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. JOSEPH WOULD LOOK GREAT IN RED AND PEWTER RIGHT NOW
A few weeks ago I praised new Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht for trading for Pro Bowl left guard Logan Mankins. It was a shrewd move to add some toughness, talent and experience up front for Tampa Bay.
But given the fact that Mankins went down with a sudden and unexpected injury in the 20-14 season-opening loss to Carolina, and the Bucs finished the game with newcomer Garrett Gilkey at left guard and unproven Patrick Omameh at right guard it’s no wonder that Doug Martin was held to nine yards on nine carries and Josh McCown was sacked three times and threw two interceptions while trying to avoid two more.
Simply put, Licht and the Buccaneers overestimated their guard situation this offseason, and it’s costing them. Wouldn’t Davin Joseph look great in red and pewter right now?
You remember Joseph, the two-time Pro Bowler, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2006 and all-around great guy. He was one of the NFL’s best guards in 2012 before a nasty knee injury in the preseason cost him the entire year. After returning to action following rehab and a nasty staph infection, Joseph started all 16 games last year, but was a shell of his former self.
Joseph, who is now the starting right guard for the St. Louis Rams, put bad tape out there during 2013, not getting enough push in the run game and not holding up well in pass protection. Last year in the locker room Joseph told me that his bad knee had lost size and strength following the surgery and the rehab, but that he would be better after resting the knee and working out during the 2014 offseason.
Had general manager Mark Dominik remained in charge following the 2013 campaign, he was prepared to force Joseph to take a pay cut from his $6 million base salary – likely half – or get released because of his bad 2013. But Dominik was willing to take Joseph to camp at a lesser amount and give him a chance to earn the right guard job again – or at least a roster spot.
When Licht took over for Dominik in January, he had no ties to Joseph. All he saw was a $6 million base salary on the books in 2014 and some bad tape from the previous year. So on March 8 Joseph was released.
Instead of retaining Joseph, Jamon Meredith was re-signed for some reason. Meredith didn’t even make the Bucs’ 53-man roster this year, going from starting guard to backup to on-the-street free agent (now signed to the Indianapolis Colts). Tampa Bay whiffed on a starting guard in Meredith.
Then the Bucs signed former Cleveland backup guard Oniel Cousins, who briefly contended for the starting left guard job until Mankins’ arrival. Prior to the Mankins trade, Cousins was viewed as the weak link along the offensive line. Another whiff by the front office at the starting left guard spot until Mankins’ arrival.
Of course former Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks was still on the roster. But the organization was speaking out of both sides of its mouth throughout the entire offseason. One day, the team was hopeful that Nicks would come around health-wise and be cleared to play this year. The next day, the team would say behind the scenes that it wasn’t counting on Nicks to be a part of the plans in 2014 at all, and if he returned it would be a bonus.
The latter eventually happened with Nicks never recovering from two toe surgeries and a MRSA infection. At no point in time did I ever believe – or report – that Nicks would be ready to play this year. A trusted NFL agent had heard that Nicks lost part of his toe in the surgery and would never play again. He was right.
So with two career backups – Cousins and Meredith – poised to start as of May the Bucs would surely address the guard position in the 2014 NFL Draft, right?
The first two guards in the draft – UCLA’s Xavier Su’a-Filo and Nevada’s Joel Bitonio – were drafted by Houston and Cleveland in the second round just a few picks before Tampa Bay drafted tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins. It’s hard to blame the Bucs for drafting Seferian-Jenkins in the second round considering that another guard wasn’t selected until the Dolphins took North Dakota State’s Billy Turner with the third pick in the third round two spots ahead of Tampa Bay.
Most critics found fault with the Bucs taking running back Charles Sims in the third round instead of drafting a guard, but the next one off the board was Nebraska’s Spencer Long, who was taken nine spots later by Washington. Yet two third-round guards – Oakland’s Gabe Jackson and Carolina’s Trai Turner – are starting for their respective teams as rookies.
It’s tough because Sims is on injured reserve with a designation to return later this year following ankle surgery and the Bucs’ guard play is currently suffering. As much as I like Sims, and he may eventually replace Martin as the starting running back, it seems like drafting Jackson or Turner, who impressed on Sunday against Tampa Bay in Week 1, would have been the smarter and better decision.
