB 2. NIGHTMARE NFC SOUTH DRAFT PICKS FOR BUCS
I’ve always found it fun to watch not only whom the Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft each year, but also what their divisional opponents do in April.
Atlanta rose to power in the NFC South by hitting on first-round picks like quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receiver Julio Jones and cornerback Desmond Trufant. Carolina’s Super Bowl run was fueled by the selection of quarterback Cam Newton, who was the NFL’s MVP last year, and several defensive studs, such as middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, Josh Norman, Kony Ealy and Kawaan Short. New Orleans’ drafting hasn’t been as successful in recent years, and that’s one of the reasons why the Saints have missed the playoffs in three out of the last four years, including the last two.
Teams have to keep track of their divisional opponents that they have to face twice per year. The Bucs’ twin towers of Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, who was Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2014, have forced their NFC South foes to draft bigger cornerbacks as a result.
The NFL is a match-up league. Tampa Bay drafted safety Mark Barron in 2012 to match up against New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham and Carolina tight end Greg Olsen. The Bucs drafted 6-foot-2 cornerback Johnthan Banks in part to defend against the likes of Jones, the Falcons’ 6-foot-3 Pro Bowl receiver and Marques Colston, the Saints’ 6-foot-4 wideout.
Have you ever watched the draft and seen some of your favorite prospects go to an NFC South rival and cringe? Did you shudder when the Bucs passed on Kuechly in favor of Barron, only to see the Panthers eagerly snatch up the talented middle linebacker in the first round of the 2012 draft? Did you wince when Carolina drafted the 6-foot-5 Benjamin in the first round in 2014?
In evaluating the talent in the 2016 NFL Draft, I have come up with some cringe-worthy NFC South “nightmare picks” for each team – one on offense and one on defense. These are the guys you don’t want to see end up in the NFC South – unless they are in red and pewter jerseys.
Atlanta Falcons’ Nightmare Picks
Ohio State LB Darren Lee
While Alabama’s Reggie Ragland is often mocked to Atlanta, he lacks the ideal foot speed that defensive-minded head coach Dan Quinn wants from his linebackers. Ragland has 4.72 speed and weighs 248 pounds, which isn’t bad for a linebacker that size. But Lee ran a blazing time of 4.43 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine, and that will get Quinn’s attention. Lee was a do-it-all linebacker for two years at Ohio State, registering 146 tackles, 27 tackles for loss, 11 sacks, five pass breakups, three interceptions, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. By drafting the versatile Lee in the first round, Quinn gets his version of Lavonte David as an outside linebacker or Kwon Alexander as a middle linebacker, especially on the fast artificial turf in the Georgia Dome. Lee has the speed and ability to match up with tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins off the line or running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims out of the backfield.
Michigan State OT Jack Conklin
The Falcons spent a first-round pick on left tackle Jake Matthews in 2014 to help protect Ryan, the team’s franchise quarterback. While right tackle Ryan Schraeder played well in 2015, earning Pro Football Focus All-Pro honors, he may not be the long-term option Atlanta is looking for when it comes to keeping Ryan upright. The 6-foot-6, 325-pound Conklin is nearly 20 pounds heavier than Schraeder and played left tackle at Michigan State. That versatility helps Atlanta in case something happens to Matthews, but perhaps more importantly, Conklin’s power could be used on the right side of the line to open up holes for running backs Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman. Conklin is big, physical and athletic, and going against him twice a year would prove to be a daunting task for Jacquies Smith, Robert Ayers, Will Gholston or whomever Smith would use at left defensive end in Tampa Bay.
Carolina Panthers’ Nightmare Picks
Oklahoma State DE Emmnuel Ogbah
Could you imagine if Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence fell to Carolina, which has the 30th overall pick? The Panthers have an emerging stud defensive end in Ealy, the Super Bowl hero, but need to find a replacement for aging Charles Johnson, who was re-signed for one more year, and Jared Allen, who retired. Spence will likely be gone by the time Carolina is on the clock in the first round, so Clemson’s Kevin Dodd or Ogbah could be the pick. Ogbah is coming off back-to-back double-digit sack seasons and is an athletic specimen, running a 4.63 in the 40-yard dash at 273 pounds. In some ways he resembles Johnson, the player he’s drafted to replace. That’s not good news for right tackle Demar Dotson, who will have his hands full with the fast and physical Ogbah.
