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. DAVID IS NEXT BUC DUE FOR BIG CONTRACT EXTENSION
You could see the look of relief on the face of Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht the day after the Minnesota Vikings beat Tampa Bay in overtime, 19-13. Licht and his team were upset at the Bucs’ sixth loss of the season, a disappointment that came right after the bye week.
But Licht and head coach Lovie Smith had a reason to smile on Monday, October 27. Two-time Pro Bowl and All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy had signed a seven-year contract extension worth $95 million. McCoy, the team’s leading sacker over the last three seasons, including the current 2014 campaign, was set to become a free agent and the Bucs couldn’t afford to lose him.
McCoy plays the ever-important three-technique defensive tackle position in Smith’s Tampa 2 defense. Finding good three-technique tackles is hard. Finding great ones is next to impossible, especially with the growing number of NFL and college teams that play in a 3-4 scheme.
The reason why Licht was smiling after a Bucs loss is because locking up McCoy through 2021 was far more important to the team’s long-term goals than one particular loss in an already frustrating season. Signing McCoy to a midseason contract extension did far more than just keep a prized free agent off the market.
Re-signing McCoy is a symbol to Tampa Bay fans that the organization is committed to winning by keeping its own great players – no matter the cost. Keeping McCoy in Tampa Bay will help the Bucs recruit more free agents and keep their own in years to come.
With his re-singing, Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg didn’t have to negotiate against other team’s bids for McCoy’s services. Now that McCoy’s contract is set, the Bucs have a firm operating budget in place for 2015 and now know how much salary cap room they will have to spend next spring.
One of Licht’s top priorities in the 2015 offseason shouldn’t be finding another pass-rushing defensive end or another cornerback. It should be locking up Lavonte David with a long-term extension.
Like McCoy, David plays a vital role, the weakside linebacker position, in the Tampa 2 scheme. David’s position was once played by legendary Hall of Fame Buccaneer Derrick Brooks. Thankfully, the undersized and speedy David plays just like Brooks, too.
When I asked McCoy if David’s contract extension should be next, he turned to Licht in the press conference and patted him on the back, signaling that the Bucs general manager still had some work to do.
“One thing [Bucs Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren] Sapp told me is I need to get with Lavonte David – this was before last season,” McCoy said. “He said, ‘You need to get with him and he needs to become your best friend because Derrick Brooks is what made me successful.’ That’s what he told me. It was almost like we were thinking the same thing. And I took his advice: I grabbed Lavonte in the offseason last year and I told him, ‘Sapp told me this, and if this thing is going to work, we’ve got to work together, and I have to know what you’re thinking and you have to know what I’m thinking.’
“There is many a time, if you just pay attention on Sunday, you see me and Lavonte talking to each other on the field, on the sideline, in the locker room. We’re always talking. We text back and forth almost every day because in the past in this defense, those two positions really got the team going – not just the defense – the team going, those two positions. So we know how important those positions are and how we have to be on it every day.”
David acknowledged that he wants to have the same type of rapport with McCoy that Brooks had with Sapp, and knows that type of relationship helped key a string of Pro Bowl berths for each player and playoff appearances for Tampa Bay.
“We work together,” David said. “We’re getting there. We’re talking after every play. We’re talking at practice about what things we could have done better or things that we can do to make a better play. We’re working at. We still have some things to. We want to be the best.”
David has taken it upon himself to be more of a vocal leader, giving fiery pre-game speeches and stepping up his communication during practices and games. Smith has all the respect in the world for David’s abilities and leadership qualities and wants to keep him around past 2015.
“You know what Lavonte means to us,” Smith said. “Just a great player. The heart and soul of our team.”
David will be entering the fourth and final year of his rookie contract in 2015 and will be eligible for an extension in March. It’s time for Licht to get started on a new contract for Tampa Bay’s playmaking linebacker before David hits the open market in 2015. That’s when the bidding for David’s services will only drive his price up.
