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. BANKS, VERNER EXCITED TO MOVE ON FROM “BIG FIASCO” IN 2015
There were several reasons why former Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith was fired. Fielding a very surprising and disappointing 8-24 record in Tampa Bay was a big reason, especially for a veteran head coach that was expected to come in and win right away given how much money the organization spent in free agency in 2014.
But a failed defensive scheme with Smith usurping Leslie Frazier of the defensive coordinator duties on game day last year and taking over the play-calling, as well as poor coaching in the secondary were two other notable reasons. The stubborn Smith wasn’t about to fire Mikal Smith, his son, who Tampa Bay’s safeties, nor his coaching mentor, Larry Marmie, who coached nickel cornerbacks. Smith’s ego also wasn’t going to allow him to surrender play-calling duties for a chance to return in 2016, either.
The Bucs didn’t even bother to ask Smith because they knew the answers to those questions. Those were most likely foregone conclusions in the minds of the Glazers and general manager Jason Licht, which allowed the Bucs’ brass to come to a relatively quick decision to fire Smith three days after a disappointing finish to the 2015 campaign, which ended with a 6-10 record. The conclusion Licht and new head coach Dirk Koetter reached when evaluating the defense was that it wasn’t so much the talent as it was the scheme and the coaching.
That’s why free safeties Chris Conte and Keith Tandy were re-signed and starting strong safety Bradley McDougald, who is a restricted free agent, was given a second-round tender. That’s also why the Bucs were interested in retaining Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks, Tampa Bay’s starting cornerbacks in 2014, who were demoted during the 2015 season.
I had a chance to speak to both Banks and Verner, who are excited to play for head coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith, and are grateful for a second chance in Tampa Bay.
“There was a lot of stuff that went wrong last year,” said Banks, who had 105 tackles, 16 pass breakups and seven interceptions in his first two seasons with the Bucs, but only 25 tackles, one pass breakup and no interceptions in 2015 after being demoted. “Honestly, I don’t even care anymore. That was a big, big, big fiasco, but I’m over that. I just want to move on and try to go out and make some plays this year. I’ve got a new coaching staff and a fresh start and have some guys that I actually feel like they want to be in Tampa. I’m excited to get back to work. I’m ready to go.”
Last year was indeed a fiasco.
Smith broke the cardinal rule when it came to defensive backs and had a very quick hook last year after cornerbacks gave up big plays. Never mind the fact that secondary coaches from Pee Wee to the NFL always preach to their cornerbacks and safeties to have a short memory. Give up a touchdown? “Forget it and move on to the next play” is what players like Banks and Vernon had heard their whole lives.
“You have to have a short memory,” Banks said. “As a cornerback, you’ve got to move on to the next play. Things are going to happen. You’ve got guys like Julio Jones and Antonio Brown – guys like that in this league. You can’t stop them every play. They are going to get their catches. When they make a play, you have to move on to the next play and make the next one.”
That wasn’t the case with Smith. Give up a big play? You’re benched.
Smith’s ridiculous cornerback carousel lasted the whole season and saw a different starting lineup virtually every month. By the end of the season, Smith had started six different players at cornerback and four different players at safety – never finding a combination he was happy with. The Bucs weren’t going to go through that again and Smith was fired.
Shortly after Koetter was hired, Banks and Verner got word that the team wanted to keep them. Banks had a face-to-face meeting with Koetter, defensive coordinator Mike Smith, secondary coach Jon Hoke and defensive backs coach Brett Maxie.
“I was actually going back to Tampa to get my Super Bowl tickets, but I ran into Coach Koetter and all the new coaches over there and we had a meeting,” Banks said. “It was a very good meeting. I think Coach Koetter is the right man for the job. He’s going to be fair and I took a lot out of that meeting. He’s going to put the best 11 out there on the field on offense and defense and special teams. That’s what I’m excited about. I’m going to go out there and showcase my talent and show what I can do. I never lost confidence in myself. I’m so over last season. I’m ready to get back to competing and having fun. I want to have fun and play football.”
Banks, who became close to Verner during their first season together in Tampa Bay in 2014, was thrilled to hear the news that Verner, who is scheduled to make $6.75 million in 2015, was also set to return to the Bucs this year.
“I’m excited for him because he went through some of the same stuff I went through last year,” Banks said. “I’m so happy to see him back. Me, him and Coach Brett – we talk every day. We’re good friends and I’m so happy to go back to war with him and the new guys – Josh Robinson and Brent Grimes. I’ve been a big fan of Brent’s for a long time, back when he was with the Falcons and I was in college. I have really enjoyed watching him go out and make plays on the ball.”