Alabama RB Derrick Henry
It’s no surprise that Ron Rivera has tried to build a big, physical offense in Carolina. Newton is the league’s biggest quarterback at 6-foot-6, 250 pounds. Benjamin is one of the NFL’s biggest receivers at 6-foot-5, 240 pounds. Running back Jonathan Stewart is a tackle-breaking bowling ball at 5-foot-10, 235 pounds and Pro Bowl fullback Mike Tolbert is a tank at 5-foot-9, 250 pounds. Can you imagine how powerful the Panthers’ running game would be with the 6-foot-3, 247-pound Henry taking handoffs from Newton? Henry runs angry and has 4.54 speed, which is incredible for a man his size. He rushed for an Alabama record 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns last year. Henry, who won the Heisman Trophy for the national champion Crimson Tide, would be Stewart’s eventual replacement, and that one-two punch could do some serious damage to Tampa Bay’s fast, but undersized defensive front.
New Orleans Saints Nightmare Picks
Louisville DT Sheldon Rankins
After struggling with the transition to Rob Ryan’s 3-4 defense, new defensive coordinator Dennis Allen plans on running a 4-3 scheme. The problem is that the Saints have average defensive tackles lining up next to Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan. The Saints recorded just two sacks from the defensive tackle position last year, and Rankins is the best interior pass rusher in this year’s draft with 18 career sacks at Louisville. The addition of J.R. Sweezy gives Tampa Bay two mauling guards in the run game. The best way to counter physical, aggressive guard play is with quickness, especially in the passing game. Sweezy and Ali Marpet aren’t the best in pass protection, so Rankins could win some of those match-ups, even as a rookie.
Baylor WR Corey Coleman
Drafting another speed receiver to pair with the blazing fast Brandin Cooks would cause problems for Tampa Bay’s secondary, which isn’t the fleetest of foot. Coleman is a better receiver than Laquan Treadwell, whose lack of speed will cause him problems when it comes to separating from defensive backs at the next level, and it’s not just because he has 4.37 speed. Coleman, who won the Biletnikoff Award as college football’s best receiver in 2015, is a very competitive, scrappy, physical receiver for his size. The Saints are grooming a replacement for Colston in Brandon Coleman, who is 6-foot-6. They don’t need another big, lumbering receiver like Treadwell. Put Baylor’s Coleman, who had 74 catches for 1,363 yards and 20 touchdowns last year, on the carpet inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome and watch new Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith sweat.
FAB 3. MILLER COULD BRING SPEED, ATHLETICISM, COMPETITIVE NATURE TO BUCS
At the NFL Owners meeting Buccaneers head coach Dirk Koetter made it clear that he was happy with the team’s current wide receiving corps. Mike Evans, Tampa Bay’s first-round pick in 2014, is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and if the 6-foot-5 monster improves his hands and limits his dropped passes he’s a future Pro Bowler, especially with Jameis Winston throwing him the ball.
Vincent Jackson, another big target at 6-foot-5, 235 pounds, returns at age 33 to be the reliable chain-moving receiver who can still make the occasional big play down the field. Koetter and the Bucs are high on Adam Humphries, who will challenge Louis Murphy, who is coming off a season-ending ACL injury, for the right to be Tampa Bay’s slot receiver in 2016.
Speedy Donteea Dye showed flashes of promise during his rookie season, and the team remains high on Kenny Bell, last year’s fifth-round pick, due to his speed and kick return ability, as well as Evan Spencer, who spent last year on the practice squad. Newcomers Andre Davis and Bernard Reedy fill out the depth chart at the receiver position in Tampa Bay.
