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. BUCCANEERS SHOULD DRAFT WINSTON WITH FIRST OVERALL PICK
Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht and head coach Lovie Smith have to be thrilled that Florida State redshirt sophomore quarterback Jameis Winston has decided to enter the 2015 NFL Draft for several reasons.
First, they have another elite quarterback to compare and contrast Oregon’s Marcus Mariota to in the scouting process.
Second, there is another quarterback that a team might be willing to assemble a massive trade package for if Mariota doesn’t fit that team’s offense (and he doesn’t fit most NFL offenses).
Third, and most importantly, if I’m the quarterback-needy Buccaneers I want Winston to enter the draft because I would use the No. 1 overall pick on him.
That’s right. I would take Winston – the football player – over Mariota with the top overall pick and let new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter develop this stud of a pocket passer as he did Andrew Walter and Rudy Carpenter at Arizona State, David Garrard in Jacksonville, and Matt Ryan in Atlanta. Koetter has never run a spread offense before, and that’s what Mariota thrived in. Let’s set aside Winston’s off-field incidents for a moment and focus on his gridiron glory and I’ll explain why I would take him over Mariota.
I spent a great deal of time in a previous SR’s Fab 5 explaining why pocket passers still rule in the NFL, and that’s why a passer like Derek Carr had a better rookie season than a mobile quarterback like Johnny Manziel. Whether Winston or Mariota is the top quarterback in this draft is debatable. What’s not debatable is the fact that Winston is the top pocket passer in the draft.
As good as Mariota is – and as gaudy as his stats are – he is not an elite pocket passer, not as accurate as his stats would suggest, and would need time to develop and demonstrate that he can truly evolve to a pro-style system from a spread offense quarterback where his running skills are just as valued as his passing skills. Quarterbacks of that kind, most notably Colin Kaepernick and Robert Griffin III, haven’t had the sustained level of success that traditional pocket passers have had in the NFL.
Yet Winston was groomed as a pocket passer at Florida State in Jimbo Fisher’s pro-style offense. The Seminoles head coach believes Winston is an NFL-ready quarterback.
“We run a pro system,” Fisher said. “He’s declaring Mikes, he’s changing protections, he’s sighting, he’s hotting – I’ve never been around a guy that can process information that quickly. To me, it’s all about decision-making and accuracy and winning from the pocket.”
While some are trying to make the connection that Tampa Bay may be more inclined to draft Mariota because of the past coaching connection between Koetter and Oregon head coach Mark Helfich, Koetter hasn’t run a spread offense before and his offenses have always featured pocket-passers. Helfich would naturally give his guy, Mariota, the thumb’s up to Koetter, but the new offensive coordinator won’t be deciding which quarterback the Bucs will draft. That decision will be made by Licht, Smith and the Glazers.
Winston is more ready to step into the huddle of the Buccaneers and win as a rookie than Mariota is in my estimation. And if you don’t think that’s important, ask Licht and Smith, who inherited a 4-12 team and produced a 2-14 record in their first season on the job in Tampa Bay.
Their seats at One Buccaneer Place are already getting warm, and drafting a rookie quarterback could buy them an extra year’s worth of grace on the job – but only if they draft the right one. Winston is the quarterback that can help Tampa Bay win right now. If Licht and Smith draft Mariota they very well may be selecting the QB for the next regime.
Remember how Winston fared in his college debut as a redshirt freshman at Florida State? He dodged Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald on his way to completing 25-of-27 passes (92.6 percent) for 356 yards with four touchdowns, no interceptions and a rushing touchdown on opening day in 2013. When has there been a collegiate debut like that from a freshman?
A 92-percent completion percentage, and five total touchdowns in a debut? Unreal.
That’s impressive – just as impressive as winning at Clemson, winning the Heisman Trophy and leading his team to a come-from-behind win in the National Championship Game against Auburn as a redshirt freshman. And Winston, who completed 20-of-35 (57.1 percent) passes for 237 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Tigers, was 6-of-7 for 77 yards on that final drive, including a game-winning, 2-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin with 17 seconds remaining.