While unrestricted free agent cornerbacks Mike Jenkins and Sterling Moore aren’t expected to return, Verner is grateful that the front office made the decision to retain most of last year’s talent in the secondary and give players like himself another chance in Mike Smith’s defensive scheme, which is more aggressive.
“As a competitor it’s definitely frustrating when you are not playing as much as you expect to play or want to play,” Verner said. “You want to be on the field helping your team as best you can. For Johnthan and I, things were out of our control and it was frustrating.
“As a whole, I look it as a humbling season. The year, I looked at 2014 as a learning season for me. This past year was more humbling because when you have something taken away from you, you realize how much you miss it. You realize how much of a blessing it is to be in the situation you’re in. Last year with me bouncing around and moving around to nickel, it makes me hungrier and makes me want to bounce back the following year.”
After speaking with Koetter this offseason, Tampa Bay’s new head coach left an incredibly positive impression on both Banks and Verner. While he wants both players to make more plays in 2015, he wants them to have fun, which neither Banks nor Verner had much of last year under Smith.
“I spent maybe 30 minutes to an hour sitting down with the new coaches and I thoroughly enjoyed it,” Banks said. “I’m really feeling confident that those guys will get the job done. They want us to make plays, and while we’re making plays we need to have fun. That’s what football is about. It’s not about being uptight and playing football. It’s about having fun and playing football.”
Verner raved about Koetter and what he was able to accomplish as the Bucs offensive coordinator, producing over 6,000 yards for the first time in franchise history with such a young squad in his first season in Tampa Bay.
“I was of fan of Dirk when he was in Atlanta scorching us my first year in Tampa,” said Verner, who had 75 tackles, two interceptions, nine pass breakups and two forced fumbles in 2014, but just 53 tackles four pass breakups, an interception and a forced fumble. “I thought he did so many good things in Atlanta that when we hired him I thought it was a great pick up. Seeing him in person on a day-to-day basis he has a great work ethic and he brings out of the best of what he has. When Austin [Seferian-Jenkins] was hurt for a while you see Cameron Brate come in and make plays. You see Doug [Martin] and Charles [Sims] and what they did together. You see Vincent [Jackson] go down and you see Adam Humphries and Donteea Dye come in and step up. All of these injuries are happening and new guys step in and produce. On top of all that you have a rookie quarterback. To get the guys to do what they did was very impressive. I think very highly of him.
“Dirk is a guy that is going to be a straight shooter with you. He’s going to be very clear in his communication with you and what he expects from you. I look forward to working with him on a more regular basis. I’m excited he’s getting this opportunity. I know he wasn’t expecting it and people weren’t expecting the whole Lovie thing to go down, but if they were going to bring anybody in to replace him Dirk was the best option for that because he has the familiarity with us. He’s seen us players on the defensive side from practice. He knows what type of talent we have in the building already. Now he has to find a way to get it all out of everybody, and that’s why he brought in the coaches that he did. I’m excited for Dirk. I think he’s going to do very well. I think one of the big things he’s going to do well is communication with people. I can already see that and we haven’t even gotten into OTAs yet. I’m looking forward to it.”
While the players are away on vacation until the offseason program begins in April, Koetter has spent the last three months e-mailing, texting and calling the Bucs players on a regular basis, reaching out and forming new relationships with the defensive players, and strengthening relationships with his offensive players. He had called Banks out of the blue on Wednesday right before I did for this interview.
“I didn’t really know Coach Koetter much last year,” Banks said. “I had maybe one or two conversations with him, but after sitting down and talking to him, and talking with our guys on offense they absolutely love him. I’m excited to go to work for him. I’ve talked to him a few times. He actually called me today. You just don’t know how big of a deal it is when your head coach actually communicates with you and tries to vibe with you and get along with you and tries to have a relationship with his players. I went from college with [Mississippi State head coach] Dan Mullen where he was like a father to me to Coach [Greg] Schiano, who was super cool. I was close to those guys. Last year was a fiasco. I’m so happy to be a part of Coach Koetter’s team and I can’t wait to move forward.”
Banks isn’t the only one who feels more of a vibe with Koetter. Verner noted the contrasting styles between the more fiery and energetic Koetter and the more stoic Smith.
“I think Lovie had a different approach,” Verner said. “He was more laid back. I think you saw that every day the way he interviewed [at his press conferences]. He was more reserved. That’s just him by nature. That’s just the way he was. It was hard to get used to that at times. With Dirk, you can tell from the way he’s in your face that he makes his point known and gets after it. I like that.”