But what the Bucs lack outside of the unproven Bell and Dye, who caught just 11 passes for 132 yards and a touchdown seeing action in 10 games, is a true speed receiver – a deep threat that can take the top off the defense and force teams to play Cover with safety help over the top. That keeps a safety out of the box and opens up Tampa Bay’s running game, which features one of the best in the league in Doug Martin.
When Jackson was lost with a knee injury down the stretch, the Bucs offense sputtered as Tampa Bay lost its last four games after a 6-6 start to the 2015 campaign. Evans had just one 100-yard game during the final seven games of the season, a nine-catch, 157-yard effort in a 31-23 loss at St. Louis, but dropped several passes, and was often double covered.
Here’s a look at the Bucs’ speed at wide receiver.
Tampa Bay’s Fastest WRs
Kenny Bell – 4.38
Louis Murphy – 4.43
Donteea Dye – 4.45
Evan Spencer – 4.45
Russell Shepard – 4.46
Vincent Jackson – 4.51
Bernard Reedy – 4.52
Mike Evans – 4.53
Adam Humphries – 4.53
Andre Davis – 4.68
When asked about potentially adding more speed to the receiver position in this year’s draft, Koetter said he’s not looking for a one-trick pony.
“Everybody needs to add a speed receiver, but when you talk about a speed receiver, those guys have to be able to play,” Koetter said. “There were some guys we looked at but a speed receiver still has to show up on third down. They have to be able to play in the red zone. They can’t just get behind the defense twice a game and maybe you hit it and maybe you don’t.”
That’s kind of what Dye was last year for the Buccaneers. He caught a deep ball at St. Louis, but dropped a critical third down pass in the fourth quarter in a home loss to New Orleans.
There are few speedy options at the wide receiver position this year. Baylor’s Corey Coleman has sub-4.4 speed is the best wideout in this year’s class. He could be an option for the Bucs in the first round if they surprise everyone and draft an offensive player instead of addressing needs on defense.
If Notre Dame’s Will Fuller makes it to the 39th pick, Tampa Bay could grab the fastest receiver at the NFL Scouting Combine. Fuller ran a 4.32 at Notre Dame, but has a rail thin frame and didn’t run many routes for the Fighting Irish outside of go routes and bubble screens. Fuller doesn’t offer much in terms of red zone ability or run blocking due to his lanky frame, nor is he experienced on special teams.
The same could be said of TCU’s Kolby Listenbee, who ran a 4.35 at the Combine. He’s a faster version of Dye with straight line speed.
Cal’s Trevor Davis ran a 4.42 and was Jared Goff’s No. 2 receiver behind Kenny Lawler. He has kick return ability, returning two for touchdowns against Washington State, but doesn’t offer much more than being a deep threat on go routes and wide receiver screens.
The Bucs have taken an interest in Ole Miss wide receiver Cody Core, working him out privately in addition to being at his pro day. Core was the Rebels’ No. 2 receiver behind Laquon Treadwell and ran a 4.42 at the Combine at 6-foot-2, 205 pounds, but he’s not sure-handed and had his share of drops at Ole Miss, as well as the East-West Shrine Game.
Which brings me to Ohio State wide receiver Braxton Miller, who was Tampa Bay’s third-round pick in PewterReport.com’s latest Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft. Miller is an extremely raw receiver prospect that only had 26 catches for 341 yards and three touchdowns and added 260 yards and a touchdown on 42 carries. Some NFL draft pundits are getting too carried away with Miller’s athleticism and forecasting him as a high second-round pick. Miller needs a lot of work on his technique and is not the type of player that will make an instant impact as a receiver in the NFL.
Keep in mind that Miller totaled negative-four yards against Illinois, 12 yards against Michigan State, 12 yards versus Michigan, 38 yards against Notre Dame, and then 13 yards on two catches and one run in the Senior Bowl after lighting it up in practice during the week in Mobile, Ala. That’s why I have a project like Miller going in the third round despite the fact that he’s a gifted athlete.