The guy is an absolute winner. While surrounded with some very good talent, Winston IS Florida State. He’s the Seminoles’ undisputed leader and rules that team with enthusiasm, an infectious smile, limitless energy and a healthy dose of swagger that has allowed him to engineer several heroic comebacks this year in the second half of games.
With comeback victories over Auburn in 2013 and against Oklahoma State, Notre Dame, Louisville, North Carolina State, Miami, Florida and Georgia Tech this year, Winston is 7-0 in games decided by seven points or less. That’s what the NFL is all about – close games. In case you are wondering, Mariota is 2-3 in games decided by a touchdown or less.
Mariota, who is a very good quarterback in his own right, is not the caliber of leader that Winston is. Mariota is an engineer, and there’s a difference. The Hawaiian-born Ducks quarterback is a cog – yet a vital one – of an offensive machine at Oregon that Chip Kelly built in 2007 as the team’s offensive coordinator under Mike Bellotti. Kelly assumed the head coaching title in 2009 and served in that position before leaving for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2013.
Is Mariota truly an elite NFL quarterback or merely a product of the system? Consider that his predecessor, Darron Thomas, threw 66 touchdowns and 17 picks while passing for 5,910 yards in his two years as the Ducks’ starter. Thomas compiled a 24-3 record, including going 12-2 with a 22-19 loss to Auburn in the BCS National Championship Game in 2011.
After completing 61.3 percent of his passes and throwing a Mariota-like 33 TDs and just seven INTs, Thomas entered into the NFL draft as a junior and went undrafted because he was considered to be a product of Oregon’s system. Despite Kelly leaving, the Oregon offensive machine continues under head coach Mark Helfrich and offensive coordinator Scott Frost, and that concerns me because it seems like the Ducks spread offense could function with or without Mariota.
I don’t see the Buccaneers drafting Mariota for several reasons, being a product of Oregon’s offense is one of them. Another reason is that some NFL teams, and Tampa Bay may indeed be one of them, don’t like Mariota’s demeanor and lack of leadership skills. He’s not a type-A personality like Tom Brady, Peyton Manning or Drew Brees is, and Mariota is quieter than even-keeled QBs like Eli Manning and Joe Flacco, and even former Bucs starting quarterback Josh Freeman.
“You have to be genuine to be followed,” Fisher said. “They say, ‘You’re not serious like most quarterbacks.’ But he is. That’s his personality.”
Former Florida State teammate LaMarcus Joyner, who is a cornerback with the St. Louis Rams, absolutely loved playing with Winston last year.
“He has that swagger and that attitude that makes you want to follow him,” Joyner said a year ago. “Despite being a redshirt freshman, he’s a natural born leader.”
During Winston’s freshman season he was more of a vocal leader than starting quarterback E.J. Manuel was in 2012.
“He was constantly up and down that sideline in guys’ faces, challenging them,” Fisher said. “You thought he was the guy.”
Smith is as optimistic of a head coach as you’ll find in the NFL, and Winston’s ever-present smile and upbeat enthusiasm will mesh well with him and Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy – although Winston has more swagger than the humble face of the Buccaneers franchise does. But Tampa Bay’s offense has been swagger-less for most of the team’s 39 years of existence. Winston’s leadership style, presence in the pocket, and playmaking ability are sorely needed in Tampa Bay.
Tampa Bay’s head coach, general manager and scouts need to thoroughly investigate Winston, who turned 21 on Tuesday, to see if his well-documented off-field issues at Florida State are a result of poor character or just him being an immature college kid that needs to grow up (Lord knows the things I did in college!). The Glazers will need to determine whether they want to risk giving millions to another underclassman quarterback and hope Winston doesn’t let off-field issues squander his career the way Josh Freeman recently did.