One of the changes Koetter and Mike Smith are making is going back to the more conventional approach of having two defensive backs coaches rather than three. Whether it was Mike Tomlin and Raheem Morris or Morris and his assistant, Jimmy Lake, for decades Tampa Bay had two defensive backs coaches and the entire secondary in one meeting room sharing one message. It wasn’t that way under Smith the last two years, and players like Banks and Verner believe the lack of communication played a big role in the constant confusion and breakdowns in the secondary.
“It’s not a bad thing to have all of those coaches, but I think it’s more a matter of working together if you have those separate entities,” Verner said. “Sometimes you could make it work, but I feel that’s where the communication was lacking. We didn’t necessarily meet together as much as we should have because we had the separate coaches and the separate people trying to tell us different things instead of having something that cohesively brought us together. It’s not an excuse for the way we played, but that’s not what I was used to coming from Tennessee and from UCLA. You might have a safeties coach and a corners coach, but you all met together and went over tendencies and you talked amongst each other throughout the week going into games. That’s something that I’m more used to. If I had a preference between the two, it would be better for me as a player for us all to meet together.
“I believe that’s going to happen here this year, but I haven’t had much specificity yet. That’s what we did with Brett Maxie in Tennessee. He had more of an emphasis with the safeties, but at the end of the day everything still ran through him. We’ll be all together because it’s a new system and they will want to teach it to all of us at the same time. That’s what I would assume.”
Although he’s a newcomer, Grimes, a four-time Pro Bowler, will actually be the most experienced cornerback in Mike Smith’s new defensive scheme, having played for Smith in Atlanta from 2008-12. Verner is looking forward to Grimes showing him the ropes.
“Brent Grimes’ success has been well documented,” Verner said. “He’s a guy that makes plays wherever he is. He’s been doing it a long time. He’s always around the ball and he’s aggressive. He’s feisty. I love his addition and I look at him like a mentor, too, because he’s played in Mike Smith’s system before and he was successful in it. He knows the ins and outs. If he didn’t have that injury in Atlanta he probably would still be there. I look to learn a lot from him as far as the nuances of the defense and I know he’s going to compete. That’s all he knows how to do is compete with him being undrafted. He’s had to work for everything. He’s a great player.”
Banks and Verner are glad they will are getting a new start in a new defensive system with new coaches. The OTAs can’t get here quick enough for two fallen stars eager to prove that they are truly starting-caliber cornerbacks in Tampa Bay.
“It’s reassuring,” Verner said. “At the end of the day the NFL is a business and there will never be hard feelings. I felt like the team was going to do things in its best interest – what it feels is in the best interests of the team. Knowing that the Bucs want me to be a part of that plan is very humbling and gratifying, and that they see the potential of what I can bring to the team and that I can be an asset, it does make me feel good.
“Nothing is going to be given, nor should it be, but I feel like this team is heading in the right direction and it’s trending upward. I was hoping to be a part of it. I’m beyond thrilled to be spending more time with Johnthan, Lavonte [David], Kwon [Alexander], Gerald [McCoy] and all the new guys like Brent Grimes and Josh [Robinson]. I said some of the same things last year when you and I spoke about me having a bounce back year, but I have a different feeling this time. It’s a better feeling. Tampa Bay is moving up with Jameis Winston at the helm. I’m excited.”
While Banks is high on Winston and the Bucs’ powerful offense, he wants to help get Tampa Bay’s defense to hold up its end of the bargain in games this year.
“We have to be able to handle the ball on our end on defense just as much as the offense handled it on their end last year,” Banks said. “If it weren’t for Jameis and Coach Koetter’s offense, we wouldn’t have won those six games. They carried us. As a defense, we’ve got to go out there and get the job done. This is going to be my fourth year in Tampa and I’ve only won 12 games – 12 games in three years! I’m ready to win and get the Bucs back on a winning track to the playoffs.
“It was a big disaster last year, and I think everybody is happy to have a fresh start and a new scheme. Honestly, I am. I’m happy. No disrespect to anybody, but I’m happy for a fresh start. I’m excited to go out there and enjoy football again, have fun and let loose, enjoy being around my teammates and my coaches.”
Using terms like “fiasco” and “disaster” to describe life as a cornerback in Tampa Bay in 2015, it’s clear that last year wasn’t much fun for the Buccaneers defensive backs. With a new head coach, new defensive coaches and a new, aggressive defensive scheme, Banks and Verner plan on making a lot more plays this year – and having a lot more fun as a result.
FAB 2. WHY COULDN’T THE BUCS STOP THE SLANT PASS?