FAB 2. DAVID WORTHY OF BECOMING ONE OF NFL’S HIGHEST-PAID LBs
What will it take to re-sign Buccaneers Lavonte David? In his first three seasons in the NFL, the Bucs’ second-round pick has proven to be one of the league’s best all-around linebackers. David will expect to be paid like one because he can hit, he can rush the passer, he can cover and he can tackle.
Oh how David can tackle. In each of his three years in the NFL, the Nebraska product’s tackle total has gone from 139 as a rookie to 145 in 2013 to 116 this season. By averaging 11.6 stops per game, David is on pace to record 185 tackles in 2014, which would be 40 more than the previous year.
David’s 116 tackles this season are one shy of the NFL’s tackle leader, Carolina middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who has 117. In less than three seasons David has amassed exactly 400 tackles (300 solo, 100 assists).
To put that number in perspective, David has more tackles through the first three seasons than legendary Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks did. Brooks posted 394 tackles during his first three seasons, but in 1997, the Bucs would revise their tackle totals from what was kept in the press box on Sundays.
The NFL credited Brooks with 145 tackles in 1997. The Tampa Bay coaches adjusted those stats and gave him an extra 37 stops to total 182. David doesn’t have the luxury of padded stats as the Bucs use the official stats from the press box each week, and he doesn’t even need them when his tackle totals are compared to Brooks. If he hits his projected average of 185 stops this year he will have posted 469 tackles in his first three years.
That would be a whopping 75 more tackles than Brooks had in his first three seasons in Tampa Bay when taking into account his unofficial tackle numbers. Brooks compiled 357 tackles using just the NFL’s press box numbers from 1995-97. When compared to those numbers, which is a truer measurement, David is on pace to eclipse Brooks by 112 tackles in his first three years.
Here’s where it really crazy. In his first three seasons, David has compiled 54 tackles for loss, and needs just seven more TFLs in the final six games to break the franchise record of 20 he set in 2012 and tied last year. In his first three years with Tampa Bay, Brooks is credited with just 12.
Maybe it’s because Brooks dropped back into coverage so much. The 11-time Pro Bowler did record 26 pass breakups in his first three years in the NFL, which dwarfs David’s total of 16 (with six games remaining). But that’s the only statistical advantage Brooks has over David at the start of his career.
David has nine sacks while Brooks had 2.5 through three entire seasons. David has six interceptions compared to Brooks’ 3. David has four forced fumbles, while Brooks had three. David recovered two fumbles, while Brooks recorded one. David also has a safety, which is a stat Brooks never collected.
That’s how good of a player he is and that’s how much David means to the Buccaneers. And keep in mind that David still has six more games to rack up more stats this season. While he has yet to record a sack or an interception after recording seven QB captures and five picks last year, respectively, McCoy said there’s still time for the speedy linebacker to make some long-awaited splash plays.
“I made a joke to him yesterday that said it’s almost cheating for you,” McCoy said. “For one: your nickname is ‘The Flash’ for a reason – he’s so smart that he knows what play is coming before it happens. If you already know what play is coming and you’re ‘The Flash’ then it’s almost like cheating. It’s just not fair. He’s not human, you just get used to it and it’s expected at this point.
“He had 14 tackles [four times this year], that’s a slow day for Lavonte, that’s an average for him. No, he’s playing great for us and he’s just doing what we ask him to do. Those splash plays will come. We have to help him more upfront and get some tipped passes to him, make the quarterback make some bad throws and those plays will come.”
After a breakout season in 2013 with a host of splash plays, David has missed getting his hands on the ball this year with only two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery to contribute to the Bucs’ takeaways on defense.
“Oh, man,” David said. “I try not to think about it. I’m just playing within the scheme, trying to do what I have to do and not do anything extra. Just do my job. With this defense, my time will come. It’s all about being patient. Those splash plays will start coming sooner rather than later.”
David was snubbed by the Pro Bowl last year despite notching seven sacks and recording five interceptions – becoming the only linebacker in NFL history to accomplish that feat. While he has been a tackling machine this year, the lack of splash plays may hurt his chances for making the Pro Bowl once again.
