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. EMPHASIS ON SCOUTING WILL KEY BUCS’ TURNAROUND
Apologies to New England head coach Bill Belichick, but the NFL is a player’s league.
Remember that Belichick, one of the greatest NFL coaches of all time, was fired in Cleveland. But once Tom Brady took over at quarterback for the Patriots, Belichick suddenly became a smarter, better coach as he won four Super Bowls.
Belichick certainly made some right, strategic calls in New England’s latest Super Bowl triumph, which came last year at Seattle’s expense, but ultimately it was a player – cornerback Malcolm Butler, an undrafted free agent – that made the heroic play that saved the day for the Patriots with an interception at the goal line with seconds left in regulation.
Having a great head coach and great coordinators certainly helps, but it’s no surprise that the teams battling for the Super Bowl each year are stocked with Pro Bowlers. Seattle had five players selected to the Pro Bowl last year, in addition to five alternates, while New England also had five Pro Bowlers.
Although the “any given Sunday” mantra applies with the occasional upset, in the NFL the most talented teams usually win. In order to win, teams must have great players, which is no surprise.
The reason why Tampa Bay hasn’t made the playoffs since 2007? The Bucs simply haven’t had enough talent. A slew of failed drafts and wasted picks have kept Tampa Bay in the NFC South cellar in each of the last four seasons, and in five of the last six years as the Bucs have accumulated a dismal record of 30-66 since 2009.
Poor drafting from director of college scouting Dennis Hickey is one the biggest reasons why the Glazers fired general manager Mark Dominik, who had a record of 28-52 from 2009-13. During that span, the Bucs only drafted three Pro Bowl-caliber players in defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David, and there are only two first-round picks left in Tampa Bay from that era – McCoy and running back Doug Martin, who has disappointed since his rookie season and is likely in his last year as a Buccaneer.
When the Glazers hired Lovie Smith as Greg Schiano’s replacement and the team’s new head coach in January of 2014, they wanted a true a personnel man to replace Dominik. Former general managers in Tampa Bay, such as Rich McKay, Bruce Allen and Dominik, all were public figure heads and ambassadors for the organization rather than true personnel men. With Smith’s clout and track record of success in the NFL, and the fact that he wouldn’t be a coordinator in addition to being a head coach in Tampa Bay, he could serve the team well in that ambassador role.
Smith tabbed Licht, who has roots in Philadelphia, New England and Arizona, to be the general manager and key personnel man for the Buccaneers. Upon his hiring, Licht told reporters that he was “meathead scout” who would devote hours to watching tape and acquiring personnel and less time at public events than his predecessors. That’s exactly what the Glazers wanted and that’s what they got.
Some might suggest that his initial first-round draft pick, wide receiver Mike Evans, was Licht’s best acquisition last year. But the reality is that the Bucs’ key addition to the organization last year was actually director of player personnel Jon Robinson. In order for the Bucs to win and become relevant again, the franchise needs great talent. To acquire great talent, organizations need great scouts.
After spending a decade in New England working with Licht and for Belichick and former general manager Scott Pioli, Robinson was the easy choice to become Licht’s right-hand man in Tampa Bay’s scouting department. Having the right personnel men in place to find the right talent is the lifeblood to any perennial playoff team.
It’s no surprise that the teams that traditionally draft well – New England, Baltimore, Green Bay, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Indianapolis – are the teams that are almost assured of a playoff berth each year.
When I asked what was the one key thing he learned from the Patriots organization that he’s brought to Tampa Bay, Licht told me it was having a farm system in place to replace college and pro scouts from within the organization. It’s not just having the right general manager, the right director of player personnel or the right director of college scouting that makes an organization great. It’s the pro scouts and the college area scouts that are vital to a team’s success from a personnel standpoint.
“The way we had the scouting assistants there in New England and the system we had was key,” Licht said. “I said this in my interview with Lovie and the Glazers. One of the most important things is to have scouting assistants that we are training throughout the year to know our system. When one scout goes out [to another team] or up, another one comes in. It’s as important as any other role in the organization.”
Last week, Licht promoted two scouting assistants, Zach Grossi and Donovan Cotton to pro scouting and college scouting positions, respectively. Licht and Robinson are big believers in promoting from within the organization because scouting assistants have been trained to know what a Bucs linebacker looks like and what type of receivers Tampa Bay wants. That trait identification process becomes harder and more foreign for a scout brought in from a different team.