It’s no secret that the Buccaneers defense struggled to stop simple quick slant passes last year, especially in the red zone. But why did Tampa Bay struggle so much against the slant?
Former Bucs head coach Lovie Smith was asked that very question in late October during a press conference, and half way through the season he didn’t have an answer.
“It’s the technique,” Smith said. “You’re supposed to take it away. Once you get down into the red zone, that’s what you do. You make them throw the hard throw. You make them throw the fade, which is a harder throw to complete than the quick slant. But with our players, we haven’t gotten that point across yet.”
That’s actually a contradictory statement from Smith, whose defense was modified this year to invite teams to throw slant passes when Tampa Bay’s head coach assumed defensive play-calling duties from Leslie Frazier last spring. This week I asked Alterraun Verner why the Bucs cornerbacks rarely contested passes last year and allowed slant routes to be caught at a maddening rate. I think you’re going to be as amazed at his answer as I was.
“That’s really a complicated answer, but I’m going to make it as simple as I can,” Verner said. “The defense that we ran last year was an ‘outside-in’ basis. We wanted to protect the outside and deep – the fade routes, the out routes, the things that happen on the perimeter. We wanted to funnel everything in. Most of the defense we played, that’s what the goal was – to funnel everything in and keep everything in front of us.
“When it came to slant patterns and dig routes – everything inside – as corners we were under the impression that we were funneling it into our help. We were supposed to have a safety there or a linebacker there. We were told that it wasn’t really our play to make, but we wanted to be close enough to where we wanted to not make it an easy completion. We still needed to be able to compete for the ball, but it was with the understanding that we wanted to protect against what we were weak at.”
What Verner is alluding to is that the Bucs don’t have the fastest group of cornerbacks, so Smith wanted to try to eliminate the footraces down the field against faster wide receivers. There was some merit to that, but the problem was that the communication wasn’t strong enough between the cornerbacks and the revolving door of safeties and the linebacking corps, which featured a rookie in middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, perhaps due to the failure of the secondary regularly meeting as one unit rather than three separate units – cornerbacks, nickel cornerbacks and safeties – like Smith preferred.
Simple play-action passes, such as rookie quarterback Marcus Mariota used in Tennessee’s 42-14 win over Tampa Bay, often manipulated the coverage and pulled the linebackers or safeties out of position, thus opening up the slant routes even more. With the cornerbacks guarding the outside, receivers typically had carte blanche to run free on the inside.
What Smith envisioned with this coverage was Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks picking off slant passes with regularity or legendary Bucs strong safety John Lynch lowering the boom on receivers running slant passes across the middle. But Smith’s line of thinking was severely outdated for life in the NFL in 2016, and was more akin to the 1990s.
“With our defense last year I think that’s when you would see back in the day the John Lynches and all of them, when they came down you would see all of those big hits,” Verner said. “The receivers may have caught the ball, but they didn’t want to do it again because they didn’t want to get hurt. I think with the rule changes you can’t be that kind of physical without being worried about targeting. I felt like teams could have the slant because the way the league is now that there is so much protection for players on those plays. Back then they would get knocked out. That’s probably the simplest way I could put it.
“It wasn’t our job [as cornerbacks to cover the slant] because we were supposed to have somebody in those areas. We were told plenty of times that slant patterns weren’t going to beat us, that deep balls – a fade or a post – were what gets teams beat. That’s what the philosophy was, I guess, to some sort in regards to the slant. It was frustrating when you think about Tennessee in Week 1, Carolina, Washington and other teams really killed us on the slant routes and things inside. It was frustrating that we didn’t make enough adjustments to figure it out, and we didn’t make enough plays on our end to discourage it.”
Smith didn’t trust his cornerbacks’ speed to cover deep routes, but they wound up being bystanders too often underneath, forced to watch catches for first downs and touchdowns happen in front of them. Even though he isn’t the fleetest of foot, Banks felt slighted with the change in schemes and is looking forward to playing in Mike Smith’s more aggressive scheme in 2015.
“I can play both man and zone equally well,” Banks said. “That’s what we did in college. We played both man and zone. I’m not the fastest guy, but I’m 6-foot-2. That makes us for a lot of stuff. I’m excited to go out there and compete and feel like a corner again instead of watch guys catch slant passes in front of us.”
In addition to allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete an astonishing 70 percent of their passes against Tampa Bay with high percentage throws like slants, the Bucs defense surrendered 31 passing touchdowns in 2015. Roughly one third of those scores were slant passes in the red zone.