I’ve had some conversations with some very well connected people associated with the Florida State football team who paint a very different picture of Winston than what has been portrayed in the media. Based on what I know, I wouldn’t be surprised if Winston passes the Bucs’ character test with relative ease.
However, Smith and Licht need to ask Winston direct questions about the sexual assault allegations from 2012 despite the fact that investigators didn’t have enough evidence to prosecute, and they need to be satisfied with the answers. If Winston passes the background check and is deemed to be worth the gamble by the franchise, he has the electricity to fill up Raymond James Stadium and light up the scoreboard.
“Jameis Winston has never been charged with a crime,” said Gene Deckerhoff, the voice of both the Buccaneers and the Seminoles radio broadcasts in an interview with ESPN 1000 in November. “He has never been arrested for a crime. He has won 23 consecutive games, every game he has started. He is a leader in the clubhouse on the baseball team. He is a team leader in the locker room on the football team. Yes, he did win the Heisman trophy a year ago when he led his team, as a freshman, to a national championship. All the kid does is win.
“He’s been honored as much as any player in the history of college football, at least to this point in his career. And yet he is probably the most maligned and the most hated guy in a college uniform.”
Pewter nation is split over which quarterback it wants to lead Tampa Bay’s offense as some want Winston and some want Mariota. Yet Winston’s smile, swagger and ability to win will eventually win over every Buccaneers fan in time – even those with allegiance to the Florida Gators as former Seminoles Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn were able to do.
The last time Tampa Bay had the first overall pick was in 1987 when the team tried to get a franchise quarterback in Heisman Trophy-winning Vinny Testaverde. Since then, the Buccaneers have spent first-round draft picks on Dilfer (1994) and Freeman (2009), a second-rounder on Shaun King (1999), a third-rounder on Mike Glennon (2013) and a fifth-rounder on Josh Johnson (2008) trying desperately to find the playmaker the team thought it was getting in Testaverde, and a long-term solution at the quarterback position – but to no avail.
That quarterback is Winston. I think he is worth the risk, and I’m hoping the Buccaneers feel the same way. The guy is a winner.
FAB 2. WINSTON’S POCKET PRESENCE, FOOTBALL I.Q. ARE SPECIAL
When you watch Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston play you might see the way he can shrug off defenders like Ben Roethlisberger and make plays from the pocket.
You might see him scramble 20 yards down field – as he has done four times in his career – for a touchdown.
You might see Winston chuck the ball down the field as he has in 18 games out of the 29 games he’s played in with a pass of at least 40 yards.
But what you may not be able to appreciate is the quality that is usually referred to as the “It” factor. That internal quality is hard to explain, but you know it when you see it, and Winston has it. Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher said that his football I.Q. is what makes his prized pupil so special.
“The thing about him, once you put it in that computer and once you say it one time – it may come out for weeks later [in a game] and he remembers it,” Fisher said. “He can process, and I think that’s why he’s going to be built for the pro game.
“The other thing he does when the throws the football, he doesn’t have to see a guy open. He can anticipate him open. You know up there at that level, that’s what it’s about. Quickening your hands, adjusting air on the ball, making it come out quicker – those are things you can coach all you want and work on, but you either have them or you don’t. He has those special gifts. I think he’s built for the NFL.”
Before Winston passed for 7,964 yards with 65 touchdowns and 28 interceptions, won a Heisman Trophy, a national championship or helped the Seminoles win 29 straight games, he was an 18-year old attendee at Trent Dilfer’s Elite11 QB Camp that was run by Trent Dilfer and broadcast on ESPN. Here’s what the former Buccaneers quarterback had to say to Winston three years ago.