With Koetter satisfied with his present wide receiving corps, a team like Tampa Bay could draft Miller and develop him over time as he learns from the likes of Jackson and Evans. Miller, who has been fielding punts and kickoffs this offseason and had a 31-yard kick return in the Senior Bowl, could compete with Bell and Reedy for the return specialist job in Tampa Bay as a rookie.
What I like – and I have to think the Bucs like, too – about Miller is his competitiveness. As a former All-Big Ten performer at the quarterback position, Miller has great leadership qualities, supreme confidence and an alpha male persona. In PewterReport.com’s interviews with Miller at the Senior Bowl, he revealed that the Bucs had shown interest in him.
“Yes, actually I was just texting them a little while ago,” Miller said of Tampa Bay. “I spoke with them the first day and they are staying in contact, so there might be something.”
Miller said he would love to play with Winston, who is a kindred spirit in terms of competitive fire.
“That’s what he needs – he needs a playmaker,” Miller said. “I know he does.”
Miller’s competitive nature was on display at Ohio State’s pro day, in which the Bucs had a team of scouts in addition to director of college scouting Mike Biehl. After running a 4.5 at the NFL Scouting Combine, which surprised many who thought Miller would run faster, the back-to-back Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year in 2012-13 star dazzled, running a 4.33 and a 4.36. Those times would have made Miller the second-fastest receiver behind Fuller had he run them in Indianapolis.
“Absolutely I was pissed off,” Miller told MMQB.com. “I went straight to my college strength coach and said, ‘We’ve got to get this right.’ I’ve never run a 4.5 in my life. We switched up the training before the pro day and did more speed and agility.
“I look at myself as an Odell Beckham-type of player. He loves the game and loves making plays. I want to be that guy you can always count on to go up and make a play.”
Shoulder surgery kept Miller out of the 2014 season and prompted his switch to wide receiver with the play of J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones, who won the national championship for the Buckeyes that year as a third-string quarterback.
“I knew after the last checkup that I wasn’t ready for quarterback,” Miller told ESPN. “I couldn’t throw over 40 yards. I was throwing hard, about 70 mph, 20 yards. But I couldn’t throw over 40 yards. There’s no point in playing quarterback if you can’t throw over 40 yards. It was devastating.”
“But I love it. I’m just thankful to play football again. I’m out here doing what I love to do and putting everything in God’s hands. That’s what I’ve been doing, just perfecting my craft. I want to be one of the best. That’s what I’ve been doing since I switched positions.”
At 6-foot-1, 201 pounds with make-you-miss agility and quick feet, Miller can be used creatively by Koetter as a Wildcat quarterback in the red zone or short yardage situations due to his running ability, in addition to end-arounds and receiver screens while he develops into a full-fledged NFL pass catcher.
Miller’s former coach Urban Meyer showered praise upon the superstar athlete regarding his transition to the wide receiver position.
“His ball skills are tremendous,” said Meyer in an interview with NFL Media’s Chase Goodbread. “I think it’s the perfect position, and the scouts see it too, for Braxton to play in the NFL. … He’s a really competitive guy.”
Miller was used as a slot receiver at Ohio State, but transitioned well to playing outside receiver for the first time at the Senior Bowl where he shined in practice, winning several 1-on-1 battles.
“When you are on outside it is 1-on-1, the best player against their best defensive back they have,” Miller said. “I want to be that best player on the outside. I already know I can do the inside. I never played on the outside at Ohio State so that is a big thing for me this week to show I can play inside and outside. If you can do both, it is a different kind of ball game.”
Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, who staff coached the North team, praised Miller’s efforts.
“We’re coaching these guys hard and it’s good to see how well he’s responded to that coaching,” Garrett said. “(Braxton Miller is) clearly a great athlete and a productive football player, and someone that has a lot of upside.”
The Bucs do have several needs on the defensive side of the ball that must be addressed in the 2016 NFL Draft. Drafting a wide receiver on Day 2 may seem like a luxury for the fifth-ranked offense in the NFL, but general manager Jason Licht has said that he wants to add winners with a competitive edge to them to the team, and that’s Miller in a nutshell.
