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. MANKINS TRADE ANOTHER GREAT, SHREWD MOVE BY LICHT
Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht has impressed the heck out of me. In his first offseason ever running an NFL football team, Licht has traded away last year’s starting center Jeremy Zuttah for Baltimore’s fifth-round draft pick, signed the most sought-after quarterback in free agency in Josh McCown, signed the most sought-after defensive end in free agency in Michael Johnson, signed one of more intriguing left tackle prospects in Anthony Collins, and replaced one Pro Bowl cornerback (Darrelle Revis) with another (Alterraun Verner) and saving $10 million in 2014 by doing so.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say that Licht had help from the team’s capologist and director of player administration Mike Greenberg, director of player personnel Jon Robinson, director of pro scouting Scott Cohen and director of football operations Shelton Quarles among others. But what Licht and his staff were able to do this past week in trading for six-time Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins might have even topped signing a Pro Bowler like Verner for $2 million less per than the current market value for upper echelon cornerbacks.
Knowing that he had acquired a second fifth-round pick in the Zuttah trade, Licht shipped the Bucs’ fourth-rounder and promising tight end Tim Wright to New England in exchange for Mankins, and in doing so, addressed the team’s biggest need, which was left guard. Some criticized the Bucs for not spending a second-round pick on a guard in the 2014 NFL Draft, but drafting tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and signing Brandon Myers in free agency made Wright expendable, and Licht was able to get an experienced, top-shelf guard in Mankins rather than to have to start a rookie draft pick, which was a less desirable option for Tampa Bay.
Licht and head coach Lovie Smith both feel a sense of urgency to win now. Chicago fired Smith in 2012 after winning 10 games that season. Licht has seen the current landscape in the NFL where head coaches and general managers are sometimes fired after only one or two seasons. The Bucs’ aggressiveness in free agency was carried over into this week with Licht’s aggressive trade for Mankins, who at age 32, was asked to take a pay cut in New England.
Mankins counted for $21.5 million ($10.5 million in 2014 and $11 million in 2015) over the next two years on New England’s salary cap and the Patriots needed that room to sign 2015 free agents like Revis, cornerback Devin McCourty and running back Shane Vereen. By trading Mankins, the Patriots cleared $5.75 million in cap space next season.
Licht’s ties to the Patriots helped him get the deal initiated and completed, as did former Bucs head coach Greg Schiano’s relationship with Bill Belichick. Wright was a pet project of Schiano’s that panned out last year as he caught 51 passes for 541 yards and five touchdowns as an undrafted rookie and will fit into nicely into the Patriots’ tight end-heavy offense.
Another component to the equation was guard Richie Incognito, who was brought in for a visit the night before the Bucs traded for Mankins. Incognito was viewed as a possible option at left guard and that made the Patriots, who eyed the salary cap savings as much as the Bucs’ fourth-round draft pick, quickly move on Licht’s trade offer. Tampa Bay was considering signing Incognito, but the reaction by the local media against the beleaguered guard on Tuesday caught Licht and Smith off guard – no pun intended.
The Patriots didn’t want to see Incognito address the Bucs’ need at guard and called Licht to get the Mankins deal done, which also quelled a potential public relations distraction by the team that the Incognito signing could have created.
Licht’s Buccaneers haven’t won a game yet in 2014, but his offseason moves and aggressive nature when it comes to trades and free agent signings has to be applauded. Too often former Bucs general manager Mark Dominik was too patient and didn’t do enough to bolster the competition at some positions on the team.
In the late 2000s, Dominik cleared the way for strong safety Sabby Piscitelli, defensive end Kyle Moore and linebacker Quincy Black to start without real competition at either position. He did the same last year at defensive end with Da’Quan Bowers, who underwhelmed and didn’t even grasp the starting position when given to him. Piscitelli, Moore and Bowers all lacked experience and flamed out, which hurt the Buccaneers.
Licht was accused of treating the guard positions the same way after cutting Davin Joseph in the offseason and watching Carl Nicks walk away from football at the start of training camp. But during training camp, Licht traded for Rishaw Johnson and Mankins. Both could be in the starting lineup sooner rather than later with Mankins getting the Week 1 nod against the Panthers and Johnson possibly working his way into the right guard spot within the first month of the season.
We’ll see how it all pans out, but I think most Bucs fans are more excited about Licht’s potential tandem of Mankins and Johnson than Oniel Cousins and Patrick Omameh, who has played well despite a lack of experience.
FAB. 2 IS MANKINS A SAVIOR AT GUARD OR IN DECLINE?
Let’s start with the statement that New England’s Logan Mankins comes to the Buccaneers as the most experienced, most talented and most decorated offensive lineman on the team. His presence solidifies the weakest position in Tampa Bay, which was at left guard.