“I don’t know what to say to you,” Dilfer said. “You’re an incredible kid. You’re funny. You’re comfortable in your own skin. You are a leader. You are smart as a whip. You are one of the smartest kids I’ve ever been around. Nobody learned faster. … That’s a gift, dude. Everyone is going to talk about how gifted this is (points to Winston’s arm) and how fast you are. I’ve seen you move and how great you throw. You’re tough and you pitch fast. That’s great. It’s awesome. But this (points to his head) is special. You are really smart, and when I say you need to wrap your head around the surgeon-butcher-thing, that’s going to be my challenge to you because you’re going to be good enough to just be a butcher and be called a surgeon. You’ll make people miss and you’ll run around and you’ll make these incredible plays on the move, and everyone will go, ‘Whoa! Jameis Winston – unbelievable!’
“But when you are playing on Sundays, which I really believe you will if you want to, it’s going to come down to a third-and-7 in the fourth quarter, down by four – and they are going to keep you in the pocket. They are not going to let you be fast and quick and all that. And that’s going to be a mistake because you are going to beat them here (points to his head), and that’s what I’m most impressed with.”
Dilfer saw Winston’s promise three years ago and he’s lived up to everything the ESPN NFL analyst said in that interview. Dilfer was spot on. Winston has an incredible mind for playing football and more on-field intelligence than he’s given credit for.
“Education to him is very critical,” Fisher said. “This guy is a very good student. Getting a college degree is very important to him and his family.”
Even Bucs and Seminoles radio broadcaster Gene Deckerhoff can attest to Winston’s commitment to his education.
“I will say this: I’ve been around Jameis, I’ve been around his family. He goes to class,” said Deckerhoff. “He’s a 3.0 or better grade point average. He rides a bicycle to class. He is the quintessential student athlete. I’m very proud that Jameis Winston is the quarterback of the Florida State Seminoles.
“I’ll promise you this. He will win a Super Bowl for whichever team that drafts him in the National Football League.”
It isn’t just the football I.Q. – that new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter will love – that makes Winston’s intellect special. It’s also his mental toughness and his ability to handle adversity. Fisher noted how effectively Winston dealt with the distraction of his off-field accusations and mistakes over this past year.
“He can put things away like a man does and compartmentalize things, take care of his teammates, take care of his family and take care of everyone involved because he’s very mature,” Fisher said. “The reason he can do that is he knows the facts [about the sexual allegations].
“This country is based on being innocent until you are proven guilt, not guilty until you are proven innocent. There is no victim because there was no crime. We are convicting a guy over things that are not true based on evidence, but there is no evidence, so it’s not true. There are facts of the case in the report, but with public opinion, they want to do what they do. They don’t get what they want.”
Even in the sting of defeat – his only loss in college football – Winston displayed mental toughness. There were no tears after falling to Oregon, 59-20, in the Rose Bowl. Instead there was resilience and a smile on Winston’s face as if to suggest that he wasn’t going to let that loss get the better of him.
“Everything I have been through and everything I have experienced has made me a better person,” Winston said in his post-game interview. “That’s why I’m so happy I came to Florida State. I have got a head coach that loves me, and teammates that love me. There’s nowhere else to go but up. When you have great people surrounding you and you have a great family, but it’s not over yet. Hopefully I have a long life ahead of me. I don’t plan on dying today.
“No one likes to lose. Losing is not in my vocabulary, but we fell short today. We have to man up and get better every day. I just hope we can learn from this because I ain’t felt this way in a long time. That’s something to smile about.”
FAB 3. WINSTON’S INTERCEPTIONS SHOULDN’T BE A CONCERN IN THE NFL
Would you consider Brett Favre, George Blanda, Fran Tarkenton, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, Y.A. Tittle, Bobby Layne, Dan Fouts, Peyton Manning, Warren Moon and John Elway some of the best quarterbacks to ever suit up in the NFL? Of course you would.
Nine of those quarterbacks are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and two more (Favre and Manning) will join them when they are eligible. But did you know that all nine of those Hall of Famers are on the list of top 15 quarterbacks that have thrown the most interceptions in NFL history?
And did you know that Favre, whom some consider to be the best playmaking and improvisational quarterback of all time, has thrown more interceptions – 336 – than anyone else in the NFL? Of course Favre has also thrown 508 touchdowns, which was the most in NFL history until Manning (530) topped it last year.
