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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. Bucs Should Target 2 Free Agent RBs, Draft 1

It’s only a matter of time before the Buccaneers part ways with running back Doug Martin. At age 29 with less than 500 yards rushing in four of the last five seasons, Martin’s days in Tampa Bay are numbered, especially since he’s scheduled to make $6.75 million in base salary.

The team is unsure if it wants to re-sign third down back Charles Sims, who will be 28 in September. I can help the Bucs out with this one – they shouldn’t re-sign Sims.

Like Martin, Sims has had one good year in the last four, which coincided with Martin’s last big year in 2015. Sims rushed for 95 yards on 21 carries (4.5 avg.) and caught 35 passes for 249 yards (7.1 avg.) and one touchdown. Despite the solid rushing average, Sims only averages 3.9 yards per carry over his career, and had two years (2014 and ’16) in which he rushed for less than three yards per carry.

Jacquizz Rodgers is still under contract for one more year, but his production dropped last year as he rushed for 244 yards and one touchdown on 64 carries (3.8 avg.) and the Bucs could use an upgrade.

The only running back in Tampa Bay worth keeping is Peyton Barber, who started the year as the team’s third-string running back but wound up leading the Bucs in rushing with a career-high 423 yards and three touchdowns on 108 carries (3.9 avg.), in addition to catching 16 passes for 114 yards. Barber deserves a chance to compete for more carries in training camp, but ideally, he’s a third-string running back.

A better running game would provide needed balance and help head coach Dirk Koetter’s play-calling, especially in the red zone, and create more play-action opportunities for Jameis Winston, which is an area where he excels as a passer. Having a backfield of Crowell, a rookie, McKinnon and Barber means the Bucs don’t have to rely so much on Winston’s arm to make plays and move the chains. Less passing opportunities for Winston would mean the chance for fewer interceptions, and fumbles while dropping back to pass.

A more effective running game would also benefit Tampa Bay’s defense by increasing the team’s time of possession with more ball-control offense, which would allow the defense to rest for longer stretches of time during games.

The Bucs need to bolster their backfield this year as injuries and a suspension by Martin has really stymied the production from Tampa Bay’s ground game over the last two years. Signing a free agent and drafting a running back should not be enough for general manager Jason Licht.

The Bucs should upgrade, upgrade and upgrade this offseason. That means acquiring three new running backs – not just two.

The reason? The Bucs have been down to their third-string running back in each of the last two years. In a season where he can’t afford to leave anything to chance, Licht shouldn’t hold back. Sign two free agent backs and use a premium pick on another running back.

Browns RB Isaiah Crowell - Photo by: Getty Images
Browns RB Isaiah Crowell – Photo by: Getty Images

Give Barber three legitimate running backs to compete with. Then it’s up to Koetter to play the best two runners and not worry about giving carries to the other two – they’ll be the backups and injury replacements.

So who should Licht pursue in free agency? There are only four premier running backs in this year’s free agent class and Cleveland’s Isaiah Crowell is the headliner in a group that also consists of San Francisco’s Carlos Hyde, New England’s Dion Lewis and Minnesota’s Jerick McKinnon. The noteworthy thing is that none of those running backs have even posted a 1,000-yard season, yet they will be paid in excess of $4 million per season in March.

Picking the right back to spearhead Tampa Bay’s revamped running game is important. The one that shows the most promise is Crowell, who has been in the league for four years and just turned 25 on January 8. The Alabama State product began his college career at Georgia, and he’s ready to return to the South after four very trying seasons in Cleveland.