Instead, the Bucs waited until the fifth round to draft an extremely raw, small school prospect in Tennessee State’s Kadeem Edwards. A quick look at Edwards at the Senior Bowl by the PewterReport.com staff saw a guard with great size, good movement and nice physical attributes, but a player that was nowhere near being ready to start in the NFL.
When the Bucs drafted Edwards he was the lone player PewterReport.com didn’t overly praise because he’s a project that needs a lot of work on his technique and conditioning – a guy that maybe has a shot to help the team in 2015.
“At beginning of camp it was very simple, I just went out there and played,” Edwards said. “As of right now I am thinking a little bit more and I am playing a little bit slower. It is a lot more detailed than college. I am thinking, so it slows me down. So when I am on the line I don’t just go. I just don’t go and play ball. I have to break down and see if I have this person.”
It’s too bad that Tampa Bay had a glaring need at guard and didn’t find immediate help – banking on veterans like Meredith and Cousins to step up and young players like Patrick Omameh and Jace Daniels, who is no longer on the team, to develop. To his credit, Omameh has claimed the right guard position, but he was shaky at times in his NFL regular season debut last Sunday, giving up one of Tampa Bay’s three sacks by failing to execute a stunt pick-up with right tackle Demar Dotson.
After the Bucs failed to get a starting-caliber guard in free agency and the draft, they had one last chance to re-sign Joseph to a modest, one-year “prove-it” deal like the offers he contemplated from Dallas and New England and the one he ultimately signed with St. Louis on May 28.
“I do feel like I have a lot left,” the 30-year old Joseph told ESPN in St. Louis at the start of Rams training camp. “I feel like I can contribute to this team. I don’t know how big or how small my role will be, but I feel like I can contribute. If it’s just coming out here and really working to make the guys better then that’s my job and I’ll do it the best that I can.”
An offseason’s worth of rest has helped Joseph, and he is playing better than he did last season coming off rehab and surgery. Both he and I were hoping he would have a bounce-back year in 2014 because sometimes a player doesn’t fully recover from knee surgery until two years out.
The Bucs should have re-signed him and added him to the mix at right guard. Not doing so was negligent.
By not re-signing Joseph after the draft, Licht didn’t do enough to bolster the guard position in the offseason. He added running backs and receivers aplenty, but he didn’t adequately address the team’s most glaring need, which was guard, until trading for the 32-year old Mankins.
But if Joseph is healthy enough and good enough to keep St. Louis’ first-round pick, Greg Robinson, on the bench wouldn’t the Bucs have been better off with Mankins and Joseph as the starters? I think so.
“I think being a Ram has been the best thing that’s happened to me in a long time, so it’s strange how things happen,” Joseph said. “When you get released by one team and picked up by another team, you don’t quite know what your role is, you just come to work, shut up and do your job. You just learn every day. I’ve learned a lot since I’ve arrived here. I’ve really enjoyed the journey so far.”
Joseph’s journey ironically takes him back to Tampa Bay on Sunday where he will get the chance at revenge against the team that cut him.
FAB 2. 5 DRAFT PROSPECT GUARDS TO WATCH FOR THE BUCCANEERS
It’s only Week 2, but the two big areas of need for the Buccaneers appear to be guard and defensive end. With college football season upon us, another crop of draft prospects has emerged and help could be on the way for Tampa Bay in May of 2015.
I’ll preview five guards to watch during the fall in this section of the SR’s Fab 5 and the defensive ends in the next section.
1. South Carolina G A.J. Cann – 6-4, 311
Cann, who has started 38 games for Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks, is a powerful run blocker in the same mold as Davin Joseph, although he is a tick slower than the Bucs’ former Pro Bowl guard. Cann, a team captain, has a powerful punch and excels in the running game. He has been the go-to lineman in South Carolina’s running game, which features the talented Mike Davis. While he has ideal knee bend, Cann needs to work on his initial quickness in pass protection, but is considered to be a possible first-round draft prospect.
2. Florida State G Josue Matias – 6-6 325
Matias has anchored the Seminoles’ left guard spot, starting all 14 games in 2013 and has 29 straight starts dating back to the 2011 Champs Sports Bowl. According to NFLDraftScout.com, he has been placed on the 2014 preseason Outland Trophy Award watch list after he had the top offensive line grade against Wake Forest (88), Miami (86) and Nevada (89) and helped Florida State rush for a season-high 377 yards against the Wolf Pack. Matias excels as a run blocker, but needs work on his pass protection set and figures to be a second-round pick.