“We have three awesome ones here,” Licht said. “Donovan Cotton and Zach Grossi – we’ve elevated them to different positions. Another guy that I just hired in March was Shane Scannell out of Wesleyan University where Bill Belichick went to school. I wanted to make sure I got him out before [the Patriots] found out about him. He’s an ex-lineman, which I love because they are grinders who keep their mouths shut, are really sharp guys and do a really good job. We’re always looking for scouting assistants or young scouts. We have an eye for them as much as we do the players we’re scouting.”
Licht, Robinson and the Bucs’ scouts literally scout other team’s scouts while going to universities in the fall and pro days in the spring, and are always on the lookout for new personnel talent.
“The scouts will come back to myself or Jon and say, ‘Hey, there was a great grad assistant at UCLA that we should keep our eye on,” Licht said. “Over the years there are guys that come up in the league that way and Jon Robinson was one of them.”
Bucs fans probably wouldn’t recognize the names Byron Kiefer (national scout), Andy Speyer (national scout), Brian Hudspeth (college scout), Andre Forde (college scout), Tony Kinkela (college scout), Tony Hardie (college scout), Donovan Cotton (college scout), Pat Perles (player personnel scout), Steve West (pro scout), Zach Grossi (pro scout) and Shane Scannell (scouting assistant). They aren’t household names like McCoy, David, Evans and other Buccaneers.
But to Licht, Robinson, director of college scouting Mike Biehl and pro scouting coordinator Rob McCartney, the Bucs scouts are just as important as the players. After all, they’re the ones who find the players for Tampa Bay.
FAB 2. ROBINSON IS A DRIVING FORCE IN BUCS’ TALENT ACQUISITION
Tampa Bay’s personnel philosophy, which is to build through the draft and supplement through free agency, is born out of New England’s approach to building a team through a strong scouting department. The Bucs’ two top personnel men, general manager Jason Licht and director of player personnel Jon Robinson, have brought that vision to One Buc Place from the Patriots organization where the two first worked together over a decade ago.
Licht and Robinson both started as scouting assistants with New England and have worked their way up the ranks in the NFL over the years. In fact, it was Licht that first got Robinson into scouting.
“Thirteen years ago he was a young coach at Nicholls State and I was an area scout for New England,” Licht said. “I was in Louisiana and had a day in between doing LSU and Tulane. I was going to spend a day in my hotel catching up, but I hated not doing anything. So I got in the car and drove down to Nicholls State because there was a cornerback I heard a little chatter about. I get down there and Jon was the guy designated to talk to scouts and he said, ‘He’s not an NFL-type guy, but you can watch the tape. But I can tell you who the NFL-type players are in my conference.’
“So I took him to lunch and we had a great talk. I thought to myself, ‘This guy really knows what he’s doing and he presents himself well. He’s a football guy and he knows talent.’ I immediately got on the phone with my boss, Scott Pioli, and said, ‘We just found the scout we’re looking for in the Southeast.’ We hired Jon and it took off from there. It was one of my most successful scouting trips.”
Licht first met Robinson in 2001, and little did he know that they would after working together the next season, and again from 2009-11 in New England. The two colleagues would be reunited in Tampa Bay last May when Licht hired Robinson to oversee the Bucs’ personnel.
“I coached the defensive ends my first two years and linebackers my last year at Nicholls State, and I was also the study hall coordinator, the academic advisor for football, the speed and conditioning coach and the pro liaison,” Robinson said. “Typical 1-AA program where you wear nine million hats. Getting to know all of the NFL scouts when they came through was a neat experience. They would always give me a hat or a t-shirt when they came through. I really had no aspirations of getting into pro football personnel and scouting. I wanted to be a coach, which I think has really benefitted me as an evaluator because of the X’s and O’s of football and learning schemes and being able to talk through fronts and coverages.
“But Jason and I struck up a friendship. He’s an easy guy to talk to and he’s personable. We had a cornerback that everybody wanted to come see. He was almost 6-foot, 200 pounds, ran a 4.5, but wasn’t a real physical guy. When things kind of went south he mysteriously had a hamstring injury or an ankle. I was upfront and honest with Jason about him – as I was with all the scouts – but then I kind of shed some light on guys in the conference like Josh McCown, who was at Sam Houston State, who we played. Derrick Blaylock was another one out of Northwestern State, and I gave my opinion on all those guys. He was impressed with my knowledge on all the guys and the pulse I had on whom we played.”