Crowell Career Rushing Stats
2017: 206 carries for 853 yards (4.1 avg.), 2 TDs, long of 59
2016: 198 carries for 952 yards (4.8 avg.), 7 TDs, long of 85
2015: 706 carries for 706 yards (3.8 avg.), 4 TDs, long of 54
2014: 148 carries for 607 yards (4.1 avg.), 8 TDs, long of 35

Crowell Career Receiving Stats
2017: 28 catches for 182 yards (6.5 avg.), 0 TDs, long of 38
2016: 40 catches for 319 yards (8.0 avg.), 0 TDs, long of 44
2015: 19 catches for 182 yards (9.2 avg.), 1 TD, long of 53
2014: 9 catches for 87 yards (9.7 avg.), 0 TDs, long of 19

Crowell has rushed for 3,118 yards and 21 touchdowns on 737 carries (4.2 avg.), and it’s important to note that he didn’t benefit from a lot of carries in the fourth quarter that some of the top producing runners get because the Browns, who went 1-31 over the past two seasons, typically trailed their opponents by halftime and needed to pass the ball to try to catch up.

The 5-foot-11, 225-pounder has a physical running style, some wiggle to his game and instant acceleration when he hits the hole, but he’s ready to get out of Cleveland after having some spats with head coach Hue Jackson over abandoning the run too early in games and for Jackson’s disparaging comment after a 27-10 loss to the New York Jets in which he was talking about Crowell’s 59-yard run in that game.

“Me and you, all five of us, could have run through that hole [on the 59-yard rush]. Go back and look at the play,” Jackson told the Akron Beacon. “Inspiring runs, just so we are all on the same page, are when you break tackles. It’s the tough runs. It’s when everybody is knocking the crap out of you and you find a way to still make four or five yards.

“When everything is blocked pretty and you can just run down up through there, that doesn’t happen but once or twice in a game. Not saying that Crow doesn’t do that. He does it well for us, but I’m just saying you guys are talking about a run that – I’m being very honest – we all could have run through [the hole]. What I’m looking for is more of the grunt, tough-type of runs that I know that you have to have.”

Crowell finished the Jets game with 72 yards rushing on five attempts (14.4 avg.) and had just one more carry following his 59-yard run in the second half, which prompted the question.

Browns RB Isaiah Crowell - Photo by: Getty Images
Browns RB Isaiah Crowell – Photo by: Getty Images

Crowell hasn’t missed a game during his four-year NFL career, and that’s important to a team like Tampa Bay, which has seen Martin and Sims in and out of the lineup due to injuries over the last two seasons. Koetter is always preaching about how the greatest ability is availability, and that’s what Crowell has over Hyde, who is the other workhorse back in free agency.

Hyde, who turns 28 in September, has rushed for 2,731 yards and 21 touchdowns on 655 carries (4.2 avg.), but has missed 12 games in his first four NFL seasons, although he did manage to play in all 16 games for the first time in his career last year. With 109 catches for 634 yards and three touchdowns, Hyde has proven to be a reliable receiver out of the backfield, which is an important trait in Koetter’s offense.

However, despite having 13 fewer receptions (96) and two fewer touchdowns (one) in the receiving game, Crowell has 136 more receiving yards (770) than Hyde does, and a better average – 8.0 yards per catch compared to Hyde’s 5.8 average. Hyde has had three 100-yard games for the 49ers, while Crowell has five on his resumé.

Because he is younger, has been healthier and been more productive than Hyde, Crowell is the running back that the Bucs need to target in free agency. He’ll cost a little bit more, as OverTheCap.com’s calculated market value for Crowell is $6.2 million per year compared to Hyde’s calculated market value, which is $5.5 million per year, but he’s worth it.

If the Bucs can land Crowell in free agency they need to spend a premium pick in the first three rounds on another starting-caliber running back that can run and catch the ball. Georgia’s Sony Michel, San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny, USC’s Ronald Jones and Notre Dame’s Josh Adams would all be intriguing complementary backs that have the ability to develop into full-time starters in Tampa Bay. Licht cannot assume the Bucs have a starting caliber running back in Crowell – even if he signs a four-year deal worth around $25 million. He needs to assume the worst, and draft another running back capable of becoming a Pro Bowl rusher.