3. Florida State G Tre’ Jackson – 6-4, 330
While not as physically gifted as Matias, his guard counterpart at Florida State, Jackson is just as accomplished and has underrated athleticism. The All-ACC guard has 28 straight starts on the right side and has helped drive the Seminoles’ most productive offensive seasons over the past two years. Jackson is an all-around talent that can pass protect and run block and could solidify his status as a second-round pick with another great season.
4. LSU G Vadal Alexander – 6-6, 342
Alexander, a junior, is a massive human being, similar to former Bucs guard Carl Nicks. The massive road grader started nine games at right tackle as a freshman before starting 13 games at left guard last season. With his frame, Alexander not only thrives in the run game, but he also excels in pass protection. LSU has a strong record of producing NFL-caliber offensive linemen and Alexander could be a second-round pick with a solid junior season.
5. Texas A&M G Jarvis Harrison – 6-3, 325
Texas A&M has become an offensive line factory for the NFL recently with Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews being top 10 picks over the past two years. Left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and Harrison are next up with Ogbuehi being a first-rounder, and Harrison having a shot at the second or third round. He is a powerful guard with a quick first step and real aggressiveness in the run game. Although Ogbuehi is the better NFL prospect, Texas A&M coaches call Harrison their most athletic lineman, although he does need to work on his conditioning and turn some fat into muscle.
While it might be a little early for draft talk for some Bucs fans, others like to know which prospects to watch and scout during football season, which is why we are previewing a couple of players at areas of need for Tampa Bay. Unless Mankins can stay healthy and play dominant football and Omameh can prove he can be a competent starter, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Bucs will need to address the guard position early next May.
FAB 3. 5 DRAFT PROSPECT DEFENSIVE ENDS TO WATCH FOR TAMPA BAY
Tampa Bay’s defensive ends didn’t get near Carolina’s reserve quarterback Derek Anderson last Sunday, and that prompted the Bucs to cut reserve ends Scott Solomon and Steven Means this week. The Bucs’ only sack came from defensive tackle Gerald McCoy as Michael Johnson, who suffered an ankle injury, and Adrian Clayborn, who was just placed on injured reserve on Friday with a biceps injury, were ineffective.
With Clayborn out this year, and with he and reserve end-tackle Da’Quan Bowers in a contract year, it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Bucs will address the defensive end position in next year’s draft – possibly in the first round. Here are five names to know at defensive end.
1. Nebraska DE Randy Gregory – 6-6, 240
Gregory is a rangy, athletic left end that reminds some of former Miami Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Taylor. Because of his angular build, he doesn’t have strong legs and can be overpowered at times in the run game, but his long arms help keep offensive linemen off him. Gregory is a dynamic pass rusher with 4.7 speed and posted 66 tackles, 19 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, and interception returned for a touchdown and a pass breakup in 10 starts last year. He’s been slowed in 2014 with an offseason knee injury that occurred while playing basketball, but is expected to make his debut this Saturday. Gregory has the chance to be a top 15 draft pick with a strong 2014 season.
2. Michigan State DE Shilique Calhoun – 6-5, 256
Calhoun is a fast, explosive pass rusher with a nose for the ball, evidenced by three defensive touchdowns – two on fumble recoveries and one on a 56-yard interception return. He was the Big 10 Defensive Lineman of the Year last year, notching 37 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, two forced fumbles and his pick-six. Calhoun started off the season right with six tackles, a tackle for loss and a 23-yard sack against Jacksonville State, but was stonewalled by Oregon left tackle Jake Fisher last week. Calhoun has all the tools to be a top 15 pick next May.
3. Baylor DE Shawn Oakman – 6-8, 278
Oakman, who was a reserve in 2013, finished with 33 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and two sacks last year, and is a first-time starter as a junior. He had five tackles, two sacks and a forced fumble in the season-opening win against SMU, but was held to one tackle last week against Northwestern State. The tall, incredibly athletic right end looks like Michael Johnson and has tremendous reach and a good initial burst off the ball. But like Johnson, Oakman struggles with lateral movement and his size works against him when he redirects towards the ballcarrier. Oakman had off-field and academic issues at Penn State, which led to his dismissal and transfer to Baylor, but he could be a first-round pick with a great junior campaign.