Favre was a true gunslinger and took a lot of chances with the football, but that playing style served him well as he threw 172 more touchdowns than picks during his 20-year playing career. But did you know that other legendary quarterbacks didn’t have such a spread between their touchdown totals and their interception totals?
Elway only threw 74 more TDs than INTs. Moon only threw 58 more touchdowns than interceptions. Unitas only tossed more 37 more scores against his picks. Fouts only had 12 more touchdowns than INTs, while Tittle only had six more scores. Blanda and Layne had far more interceptions than they did touchdowns.
Yes, Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston had 25 touchdowns in 2014 against 18 interceptions. That’s an increase over the 10 he threw as a Heisman Trophy-winning redshirt freshman when he tossed 40 touchdowns. It’s a little concerning to see a player of Winston’s caliber throw 15 less scoring strikes and eight more interceptions during his sophomore season.
Yet the Seminoles won 13 straight games this year despite those interceptions before losing to Oregon, 59-20, in the Rose Bowl, which served as the first round of the college football playoffs. Winston’s critics argue that his interceptions dug himself and the Seminoles into a lot of the holes that turned out to be comeback wins.
However, coaches from Pop Warner to the NFL always tell their players who make mistakes to go out and make up for it. With the exception of just one game, Winston did that at Florida State.
So why should Winston be crucified for throwing so many picks behind an overrated offensive line that underperformed for the first half of the season with two new running backs and without the services of 6-foot-5 wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who was a first-round pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, and playing with two freshmen receivers? With less talent around him, Florida State’s 2014 season was more on Winston’s shoulders than it was during the Seminoles’ title run in 2013.
Did you know that Winston only had four games in college in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns? He threw one touchdown and two picks against Oklahoma State and the Seminoles still won by six points in the 2014 season opener. He did the same thing against Virginia this year and won by 14 points, and the same against Miami last year and won by 27 points.
Even against Florida this year in which he threw a career-high four interceptions against two touchdowns, the Seminoles beat the Gators by five points.
Winston will throw a good deal of interceptions in the NFL, especially in Dirk Koetter’s offense, which is rather aggressive and will push the ball down the field. Winston is a gunslinger like Favre and Elway were, and they threw their share of picks. But the Florida State star has also shown the ability to shrug off those interceptions and rally his team for wins in the fourth quarter, and that’s what matters the most.
FAB 4. DRAFTING ERVING IN THE SECOND ROUND WOULD AID THE BUCS
If the Buccaneers do in fact select Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston with the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, as they should since he is the best quarterback prospect, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht should come right back to the Seminoles with the next pick and grab left tackle Cameron Erving.
How talented is Erving? He won the prestigious Jacobs Blocking Trophy, which recognizes the ACC’s top offensive lineman, in his first season at left tackle in 2013. Erving held Clemson pass rusher Vic Beasley without a sack and helped hold Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald to just two tackles and a tackle for loss that year, while the Seminoles set school and ACC records for single-season total offense (7,267 yards), points per game (51.6 avg.) and set the national record for points (723).
With Erving protecting Winston’s blindside, Florida State led the nation in touchdowns with 94, which was a school record, and set records for the most passing touchdowns (42) and rushing touchdowns (42) in Seminoles history. After an impressive debut on offense as a junior, picking up All-ACC First Team honors and various first- and second-team All-American nods, Erving became the first Florida State offensive lineman to be placed on the All-ACC team twice in the same season in 2014.
With Florida State’s offensive line struggling for the first half of the season, head coach Jimbo Fisher went to Erving after the Virginia game on November and asked him to switch to center where the Seminoles were struggling mightily. Although he played in only the last five games of the year at center, including the Rose Bowl, Erving made such an impression that he was named to the All-ACC Second Team.