But Licht can’t stop there. He has to plan for the worst and envision Crowell and the rookie back suffering injuries. The Bucs can’t have Barber and Rodgers as Plans C and D. We saw that movie last year and it wasn’t that good.

Patriots RB Dion Lewis - Photo by: Getty Images
Patriots RB Dion Lewis – Photo by: Getty Images

That’s why Licht should also sign a pass-catching running back like Lewis or McKinnon to truly bolster the backfield. Lewis, who will play in his third Super Bowl on Sunday, would bring championship-caliber experience to Tampa Bay, which could be vital from a leadership standpoint.

Lewis has rushed for 1,584 yards and 10 touchdowns in 329 career carries (4.8 avg.) over his five-year NFL career, which began in Philadelphia in 2011. Lewis has 88 catches for 717 yards (8.1 avg.) and five touchdowns in the passing game. He’s had his most productive season this year in New England where he rushed for 896 yards and six touchdowns on 180 carries (5.0 avg.) and caught 32 passes for 214 yards (6.7 avg.) and three more scores. Lewis also added a special teams touchdown on a 103-yard kick return score.

Lewis has also lost just one fumble in over 400 touches on offense, which is a big plus to a team like Tampa Bay, which struggled with turnovers last year. If there are negatives to Lewis it’s the fact that he’ll turn 28 in September and he’s a small back at 5-foot-8, 195 pounds. Licht, who prefers running backs to be at least 205 pounds, got an up-close look at Lewis in a 19-14 loss to New England in Tampa Bay earlier this season where he had 53 yards rushing on seven carries (7.6 avg.) along with two catches for 10 yards).

McKinnon is another situational back with proven production. He’s rushed for 1,918 yards and seven touchdowns on 474 carries (4.0 avg.), in addition to catching 142 passes for 984 yards (6.9 avg.) and five TDs. McKinnon has posted three seasons with at least 500 yards rushing in his four year Vikings career, and ran for a career-high 570 yards and three scores on 150 carries (3.8 avg.) in 2017, along with catching 51 passes for 421 yards (8.3 avg.) and two TDs.

McKinnon is also sure-handed as he has just two fumbles in nearly 600 touches on offense, but is much younger. He’ll turn 26 on May 3.

Jerick McKinnon - Photo by: Getty Images
Jerick McKinnon – Photo by: Getty Images

I don’t have a preference on which situational back Licht were to sign. McKinnon is younger and perhaps a bit more electric and explosive with the ball in his hands, while Lewis has plenty of big-game experience playing with the Patriots. Lewis’ calculated market value is $4.8 million per year according to OverTheCap.com, while McKinnon’s expected value is $4 million per year.

The question Licht and Koetter need to answer is, which back would the Bucs prefer to pair with Barber if Crowell and the rookie rusher go down with injuries? With currently over $61 million in available salary cap room – and another $17.625 million coming with the expected release of Martin, defensive tackle Chris Baker and defensive end Robert Ayers) – Licht has plenty of money to spend on two quality free agent running backs.

The advantage of signing two backs and drafting another is to insure the team against injury or if one of those newly acquired runners turns out to be a bust.

After all, that’s already happened to Licht before in free agency with Martin turning out to be a bust after signing his mega-rich contract extension, and with Sims, a former third-round draft pick, who has failed to live up to his draft billing.

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32 COMMENTS

  1. I agree with this post!!!

    Crowell and McKinnon would vastly help. McKinnon seems like a more efficient and younger version of Rodgers. The only thing I would add is that the vaunted offensive line needs an overhaul in every position except right guard where I think Ali Marpet was most comfortable before being moved to center.

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  2. Not in love with crowell, he maybe healthy but he’s “nothing special”. I agree with 3 new RB’s completely. Simms and Martin need to go. I pray we land Michel, he passes the eyeball test. He has that WOW factor when you watch him. Penny is not bad but a bit high & stiff. Hard runner though. I just think Michel is going to be special.