“I feel fine about our receiving corps,’’ Koetter said. “I mean, I’m not a believer that Vincent Jackson is anywhere close to being done. I think both of his injuries were both extremely freakish. You’re not going to take a helmet right on the knee in both instances. But he’s a fast healer and I think Mike is going to have a rebound year, if you can call 1,200 yards a bad season. And I’m really excited about the competition we have with the four young guys, Adam, DD, Kenny Bell and Evan Spencer. I’m really excited about those four and then you have the two vets in Louis Murphy and Russell Shephard – and that’s pre-draft. So I don’t think our wide receiver spot is in bad shape at all.”
Yet there still might be a place for a competitive football player like Miller in Tampa Bay, and a creative, offensive mind like Koetter would know exactly what to do with him.
FAB 4. UNDERSTANDING GAME MANAGEMENT IS KEY FOR KOETTER
Tampa Bay’s offense appears to be in great hands with head coach and play-caller Dirk Koetter, who in his first year with the Buccaneers helped produce over 6,000 yards for the first time in franchise history. Koetter’s offense ranked fifth in the league overall in total yardage in 2016, averaging 375.9 yards per game.
Everyone from the offensive staff returns from a year ago except for wide receivers coach Andrew Hayes-Stoker, who was replaced by Southern Mississippi head coach Todd Monken, who will also serve as Koetter’s offensive coordinator. Monken is viewed as an upgrade.
Veteran coach Mike Smith takes over the reins of Tampa Bay’s defense and will run an aggressive multiple front, featuring both 4-3 and 3-4 looks. Expect the Bucs defense to be much improved in 2016, especially the beleaguered secondary, which suffered under Lovie Smith a year ago.
Tampa Bay’s mediocre special teams are expected to be shored up by new coordinator Nate Kaczor, who needs to find a return specialist and decide which kicker – Pat Murray or Connor Barth – is the right man for the job. But for all of the field goals, sacks, interceptions, deep balls and touchdowns from the Bucs’ special teams, defense and offense, it is often the game management aspect of football that pushes some teams into the playoffs and keeps others out of the postseason.
Aside from poor play-calling and personnel usage and development on defense, the other reason Lovie Smith was fired in Tampa Bay was due to his poor game management. Punting when he should go for it. Trying field goals when he should punt it. Wasting timeouts. Leaving timeouts in his pocket at halftime. Not challenging plays that should be challenged. Smith was famous for all of the above, which is part of the reason the Bucs went 8-24 on his watch, and a reason he’s now coaching at the University of Illinois.
It’s been 10 years since Koetter was a head coach, and that was at Arizona State. Things happen much faster at the NFL level. Sure, he’ll have Mike Smith to lean on, as he was a head coach in Atlanta for seven years and made enough of the right calls on the sidelines to produce five straight winning seasons from 2008-12, including four playoff appearances. But all eyes on the sidelines will be on Koetter to make the split-second decision that could help determine the outcome of the game.
Smith’s stubbornness ended up costing him head coaching jobs in Chicago and Tampa Bay. Former Bears general manager Jerry Angelo tried to get Smith to hire a game management coach to help him determine when to use timeouts, when to go for it on fourth downs using down-and-distance and field positioning matrix, but Smith would have none of it. He thought he knew everything and stopped taking input.
Remember when the Bucs hired Smith and there was a rash of Bears fans that commented on social media that Tampa Bay would regret it, and among his flaws was that he was a terrible game manager? Smith had some success in Chicago, but probably lost more games than he should have due to sub-par head coaching.
Koetter has already taken a step in the right direction, giving the title of assistant wide receivers coach/game management to offensive assistant Andrew Weidinger. He apparently aided Koetter and Smith with some game management analytics for years in Atlanta. Koetter is off to a good start as a first-time NFL head coach.
This subject is near and dear to PewterReport.com owner and president Hugh MacArthur, who collaborated with me in this section of the SR’s Fab 5. MacArthur, who grew up in Tampa, now lives outside of Boston where he also keeps an eye on the New England Patriots and marvels at what their legendary head coach, Bill Belichick, has done with that organization. A great deal of this remaining section is comprised of his thoughts, which I agree with wholeheartedly.
