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. SMITH IS SEARCHING FOR THE NEXT HESTER
When he was the head coach of the Chicago Bears in 2006, Lovie Smith spent a second-round pick in 2006 on 5-foot-11, 190-pound return specialist Devin Hester, who also played cornerback and wide receiver at the University of Miami. Hester would go on to become the most prolific return man in the NFL with 20 returns for touchdowns in his nine-year career.
Eighteen of Hester’s NFL-record 20 returns occurred with Smith while in Chicago from 2006-12, and the prolific return man helped Smith engineer a 65-47 record with the Bears during that span, including a Super Bowl berth in 2006.
“He’s one of my favorite players, talking just football,” Smith said. “My first head [coaching] job and I got to coach the greatest returner of all time. That was special, the things I was able to see him do with his hands on the ball.”
Smith was there to see Hester eclipse Deion Sanders’ record in person as his 62-yard punt return for a touchdown helped the Atlanta Falcons beat the Buccaneers 56-14 in Week 3 last year.
“He’s the greatest returner of all time,” Smith said. “So when you’re on the opposing sideline, you’re not real happy about that.”
Hester helped Atlanta rank first in punt returns in the league with a 13.3-yard average, while Tampa Bay went through four different punt returners last year in rookie Solomon Patton, veteran Trindon Holliday, Marcus Thigpen and Bobby Rainey.
After a lackluster start to the season, the Bucs released Patton and signed Holliday, who lasted just one game before being released.
“We haven’t gotten enough out of our return game up to this point,” Smith said. “We’re not satisfied with our return game. So when you’re not satisfied with that, you look to the returner first – that’s what we did.”
The Bucs signed Thigpen after releasing Holliday and he fared well with a 16.3-yard average, including a 53-yard return, when he held on to the ball. Thigpen fumbled twice and that led to his departure in November. Ironically, he returned a punt for a touchdown the following week for Buffalo.
Tampa Bay finished the season with Rainey handling the punt return duties, but he only averaged 7.9 yards per return. The Bucs can do better with a more skilled return specialist. Smith knows that. Special teams coordinator Kevin O’Dea knows that, too.
In a year-end staff meeting, O’Dea advised Smith that despite the personnel upheaval at the punt return position the Bucs ranked eighth in punt returns with a 10.8-yard average. That means that Tampa Bay’s return game is viable from a blocking perspective – it just needs a dynamic return specialist to score some touchdowns and become a top 5 unit.
The Bucs’ kick return game is a different story as it ranked 20th last year with an average of 22.8 yards and a long of 45 by Chris Owusu, who was one of five kick returners in Tampa Bay last year. Rainey fared better as a kick returner, averaging 26.3 yards per return, but his longest was a 33-yarder.
The Bucs drafted all offensive players last year in Smith’s first year as Tampa Bay’s head coach. As a result, that didn’t do much to help the Bucs’ special teams as linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks typically make core special teamers. Running back Charles Sims, the team’s third-round pick, missed the first eight games of his rookie season and didn’t play on special teams when he returned from injured reserve as he concentrated on helping on offense.
Smith and the Bucs want to find the next Hester – a return specialist that can handle punts and kicks – and hopefully a player that can attain a Pro Bowl level as Hester did four times. The 2015 NFL Draft will offer up several opportunities to find that player. Here’s a look at some of this year’s most dangerous return men that the Bucs could target:
Kansas State WR Tyler Lockett – 5-10, 182 – Senior
Lockett can help the Buccaneers in a myriad of ways. He’s an electrifying receiver who broke his father’s records at K-State for receptions (249), receiving yards (3,710) and receiving touchdowns (29). The Bucs have a need for a speed receiver to play in the slot, and Lockett’s 4.4 speed and playmaking ability on offense are a great fit. After catching 81 passes for 1,262 yards (15.6 avg.) and 11 touchdowns as a junior, Lockett hauled in 106 receptions for 1,515 yards (14.3 avg.) and 11 scores during his senior season.