    I would rather have Vea than the ND guard. I know we need help on the OL but DL is a disaster, and if Vea is that once in a generation player you take him. I certainly hope we don’t reach for Davenport, he is a project. You don’t draft projects at 7.

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  3. Crowell and McKinnon would be a upgrade over Martin and Sims. I still like Barber alot and hope he gets the chance to prove himself.

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  4. Thanks Scott. You’ve changed my mind about Vea. My updated Big Board for the Bucs is:
    1. Bradley Chubb
    2. Saquon Barkley (best player in draft)
    3. Minkah Fitzpatrick (I went to UCF, but I love this guy)
    4. Vita Vea (Him and GMC together would be a dream)
    5. Derwin James (good fit for our scheme with Justin Evans over the top)
    6. Quenton Nelson

    I know the two defensive backs are kind of a reach to most people, but I really do believe that the secondary needs a lot of help going into next season. Defensive line will at least get Noah Spence back, but the secondary may lose Brent Grimes.

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    • Tough to rely on a full year of Spence until he proves otherwise and the secondary does need help, even if Grimes decides to do one more year. There seem to be more decent FA options at CB and S that could fill holes than FA DL and DE’s, so have to think if Vea, Fitz, Nelson and James are all graded equally, they’re probably going to go DL ( though, like you, I’m really high on the two DB’s as well).

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  5. Agree Barber is the only back worth keeping. The only difference I might do would be to draft two R.B.’s, and bring in one vet. Draft one R.B. by the third round, and draft one late, or find an UDFA. As far as Monken being full time O.C. it doesn’t count if you don’t allow him to also call the plays. You can have him prepare the team all week but if the wrong play is called in the redzone what good is it? We’ve all questioned our play calling inside the 20, Dirk has seemed to have gotten worse at it instead of better, give Monken his shot, he deserves it. Although we need pass rushing D ends, we are as soft as Baker’s belly in the middle of our line. Teams easily ran up our gut last year, that needs to change as much as getting to the Q.B.. Vea’s presence in the middle could actually help us both ways. I know the fan base is fixated with finding a D end, but outside of Chubb none are worth the 7th pick, don’t reach!

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    • Easy to say “just let Monken call the plays” when it’s not your job and livelihood on the line. And you’re evidently assuming Monken is incapable of calling a wrong play (whatever that means) in the redzone as well. I’m all for any changes that lessen the duties on Koetter’s plate and allows him to focus more intently on what remains. Hard to blame him if he decides to retain the play-calling duties, as it’s his neck that’s on the line. Worst case, you’ll just have someone else to complain about in 2019.

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      • Yeah the good news is the defensive line will definitely be fixed after next year’s draft when we talk Jim Schwartz into leaving Philly.

        Ed Oliver
        Christian Wilkins
        Rashan Gary
        Dexter Lawrence

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        • While I’ve never been a big fan of Schwartz as a person (the whole getting carried off on the shoulders in Detroit, etc.), I do like the attitude he brings to his defenses.

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      • I’m wondering how much of the fan base shouting for Monken to call plays and that he would be a huge upgrade, realize he’s never called plays at this level.

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        • Funny how the unknown is always better than the known. Though Monken could be a play-calling savant as well, as his offenses were always productive in college. Hard to imagine Koetter taking that risk though in a make-or-break year. Now, if it were Koetter’s first year on the job, maybe it’s a different story.

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        • Donkey, I’ve never seen playcalling worse than last year. There were times where I said to myself “a middle school kid playing Madden wouldn’t have been that dumb.”

          Koetter isn’t a bad coach for sure and I really am on his side. But things have to be different next year. Throwing the ball 15 yards down the field on 4th and 1 is the type of stuff that should lose playcallers their jobs.