But at age 32, are the Bucs getting the Pro Bowl version of Mankins or a player in decline? Mankins was asked that pointed question prior to last night’s preseason finale.
“I might be in a little decline, I don’t know,” Mankins said. “How many guys have played 150 games and then they’re still on the upswing? I’ve played a lot games and a lot snaps, but I think I still got something to give this game and this team. I’ll try my hardest for them and if it’s not good enough then it’s not, if it is [good enough] then it is.”
While Mankins was named to his sixth Pro Bowl last year, his fifth straight such honor, he also gave up 11 sacks in 2013, including five sacks in two weeks against Miami and Pittsburgh. Mankins also allowed 22 quarterback pressures over 18 games, according to Pro Football Focus. That was a career high for Mankins, who entered the league as a first-round pick in 2005.
Yet Mankins was superb in the running game, which boosted his ranking to the 18th best guard out of 81 in the league last year, according to Pro Football Focus. Mankins received high praise from Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who said he was the “best guard he’s ever coached.”
On his way out of New England, Rex Ryan, the head coach of the rival New York Jets, said, “He’s a tough ass. I like Logan Mankins. I’m glad that he’s not there, but we did okay against him.”
Mankins is known for his toughness, missing just 14 games in nine seasons – and seven of those were due to a contract holdout. He played most of the 2011 campaign with a partially torn ACL and also started a game at left tackle, which was his position in college, for the injured Nat Solder.
Mankins is leaving his prime, but Tampa Bay hopes that his arrival resembles that of former Vikings castoffs Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel in 2000 than that of Derrick Deese and Todd Steussie in 2004. The early guess here is that the 6-foot-4, 308-pound Fresno State product bring some toughness and power to the running game and be okay in pass protection for the next couple of years until general manager Jason Licht finds a long-term solution.
“When someone invests in you – I don’t know if everyone feels this way, but myself, I don’t want to disappoint them,” Mankins said. “I want to be the player they think they’re getting. So that’s what I hope to deliver – what they expect.”
FAB 3. ENGLISH DESERVES A ROSTER SPOT OVER BOWERS
The Buccaneers’ final roster cuts will come down Friday afternoon and all eyes will be on defensive lineman Da’Quan Bowers, who missed Tampa Bay’s last three preseason games with a groin injury after a good showing as a three-technique tackle at Jacksonville. Bowers, Tampa Bay’s former second-round pick in 2011, has just 5.5 career sacks, including only one last year, and has been a big disappointment for the Buccaneers.
While he showed some promise inside as a backup to Gerald McCoy at defensive tackle, Bowers has proven once again that he can’t stay healthy. And with spotty play and effort as he enters his contract year, if Bowers isn’t going to rise up and secure a roster spot and push for more playing time, when will he?
It’s time for the Bucs to turn the page on this bust and move on. The previous regime of general manager Mark Dominik and head coach Greg Schiano were convinced by the middle of the 2013 season that Bowers didn’t love the game of football. What Bowers loves is playing guitar. He likes being an NFL player, but not necessarily honing his craft, getting in shape and earning a starting spot on Sundays.
Former Bucs head coach Jon Gruden once told me that there are two kinds of guys in the NFL – players and playas. Players love the game. Playas love the fame and notoriety that comes with being in the NFL, but they don’t love the game. By Gruden’s definition, Bowers is a playa.
He was handed the starting left defensive end spot last year when the team moved on from Michael Bennett, but Bowers never got in ideal playing shape and lost his role with the first-team defense to a less talented player in Daniel Te’o-Nesheim. Then Bowers got passed on the depth chart by rookie Will Gholston and he remains buried on the team’s depth chart.
On occasion, the underwhelming Clemson product had to be begged and coaxed by defensive ends coach Mike Phair to take more than a handful of reps during the voluntary OTAs. He was often winded this spring and summer after doing a modest amount of work.
With Gholston and Clinton McDonald capable of playing the three-technique and backing up McCoy, especially with the great training camp turned in by nose tackle Akeem Spence, it’s time for the Bucs to turn the page on Bowers and give that defensive line roster spot to newcomer Larry English for two big reasons. The first is work ethic. The second is production.
Admittedly, English didn’t have as great of a game against Washington as he did against Buffalo in which he notched two sacks. Yet those two sacks are tied for the team lead with Scott Solomon, while Bowers finished the preseason with just three tackles and didn’t get to the quarterback.
English, whom I loved coming out of Northern Illinois in the 2009 NFL Draft and lobbied Dominik to draft, is finding a home with his hand in the dirt again after switching from defensive end in a 4-3 scheme to outside linebacker in a 3-4 over the past five years in San Diego.