“It doesn’t bother me,” David said. “I’m just going out there and playing the game that I love. If I get that recognition then so be it.”
But not making the Pro Bowl could hurt David when it comes to time talk about a contract extension. David likely won’t command the salary of a four-year Pro Bowler like Green Bay’s Clay Matthews, who signed a five-year, $66-million extension with $20.5 million in guaranteed money in 2013.
The Bucs could argue that he’s not yet worth the five-year, $57.50-million deal that four-time Pro Bowler Tamba Hali got from Kansas City in 2011. That contract featured $16 million in guaranteed money.
Matthews averages $13.2 million per season, while Hali averages $11.5 million. Both represent the top linebacker contracts in the NFL, but both are 3-4 linebackers that are called on to rush the passer more often than David is.
With McCoy averaging $13.6 million and on the verge of going to his third Pro Bowl, it seems fitting that David would be paid less than the team’s franchise player and less than linebackers on playoff teams that have been to multiple Pro Bowls. The 2014 franchise tag number for the linebacker position was $11.455 million. David seems to be worth a figure close to that per season.
The Bucs will enter the 2015 offseason with approximately $18 million in salary cap room. In last week’s SR’s Fab 5, I looked at ways the team could pare the roster – and available cap room – down to $40 million.
Licht gets major kudos for getting the best defensive tackle since Warren Sapp signed for the long haul. Since signing his mega-deal, McCoy has notched 4.5 of his 6.5 sacks this season since the Minnesota game and the Tampa Bay defense has played better over the past month. He’s proven to be worthy of his contract extension. David will be, too.
McCoy wanted to re-sign with the Buccaneers and not test free agency, which made a difference when Licht negotiated with his agent, Ben Dogra.
“Well I love it here, I told my wife that,” McCoy said. “Me and my wife, we sat down and we talked about it and we said, ‘You know what? We really, really enjoy it here.’ I really do love Tampa, man. I honestly – I grew up watching this team, so I’ve been blessed with certain gifts and I always felt like if I had an opportunity to play in that style of defense, I could be successful. So when Coach Smith was hired, I was extremely excited. Because knowing his history, you know the Tampa 2 is coming with it. It’s the defense that Warren Sapp thrived in. With him already being one of my mentors, now me and him speak the same language. So having an opportunity to not only be in Tampa playing with my favorite team growing up, but then to play in the defense that I’ve always dreamed of playing in with the leaders at the top of our organization set in place, I didn’t see a better situation.
“A lot of people you see run from situations like this. They feel like, ‘Oh, well they’re not winning right now,’ or it’s not going the way they planned – so what? The best feeling in the world is going to be when we turn this thing around and to know you were a part of it and you didn’t run from a challenge, you didn’t run from the fight. I love a fight. I don’t like fighting, but I love this fight. It’s going to be the greatest feeling in the world to be able to hold that [Super Bowl] trophy in the air and know that you went through all the hard times and you didn’t run from it – you stuck in there, you hung in there, and you fought together as an organization and got back to exactly where [Smith and Licht] said we’ll be. And I believe them, I trust them and we’re going to do it together and that’s why I signed that paper.”
Now Licht needs re-sign a player that is on a statistical pace to be better than Brooks, who many consider to be the best Buccaneer of all time. The Bucs’ new general manager might want to hurry, as David didn’t grow up a Buccaneer fan like McCoy did and doesn’t have the same lifelong loyalty to the franchise.
David is also getting tired of losing. Tampa Bay has a woeful 13-29 record in David’s first three seasons and the Bucs wouldn’t want to let a Super Bowl contender woo their 2012 second-round pick in free agency in 2016.
David indicated he wanted to stay in Tampa Bay, though, which is a good sign – for now.
“God willing, if I just keep on doing what I’m doing,” David said about signing a contract extension with the Bucs. “Hopefully that will happen, but whatever happens, happens. I just want to play football.”