Lockett, whose uncle, Aaron, was Tampa Bay’s seventh-round draft pick in 2002, was a freshman All-American kick returner with a 35.2-yard average and two touchdowns. He averaged 32.8 yards per kick return as a sophomore and scored two more TDs. Lockett averaged 28.5 yards per kick return over his four years for the Wildcats with four scores.
He took over K-State’s punt return duties as a senior and led the NCAA with a 19.1-yard average, scoring on two punts, while having another punt return and a kickoff return called back due to penalties. There’s an outside chance Lockett gets drafted in the second round, but he could be there at the top of the third round when the Bucs are on the clock. The Bucs love his toughness and had him in for a private visit.
Duke WR Jamison Crowder – 5-8, 185 – Senior
Crowder teamed with quarterback Anthony Boone to put Duke football on the map over the last couple of years. He finished his Blue Devils career with 283 catches for 3,641 yards and 23 touchdowns thanks to an 85-catch, 1,044-yard, six-touchdown senior season that made him the only Duke player to post three 1,000-yard receiving seasons.
While he hasn’t really retuned kicks since his freshman season when he averaged 21.4 yards per carry, Crowder has excelled as a punt returner, returning two punts for touchdowns in each of the last two seasons. Crowder has returned 74 punts for 869 yards (11.7 avg.) in his four years for the Blue Devils. He averaged a career-high 15.4 yards as a junior.
Crowder, who has 4.46 speed and is ultra-quick, has also had a private visit with the Bucs and turned their heads at the Senior Bowl where he performed well, especially late in the week. Like Lockett, Crowder is a legitimate weapon on offense with a passing and a rushing touchdown on his resumè, too. He’s not just a special teams ace. Crowder has the speed and suddenness to compete for the slot receiver job as a rookie, in addition to being the Bucs’ return specialist.
The three best return specialists in Buccaneers history – Karl Williams, Micheal Spurlock and Clifton Smith –all happened to be undrafted free agents. And if Tampa Bay doesn’t draft Lockett, Crowder or a cornerback that can return kicks and or/punts like Texas’ Quandrae Diggs or Memphis’ Bobby McCain, it may turn to undrafted free agency to find a return specialist. Here are a couple of return specialists the Bucs have evaluated that could sneak into the seventh round, but may go undrafted.
Utah WR Kaelin Clay – 5-10, 195 – Senior
Clay only played one year at Utah, but had a monster year as a kick and punt returner. He returned 23 punts for 346 yards (15.0 avg.) with three touchdowns in 2014, while also returning 22 kicks for 548 yards (24.9 avg.) and one TD. Clay also used his 4.45 speed to catch 43 passes for 523 yards (12.2 avg.) with four touchdowns.
West Virginia WR Mario Alford – 5-8, 178 – Senior
Alford played second fiddle to West Virginia superstar receiver Kevin White, catching 92 passes for 1,497 yards and 13 touchdowns in his career, including 65 receptions for 945 yards and 11 scores. Alford lacks ideal NFL size, but has similar speed, agility and elusiveness as former Mountaineer Tavon Austin possesses.
Alford was a second-team All-Big 12 return specialist behind Lockett after returning 26 kicks for 743 yards (28.6 avg.) and two touchdowns last year. Alford lacks experience as a punt returner, but could probably make the transition with his blazing 4.25 speed.
Missouri RB Marcus Murphy – 5-8, 198 – Senior
Murphy is undersized to be a featured runner in the NFL, but has the skill set to be a utility player on offense, as well as a return specialist. Murphy rushed 337 times for 1,957 yards (5.8 avg.) and 16 touchdowns at Missouri, including a career-high 924 yards and four TDs on 177 carries (5.2 avg.). He also had 50 career receptions for 328 yards and two TDs, including 28 catches for 212 yards and one touchdown.