To help prepare him for his first season running an NFL team, Bucs general manager Jason Licht should compile a head coach’s handbook for Koetter to read over summer vacation with some of the best things he’s learned from being around Belichick from his days with the Patriots organization. Licht should scribble down what he absorbed from being around Arizona head coach Bruce Arians, too.
With Weidinger’s help on game day, here are the areas that Koetter truly needs to master to prove he’s a step above Lovie Smith, and to help the Bucs win some crucial situational football with the right game management calls from the sidelines.
Most NFL head coaches suck at this and fail to understand that they are likely only getting 10-12 possessions per game, and it’s their job to max out on the points per possession. Taking a knee with 50 seconds left in the half from your own 30-yard line with three timeouts left is ludicrous – even if your team is ahead by a bunch. No lead is safe in the NFL. Ask Tampa Bay, which blew a 24-point lead at Washington last year.
Koetter doesn’t need to do anything crazy, but he needs to try to score on every possible possession. He will need to know when to go to hurry up because the Bucs are behind and he’ll need more clock at the end of the game. Koetter will need to know when to slow things down to preserve a lead in the fourth quarter without taking the offense out of rhythm.
These are things he will need to get a feel for so he doesn’t have to think so much about them. They don’t matter in college because the clock stops all the time, and they don’t matter much if you are an offensive coordinator because your side of the ball is only on the field half of the game. Yet a head coach can easily lose a game by being stupid with the clock in the NFL.
Use Of Timeouts
This is another area where most NFL coaches are terrible. Time must be spent thinking about scenarios and going through enough situations that you know when you are going to use your timeouts so that you formulate a philosophy. Leaving first half timeouts on the table is usually stupid. Look at the Patriots as an example.
If there is less than five minutes remaining in the half, Belichick will try to run out the clock and score. If they need to use timeouts to do that, then they will. If the other team has the ball, they will stop the clock enough to ensure they get it back before halftime. New England has a philosophy of deferring the ball until the second half at the coin toss. Then they try to score right at the end of the first half and to begin the second half.
It doesn’t work all the time, but it’s pretty devastating when it does. Koetter, who has said he plans on being more aggressive on offense now that Smith is gone, would be pretty smart to try to do it.
Use Of Challenges
Again, many coaches are not smart about this. The idea isn’t to win marginal challenges that don’t really impact the game. The idea is to challenge major plays like turnovers that can have a huge impact – even if you aren’t sure you are right. Scores and turnovers are reviewed now, which helps, but catches and ball spots are not automatically reviewed.
We’ve all seen strange review calls. We’ve also seen Smith challenge plays he has no chance of winning and not challenge plays that should obviously be worth another look.
A critical “non-catch” or first down call needs to be challenged. Koetter gets two shots. Forget the percentage that you win. If you are right even a few times, you can change the flow of the game and shift momentum. It’s usually worth the risk to challenge questionable calls, but because they result in lost timeouts if he loses, Koetter must be strategic in his decision-making when it comes to challenges.
Use Of Fourth Down
Ninety-nine percent of NFL coaches don’t have even a basic idea of statistics or probability. Belichick knows more than most, which is why he goes for it on fourth down more than almost anybody else. Arians will do that, too, out west in Arizona.
The odds are generally in your favor to go for it on fourth down in short yardage versus punting, or even kicking a field goal. Part of this is statistics and probability, but the part of it is having a proper read on the game situation (like “Is my defense stopping their offense at all?”). Generally speaking, being aggressive on fourth down gives you a better chance to win, especially near midfield or in opponents’ territory.
There are other ways Koetter can try to find a competitive edge. Did you know that Belichick always has a left-footed punter? Most punters are right-footed and the ball spins the opposite way off the left foot. That irregularity might make a punt returner more prone to drop the ball. It’s this type of thinking that has made New England a four-time Super Bowl champion and Belichick a legend.