A lot can happen between now and March 2016. The sooner David is under contract for the long term the better for the Buccaneers.
FAB 3. PLAYMAKING McDONALD HAS BEEN A FREE AGENT FIND FOR BUCS
Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht have caught some flack for a free agent class that has largely flopped in 2014. The performance issues of some of the veterans that Tampa Bay signed in the offseason has played a large role in the team’s 2-8 record.
While defensive end Michael Johnson has flopped, tight end Brandon Myers has been nearly invisible and cornerback Alterraun Verner has underwhelmed, one of the Bucs’ marquee signees in 2014 is having a strong season. Clinton McDonald was signed with the expectation that he would bring more of a pass rush to the team’s nose tackle position, and he’s done just that.
With six games left in the 2014 campaign, McDonald leads all Tampa Bay defensive linemen with 34 tackles and is tied for second on the team with three sacks. Last year’s starting nose tackle, Akeem Spence, notched just one sack in 16 starts.
McDonald, who spent the 2010 season in Cincinnati and the past three years in Seattle, is just two tackles and three sacks away from establishing new career highs in those categories.
“God has blessed me,” McDonald said. “My number has been called and God has blessed me with the ability to make big plays. No man on this defense plays alone. We play 11 strong and we play together and play off each other.”
It’s no surprise that the improved play of the Buccaneers defense has coincided with McDonald’s recent knack for making splash plays. In a 22-17 loss at Cleveland four weeks ago, the 6-foot-2, 297-pound nose tackle recorded his first interception and the second pick of his career by running downfield and catching a deflected pass intended for tight end Gary Barnidge. That was one of five takeaways the Bucs defense has collected over the past three games.
“Like our defensive line coach Joe Cullen says, it doesn’t take talent to hustle,” McDonald said. “All it takes is effort. Some plays are made by effort. It’s about being in the right place at the right time. Most offensive and defensive line coaches are always talking about finishing and getting to the ball. That’s important. Who knew that I could get an interception by being in the right spot? That’s just part of finishing. Good things happen when you do.”
McDonald has also recorded sacks in back-to-back games against Atlanta and Washington. The fifth-year pro said that his sacks have come from the defensive line rushing together as a unit.
“We need to continue to play together,” McDonald said. “We’re seeing what’s happening on the film. We’re seeing how we’re helping each other and how we’re hurting each other. We have to bond together as a unit better.”
While Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is the team’s franchise player and the leader of the defensive line unit, McDonald has playoff experience and came to Tampa Bay with a Super Bowl ring from last year’s champion Seahawks. Considered to be one of the stalwarts in the Bucs locker room, McDonald’s Super Bowl experience and commanding presence have helped reinforce some of the things McCoy has been saying to the defense.
“Clinton McDonald has been everything we’ve wanted him to be coming here,” Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. “We wanted him to be a force. He’s one of the elder statesmen – guys listen to Clinton because he’s not a BSer. He’s just to the point, works hard.
“For a nose guard, he’s rushing the passer fairly well. Just been very pleased with the leadership he’s brought. His overall play and in our locker room, on our football team has been outstanding.”
FAB 4. TAMPA BAY’ DEFENSE GIVES UP COSTLY SCORES BEFORE HALFTIME
One of the struggles the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had during their 2-8 season is giving up points – mostly field goals – just prior to halftime. Those points have proven to be costly in terms of losing momentum – or games – in some of those contests.
“That’s one of the things we’re trying to work out the kinks on – our two-minute defense,” Bucs defensive end Jacquies Smith said. “That’s a point of emphasis this week – shoring up our two-minute defense. That can help us out a long with momentum and the margin of error because games are so close. Those points before the half can be the difference between winning and losing the game.”
In six of Tampa Bay’s 10 games, the Buccaneers have surrendered points within the last two minutes of the first half. The most recent episode occurred last week as they allowed Washington running back Roy Helu scampered 30 yards for a touchdown on a screen pass with just 11 seconds left to cut Tampa Bay’s halftime lead to 13-7.