But Murphy’s real value comes on special teams where he used his 4.51 speed to return 87 kicks for 2,036 yards (23.4 avg.) with three TDs, in addition to returning 75 punts for 801 yards (10.7 avg.) with four scores. Murphy had one punt return for a touchdown while averaging 10.4 yards, and two kick returns for touchdowns while averaging 29.6 yards last year. As a sophomore, Murphy returned three punts for TDs and averaged 13.9 yards, while returning a kick for a touchdown and averaging 24.1 yards.
UAB WR J.J. Nelson – 5-10, 156 – Senior
At 156 pounds, Nelson is the slightest-built prospect in this year’s NFL Draft. Playing for the now-defunct UAB Blazers, Nelson was a big-play receiver that hauled in 116 catches for 2,273 yards (19.6 avg.) and 20 touchdowns over his career. He had a breakout season as a junior with 42 catches for 846 yards and eight touchdowns, and followed that up with 35 receptions for 655 yards and four scores as senior.
Nelson was the fastest player at the NFL Scouting Combine where he blazed a 4.28 in the 40-yard dash. He used that speed to return 22 kicks for 843 yards (38.3 avg.) and four touchdowns as a senior. He also averaged 10.7 yards on 26 punt returns for 277 yards. Nelson returned a punt 63 yards for a touchdown during his junior season.
Will one of these six return specialists become the next Hester for Smith in Tampa Bay? We’ll find out next week.
FAB 2. A MAKE-OR-BREAK OFFSEASON FOR HERRON
The Buccaneers are poised to draft a wide receiver in 2015 for three reasons. First, it very well could be Vincent Jackson’s last year in Tampa Bay as the 32-year old receiver has a cap hit of $12,209,777 in each of the last two years of his contract. Second, the Bucs need more speed at the receiver position, as Jackson and Mike Evans are 4.5-4.6 guys.
Third is the fact that Robert Herron, last year’s sixth-round pick, had a disappointing rookie season and is not a lock to make this year’s roster. What’s concerning for Herron, who had six catches for 58 yards and one touchdown, a 9-yarder at New Orleans in Week 5, is the fact that he didn’t log a reception since the Baltimore game when he had two catches for 31 yards, including a career-high 16-yarder.
Making matters worse for Herron is the fact that he only saw action in one game – against Cincinnati – since the Cleveland game on November 2, and was part of the 12-men-on-the-field debacle at the end of that 14-13 loss to the Bengals. Instead of seeing increased playing time as Tampa Bay turned to playing younger players in the months of November and December, Herron was inactive for all four games in the month of December as the Bucs chose to play Russell Shepard and newcomer Tavarres King at wide receiver instead.
“It was a decision that was best for the team, but I wish I could have gotten some experience and gotten more plays under my belt,” Herron said. “This offseason I have to work on what I’ve got to work on to become a much better player. Not playing [down the stretch] will definitely motivate me.”
The appeal of drafting Herron came from an impressive Senior Bowl in which he had several highlight-reel catches, in addition to averaging 21.2 yards per catch his junior season (31 catches for 657 yards and eight touchdowns). Herron, who was viewed as a speed receiver, saw his average drop to just 13 yards per catch, but saw his production increase to 72 catches for 937 yards and nine touchdowns, including a career-long 93-yarder.
While Herron did a good job of catching some of the more difficult passes thrown his way, he did have his share of drops of catchable passes in training camp, the preseason and the regular season. The Bucs’ brass and coaches didn’t view Herron as a reliable receiver down the stretch, and he’s going to have to come back as a much-improved player in 2015 to stay on the roster.
“Becoming a better football player with the fundamentals – catching the ball and running routes,” Herron said. “Execution and the lack thereof, which I plan on working on, and maturing as a player. I’m excited for the 2015 season.”