“That’s the easiest route in the book in the red zone – the slant,” Verner said. “You want them to throw a fade route, even though it looks prettier when the receiver catches it, it’s much harder to complete. A throw to the inside is so easy. It was frustrating, and I know for fans it had to be frustrating. You don’t have to be a football guru to know that it’s an easier throw to the inside for the quarterback.
“They scored a lot of touchdowns doing it. I know it was frustrating, but that’s going to get remedied. I’m not going to say that there won’t any slants caught because other teams make plays. But there will be a lot more of those slants really contested in the coming year.”
The production of the Bucs cornerbacks declined rapidly with the change in play-calling from Leslie Frazier in 2014 to Smith in 2015. In 2014, the Bucs had 14 interceptions, including 10 from the secondary where the cornerbacks had eight picks and the safeties had two. Tampa Bay’s cornerbacks broke up 27 passes, while the safeties broke up 13 passes that year.
Last year with Smith calling the plays, the Bucs only produced 11 interceptions with just six coming from the defensive backs. Safeties Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald each had two picks, while Verner and Sterling Moore each only had one. Tampa Bay’s safeties had 15 pass breakups in 2015, but the number of pass breakups from the cornerbacks fell from 27 in 2014 to just 18 last year.
“I think the stats kind of paints a pretty accurate picture,” Verner said. “As a secondary we weren’t as good as we needed to be. When you only have six interceptions from our group that’s way too few. That’s not enough. There are people in the league that have six by themselves. No matter what we say about the system or being coached, that’s still disappointing. It was definitely disappointing. When you have myself and bring in Chris Conte and have Johnthan and Bradley McDougald. We had talent. We should be able to make more plays on the ball and we didn’t get that done.
“To sum it up it was disappointing, but I think the reason a lot of guys are being brought back is because we know what every guy is capable of doing. Dirk has seen us every day. He’s seen the work we’ve put in. He and Jason [Licht] trust us enough to bring almost the same group back to get it done with a few additions. You don’t want to end a year with six interceptions. Johnthan and myself had six together the year before and probably should have had a lot more that year.”
Verner and Banks firmly believe that Tampa Bay’s new defensive scheme, which is going to feature a wider array of blitzes designed to pressure quarterbacks, will better allow the Bucs defensive backs the opportunity to showcase their skills.
“I’m excited for OTAs and for camp because there are going to be a lot of plays made in practice from the secondary position,” Verner said. “Johnthan is a ballhawk. He had three picks his rookie year, and he had four picks in his second year. Look at all the picks he had in college. He’s a ball magnet. He goes and gets the ball. I think him getting another opportunity, he’s going to be able to showcase that. I know Johnthan is licking his chops. We’ve been talking back and forth a lot about competing. I know what he’s going to bring to the table.”
Banks got fired up talking to Koetter, Smith and Tampa Bay’s new position coaches Jon Hoke and Brett Maxie about the new defense back in January.
“I think it’s a great scheme,” Banks said. “I’m excited about it. It’s like my rookie year with Coach Schiano. It was a fun out there. Coach Schiano was sending blitzes every which way and the quarterback doesn’t have time to think about it and they just throw the ball to you. I’m excited to not just sit out there, but get out there and compete for the ball. With this new defense the ball is going to have to come out quick. The quarterback can’t just sit back there and hold the ball and pick us apart. I’m excited. I think it’s going to be a great year and we’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Before you knock Schiano’s defense in 2013, understand that Banks had three interceptions as a rookie, Bucs Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy had a career-high 9.5 sacks, linebacker Lavonte David was an All-Pro with his best statistical season, recording career highs in pass breakups (10), sacks (seven) and interceptions (five), in addition to two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery. The Bucs also had a Pro Bowl cornerback in Darrelle Revis in 2013 before the Bucs switched to the Tampa 2.
Schiano’s defense produced 21 interceptions in 2013 with his secondary producing 12 picks, in addition to 73 pass breakups with 27 coming from cornerbacks and 18 from the safeties. Those are numbers that Smith wish his defense produced against the pass.
Verner believes that the myriad of exotic blitzes Smith has in store for Tampa Bay will also benefit second-year quarterback Jameis Winston. Verner suggests that Winston will be throwing quite a few more picks in practice without facing as many predictable coverages as he saw at One Buc Place last year.
“I guess you could say that and you could quote me on that,” Verner said. “At least that’s going to be our goal. I know Jameis is working really, really hard. I know he’s going to be fired up and ready to go. I know he was very vocal in challenging us last year.