4. Kentucky DE Alvin “Bud” Dupree – 6-4, 264
Dupree is a hard-charging, high-motor pass rusher with great agility and good speed off the edge. He has had a very productive career and is poised for a big senior season, although in the first two games of the year, Dupree has seven tackles and one pass breakup, and has yet to record a sack. After posting 21 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks, a blocked kick as a freshman, Dupree had a breakout season in 2012 with 91 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks. As a junior in 2013, Dupree notched 61 tackles, nine tackles for loss, seven sacks and two forced fumbles. Dupree has the chance to be a second- or third-round pick.
5. Missouri DE Markus Golden – 6-3, 260
Playing behind Michael Sam and Kony Ealy last year as a reserve, Golden recorded 55 tackles, 13 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, a forced fumble and a 70-yard interception return for a touchdown. He’s a quick, physical defensive end with a nasty edge to his game, similar to Tampa Bay’s Adrian Clayborn. Golden already has 16 tackles, five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks to start 2014 the right way. Golden isn’t the biggest defensive lineman, but he his aggressiveness and playmaking ability could boost his stock to the second or third round.
Also, keep an eye on Golden’s counterpart at Missouri, defensive end Shane Ray. He returned a fumble for a touchdown in the waning second of the Cotton Bowl last year to secure the Tigers’ victory over Oklahoma State. As a reserve end in 2013, the 6-foot-3, 245-pound pass rusher notched 39 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks and forced two fumbles. He has nine tackles and three sacks to start 2014.
The defensive line class looks to be rich in talent and the Bucs, who spent all of their 2014 draft picks on offensive players, will likely have to use an early-round pick on one.
FAB 4. BUCS IN TROUBLE WITH ANOTHER LOSS ON SUNDAY
You probably know the statistic. Only 12 percent of the NFL teams that start off the season 0-2 make the playoffs.
Going 0-2 in a 16-game regular schedule can be quite unforgiving. Outside of the strike-shortened 1982 season in which the Bucs started 0-3 and finished 5-4, Tampa Bay has never begun the season 0-2 and still made the playoffs in franchise history.
The good news for the Bucs is that out of the team’s 10 postseason appearances, five of those seasons (1981, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2007) started with 1-1 records, including the 1999 campaign and the 2002 Super Bowl season. So with a win over the visiting St. Louis Rams on Sunday, the Bucs have a shot at salvaging their season and keeping in line with the statistical path to the playoffs.
Even the Buccaneers realize this Sunday’s contest against the Rams is a must-win game.
“Should be a big challenge for us with another NFC opponent coming in,” Bucs head coach Lovie Smith said. “NFC home game. There are no must-win games or anything like that early in the season, but this is one we need to win. Kind of simple as that.”
“Every week is a must-win,” Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “We’re trying to get into the playoffs. You have to win to get in the playoffs. We get paid to win games. Every game is a must-win for us. It’s a crazy big game because it’s the next one. It’s Week 1 people. I understand we only won four games last year. I understand that our fans are tired of us losing. But if the fans are tired of us losing, think about how we feel. “We’re the ones out their grinding in the offseason and training camp and then to come out in Week 1 and not win? It sucks. I guarantee you that the fans don’t feel as bad as we do. We ask that our fans stick in there with us and I guarantee you that we’re going to keep fighting. It’s Week 1. I guarantee you we’ll have 15 more [games]. The team we just lost to started off terrible last year and then won 10 [out of the last 11 games]. It happens. It’s a long season.”
Last year, the Carolina Panthers started 0-2 and were even 2-3 at one point before winning 10 out of the last 11 games to finish 2013 with a 12-4 record and a division title. However, the Panthers had a top 5 defense, a Pro Bowl quarterback and a strong running game, and chewed through an NFC South division that featured two chump teams in Tampa Bay and Atlanta – both of whom finished with top 10 draft picks.
Rebounding from an 0-2 start can be done, although it’s tough. In 2007, the New York Giants began the season 0-2 and then finished 9-7, sneaking into the playoffs as a wild card. The Giants beat the Bucs in January en route to winning three straight playoff games and ultimately the Super Bowl.
I remember former Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen telling me one time that the most critical week of the NFL season is Week 2. If a team starts off 2-0 it has a winning record for at least a month until it could possibly have a losing record (2-3) and there’s a chance to build some early momentum with a 2-0 start.
Conversely, a 0-2 start, according to Allen, meant that a football team wouldn’t have a winning record a least a month into football season – and that would only happen if a team won three straight games to get to 3-2. He also concluded that the psychological pressure from fans and the media that comes with starting off a season 0-2 can be quite difficult for players to deal with and can affect their confidence, which can then affect their level of play.