After that lunch, Pioli called Robinson for an interview, and Robinson knew he couldn’t turn down the opportunity when he was later offered the job.
“They had just won the Super Bowl in New England and I went to lunch with Jason,” Robinson said. “Then I got a call from him later asking if I wanted to get into scouting. I told him I didn’t know. I was 24 or 25 at the time, but he said they might have a scouting position open up in May after the draft. Later that spring I was in Houston recruiting and he called me and invited me up for an interview. So I flew up and met with Scott Pioli for the Southeast scout, that is a pretty daunting task, but I didn’t know it at the time. Scott called me back and offered me the job. I went in there with my eyes open and my mouth shut. I just wanted to learn the personnel side.”
Robinson became the Patriots director of college scouting in 2009 and held that position since last year when he joined the Buccaneers. Robinson helped the Patriots find wide receiver Julian Edelman in the seventh round of the 2009 draft, select defensive back Devin McCourty with a first-round pick and select tight end Rob Gronkowski in the second round the next year, followed by left tackle Nate Solder in the first round in 2011.
“He’s very good at identifying talent and managing people,” Licht said of Robinson. “He’s excellent at identifying value in players, and that’s one of the things we learned at New England.”
Robinson’s past as a college coach and recruiter helped him quickly transition to scouting college talent for the Patriots.
“Scouting is very much like recruiting in that we didn’t subscribe to any recruiting services at Nicholls State,” Robinson said. “So I would go in to Langham Creek High School and watch tape and find guys. I found a guy at Sulfur High School and he started for us at guard as a freshman. I found a safety at Langham Creek that nobody was on. I think he had an offer from Southern Arkansas Baptist Tech – or something like that. We offered him and he was the freshman of the year in the conference. Just having that background of digging through tape and finding something to bring to the table – I liked that. I took pride in that.
“When I first got in to scouting – to use the term “scouting” – my best friends thought I went to college games on Saturday, ate chicken wings and drank beer. It’s nothing like that at all. It’s talking to the equipment manager at the school. It’s talking to the R.A. at the player’s dorm. It’s talking to the academic people, the coaches and the student managers. You’re not just a scout – you’re an investigator. You’re trying to build a profile. You’re building a complete profile of the player on the field through your film evaluation. That’s the easy part because there is less digging there. And then there’s the investigative part where you have to go talk to all the people and find out what type of guy you’re getting.”
As Tampa Bay’s director of player personnel, Robinson is responsible for working closely with Licht and head coach Lovie Smith and overseeing the pro and college scouting departments, which are currently run by director of college scouting Mike Biehl and newly promoted pro scouting coordinator Rob McCartney. Robinson and Licht monitor the waiver wire daily for players like safety DJ Swearinger and linebacker Khaseem Greene, who were both claimed by the Bucs this week.
“We are combing the waiver wire trying to find the next Jacquies Smith or Jason Williams, or looking at practice squads during the season,” Robinson said. “Orie Lemon was on a practice squad when we signed him. Any way we can try to improve our football team like a claim in the preseason like we did with Brandon Dixon, we’re just trying to get the best 53 guys so that we can be more competitive.”
Robinson was instrumental in claiming Smith and Dixon off waivers before the start of the 2014 season. Smith wound up as Tampa Bay’s second-leading sacker with 6.5 quarterback captures, and Dixon played important snaps at cornerback as a raw rookie, and had an end zone interception against Cincinnati’s A.J. Green.
“Jon had a big, big hand in the roster management last year, bringing in Jacquies Smith, Brandon Dixon and guys like Orie Lemon and Jason Williams,” Licht said. “Those guys really helped us down the stretch.”
“The preseason is where we identified Jacquies Smith,” Robinson said. “We evaluate every team’s 90-man roster and that’s where we find guys like Smith and Dixon. That’s part of our preseason process. We thought Smith was going to get cut by Buffalo, but he made the roster. Then they tried that trick ‘em stuff that every team tries to do by floating him [on waivers before re-signing him]. As soon as he hit the wire I pounced. It was the same thing with Williams, our fifth linebacker who helps us in the kicking game. He’s big and fast and good on special teams and he has a shot on defense. We have to identify those guys who can make us better.”
Another part of Robinson’s job is not only scouting other teams’ players, but also Tampa Bay’s own players. Robinson and his scouts watch practice film on a daily basis and help identify which starters’ play is slipping, and which reserve players are stepping up and communicating that to Smith, the coordinators and the position coaches.