Sometimes the Bucs have been aggressive as they blitzed the Redskins several times on that drive and got gashed with big plays on draws and screens. Other times, the defense has been passive and playing a prevent-style scheme that has allowed opponents to drive into field goal range with ease.
“The coordinator calls the defense and the players are paid to run what is called,” Tampa Bay defensive tackle Clinton McDonald said. “We try our best to run it, but we have to make a better effort to come together and learn how we each play and do whatever we can to have these halves end the right way.”
Here is a look into the last-second scores Tampa Bay has allowed before halftime this year:
• Week 1: 28-yard field goal by Carolina’s Graham Gano with no time remaining to give the Panthers a 10-0 lead at halftime. The Bucs lost, 20-14.
• Week 2: 35-yard field goal by St. Louis’ Greg Zuerlein with 39 seconds left to give the Rams a 10-7 lead at halftime. The Bucs lost, 19-17.
• Week 8: 46-yard field goal by Minnesota’s Blair Walsh with no time remaining to give the Vikings a 3-0 lead at halftime. The Bucs lost, 19-13, in overtime.
• Week 9: 43-yard field goal by Cleveland’s Billy Cundiff with no time remaining to cut Tampa Bay’s halftime lead to 10-9. The Bucs lost, 22-17.
• Week 10: 43-yard field goal by Atlanta’s Matt Bryant with no time remaining to give the Falcons a 13-10 lead at halftime. The Bucs lost, 27-17.
• Week 11: 30-yard TD to Roy Helu with 11 seconds remaining to cut lead 13-7
Bucs won 27-7.
The fact that the Buccaneers have surrendered a last-second field goal or touchdown in the last four games is a disturbing trend, and one the team has only been able to overcome once. Had the Vikings not taken a 3-0 lead at halftime in Week 8, the Bucs might have prevailed in that contest, 13-10, rather than lose it in overtime.
“Momentum is big,” Smith said. “Getting a score before halftime is big in this league. If a team makes some plays here and there before halftime that could factor into your adjustments and how you come out and attack after the half.”
Cundiff’s kick at Cleveland gave the Browns a much-needed boost as Tampa Bay was only up by one point instead of four points at halftime. Because the deficit at the end of the game was five points instead of two, the Bucs needed a touchdown rather than a field goal to beat the Browns, which didn’t happen.
With a drive of its own right before halftime instead of punting the ball back to the opponent, the Bucs offense can assist the defense, too. In fact, out of 10 games this season, Tampa Bay’s offense has only scored once in the final two minutes of the first half – putting up 10 points in the final 120 seconds at New Orleans.
Rookie kicker Patrick Murray drilled a 55-yard field goal with 1:54 left before halftime to cut into the Saints’ 13-0 lead. Following an interception by cornerback Johnthan Banks, quarterback Mike Glennon threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Louis Murphy with 20 seconds left and Tampa Bay trailed New Orleans, 13-10, in a game they would lose 36-31 in overtime.
That was one of the few instances where the Bucs defense actually got a stop right before halftime.
“That’s one of the things that we have to get down pat,” McDonald said. “We know how important it is to stop the offense, especially going into a two-minute situation right before the half. That’s something we have to get better at in practice and working together to accomplish.”
Will the Bucs defense stop the streak of opponents scoring right before the half? Whether or not that happens could likely determine the outcome of Sunday’s game in Chicago.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• The Buccaneers have been penalized 80 times this year, which ranks as fourth most in the NFL this season, for 626 yards. Last year Tampa Bay was the third-most penalized team in the league with 121 infractions for 1,136 yards. At the current pace, the Bucs will post 128 penalties this year for 1,001 yards, which is disappointing, especially considering the fact that head coach Lovie Smith was going to create a smarter and more disciplined environment at One Buccaneer Place.
The guiltiest player is right tackle Demar Dotson, who has been flagged nine times this year (four holding calls, two false starts, one face mask, one illegal formation and one illegal use of hands). Right behind him is defensive end Will Gholston with seven, followed by defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and left tackle Anthony Collins with six. All six of McCoy’s penalties have been neutral zone infractions (three), encroachments (two) or offside (once).