“I think there are going to be some great battles, but with this new defense I think we’ll try to get the best of him as much as we can for sure – all of the corners are. Our offense can make some plays, too. Jameis, Mike Evans, Austin [Seferian-Jenkins] – all those guys are capable, too. We’re not going to clean sweep them, but we are going to make it real difficult for them.”
That goes for opposing quarterbacks, too. Opponent QBs won’t be completing 70 percent of their passes against Tampa Bay’s defense this year. And slant passes won’t be so easy to complete, either.
FAB 3. BUCS HAVE A WIN-NOW PHILOSOPHY
Don’t let the flurry of free agency signings fool you. Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht still greatly prefers drafting players versus spending money on veterans who were released by other teams. But there are some important elements of Tampa Bay’s free agent signings that are worth pointing out.
1. Bucs In Win-Now Mode
Who now has the bull’s eye on his back now that Lovie Smith has been fired? Why none other than Licht, who enters his third season as Tampa Bay’s general manager with the same 8-24 record that led to Smith’s firing. The Glazers believe he’s doing a good job acquiring talent and he got to hire his first head coach when he promoted offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter.
But the Glazers are impatient, and rightfully so. They do see the merit in Licht’s plan to build through the draft, but they also want to win now. In finding a couple of older veterans in Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes, who will be 33 in July, and defensive end Robert Ayers, who will be 31 in September, Licht obviously wanted to add some experience to Tampa Bay’s defense.
Yet despite their age, Grimes and Ayers have both been playing at a very high level over the past two years. Grimes had nine interceptions, including a pick-six, during that span in Miami, while Ayers had 14.5 sacks over the last two years, including a career-high 9.5 sacks in 2015, playing for the New York Giants. All indications are that Grimes and Ayers are still in their prime.
The Bucs are also signed former Baltimore linebacker Daryl Smith, who is 34, after visiting with him on Thursday. Smith played for defensive coordinator Mike Smith and linebackers coach Mark Duffner in Jacksonville, and would help the Bucs at strongside linebacker. Smith is still playing at a high level, evidenced by three straight years of at least 120 tackles.
2. Pursue Value Deals
With the exception of re-signing Pro Bowl running back Doug Martin, whose deal averaged just north of $7 million per year, no other free agent signing by the Bucs surpassed $6.5 million per year. In fact, that’s the per year value of the contracts signed by Grimes, Ayers and left guard J.R. Sweezy.
Licht and director of football administration Mike Greenberg have done a great job of creating and maintaining salary cap room by not dishing out prorated signing bonuses. Tampa Bay has maintained its stance of giving roster bonuses and guaranteed money for the first year or two so in case the team wants to move on it can do so without much dead cap money if at all.
The multi-year deals for Grimes, Ayers and Sweezy are really one-year prove-it deals with limited guaranteed money in 2017. Smith and safety Chris Conte did get one-year deals. Considering how teams hit on about 35 percent of their free agent signings, the conservative nature of these free agent deals protect the organization and give the team an out, like the Bucs exercised this offseason with linebacker Bruce Carter.
3. Signing Winners
In a continual effort to change the culture, Licht has signed players that have been a part of winning organizations this offseason. Seattle had a 46-25 record during Sweezy’s team with the Seahawks, including two trips to the Super Bowl and a championship in 2013. Ayers was a part of the Denver Broncos Super Bowl team that Sweezy’s Seahawks beat in 2013.
Grimes was a part of three playoff teams in Atlanta under Smith, including a Falcons squad that lost the NFC Divisional Championship Game in 2012. Smith he was a part of the AFC Divisional Championship Game in 2007 in Jacksonville and again in 2014 with Baltimore.
What better way to show a young team that hasn’t been to the playoffs the way to get to the postseason than with players have already done it?
4. Finding The Right Fit
Not every free agent signing works out. During the 2014 season, left tackle Anthony Collins collected a check and got way too complacent. Defensive end Michael Johnson desperately missed being a part of the Bengals organization.
Despite having decent production on the field, cornerback Sterling Moore and Carter, two players signed from Dallas, weren’t the right fit for the Bucs. Carter was released just one year into a four-year deal, while Moore, an unrestricted free agent, wasn’t re-signed this offseason.
Finding the right is important, and Grimes and Smith have familiarity with the Bucs coaches. Ayers and Sweezy don’t have that connection outside of Sweezy being a teammate of backup quarterback Mike Glennon at North Carolina State, but the Tampa Bay did its due diligence and research and believes those players’ work ethic is exactly what the Bucs want.