“Jon had a role with guys like Bradley McDougald, who were already here,” Licht said. “He helped identify him in practice through self-scouting that he was ready to make a leap. Jon helps the coaches watch tape and identify the risers and fallers within the organization during the season.”
Robinson was one of the first within the organization to recognize that McDougald was outperforming starting strong safety Mark Barron, a former first-round pick, in practice. A few weeks later, McDougald’s playing time in games increased and Barron was eventually traded to St. Louis in October.
“Throughout the season you just keep watching the guys at practice, and it was a testament to McDougald working hard in the 1-on-1’s and in the 9-on-7’s that he kept showing up week after week after week,” Robinson said. “That’s part of my responsibility. It’s not just prepping for the weekly opponent, but also to self-evaluate, and to note that this guy is outperforming this guy, and this guy is not performing up to where we think he should be. In the end, we have to try to get the best 11 guys out there on defense and the best 11 guys out there on offense. Bradley was a guy that kept showing up and earned the opportunity to come into that starting role.”
Sometimes assistant coaches are reluctant to promote back-up players over established starters because of the trust that the coaches have in proven veterans. Robinson is sensitive to that, but it’s his obligation to report to the coaches that a player like Smith or T.J. Fatinikun is making more plays as a pass rusher than Michael Johnson is.
“Being a former coach there is a certain comfort level that I had with players,” Robinson said. “There was a linebacker I had at Nicholls State. We had guys that were faster than him and were more athletic than him, but he was always where he was supposed to be, doing what he was supposed to do and doing it with great effort. I’m as guilty as anybody being comfortable with that player because I knew he wasn’t going to mess anything up. Coaches fall into that. It’s human nature.
“But it’s seeing a guy who is unblockable at practice, or a guy that makes three interceptions at practice and just reminding the coaches about those guys. Instead of five reps in games, let’s give him 10 or 15 reps. The more reps he gets, the more the coach warms up to him and then we have something there.”
From scouting NFL talent, college talent and the existing talent on the Bucs’ roster, the final part of Robinson’s job is developing the team’s scouts. He works closely with Tampa Bay’s scouting assistants and helps groom them into becoming pro scouts or college area scouts as they work their way up the Bucs’ organizational ladder.
“I tell our scouting assistants, which are the entry-level positions within the organization, about the coffee,” Robinson said. “I’m always busting their chops about the coffee and getting it right. About a month ago I said, ‘The coffee’s not right, guys.’ Now the coffee is right and it’s ready. It’s not just with coffee – it’s with everything. Doing everything the right way.
“I used to make the coffee. I was a grad assistant making $500 a month for a year in college. I was a restricted earnings coach living in an apartment making $9,000 per year. I have been there. I’ve struggled and I’ve worked my way up. Nothing was given to me. I earned everything I’ve got. I’m not asking those guys to do anything I haven’t done before. They’re definitely receptive to that. You have to get on them sometimes because it’s not a cakewalk in this business and you want to have to have them fight and scrap and see how they handle it. Then when they are in pressure situations, how are they going to respond to it? Then when they have a job interview and they have to interview for a director’s job or if they’re a G.M. candidate, how are they going to handle the stress of that one day?”
Jerry Angelo, Tim Ruskell, Ruston Webster and Dennis Hickey have all held the title of director of player personnel in Tampa Bay in years past and went on to become NFL general managers with Webster and Hickey still holding office today. If Robinson can help build the Buccaneers into championship contender he’ll get a shot at running his own team, too. Robinson has the organizational ability, the communication skills and the scouting talent to be damn good general manager one day.
In fact, Licht already denied Philadelphia a chance to interview Robinson this past January. The Eagles wanted Robinson to be the personnel chief, but head coach Chip Kelly has final say over personnel, so it would have been a lateral move. Licht denied Philly’s request as a result.
Robinson did interview for the New York Jets G.M. job this past winter, but that post ultimately went to Mike Maccagan.
Like Licht, Robinson is a scout at heart – a true personnel man, and those are always in demand in the NFL. It’s only a matter of time before Robinson gets hired to be a general manager, but he’ll help rebuild the Bucs first.