With Tampa Bay’s offensive line struggling mightily in 2014, spending a high second-round pick there on a player like Erving makes sense. The Bucs will go into 2015 with Demar Dotson penciled in at left tackle after he spent the final three games of the 2014 campaign there after switching from the right side. Having an experienced player like Erving on the roster to compete with Dotson could be a good thing.
Because he transitioned so well to center with his snaps and shotgun snaps, Erving could also challenge Evan Dietrich-Smith there, too, or at least provide a better insurance policy than Garrett Gilkey could. And if he moved inside so well to the center spot, perhaps Erving’s 6-foot-5, 320-pound frame could help him at guard, where the Bucs might need the most help.
Erving has long arms, strong hands, good movement skills and quick feet that let him get to the second level to block with ease. He is a physical player that began his Florida State career on the defensive line before switching to offense, and he still plays with that aggressive temperament.
The Moultrie, Ga. native’s skills will be on display at the Senior Bowl where he will stack up nicely against the likes of Pittsburgh’s T.J. Clemmings, who may be the best right tackle in the draft, LSU’s La’el Collins, Oregon’s Jake Fisher and Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi and Colorado State’s Ty Sambrailo. Right now, Erving is considered to be a late first- or early second-round pick.
If he’s on the board near the end of the first round, the Buccaneers may be wise to move up from the second round and grab the most versatile lineman in the 2015 NFL Draft. If Winston is Tampa Bay’s first overall pick it would only make sense to draft a talented stud that has protected him and snapped to him.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• One last observation about Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston. His worst game for the Seminoles came this year when he completed just 12-of-24 passes for 125 yards with two touchdowns and four interceptions against Florida. How did he bounce back? By completing 21-of-30 (70 percent) passes for 309 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions against Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship Game, which FSU won 37-35.
The ability to shake off losses and bounce back is a necessary trait for successful NFL quarterbacks, and Winston seems to have that ability. How will he bounce back from loving his first – and last – collegiate game?
Yet despite having an often-publicized fumble against Oregon in the Rose Bowl, Winston didn’t have a bad game against the Ducks, completing 29-of-45 passes (64.4 percent) for 348 yards with a touchdown and an interception.
“It was just an unfortunate play, man,” Winston said of his fumble, which was returned for a touchdown. “I never thought I would slip, throw the ball backwards – man, it’s just an unfortunate play. But that’s football. It was fourth down and I was trying to compete – compete my tail off and get us in a good situation.”
Winston was gracious after losing to Marcus Mariota and the Ducks, 59-20, in a game that featured five Seminoles turnovers, but still had an edgy, competitive swagger in the post-game press conference.
“You have to tip your hat to him because he won the game and led his team to victory,” Winston said. “That’s the most important part, but we played our tails off, too. This game could have gone either way. If everybody in this room wants to be real with themselves, this game could have gone either way. We turned the ball over a lot. We beat ourselves.
“It wasn’t like they were stopping us. Their offense was great. Their defense did great, but we were never stopped.”
• As you might have heard, former Buccaneers head coach Tony Dungy is an unabashed fan of Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota. Dungy recently told Dan Patrick that Mariota would be a great pro quarterback.
“Marcus Mariota is a fantastic player,” Dungy said. “He’s going to be a great pro. He can throw from the pocket. I watched him in practice. I watched him in training camp for three years when my son was at Oregon. Not only is he going to be a great quarterback, he’s going to be a great person – face of the franchise for whoever takes him. I think this is Aaron Rodgers in the waiting.”
Dungy was asked if he would draft the Heisman Trophy winner if he were the general manager of the Buccaneers.
“I’m taking Marcus Mariota in a heartbeat, and I’m excited to have him,” Dungy said.
No offense to Dungy, who has forgotten more football than I’ll ever know, but he’s not exactly an authority on quarterbacks based on who he had in Tampa Bay, and may not have won a Super Bowl if he didn’t inherit Peyton Manning when he went to Indianapolis. Dungy is one of the most high character figures in the NFL and will naturally gravitate towards a high-character quarterback like Mariota over a guy like Jameis Winston, who has gotten into his share of trouble at Florida State. I’m not surprised by his Mariota endorsement.