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          • Never understood coaches who stand there and praise how good their OL and RB’s are in press conferences, but then fail to trust them to get a 4th and short when it comes down to it. lol

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          • If you can execute a first down completion on any 4th down play then it works. Last night’s SB52, Eagles went for it all from the 45 yard line on 4th and 1 and got a touchdown. My problem is less the play calling as much as execution. And I am much more concerned when our opponents convert on third and long. How many times am I going to see Bucs stuff the running back in the first two plays and then give up a 10+ yard completion on the third down play. That has to be demoralizing to the DL and LB

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  6. I totally agree with signing two rbs in free agency. Anyone who doesnt like crowell hasnt seen him play much. I love dion lewis but seriously doubt he gets out of NE. If so getting him to tampa is gona be costly. If youre trying to sell me on vea I’m buying. I went and watched some film. He would be a day one starter and impact player. No way you’d get that with Davenport or some of the other DEs after chubb. One guy i think they may consider is the edge guy from Oklahoma. I think he will jump up the draft boards too. He is a bit small in a 4-3 but this team needs guys who can get the qb off his spot, and this guy can. So yeah signing crowell and lewis or mckinnon, drafting vita would definitely improve this team. They still need to sign a DE before the draft i think. If bennett is released Id say jump on it. Ansah would be ideal but doubt he makes it to FA. The issue is going to be do the bucs have enough appeal to get defensive players here? Mike smith isnt exactly known for putting guys into position to succeed. Lets hope Jameis and Mccoys recruiting help out.

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  7. 4 FOR 4 MY BROTHER! LOL Nice read Scottie, you kind of got me jonesing for the this Vea kid He sounds nice. As a trench guy and big fan of the “big uglies” as Keith Jackson used to call them I’m intrigued. Plus knowing it’s a position of need and this kid seems to fit the bill. Hopefully he let’s the freak come out during the combine.

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  8. The more I see of Vea the more I tend to agree with Coach Lake. The dude is a manbeast. Teams who are consistently competitive are the ones who are able to get generational talents like this. Chubb is good, but Vea would open up a whole lot of possibilities. As the Sapp/Culpepper and Sapp/McFarland days showed, consistent pressure up the middle changes the way that QB’s can play.

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  9. Assume most of the FA RB’s are going to be looking for a chance to start, though obviously the market will determine how many opportunities are out there. With that in mind, hard to see TB getting both Crowell and McKinnon/Lewis signed knowing only one is getting the bulk of the carries. In this rare instance, I actually agree with suferdudes. Adding Crowell and then drafting two RB’s to pair with Barber is probably the way to go, though there will probably a RB or two that gets released in preseason that could probably be added as well if we were to only draft one. Jeremy Hill is also an interesting bounce-back candidate in place of a Lewis or McKinnon.

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  10. Vita! Vita! Vita!

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  11. Don’t forget about soon to be free agents RB Orleans Darkwa/Giants and RB Jeremy Hill/Bengals.

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  12. I love Vita, but I also love Payne. Can’t decide who’s better.

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    • Love Payne huh? Might be posting on the wrong board there Patrick. 😉

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    • I like Da’Ron Payne too, but I don’t think he’s on the same level as Vea as a pass rusher. I also don’t always trust Bama players (unless they’re named Minkah Fitzpatrick) because they’re surrounded with so much other talent on the field.

      Vea made that defense better almost singlehandedly in Washington. I think Bama might have won the championship with or without Payne.

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  13. Ugh, Scott, Gaines Adams was definitely a bust but let’s not act like he was this massive reach. Adams was a 6-5 260 pound consensus all-american with 21 sacks and 27.5 tackles for loss in his final two seasons at Clemson, widely regarded as the top defensive player in the draft, and was taken as such.