FAB 3. REBUILDING TAMPA BAY’S ROSTER FROM THE GROUND UP
Over the past decade the NFL has become a quarterback league. No longer can a team make the Super Bowl with a great defense and a mediocre quarterback. After winning a Super Bowl in Tampa in 2001 with a dominant defense and an average quarterback like Trent Dilfer, Baltimore didn’t make a return trip to the championship game until it had acquired first-round quarterback Joe Flacco.
Lovie Smith’s Chicago defense was one of the league’s best in 2006 when he took the Bears to the Super Bowl, but Rex Grossman was no match for Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning, and Smith lost to good friend and mentor Tony Dungy on a rain-soaked night in Miami.
Tampa Bay has largely been a cellar dweller in the NFC South for most of the last six years due to poor quarterback play – and mostly due to former first-round pick Josh Freeman never becoming the franchise QB the Bucs had hoped he would become. Without a playmaker to go toe-to-toe with New Orleans’ Drew Brees, Atlanta’s Matt Ryan and Carolina’s Cam Newton, Tampa Bay would continue to reside in the division basement, which is why the Bucs selected quarterback Jameis Winston with the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft.
Yet the best quarterback in the league last year, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, was denied a shot at the Super Bowl this year because of the play of a player who was likely the 53rd man on the Packers’ roster. Reserve tight end Brandon Bostick was supposed to block and wide receiver Jordy Nelson was supposed to attempt to recover on an onside kick by Seattle late in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship Game. Instead of blocking, Bostick tried to field the onside kick, bobbled it and allowed the Seahawks the chance to recover the ball, which they did en route to coming back to beat the Packers and advance to the Super Bowl.
As important as the No. 1 player is on an NFL team’s roster, the 53rd player can be just as important at some point in the season, and those are the types of players that Bucs director of player personnel Jon Robinson focuses on.
“There are stories like that every year,” Robinson said. “Malcolm Butler with New England last year. He was a try-out guy that didn’t have a contract after the draft and he wound up being the hero in the Super Bowl as a rookie.”
Robinson puts as much time in studying the players the Bucs will sign as undrafted free agents as he does in some of the draft picks. Whether it’s following up on a pass rusher like Towson’s Ryan Delaire, or helping discover a player like former Southern Miss sprinter and Jones County Community College defensive end Jamal Young, who is raw and athletic, and was cutting meat at Wal-Mart a few weeks ago.
“I love that part of it – digging up guys,” Robinson said. “That’s one of the things I do during draft time. Once the draft process starts and the draft picks are going to be the draft picks, so I transition into sinking my teeth into our database and just putting in numbers from pro days in terms of speed and size and seeing what it kicks out at me. Then I’ll watch the tape and it’s either good, and we’ll get on a guy, or it’s not good. [Young] was a guy that we identified.
“That’s one of the things we’ve tried to do with our 90-man roster – improve players from 65-90. If our 65-90 is better than last year’s 65-90 then that’s going to make our 1-64 better. That will make our 1-64 better from last year.”
Recently claimed defenders like safety DJ Swearinger and linebacker Khaseem Greene may or may not make Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster, but the addition of more talent like those players will only help the competition during OTAs, mini-camp, training camp and the preseason. Robinson and Licht will keep scouring the waiver wire all summer trying to find the next Jacquies Smith or Brandon Dixon, enjoying the perk of being the first team to put in waiver claims through the third week of the 2015 regular season.
“As these rookie free agents get signed, guys are cut,” Robinson said. “We did that the other day with [offensive tackle] Reid Fragel. He was a guy that Dirk Koetter had a history with and George Warhop had a history with. We’re always looking for tackles to make us competitive in camp. [Fragel] is one of those 65-90 guys that I am talking about. We’ll see what happens [in camp].
“As veterans don’t show well in OTAs, we are at the top of the heap in the claiming order. I just met with the pro staff the other day and divided it up to make sure we are evaluating those players across the league and bringing them to the table. If they are let go, let’s see how those teams’ 65-90 guys compare to our 65-90 guys. If they’re better, we’ll bring them in.”
Thanks to a solid free agent class that addressed the team’s needs on defense, an offensive-oriented draft, which produced a franchise quarterback in Winston and two starting-caliber offensive linemen in Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet, and some recent key waiver wire claims like Swearinger, Greene and Fragel, the Buccaneers have become a more talented team this offseason from the top down and from the bottom up. That talent will drive competition in training camp and the preseason and ultimately make the players that wind up on the 53-man roster even better.