• After being flagged seven times last year, including six 15-yard penalties (five unnecessary roughness and a personal foul), Bucs safety Dashon Goldson has only been flagged once this year. Goldson picked up an illegal contact penalty in Tampa Bay’s 19-17 loss against St. Louis in Week 2 and hasn’t drawn an infraction since.
Some of Goldson’s critics might argue that he has played too timid this year after being targeted by officials for personal fouls and being fined in the six figures by the NFL front office. While he hasn’t made as many big hits this year as the Bucs would have liked, Goldson’s play hasn’t hurt the team like it did a year ago with numerous penalties.
• Tampa Bay head coach Lovie Smith has been preaching takeaways this month after the defense failed to generate many in the first two months of the 2014 regular season. Of the Bucs’ 15 takeaways on defense, four (three interceptions, one fumble recovery) have come thus far in the month of November.
Smith recently showed the team a highlight tape of Bears cornerback Charles Tillman, whom he coached from 2004-12 in Chicago. In his 12 seasons in Chicago, Tillman has recovered eight fumbles, picked off 36 passes and forced an astonishing 42 fumbles, including a career-high 10 in 2012.
“It was definitely an emphasis in the spring – getting takeaways,” McDonald said. “I just feel like we’re really now understanding what he was preaching. He showed us film of ‘Peanut’ Tillman in Chicago and how it was a point of emphasis and there was a challenge for him to get the ball out so many times and he did. We kind of understand where he’s coming from and how that can really turn the game around. It certainly did last week [at Washington].”
The Bucs tied their season high with three takeaways on defense in last week’s 27-7 win against the Redskins, and are hopeful that they have started a trend that will continue against the Bears this week in Chicago.
• While Louisville cornerback Charles Gaines is considered to be a second-round pick, another Cardinals cornerback, Gerod Holliman, has put himself on NFL radars, too. Gaines had seven pass breakups and five interceptions, including one for a touchdown, last season, and teams have not been throwing his way as much, recording just one interception and eight pass breakups.
Holliman has taken advantage of teams avoiding Gaines and leads college football with an astonishing 13 interceptions, in addition to three pass breakups. After not recording an interception in his Louisville career prior to 2014, the redshirt sophomore cornerback has picks in eight of the 10 games he has played in this year. Holliman recorded two interceptions in games against Virginia, Florida International (including one for a touchdown) and Florida State, and notched three against Boston College. At 6-foot-1, 213 pounds, Holliman has very good size and is a name to know.
Another name to familiarize yourself with regarding the Buccaneers is Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson. At 5-foot-9, 176 pounds, Golson has the size and skill set to transition to the nickel cornerback role in the NFL. He’s too small to play outside against the likes of big receivers, such as Calvin Johnson and Julio Jones, at the next level.
Tampa Bay might be interested in Golson, as Leonard Johnson and Isaiah Frey have not made many plays this year. After recording six interceptions during his first three years for the Rebels, Golson has notched nine picks this year, including one for a touchdown, which is second in the country behind Holliman. Golson has recorded interceptions in seven of Ole Miss’ 10 games this year, with multiple picks in two of those games (Louisiana-Lafayette and Tennessee).
• It’s amazing to think that the Buccaneers only have eight interceptions through 10 games, and only half of those picks have actually come from the secondary. Cornerback Johnthan Banks is tied for the team lead with linebacker Danny Lansanah with three interceptions. Cornerback Alterraun Verner has one pick and nose tackle Clinton McDonald has the other.
In my 20 years of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers I can’t remember the last time a Bucs safety didn’t have at least one interception in a season, but that’s the case right now through 10 games with six contests remaining.
• Thank you for making last week’s SR’s Fab 5 one of the most read – and most commented on – columns on PewterReport.com this year. If you missed it, you can click right here for last week’s buzz-worthy column.
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