“I’m comfortable in a 4-3 because that’s the scheme I played in college,” English said. “I’m kind of reverting back to those days and those things I worked on at that time. When I was young coming into it, [the 3-4] was a challenge for me to pick up. I got used to it and then I understood the concepts and the schemes. It can be a little difficult for young guys switching from the 4-3 to the 3-4.”
“It is a little bit different. A lot of people try to simplify it and say there are a lot of fundamentals that are the same and that football is football, but leveraging the run game is different and dropping into coverage is different. But this is very similar defensive scheme to the one I played in at college.”
English notched 30 sacks for the Huskies in four years, and was drafted in the first round by San Diego, where he notched 91 tackles, 11 sacks, two fumble recoveries and a forced fumble as a part-time starter for the Chargers. English never flourished in the 3-4 and wasn’t re-signed after his rookie deal expired this offseason.
“It kind of caught me off guard a bit because as far as I knew, I was going to be part of their plans going forward,” English said. “I knew we had a lot of linebackers in San Diego, but I thought I was going to be a part of that. But you have to be able to adjust and respond to it.
“It definitely was a great opportunity to come here and I’m really trying to make the best of it. There have definitely been ups and downs throughout my career. I’ve always kept the mindset that it’s about how I respond to those trials and tribulations. In my sixth year, I still have the same hunger and the same love for the game. I’m just coming out here and going to work on a daily basis. I definitely feel like there’s a fit and there are some things I can contribute. I’m just trying to show these coaches and this front office staff what I can bring to the table when I go out there and work.”
English was a late addition to Tampa Bay’s training camp, but has made the most of his time and made a strong first impression.
“I’ve known Larry since 2009 when we preparing for the NFL Scouting Combine together,” Bucs defensive end Johnson said. “I had the chance to meet him then and he’s a great guy. He’s been working hard and he’s been looking real good out there.
“It can be difficult for some guys to go from being a defensive end in college to a linebacker in a 3-4 in the NFL. I applaud those guys that can make that transition. It’s a lot different coming off the edge as an outside linebacker than a defensive end.”
English earned some reps with the starting defense last Saturday against Buffalo and recorded a sack in the second quarter against starter E.J. Manuel, and then another one in the fourth quarter against backup David Dixon.
“Anytime you can come up with the opportunity to get a sack in this league … sometimes they come few and far between, so you have to capitalize on those opportunities,” English said. “I think I was fortunate that a couple of plays came my way.”
English can play left or right defensive end, but he’s been getting most of his reps at left end this August. At a well-built, 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, English isn’t the biggest defensive end in the NFL, but may have found a home in the Tampa 2 scheme that emphasizes speed and quickness over size. In years past, Tampa Bay has been a haven for undersized defensive ends like Steve White, Greg Spires and Stylez G. White.
“This is a great scheme for me to play in,” English said. “From the coaches and coordinators down to the players, there is talent everywhere. Everybody on the field has the same goal of being a great defense and getting turnovers, getting to the ball and playing hard. I love it.”
And that’s the difference between English and Bowers. English loves it and deserves a roster spot in Tampa Bay.
“I’ve understood throughout my entire career that [getting cut] is a part of this league,” English said. “I looked at it as an opportunity that I’m happy to have because I’m here. At times it’s been a bit hard for me to get into football shape [after not being signed until August], but I’m picking up the defense and I think I’ve done a sufficient job of getting in there and pushing my body to get into football shape. I’m fighting, scratching and clawing to show my worth to this organization.”
That, and a pair of sacks, is good enough for me.
FAB 4. LANSANAH HAS STARRED FOR BUCS DEFENSE
Perhaps no other Buccaneers linebacker has come as far this preseason as Danny Lansanah has. Entering camp as a linebacker fighting for a roster spot, Lansanah may have put himself in position to contend for the starting strongside linebacker role with Jonathan Casillas.
Lansanah was the surprise starter at Sam linebacker last week at Buffalo when Casillas was suspended for violating team policies and made the most of his opportunity, notching five tackles and a tackle for loss.
“It felt great,” Lansanah said. “That’s why you play the game. Playing with the starting unit felt great, but at the end of the day you have to do your job and play football.”
Lansanah entered the Bucs’ preseason finale against Washington with 11 tackles, which is tied for the team lead, and added five more and a deflected pass in the end zone, which was turned into a takeaway when fellow linebacker Nate Askew picked off the Colt McCoy pass right before halftime.
“He’s made a lot of progress throughout the preseason, training camp and all,” Bucs head coach Lovie Smith said. “We wanted to get a long look at him, and, of course, tonight he’s doing some good things.”
The key for improved performance by Lansanah was dropping weight this offseason and getting faster.