Herron is also going to have to quickly learn how to cover kicks and punts – or return them – as a big reason why he was inactive for eight games last year was his inability to play on special teams. As the team’s starting wide receiver for the last two years at Wyoming, Herron wasn’t asked to play on special teams and he only returned three kicks in his Cowboys career. If a late-round draft pick doesn’t know how to play on special teams – especially as the fourth or fifth receiver on the depth chart – it’s going to significantly impact that person’s playing time.
“I didn’t have any experience in the return game, but that’s something I’m going to work on a lot in the offseason because I know how valuable that is to the team,” Herron said. “It could have been a factor for me not playing a lot and it’s the key to me getting on the field next year.”
Tampa Bay’s offense needs more speed and playmaking ability on offense, and that’s one area that Herron can help. But first he has to acclimate himself to special teams and learn to catch every pass thrown his way – not just the difficult ones. If not, Herron’s NFL career could come to a quick close with just one real highlight, which was his leaping touchdown catch in the end zone against the Saints.
“It was a great feeling in that game,” Herron said. “That was my first touchdown at the professional level. It’s something you always dream about doing. It was a great moment for me and I can’t wait to have more moments like that next year.”
FAB 3. SMALLER LANE COULD HAVE A BIG ROLE IN KOETTER’S OFFENSE
The fullback is often a seldom used after thought on NFL rosters with so many teams going to a one-back set. That was the case last year with Bucs fullback Jorvorskie Lane, who had four touches prior to suffering a season-ending injury against Chicago on November 23 when he broke his right leg on a 2-yard carry against the Bears.
Lane started off the season with a bang, rushing for 54 yards against Carolina in Tampa Bay’s 20-14 opening day loss on a fullback dive. Lane, a former Texas A&M running back who ran for 49 touchdowns and had seven 100-yard rushing games for the Aggies, said after the game that he would have scored a touchdown if he were 10 pounds lighter.
To call Lane a big back at Texas A&M or in the NFL would be an understatement. His playing weight in college varied between 280-290, and it eclipsed 300 pounds by the time he turned pro, which turned off NFL teams. After a brief stint with Miami 2012 playing for offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who coached him at Texas A&M, Lane was out of football when he was released by the Dolphins after the 2013 training camp. He signed with Tampa Bay last year and worked his weight down into the 270s.
Distraught over not being able to race 96 yards for a touchdown due to his weight, Lane went on a diet that unfortunately included a weight loss supplement that contained a banned substance. That led to a two-game suspension in October.
“The suspension forced me to look at my diet and critique it more,” Lane said. “I had two weeks off and I missed football. I swallowed my pride. My eating habits changed.”
That change was put to the test when Lane suffered his first-ever first season-ending injury. Saddled with a broken leg that required surgery to repair, the fullback could have sat around and eaten his way back up to 300 pounds. But a more focused and determined Lane wouldn’t let that happen.
“It hit me the next day when I went to the facility after I broke my leg,” Lane said. “It was one of those things you think, ‘Am I done? Will I ever be the same?’ This process has been challenging to me because I’ve never been hurt before. The first thing I thought about when I broke my leg was, ‘How can I keep my weight down?’
“It was tough. I couldn’t run. I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t do anything. I was blown by it, but I’m back to what I used to be doing as far as conditioning and running. Now that I’m doing that I’m back fine mentally. When I got back to One Buc Place on the scale it said I was 268 and I was proud of that. It showed me that it was time to go to work and I was ready and show them my skill set.”
Lane weighed about that much last year – but only after training camp.
“This is the first offseason that I’ve started off light,” Lane said. “I was at 268 pounds last week. This is the first time I’ve came in light. Learning from my mistakes the previous years I would come in about 280, 285, 287 or close to 290 sometimes. Now I feel incredible. I feel faster and more explosive. It will take time with my injury, but I’ll get there.”
It was during his rehab at One Buccaneer Place this offseason that he met new offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, who sought him out at the team’s headquarters. That meeting led Lane, who was an unrestricted free agent after signing a one-year deal with the Bucs last season, to re-up with the team for another year.