• Here are some PewterReport.com programming notes that you’ll want to pay attention to. On Sunday I’ll have a list of 10 players at the East-West Shrine Game that the Buccaneers may be targeting. Monday will see the debut of the first PewterReport.com 2015 Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft, followed by our East-West Shrine practice coverage next week. Don’t miss a day’s worth of Bucs coverage on PewterReport.com!
• I would be very surprised if former Bucs defensive line coach – and Lovie Smith’s best friend – Rod Marinelli doesn’t join Tampa Bay’s staff as the team’s defensive coordinator in 2015. While Leslie Frazier is still under contract with the Bucs, Marinell’s contract is up after Dallas’ 2014 season concludes – which could be Sunday at Green Bay in the playoffs.
Frazier did an okay job as a defensive coordinator and the Bucs defense did improve down the stretch after a rough start. But Marinelli was Smith’s defensive coordinator in Chicago from 2010-12 and is one of the best defensive minds in the NFL. The fiery Marinelli, who helped develop Warren Sapp into a Pro Bowler and a Pro Football Hall of Famer, would be an upgrade for the Buccaneers if he could be convinced not to re-sign with Dallas. Interestingly enough, Marinelli suggested that Smith hire Joe Cullen as the Bucs defensive line coach after he worked with him in that capacity in Detroit.
• Buccaneers middle linebacker Mason Foster is slated for free agency, but there may be a chance he could return to Tampa Bay for a cheap, one-year deal. The team doesn’t necessarily see Foster as the long-term solution at the position, especially after an injury-filled 2014 campaign that saw the Washington product battle a separated shoulder and an Achilles strain. But the pickings are slim in free agency and the draft, and Foster is a decent player when healthy and knows the scheme.
While the Bucs like Danny Lansanah, who filled in for Foster for a few games last season, he’s a better fit as a strongside linebacker than he is a full-time middle linebacker. In other words, he’s not the answer for the Mike linebacker spot in 2015.
Perhaps if the Bucs can lure Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli to Tampa Bay later this month he can influence Cowboys middle linebacker Rolando McClain to come with him. The 25-year old McClain, who will be an unrestricted free agent, was a former first-round pick by Oakland a few years ago, but got in trouble with the law and quit football in 2013 to get his life together.
“He’s got rare ability,” Marinelli told the Dallas Morning News. “He is really a terrific leader in his own way. Guys seem to rally around a guy like that, physical presence. He hits. He runs. He likes to practice. He practices hard. He leads by what he does.”
At 6-foot-4, 259 pounds, McClain is a beast of a linebacker in Marinelli’s Tampa 2 scheme, and has racked up 81 tackles, two interceptions, a sack and a forced fumble this season.
• Speaking of Tampa Bay linebackers, Lavonte David is entering his fourth season in the NFL, which means he is eligible to have his contract extended. It’s time for director of football administration Mike Greenberg and general manager Jason Licht to get to work on that this offseason and for Licht to take care of his fellow Cornhusker.
• For the record, I like the Bucs’ hiring of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter. In his three years in Atlanta, the Falcons averaged 28.1 points per game on offense against the Buccaneers in compiling a 4-2 record against Tampa Bay in those six games. He’s made quarterbacks with decent talent like Andrew Walter and Rudy Carpenter productive at Arizona State, and he’s taken some very good quarterbacks like David Garrard, formerly of Jacksonville, and Atlanta’s Matt Ryan to new levels.
I don’t think the hiring of Koetter tips the Bucs’ hand in any way towards Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota or Florida State’s Jameis Winston. But I do know that Koetter has never run a spread offense before despite his background at Oregon under Mike Bellotti. The spread didn’t arrive at Oregon until Chip Kelly did in 2007.