But Koetter doesn’t need to go that far in his first season as an NFL head coach. If he is aware that he has limited possessions and time and need to max out on points, that is a good start. Then you get into situations on the clock, timeouts, challenges and fourth downs and figure out what the right thing to do is ahead of time. He can adjust for in-game situations obviously, but Koetter should know what he wants to do based on what is correlated with winning before the game starts.
While there are plenty of books written by former or current coaches, there isn’t a head coach training manual. Coaches just seem to do what they have seen other coaches do. Everybody goes by that because they won’t be called out for being dumb by doing something different.
If it’s fourth-and-1 and everybody else punts, that’s the thing to do, right? Not necessarily.
Nobody wants to get fired. Belichick has four Super Bowl rings so he can go for it on fourth-and-2 from his own 29 yard line against Indianapolis as he did a few years back, and he can defer the ball to the New York Jets in overtime and lose both games and get away with it because of his clout and reputation. However, both of those calls were correct given the circumstances. They gave the Patriots the best chance to win – it just didn’t happen.
Belichick isn’t the only one. Remember when Sean Payton come out with a surprise onside kick to open the second half of New Orleans’ Super Bowl win over Indianapolis? The Saints were trailing 10-6 and that onside kick gave them the momentum they needed to win the game. Payton properly read the game flow and realized that if Peyton Manning drove the Colts down for a touchdown that a 17-6 lead in the Super Bowl might be insurmountable given the way his offense was playing up to that point. Payton threw collective thinking to the wayside and went rouge – and it worked because the Colts weren’t expecting it.
Koetter is highly likable. He’s got an effervescent personality and he’s high energy. Calling his Buccaneers in the offseason and meeting with them is good, and having them run through walls for him is wonderful. Having schemes that work that he and his assistant coaches can reliably teach the players is also good. All of that and having good players gets you to the playoffs.
But if a coach is ignorant about game management, he is much more likely to squander some precious, winnable games. There is often little difference from team to team in the NFL because the talent is so close around the league. Winning in the NFL comes down to finding the minor edges – the edges that can turn losses into wins and vice versa. That’s what Koetter – and Weidinger – need to manage effectively on Sunday to get the Bucs back to their winning ways.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• One of the appealing aspects of drafting Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves in the first round is that he hails from Tampa and went to Wharton High School. In an effort to win over the Tampa Bay community and grow their fan base, the Buccaneers drafted a slew of local prospects in the 1990s, such as running back Errict Rhett, wide receivers Reidel Anthony and Jacquez Green and offensive linemen Jason Odom and Kenyatta Walker from Florida; linebacker Derrick Brooks, running back Warrick Dunn and safety Dexter Jackson from Florida State; and defensive tackle Warren Sapp, quarterback Craig Erickson, linebacker Nate Webster and wide receivers Lamar Thomas and Horace Copeland from the University of Miami.
With Raymond James Stadium not sold out on a regular basis and the Bucs receiving a shot in the arm in ticket sales with last year’s selection of Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, continuing to add in-state prospects like Hargreaves has added appeal to Tampa Bay. Hargreaves grew up a Bucs fan and hopes the team drafts him. He even wrote the word “Tampa” on his cleats during his sensational pro day workout in Gainesville last month.
• It’s interesting to note that the Buccaneers have worked out a couple of draft prospects at the quarterback position this year. Arkansas’ Brandon Allen and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan have revealed that Tampa Bay has held private workouts for both of the signal callers, who will likely be mid-round picks.
It’s doubtful that the Bucs would spend a draft pick on a quarterback after spending a first-round pick on franchise QB Jameis Winston last year. So why the Bucs’ interest in Allen and Hogan? Quarterback is the most important position in football and having a quality backup is vital for NFL teams’ sustained success.
The Bucs knew about Ryan Griffin, the team’s third-string quarterback, from scouting him at Tulane years ago. With the team likely trade backup Mike Glennon this year or see him walk next year in free agency for a compensatory draft pick in 2018, Tampa Bay will be looking for the next Griffin so it can repeat the process in a few years in case Griffin leaves in free agency or doesn’t work out.