Plus, the physical and mental energy that a team can expend to win three straight to get to a winning record or to chase .500 for half the season can be taxing to a football team and can stymie momentum.
It’s too early to tell how the season will play out for these Buccaneers. The defense has the ability to certainly play better than it did last Sunday against Carolina when the only splash made that was made was a fourth quarter sack by McCoy, but losing defensive end Adrian Clayborn to injured reserve on Friday is a huge blow. If Will Gholston is healthy enough to play he’ll likely start at left defensive end with either Scott Solomon or Larry English – both of whom were re-signed this week – starting at right end if Michael Johnson can’t play due to his sprained ankle.
Yet given all of the injuries on the defensive side of the ball, that’s still the more talented unit. Tampa Bay’s offense has already seen starting guard Logan Mankins, starting running back Doug Martin and starting tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins get hurt, and it just doesn’t have the look of a unit that is going to come around and play winning football until the offensive line gels and quarterback Josh McCown quits making costly turnovers.
“Nobody is sitting here crying about the Patriots,” McCoy said. “They lost, too. And so did the Green Bay Packers. And so did the New Orleans Saints. Teams have to lose on Week 1. You can’t have two winners in every game. We lost Week 1. We apologize and we’ll fix it.”
They better fix it by Sunday or an 0-2 start will be unforgiving for these Buccaneers this year.
FAB 5. SR’s BUCS SHOTS
• Bucs quarterback Josh McCown finished Sunday’s 20-14 loss to Carolina completing 22-of-35 passes for 183 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. McCown was dreadful in the first three quarters, completing just 10-of-17 passes (58.8 percent) for 75 yards and two costly interceptions. However, McCown completed 66.6 percent of his throws (12-of-18) for 108 yards and two touchdowns in the fourth quarter.
“I think he just calmed down and played within the plan, played within the scheme,” said Bucs quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo of McCown’s fourth quarter play. “I think early on he tried to press a little bit, he tried to play outside of the play as we like to say ‘play the play.’ With that is running around trying to make a throw when you’re under duress and doubling it. I think you play within the play and he proved in those seven minutes and that 19-play stretch that we can move the ball and he was effective in that regard. I think it got better as the game went on and hopefully that will carry over into next week.”
• Bucs rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins was off to a great start in his first NFL regular season game last Sunday with a 26-yard catch in the first quarter until he suffered a sprained ankle that knocked him out of the game and has him questionable to play in Sunday’s game against St. Louis. Seferian-Jenkins is going to be a big part of Tampa Bay’s offense this year and has been helped by two key people – tight ends coach Jon Embree and middle linebacker Mason Foster.
Embree, who has playing experience as a tight end in the NFL and has coached a lot of notable tight ends, including Chris Cooley and Marcedes Lewis, has been a great on-field mentor for the rookie.
“It’s really priceless to have someone who has played in the league and understands what you are going through on a day-to-day basis and listen,” Seferian-Jenkins said. “He’s always looking out for you. He’s a really good coach. If you check his track record he’s coached a lot of really good tight ends. His track record speaks for itself. Everyone in the room is excited and we’re all fortunate to have a guy like him lead us.”
Seferian-Jenkins has been aided off the field by Foster, a former Washington alum, who has known him for years.
“Mason has been like a big brother to me,” Seferian-Jenkins said. “If I ever have a question, I’m going to him to ask him. It’s been a real blessing to have him out here and I get to work against a really good Mike linebacker in practice, too.”
• The fact that newly acquired guard Logan Mankins has shaken off last week’s knee injury and returned to practice this week doesn’t surprise many, including reserve middle linebacker Dane Fletcher, who played with Mankins in New England last year.
“Logan brings a lot to the team in terms of toughness – on the field and in the locker room,” Fletcher said. “In every category you can define toughness he brings it. He’s absolutely a man’s man.”
• Despite the loss to Carolina in Week 1, Tampa Bay defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was all smiles in the Bucs locker room this week and was as confident as ever in the team rebounding. As bad as it is to lose a home opener to a division rival with a backup quarterback, McCoy indicated that the atmosphere in the locker room between this year and last year is completely different.
“Last year was such a circus, I ain’t got time for the nonsense,” McCoy said. “I just want to have fun with my teammates. I did have fun [last year], but with all the internal stuff going on I was not happy.”
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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