Yes, Koetter, who has a background developing pocket passers, and Ducks coach Mark Helfrich are friends from coaching together at Boise State and Arizona State a decade ago, but what intel and inside scoop could Helfrich disclose with Koetter and the Bucs that they wouldn’t already know? Mariota is what he is. He’s athletic, smart, quiet, has high character and is proficient at running the Oregon offensive system. But is he ready for the NFL?
Helfrich might in fact tell the Bucs that he is, and they may believe him. Or that could come across to the Bucs as self-serving, too. Having Mariota drafted first overall would only strengthen Helfrich’s recruiting pitch to prospects interested in coming to Oregon.
Or since Koetter and Helfrich are so close, he might tell his mentor that Mariota’s transition to the NFL might not be so smooth and might take a few years because he didn’t play in a pro style offense and go through progressions in the pocket on a regular basis. With the stakes being higher in pro football and the patience of NFL owners and fans much thinner, and knowing that the Bucs need to win now, Helfrich might actually discourage Koetter and the Bucs from taking Mariota for that reason.
Helfrich may not want to put Koetter in a bind if he truly thinks Mariota won’t be an instant hit in the NFL. But that’s not what the Mariota-to-the-Buccaneers fans necessarily want to hear.
• Since this is the first SR’s Fab 5 of 2015 I’m going to spend the next 20 weeks revealing some behind-the-scenes encounters with Bucs players, coaches and front office members in each Friday edition to commemorate my 20th year covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
As you may know, the 2014 PewterReport.com Buccaneers Awards came out last week and one of the awards I’ve been handing out every year since 1998 is the John Lynch Gentleman’s Award for the Buccaneer that is the best with the media in terms of availability and information shared. But do you know the reason why it’s the only award named after a Tampa Bay player? It’s because Lynch was among the best in terms of being the most candid with the media.
Win or lose, great game or bad one, Lynch was always by his locker ready to answer questions from the press and the Bucs beat writers. He was as stand-up a guy as I’ve ever covered in my two decades worth of covering Tampa Bay and I gave him the first two Best Interview Awards in 1998 and 1999 back when Pewter Report was called Buccaneer Magazine. The reality is that he could have received it every year but I kept giving it to others and decided to name the award after him.
I think I officially named it after him following the 2003 season if I recall correctly. The moment that stood out to me was after the Panthers beat the Bucs, 27-24, in Carolina on November 9, 2003. Panthers receiver Ricky Proehl raced 66 yards for a touchdown down the left sidelines with cornerback Ronde Barber trailing him by a good five yards. Lynch joined the pursuit, too, but neither could catch the Panthers’ speedster.
After seeing the play live and once on instant replay, I wrote that Proehl beat Barber on the play (it looked like man coverage or maybe Cover 3 the way Barber was trailing Proehl and there was no All-22 Game Rewind on NFL.com at the time) in Pewter Report magazine that week and Lynch approached me in the locker room later that week. The Bucs strong safety told me he read my article, but that the Bucs were in Cover 2 defense and that he had bit on play-action and was really late getting over to his landmark in the zone defense. Barber saw Lynch was late and left his own landmark in Cover 2 to try to catch Proehl.
At first glance, it looked like Barber had gotten beat, but it was really Lynch and he wanted to own up to his own mistake and not have Barber catch any heat for that play. For Lynch, who was busy preparing for Tampa Bay’s next opponent, to take the time to find me in the locker room and volunteer that he messed up was something that has only happened once in my 20 years reporting on the Bucs. He wasn’t upset at all, and admitted that it was likely hard for myself or anyone to tell what type of coverage the team was in on that play. And that’s why Lynch is so deserving of the Gentleman’s Award.
Congrats to both Lynch and former Bucs head coach Tony Dungy for making the Pro Football Hall of Fame list of finalists again this year, and good luck.
Stay tuned next week as I reveal what had former Bucs quarterback Casey Weldon so irate that he nearly picked a fight with me in the middle of the Bucs open locker room session back in 1995. Good stuff.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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