“You can tell that these moves Jason is making aren’t in any way ‘rebuilding moves,’” Bucs cornerback Alterraun Verner said. “He’s trying to win now, but you can also see him preparing this team for the future. He’s trying to get us to where we can win Super Bowls right now, but he also wants to get a young nucleus of guys like Kwon [Alexander] and Jameis [Winston] to build for the future of this organization. So it’s not just ‘win now’ it’s ‘win in multiple years,’ too. That’s what I see Jason doing.”
Smith’s signing likely signals the end of the Bucs’ haul in free agency until after the draft. With Licht having success acquiring players like center Joe Hawley and right tackle Gosder Cherilus in August, he and director of player personnel John Spytek will keep an eye on the waiver wire, especially after the draft and in training camp to see if there are any more value free agents that can help Tampa Bay prior to the start of the 2016 campaign.
FAB 4. BUCS SET UP TO DRAFT BEST PLAYER AVAILABLE
It was relatively easy for PewterReport.com to forecast who the Buccaneers were going to select with the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft. Tampa Bay had a pressing need at quarterback, and the leader in the clubhouse from about November of 2014 was Florida State’s Jameis Winston. The Bucs did their due diligence in scouting Oregon’s Heisman Trophy winner, Marcus Mariota, but it was Winston all along, as PewterReport.com had projected in each of its mock drafts last offseason.
The Bucs don’t know whom they will draft in the first round this year in part because the team won’t know exactly who is available at No. 9 until they are on the clock. PewterReport.com started off projecting Oklahoma State defensive end Emmanuel Ogbah to Tampa Bay in our first mock draft. Then we switched to Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence in our second mock draft.
The last two mock drafts have seen PewterReport.com forecast Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins to the Bucs at No. 9, and that looks to be a wise prognostication as Tampa Bay has yet to sign a defensive tackle in free agency to replace Henry Melton or Tony McDaniel. With Akeem Spence entering a contract year, it’s a safe bet that the Bucs will be drafting at least one defensive tackle this year, and given the quality at the position, it will likely be in the early rounds to get the best defensive tackle available.
With the Bucs likely having to wait a couple of hours to make their first-round pick, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht has done a great job of filling immediate needs with proven experienced, value-priced free agents to ensure the fact that the Bucs don’t have to draft for need at No. 9. The signing of Daryl Smith to start fills the need at strongside linebacker. Robert Ayers will start, likely at left defensive end. Brent Grimes will start at one cornerback spot. J.R. Sweezy will start at left guard. Chris Conte and Bradley McDougald will start at safety. So whether the Bucs want to take the first defensive tackle in the draft at No. 9 or draft a speed wide receiver like Baylor’s Corey Coleman, who ran a 4.37 at his pro day and is the best wideout in the draft, the team has that luxury.
And for those of you that think the best receiver is Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell, a lot of scouts don’t see his pedestrian speed translating well to the NFL. He’s better than Michael Clayton was coming out of LSU, but Treadwell will likely have a career more like Marques Colston than Calvin Johnson at the next level. The Bucs really like Notre Dame speed receiver Will Fuller, who we have going to Tampa Bay in the second round in our latest mock draft. We noted that Fuller might not last until the 39th overall pick and that Licht may have to trade up to get him, which is something he’s not shy about doing. Licht successfully traded up in the second round to get guard Ali Marpet last year, in addition to trading up in the fourth round to get middle linebacker Kwon Alexander.
If Licht and his scouts think that Coleman is worthy of a top 10 pick, then the Bucs would be selecting the draft’s top wide receiver in a class that is quite thin at the receiver position. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound speedster is a two-time All-American and the winner of the 2015 Biletnikoff Award.
Coming off a season in which he caught 74 passes for 1,363 yards (18.4 avg.) and 20 touchdowns, Coleman is the record-holder at Baylor for most career touchdown catches (33) and most touchdowns in a season (20). He amassed 173 catches for 3,009 yards (17.4 avg.) and 33 touchdowns. Coleman averaged 26 yards per kick return for the Bears and had a 97-yard touchdown as a sophomore. (Warning: following highlight video contains some profanity)
As a Kansas State alum, I watch a lot of Big 12 football and regard Coleman is an elite talent. I’ve seen him torch my Wildcats and other foes on a regular basis, and would support his selection if that is the route Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter want to go. Keep in mind that the Bucs now have an offensive-minded head coach, and Licht’s first-ever draft pick as general manager was on a top 10 receiver in Mike Evans.