“He came up to me during my rehab [before I re-signed] and said, ‘Hey, Jorvorksie, I’m the new OC’ and we went straight into football talk,” Lane said. “He said, ‘You’re injured right now, but I don’t know if you know of a guy by the name of Greg Jones. I’m just letting you know about the opportunity there.’ Once he left I Googled him and Greg Jones and I saw his credentials. Once I met [Koetter] I started smiling and I haven’t stopped since. I’m like a little kid.”
Although Koetter is more recently known for Atlanta’s passing attack led by quarterback Matt Ryan, wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White and tight end Tony Gonzalez over the years, he put together quite a running game in Jacksonville as the Jaguars’ offensive coordinator from 2007-11.
Maurice Jones-Drew rushed for 5,913 yards and 49 touchdowns during that span with Jones serving as his lead blocker. While Jones-Drew did most of the damage on the ground, Jones did rush for 166 yards on 52 carries with three rushing touchdowns, while catching 43 passes for 295 yards three touchdowns.
“I smile face to face with him every time I see Coach Koetter,” Lane said. “He uses the fullback a lot. I can’t complain. I’m very excited about this upcoming season.”
Patrick DiMarco played fullback in Atlanta under Koetter and saw a lot of time as a lead blocker for Michael Turner, Steven Jackson, Jacquizz Rodgers and Devonta Freeman, but he’s not the weapon that Lane is with the ball in his hands.
“I’m really excited after looking at the film from last year in Atlanta,” Lane said. “Julio and Roddy … VJax and Mike. I’m real excited and I’m pretty sure the other guys are, too.”
While Lane understands that his primary role will be that of a lead blocker for Charles Sims and Bobby Rainey in 2015, he hopes that he will get more than the four touches he got last year – especially after his 54-yard jaunt warranted more opportunities.
“I can’t say I didn’t think about,” Lane said. “It was a big run. I thought about it. Running with the football is my background. When my number was called with 46 or 20 personnel or 22 personnel I just went out there and did my thing.”
A slimmed-down Lane is looking forward to doing his thing for Koetter this year and getting a few more touches.
FAB 4. MY FAVORITE PROSPECTS IN THIS YEAR’S DRAFT
To celebrate my 20 years of covering the Buccaneers I’m going to share with you some of the behind-the-scenes encounters I’ve had over the last two decades. These stories will appear in the first 20 SR’s Fab 5 columns of 2015, which encompasses much of the offseason.
As a draftnik and a huge fan of college football I put in hundreds of hours of watching live and taped games each year as I prepare for PewterReport.com’s annual Bucs draft coverage. This type of research has helped PewterReport.com accurately predict over 20 Bucs’ Best Bets.
Each year there are certain players I grow incredibly fond of while scouting prospects I feel would be great fits in Tampa Bay. I remember liking Washington running back Corey Dillon over Florida State’s Warrick Dunn in 1997, I liked Fresno State offensive tackle Logan Mankins in 2005, and I really liked Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who I wrote about last year before he became a Pro Bowler and the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year last year.
I also remember liking USC wide receiver Mike Williams, defensive tackle Penn State cornerback Alan Zemaitis and Boston College defensive tackle Ron Brace, too. So I’ve also liked my share of players that turned out to be lousy pros.
Here are 12 players I personally became fond of during this year’s draft study. Some of these draft prospects are viable options for Tampa Bay while some of them aren’t.
Florida State QB Jameis Winston
I think Winston is a future star in the NFL. The kid just has that rare, special quality that players like Joe Montana and Michael Jordan had in their respective careers of making those players around him better. Aside from being an inspiring playmaker, the charismatic Winston has great leadership skills. The Bucs would be lucky to draft him despite the immediate controversy he’ll bring to the organization.