The other reason why the Bucs would want to workout some quarterbacks is because players like Allen and Hogan can offer tremendous insight into their teammates as well as some of the best pass rushers, coverage linebackers and defensive backs they’ve face. Allen threw against Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who has drawn interest from Tampa Bay, in the SEC. Hogan faced UCLA linebackers Myles Jack and Aaron Wallace, whom the Bucs have both worked out.
• There aren’t too many exciting wide receiver prospects this year outside of Baylor’s Corey Coleman, TCU’s Josh Doctson, Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard, Ohio State’s Michael Thomas and Southern Mississippi’s own Mike Thomas, who played for new Tampa Bay wide receivers coach Todd Monken. But there is one receiver prospect that has NFL teams buzzing as a Day 3 sleeper.
Moritz Boehringer is a 6-foot-4, 227-pound beast of a wide receiver that hails from Germany and has played in various American football leagues in his homeland. Boehringer played for the Schwäbisch Hall Unicorns in the GFL (German Football League) in 2015, and previously played for the Crailsheim Titans in a minor league.
Boehringer had 59 catches for 1,232 yards and 13 touchdowns in 16 games last year and lit it up at Florida Atlantic’s pro day. The Bucs had scouts in attendance to see Boehringer run a blazing 4.43 in the 40-yard dash, post a 39-inch vertical leap, broad jump 10-feet, 11 inches, run the short shuttle in 4.1 seconds and hit the three-cone drill with a time of 6.65.
The German star is fluent in English and is eager to make his way on to an NFL roster. He reportedly didn’t drop a pass at the pro day workout. Is he the second coming of Packers receiver Jeff Janis, who went from small school stardom at Saginaw Valley State to the NFL, or is he the second coming of former community college phenom Larry Brackins, a fifth-round pick by the Bucs in 2005 that never panned out? Check out his highlight video and see for yourself.
• If you are a PewterReport.com reader, but don’t follow us on Twitter please do so and help us get to over 22,000 before the 2016 NFL Draft. We’re just a few hundred Twitter followers away. Please e-mail or text your friends, family and co-workers our @PewterReport Twitter handle and encourage them to follow us. Thank you!
• And finally, here’s an update on the PewterReport.com Day 2 Draft Party at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. PewterReport.com has taken its partnership with Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino to a new level this year, beginning with the PewterReport.com Day 2 Draft Party which will be held at the Hard Rock Cafe on Friday, April 29. Come join us to watch Tampa Bay’s selections in the second and third rounds and meet current Tampa Bay defensive linemen Akeem Spence and Will Gholston, wide receiver Kenny Bell, kicker Pat Murray and former Buccaneers defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson, Super Bowl XXXVII hero Dwight Smith and Super Bowl XXXVII MVP Dexter Jackson.
This is going to be the biggest and best PewterReport.com draft party that we’ve ever done. This is a FREE event and there will be FREE beer tasting by a local craft brewery Pair O’ Dice from 5:00 – 7:00 p.m. Hard Rock Cafe, which does have free Wi-Fi, will also have food and drink specials for the NFL Draft, which we will announce later this month.
Mark Cook and I will be on hand to conduct a Bucs question and answer session live on stage with former and current Buccaneers players during the hour before the televised draft coverage begins, and there will be autograph and photo opportunities. Cook will leave as the draft begins, but I will remain at the PewterReport.com Day 2 Draft Party to offer live analysis of Tampa Bay’s draft selections that night. The on-stage program begins at 5:30 p.m. and we encourage all Bucs fans who plan on attending to arrive no later than 6:00 p.m. to be guaranteed seating.
Seating is limited to the first 150 Bucs fans, so an RSVP WILL BE required, and there will be a check-in at the door at Hard Rock Cafe the day of the event. We have already received RSVPs from last week’s announcement in the SR’s Fab 5, and there are less than 100 seats left. Reservations are taken on a first-come, first-serve basis, so e-mail us at [email protected] to reserve your spot. Stay tuned to PewterReport.com for more information on our big draft party at the Hard Rock Cafe in the coming weeks.