“Last year I was about 251, and now I’m weighing in between 230-235,” Lansanah said. “It’s obvious that I run faster. I feel great. I’m not injury prone. The pounds I took off definitely helped me. I remember going into the offseason and Coach Smith telling me about getting my weight down and I knew I had to seeing the other guys. I did it and I feel great. Some of the other guys, like Mason Foster, did too. But if Lavonte [David] lost any more weight he’d have to play safety!”
Shedding some excess pounds helped Lansanah on the field, but it was also work in the classroom with linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson that also made a difference.
“My knowledge of the defense is a lot better now,” Lansanah said. “I have a greater understanding of what my role is. After that, it comes down to making plays, and I’ve been able to do that when my number has been called.
“I’ve played all three positions in practice. I do what they ask me to do. Coming in, I was a backup Mike, and then they moved me to Will and then to Sam. It helps my versatility with the ability to play all three positions. I can go out there and get the job done.”
Lansanah said that having Nickerson, who starred in the Tampa 2 scheme from 1996-99 for the Buccaneers, as his position coach is like a dream come true.
“It’s a huge advantage for us because he knows what offenses are trying to do to us because he played in this scheme,” Lansanah said. “He knows this defense like the back of his hand and he was the leader of it when he was here as a player. That helps me out tremendously. It helps all of us.”
Lansanah is so fond of Nickerson that he nearly paid tribute to him after his tackle for loss against the Bills.
“I knew of Hardy when he got here and some of the guys had pulled up some old clips of him on YouTube,” Lansanah said. “The one we like the most was his ‘El Dragõn’ Nike commercial. I was thinking about flexing for him after I made a tackle on Saturday. I thought about it for a second.”
With the way Lansanah is playing for Tampa Bay, he’ll have plenty more opportunities to flex on Sundays this fall.
FAB 5. SR’S BUCS SHOTS
• It was a bit of a surprise to see the Buccaneers place veteran cornerback Danny Gorrer on injured reserve, and then release him along with Deveron Carr this week. With cornerbacks Alterran Verner, Mike Jenkins, Johnthan Banks and Rashaan Melvin, and nickel cornerback Leonard Johnson assured of roster spots, there is likely only room for one more cornerback on the depth chart.
Marc Anthony was fair in his return to Tampa Bay, notching a game-high seven tackles against Washington in the preseason finale, but also gave up some completions. The same could be said for Kip Edwards, who also gave up a touchdown in the end zone in the first quarter.
The final cornerback roster spot could come down to Anthony Gaitor, who has shown he can also play safety, rookie Keith Lewis, who recorded an interception in the end zone against the Redskins, and backup nickel cornerback Quinton Pointer. I would bet on Pointer at this point, who received glowing recommendation by Johnson.
“Pointer is a very dynamic player,” Johnson said. “He’s very fast. He’s physical. He has all the physical attributes that you would want in a nickel. He’s made some plays on defense for us.”
• The Bucs are expecting big things out of defensive end Adrian Clayborn this season as he makes the switch from playing right defensive end to the left side. Clayborn, the team’s first-round pick in 2011, is entering a contract year and will be pushed for playing time by second-year player Will Gholston once he returns from his shoulder injury.
“It’s a tough transition to make, but he has just a non-stop motor and it seems like wherever we put him, he finds a way to be successful at that position,” Bucs head coach Lovie Smith. “With Michael [Johnson] coming in at that position, this was an option for Adrian and he’s accepted that role and again hasn’t missed anything since I’ve been here. The guy has just shows up like the [Energizer Bunny]: he just keeps going. We’re expecting good play out of him. I like to think that every person that gets sacks, there has to be some effort involved in it and he does have that. He has ability, too. It’s not just his effort. I just don’t think an effort player gets sacks just based on that and relying on you just working harder every play than your opponent. That is a part of his game, though. I think when you have some talent and you have a non-stop motor, then you have something special.”
• One of the scariest things for a wide receiver sometimes is knowing you are wide open and the pressure that comes with having to catch the pass in that situation. It’s the same way for defensive players who have a clear path to the quarterback on their way to notch a sack. Such was the case last Saturday for Bucs defensive end Larry English, who was unblocked and took down Bills quarterback E.J. Manuel.
“It can be a little scary, especially when you have a quarterback with the legs that can scramble a bit,” English said. “I definitely had to come under balance at him to make sure I got him down. It can be nervous until you get him on the ground.”
• New Tampa Bay guard Logan Mankins quickly noticed the ever-present Florida heat and humidity in August during his press conference in the bowels of Raymond James Stadium prior to the Bucs’ preseason finale. Mankins has spent his entire nine-year NFL career in New England.
“It is hot,” Mankins said. “I was sweating outside. I think the AC is on in here and I’m still sweating. That’s going to be something to get used to. It feels like it is fall already in New England, but it is still summer here.”
And it will feel that way for Mankins well into October, too.
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Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd 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 enjoys 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: [email protected]
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