Georgia RB Todd Gurley
Gurley ran like a man against boys for Georgia this year until tearing his ACL against Auburn. A freak athlete who is a weapon as a runner, receiver and kick returner, Gurley is the best running back prospect to come out since Adrian Peterson. He’s destined to become a Pro Bowler in the NFL.
Indiana RB Tevin Coleman
Coleman reminds me of a smaller Corey Dillon with his running style, which is fast and violent. He’s a one-cut runner that has great acceleration and power and couldn’t be stopped while topping 2,000 yards despite being a marked man at Indiana. Despite being a second-round talent, I still think Coleman is underrated.
South Dakota State RB Zach Zenner
Zenner reminds me of a slimmer version of Mike Alstott due to his hard-nosed running style. But what he lacks in Alstott’s brute power he makes up for with breakaway speed that the A-Train never possessed. If the Bucs drafted this guy on Day 3 he would become an instant fan favorite for his high effort and blue-collar mentality.
Kansas State WR Tyler Lockett
In the interests of full disclosure, I’m a K-State graduate and went to school with Kevin Lockett, Tyler’s dad, who set all of the receiving records that Lockett broke last year. Lockett reminds me of Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown with his speed, suddenness and supreme route-running ability. He’s also a stud returner and a heck of a nice kid. He would look great in red and pewter.
Iowa OT Brandon Scherff
Scherff is an absolute beast of an offensive lineman. Strong, athletic and nasty, Scherff bullies defenders and I think he’s the most Pro Bowl-ready player in this year’s draft – but likely at guard or right tackle in the NFL. Scherff reminds me of another tough offensive tackle that moved inside to guard in the NFL – Tampa Bay’s own Logan Mankins.
Utah DE Nate Orchard
Orchard is an undersized, quick, tenacious pass rusher that would fit in the Tampa 2 scheme quite nicely. He had five multi-sack games last year on his way to 18.5, and sacked UCLA’s Brett Hundley four times, Stanford’s Kevin Hogan 3.5 times and Oregon’s Marcus Mariota once. He forced eight fumbles for the Utes in his career and recovered five.
UCLA MLB Eric Kendricks
The fast, instinctive Butkus Award and Lott Trophy winner became UCLA’s all-time leading tackler (481) last year and was fun to watch. He had three defensive touchdowns last year off interceptions and a fumble return last year, and a couple of tone-setting sacks against K-State in the Bruins’ Alamo Bowl win. Kendricks is always around the ball and makes highlight reel hits and big plays. He would be an ideal Mike linebacker in Tampa Bay.
Cincinnati MLB Jeff Luc
A fast, muscle-bound athlete, Luc was a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch for his ability to create takeaways. He forced six fumbles and recovered four last year, in addition to producing 134 tackles and 6.5 sacks for the Bearcats. Not sure if he’s an ideal fit for the Bucs at 256 pounds, but he’s intriguing.
Texas CB Quandre Diggs
I’ve watched a lot of Big 12 football and Diggs, a four-year starter, was one of my favorites. The hard-hitting cornerback reminds me of Ronde Barber because of his ball skills. He had 37 pass breakups for the Longhorns, 11 interceptions, 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles. Diggs would be a perfect nickel cornerback in Tampa Bay.
Memphis CB Bobby McCain
McCain isn’t the hitter that Diggs is, but he’s tough and he makes plays. McCain was a vocal leader on the Tigers defense and recorded 12 interceptions, including 11 over the past two years, and three fumble recoveries. McCain, who can also return kicks, has three career defensive touchdowns, too. The Bucs love him, and so do I.
Northwestern S Ibraheim Campbell
Didn’t know about him until doing draft study this offseason, but Campbell’s highlights really made an impression on me. He’s a Buc-type safety that can hit, cover and create takeaways. He has 24 pass breakups, 11 interceptions, six forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries that tell you he’s always around the ball.