“Jason and I have always shared the same vision about what we see in football players dating back to our days in New England together,” Robinson said. “He knew it was going to be a process and Lovie knew it was going to be a process. There was not going to be an overnight turnaround here. We had to take a systematic approach to finding players that fit into what we’re looking for – not only physically, but also philosophically.”
With Robinson and Licht’s ideas in concert with that of head coach Lovie Smith, their system is well underway in Tampa Bay and a much more talented Buccaneers team is prepared to hit the field this year as a result. If you want to know more about Licht’s plans to rebuild the Buccaneers, read last week’s SR’s Fab 5, too, which goes inside his bold plan to draft Winston and can be found by clicking here.
FAB 4. MANKINS READY FOR A REBOUND YEAR IN TAMPA BAY
Desperately needing help at the guard position last year, Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht traded backup tight end Tim Wright and a fourth-round pick to New England for a face that he and director of player personnel Jon Robinson were familiar with – Patriots stalwart Logan Mankins. New England wanted him to take a pay cut, and even with time not on his side at age 32, Mankins balked and fell out of favor within the organization.
As a result, Licht sensed that Mankins could be had and made the trade a week before the start of the 2014 campaign. Licht was promptly crucified for it by Bucs fans and by some in the media, suggesting that trading for an aging guard was a panicked move. Unfortunately for Licht and the Bucs, Mankins’ play on the field at times last year justified some of the criticism.
Mankins was shocked to learn that he was traded from a perennial Super Bowl contender to a bad, rebuilding team in Tampa Bay, and it took him a little while to wrap his head around it. He was separated from his family for the season and had to adjust to a new city, a new team and a new scheme – all within one week of opening day. Mankins, a six-time Pro Bowler, was in game shape for a cooler part of the country like New England, but not in the kind of shape that’s necessary to play in the hot and humid climate of Tampa, Fla. where it truly doesn’t cool off until late October.
Playing next to teammates in Anthony Collins and Evan Dietrich-Smith, who were both new to the Buccaneers themselves, and in a scheme that didn’t have an offensive coordinator with Jeff Tedford shelved due to a heart ailment, Mankins didn’t play up to his standards in his first season in Tampa Bay. Making matters worse was a knee injury he suffered in the season-opening loss against Carolina that hampered his play during the rest of the year.
But Mankins, now 33 years old, is a man on a mission, telling the Bucs organization that he started working out earlier in the offseason than he ever did before. He showed up in April for offseason conditioning with six-pack abs – for the first time in his NFL career – which shocked the Bucs’ brass, coaches and players with how he’s transformed his body over the past few months.
Mankins informed Bucs management that he will make amends for last season and that he intends to prove all of his critics wrong this year. Mankins said he’s driven to make the Pro Bowl in 2015 after missing it last season, which snapped a five-year streak.
Mankins has taken on a more vocal leadership role this offseason at One Buccaneer Place during the team’s OTAs. When the Bucs transition to special teams during practice, instead of resting on the sidelines with the rest of the offensive linemen, Mankins runs gassers on the adjacent practice field.
On the first day of OTAs, Mankins had two offensive linemen volunteer to join him. The next day, he yelled at the rest of the offensive linemen to join him and run gassers, which they did. A stronger, leaner, well-conditioned Mankins always finishes his gassers first and hasn’t been beaten yet.
Mankins drew rave reviews last year from his fellow linemen, especially the younger ones, for helping them and lending them some of the wisdom he’s accumulated over his 10-year NFL career. He helped in the meeting room, in the film room, in the locker room and on the field.
Shortly after the team drafted offensive tackle Donovan Smith and guard Ali Marpet in the second round, Mankins sent Bucs management a congratulatory text and promptly asked for those linemen’s cell phone numbers so that he could reach out to them right away. Mankins did contact them and welcomed to Tampa Bay, offering himself up as a resource to help them get ready to start this season.
Smith will be playing right next to Mankins and will receive a good deal of help on the field. The Bucs see Marpet as a tough, hard-nosed, blue-collar guard like Mankins, and he will serve as a great role model and mentor for the Hobart College product.
But both young Buccaneers linemen had better be warned. They better keep up with the old man during those gassers because Mankins is back with a vengeance this year.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• Based on the reaction to last week’s SR’s Fab 5 column that focused on general manager Jason Licht and his plan to rebuild the Bucs through the draft starting with quarterback Jameis Winston, some Bucs fans might be taking Tampa Bay’s emphasis on building through the draft and using free agency to sign role players too literally. If the Bucs believe that there is a star player deemed worthy enough in free agency that fits their plans and the team’s salary cap expect Licht to be in pursuit. Not every free agent signing is a miss, although that has happened too much too recently in Tampa Bay, and Licht isn’t afraid to take chances.