But whether it’s Coleman, Rankins or an edge rusher, the Bucs are positioned to truly draft the best player available thanks to a successful foray into free agency, and that’s the most important thing.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• Speaking of Baylor, the Buccaneers have a private workout scheduled with defensive tackle Andrew Billings, who is considered to be a late first or early second-round pick. At 6-foot-1, 311 pounds, Billings is a great athlete who ran a 4.96 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day. He’s more of a run stuffer than he is a pass rusher, but he was a first-team All-Big 12 and the Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year due to his 15 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, which led Baylor.
No word if Bucs defensive line coach Jay Hayes was in attendance at the Baylor pro day. Hayes was on hand at Oklahoma State, Ohio State and Eastern Kentucky where the veteran line coach put Emmanuel Ogbah, Joey Bosa and Noah Spence through the drills. Ogbah has a visit scheduled with Tampa Bay, and it’s safe to assume the Bucs will follow suit with Bosa and Spence, too.
• The signing of cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Josh Robinson and the return of Johnthan Banks and Alterraun Verner don’t signal the end of Jude Adjei-Barimah’s time in Tampa Bay. Adjei-Barimah, an undrafted free agent out of Bowling Green, unseated Banks as a starting cornerback last year at midseason and finished his rookie season with 41 tackles and a pass breakup before being benched at the end of the season. He’s still in the mix for a roster spot and the team believes he has real potential and upside.
“He was on the practice squad and probably didn’t think he was going to get called up at all last year,” Verner said. “He went from special teams guy to starting against the Giants when they had Rueben Randle and Odell Beckham with Eli Manning throwing the ball. That’s a tall order for anybody. He came in and competed. That’s all you can ask for as a rookie. I was very impressed with how he handled everything. He asked a lot of questions and learned a lot about situational football. He did tremendous and he’s going to come in and battle this year. He’s going to try to prove his worth. He saw that we signed two corners and I know he’s licking his chops to earn a spot. I was very pleased with Jude. He’s a hard-working, humble guy.”
• Given how fickle Lovie Smith was last year regarding the play of his cornerbacks and safeties, and the constant nonsense of shuffling the starting lineup throughout the season, could you imagine the social media meltdown Brent Grimes’ outspoken wife, Miko, would have had if Grimes would have been in Tampa Bay last year rather than Miami? And under that premise, if Smith had benched Grimes the way he did every cornerback at least once last year I think Miko’s tweets would have broken the Internet.
• Alterraun Verner went from being a starting cornerback to being demoted as a nickel cornerback by the end of the season last year. The positive he can take from that experience is that Verner showed he could play another position, which increases his versatility to the new Bucs defensive coaches. I asked Verner whether he would be competing at outside cornerback in 2016 or inside the slot as a nickel corner.
“I’m not too sure yet,” Verner said. “I think when we go in it will be talked about more. I want to get on the field as much as I can. Whatever they see me doing best to help this team out I’m more than willing to do that – inside or outside, trailing the best receiver, whatever. That’s what I want to do. I want to be on the field as much as I can and I want to prove in the OTAs, mini-camps and training camp that I am a guy they can depend on and I’m the guy they want on Sunday. I don’t know the plan, though.”
• Just because the Buccaneers signed Daryl Smith to play strongside linebacker doesn’t mean Tampa Bay is done acquiring talent at that position. Tampa Bay will likely draft another linebacker to compete with Smith as Kwon Alexander did with veteran Bruce Carter during his rookie season last year. And with Smith signing a one-year deal as a 34-year old veteran, the Bucs will need an heir apparent at the Sam linebacker spot.
PewterReport.com has Alexander’s former teammate at LSU, Deion Jones, as Tampa Bay’s third-round draft pick in our latest Bucs’ 7-Round Mock Draft, and there are two more names to add for consideration in Georgia Southern linebacker Antwione Williams and UCLA linebacker Aaron Wallace, who played opposite Myles Jack.
Wallace is an athletic specimen at 6-foot-3, 240 pounds and had a great pro day, running a 4.51 in the 40-yard dash, posting a 36-inch vertical jump, a 10-10 broad jump and 25 reps of 225 pounds. According to Tony Pauline of DraftInsider.net/WalterFootball.com, Wallace had dinner with Bucs linebackers coach Mark Duffner and will have a private visit. Williams was worked out by Duffner at Georgia Southern’s pro day and has a private visit scheduled. Both Wallace and Williams are considered late-round picks or undrafted free agent candidates.
• If you’re not following @PewterReport on Twitter, join the 21,000-plus Buccaneers fans that do by clicking here. Be sure to watch the latest version of the Pewter Pulse where Mark Cook and I take to video to offer up some insight into Tampa Bay’s additions in free agency. We shot the video just prior to the Bucs coming to terms with veteran linebacker Daryl Smith.
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