    While I loved Adrian Peterson coming out of Oklahoma and he looked the part of a generational RB (yet was getting knocked for breaking his collarbone which was a freak injury), the Bucs had just spent a top 5 pick on Cadillac Williams 2 years prior. The idea of using your top pick on a pass rusher to replace Simeon Rice, whom Adams resembled made sense. You risk becoming the Lions if you constantly burn top 5 picks at the same skill position every year. The real intrigue was whether Bruce Allen would give up the farm to trade with the Lions to take the generational WR prospect in Calvin Johnson at number two. In hindsight, the top 3 picks the Lions required was the right call even if it was a heavy price to pay. Of course, had the Bucs merely won a predraft coin flip with Cleveland to pick at 3rd overall we would be talking about Joe Thomas as one of the best Buccaneers in franchise history.

    Either way, let’s not spin this to the Bucs making a desperate attempt and taking an inferior player due to need. The Bucs took a player at a slot that surprised no one in 2007. Gaines Adams selection wasn’t the Aguayo pick by a longshot.

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    • All good points Devasher. Funny how SR blasts the Adams pick (easy to do in hindsight, much like the Baker signing) and says “That’s what happens when a team drafts for need rather than selecting the best player available”. Then turns around and promotes Vea over Nelson because DL is a bigger “need”. From the PR website itself on draft day 2007 – “Tampa Bay landed arguably the best defensive player in the 2007 NFL Draft by drafting Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams”. Gotta chose a side here SR.

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    • And i would like to add, I’m willing to bet clemson’s coach sung the praises of Adams. He should have because Adams was a unanimous selection for all american. Even look at the mock drafts from back then and you will see many had him to the bucs and he was never out the top 7 or so picks. Definitely not a reach. He just busted. 50% of 1st rounders bust so there is no guarantee that Vea wont bust either. Jason licht please do your homework.

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  14. I’m going to help out the Pewter Report writers here and show a portion of their 2007 mock draft and comments:

    3. Cleveland Browns – RB Adrian Peterson (Oklahoma)
    Cleveland will be tempted to select QB Brady Quinn, but they’ll go with the safer pick in Peterson, who will be groomed behind RB Jamal Lewis for a year. The Browns figure an improved ground attack will immediately help improve the play of their quarterbacks.
    4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers – WR Calvin Johnson (Georgia Tech)
    The Bucs will be fortunate to have Johnson fall to them since several teams likely will attempt to trade up with Oakland, Detroit and Cleveland to position themselves to draft Johnson. But in the end, Johnson and T Joe Thomas will fall in Tampa Bay’s lap. A franchise tackle has a lot of appeal, but the Bucs offense, which scored just 20 touchdowns last season, simply can’t afford to pass up a player with Johnson’s attributes and playmaking ability.
    5. Arizona Cardinals – T Joe Thomas (Wisconsin)
    There’s a chance the Cardinals could attempt to trade up with the Bucs to select Thomas, but they won’t make that move if they believe the Bucs will select Johnson. Arizona fills a need and grabs the best left tackle in the 2007 NFL Draft.

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    • Wasn’t saying PR didn’t prefer Johnson to Adams as the Bucs pick Wausa. Was simply pointing out that Scott has, on occasion, tended to praise a pick or signing when it’s made (Adams, Baker, etc.) and, if it doesn’t work out, turn around and bash it as a mistake by the team or GM. Not every pick or signing works out, just the way it goes. Now, if you bash the pick or signing when it’s made, THEN feel free to do the “I told ya so” if it fails. Otherwise ….

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  15. I would be good with Crowell, if the offensive line is improved.

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  16. Spend on free agent OL,DL and Cb’s draft running Backs why spend big time money on average rbs?

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  17. I’ve never liked Jameis working with George Whitfield. Jimbo didn’t either. In my opinion, the guy is a fraud. Luck made him, he would have made any QB coach, and guys have flocked to him ever since. Who has he made better? Winston’s deep ball fell off a cliff after working with George. I’d love for Winston to drop the broom waving, couch pillow throwing gimmicks & work with an actual QB coach who knows what he’s talking bout.

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  18. FA – Crowell and Bennett/Ansah
    Rd 1 – Nelson
    Rd 2 – Michel

    Then go BPA the rest of the draft

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