But wide receiver Vincent Jackson, who was signed in 2012, has been a great free agent addition. And Licht and Jon Robinson’s former team, New England, signed cornerback Darrelle Revis to help win a Super Bowl last year. The Bucs just no longer believe that you can build a team through free agency by signing several high-priced stars.
Although it worked on the offensive side of the ball with Rich McKay and Jon Gruden in 2002, it didn’t work when Bruce Allen tried it beginning in 2004 with offensive linemen Todd Steussie, Derrick Deese, Matt Stinchcomb and Matt O’Dwyer in addition to running back Charlie Garner, nor did it work when Mark Dominik used free agency to add the likes of running back Derek Ward, cornerback Eric Wright and free safety Dashon Goldson. After wasting so much money signing free agent failures, the Glazers are most likely supportive of building through the draft. They feel much better about signing players like defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and linebacker Lavonte David to contract extensions that have already established the fact they can play in Tampa Bay.
• The Bucs came away feeling very, very good about their receiving corps following rookie mini-camp. With Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans as the top two weapons on offense and slated to start, Tampa Bay has surprisingly built a solid group of reserve wide receivers through the draft and undrafted free agency. Veteran Louis Murphy will get a real challenge from some rookies for the slot receiver spot.
Kenny Bell, the team’s fifth-round pick, had a nice debut in pewter and red last weekend, and Kaelin Clay, the team’s sixth-rounder, will also see some snaps at receiver – likely the slot – in addition to his return specialist duties. But two other rookies really stood out during the mini-camp and have a legitimate chance of making the team.
Former UCF wide receiver Rannell Hall is a big, 6-foot-1, 200-pounder with great hands and body control, and might have been the most impressive target over the weekend. But it was Adam Humphries, a former Clemson wideout, who truly surprised and opened eyes.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Humphries has impressive cutting ability and acceleration and was getting open quite a bit in the slot. He and Hall are real dark horses to watch in training camp, and will challenge holdovers like Robert Herron, Russell Shepard and Tavarres King for roster spots.
• Out of all of Tampa Bay’s draft picks, perhaps the most impressive during the rookie mini-camp was fourth-round linebacker Kwon Alexander – and that’s really saying something because all of the members of the Bucs’ 2015 draft class shined, especially quarterback Jameis Winston. The coaches were raving about Alexander’s intellect and maturity during the meetings and classroom sessions, and his speed and explosiveness on the field.
The early impression from the Bucs coaches is that Alexander could be the fastest and most athletic linebacker on Tampa Bay’s roster. And considering that Pro Bowl alternate linebacker Lavonte David is on the roster, that’s truly saying something.
I will admit that out of all of Tampa Bay’s draft picks this year, Alexander is one of them that I was less excited about initially – mainly because he didn’t make many plays in the passing game in college. But as a team source told me, just because Alexander wasn’t asked to do it a lot at LSU doesn’t mean he can’t do it.
Keep an eye on Alexander, who is generating a lot of buzz at One Buccaneer Place and is putting himself right in the mix for the starting strongside linebacker spot with veteran Danny Lansanah. If Alexander ends up starting, the Bucs will have found at least five opening day starters from Tampa Bay’s 2015 draft class, joining Winston, offensive linemen Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet and return specialist Kaelin Clay, which would be outstanding.
• A big thank you to all of the recent Bucs fans that have joined the PewterReport.com message boards and have followed @PewterReport on Twitter. A lot of the new fans are Florida State fans that are naturally following Jameis Winston into the pros, and there is nothing wrong with that. I saw the same type of influx in subscribers to our old Buccaneer Magazine in 1995 when the Bucs drafted popular FSU linebacker Derrick Brooks and again in 1997 when Tampa Bay drafted Seminoles running back Warrick Dunn.
Maybe you aren’t a Florida State fan. Maybe you are a Florida or Miami fan instead. I ask that you treat all of the Bucs fans on our message boards with respect. Let’s face it. The Bucs fan base has fallen off over the past decade. Just look at the empty seats at Raymond James Stadium. This team can use a surge of new fans and if they come from Florida State, so be