It will be interesting to see if any of my personal favorite draft prospects wind up in Tampa Bay next week.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• The Bucs’ 2015 schedule was released on Tuesday and Tampa Bay will host Tennessee to start the season. No one is happier about that than former Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner.
“I’m very excited to play the Titans,” Verner said. “I was kind of hoping we would go to Tennessee, but they come to us. I’m definitely looking forward to that and I’ve already talked to a bunch of guys about that game. I’m looking forward to beating them.
“It will be a friendly rivalry game, not a bad blood game. I don’t have any bad blood with them. It’s going to be a fun game – like we’re about to go play some friends in the backyard. It’s going to be for bragging rights. I just want to be able to say, ‘Man, I got you!’ Especially since we play them once every four years. I don’t know when the next time I’ll play against them will be.”
• It will be interesting to see if Nebraska’s edge rusher Randy Gregory falls out of the first round due to a failed drug test, or if Missouri’s edge rusher Shane Ray slips to Round 2 over concerns about a foot injury that may require surgery after the draft. Tampa Bay needs defensive ends to rush the passer and those are some elite sackers.
Bucs general manager Jason Licht hails from Nebraska and has known about Gregory’s talent for years. Ray has the initial quickness and tenacity that defensive line coach Joe Cullen craves. It wouldn’t be out of the question for Tampa Bay to trade up in the first round to select one of those falling stars if they indeed slide on Thursday.
• Don’t look for the Bucs to pick up the fifth-year option on running back Doug Martin, who was the team’s first-round pick in 2012. With all of the speculation that the Bucs are one of the teams in the mix to possibly trade for Minnesota Pro Bowl running back Adrian Peterson or drafting a running back this year after selecting Charles Sims in the third round, it’s a clear sign that Martin’s days in Tampa Bay are numbered. In fact, Martin could be traded away on draft day.
The early buzz at One Buc Place is that Sims will be the featured runner in 2014 and that the team will likely draft a bigger back to handle short-yardage and goal line situations. Michigan State’s Jeremy Langford, Minnesota’s David Cobb and Florida’s Matt Jones are potential draft candidates for the Bucs. Martin’s departure would leave Tampa Bay with just two first-round picks from the last decade – defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (2010) and wide receiver Mike Evans (2014) – which illustrates how poorly the Bucs have drafted and why it’s been seven years since the team’s last trip to the playoffs.
• In case you missed it, Marcus Mariota’s 1.2 percent interception rate broke Geno Smith’s mark of 1.4 percent and set an NCAA record. Mariota threw 14 picks in 1,167 passes at Oregon, while Smith threw 21 interceptions in 1,465 passes at West Virginia before entering the NFL as a second-round pick of the New York Jets in 2013.
Smith proceeded to throw 21 interceptions and only 12 touchdowns as a rookie in 2013 before reducing his interception total to 13 with 13 TDs last year. Having a low interception total in college didn’t guarantee that Smith wouldn’t throw picks in the NFL. The same can be said of Mariota, folks, who I think has more potential to be a bust in the NFL than Jameis Winston does.
Former Jacksonville running back Maurice Jones-Drew agrees, and sees some similarity between Mariota and Blaine Gabbert, who was a “system quarterback” the Jaguars drafted in the first round in 2011 and turned out to be a bust.
“It wasn’t that Blaine was bad. It was that he was uncomfortable,” Jones-Drew said to Bleacher Report’s Mike Freeman. “You don’t take Mark Zuckerberg and have him run a construction company. Blaine never adapted to the complicated pro offenses. The thing with Mariota is that it will take a long time for him to adjust to the NFL. It will take years. He will have to go to the absolute perfect place. It won’t take Winston as long.
“He’s shown he can play at a high level while under a lot of scrutiny. People don’t get how hard that is once you get in the NFL. I’ve seen guys crumble under the pressure. He won’t be one of those guys.”
I agree wholeheartedly.
• Count Tampa Bay cornerback Alterraun Verner among those who would love to see Jameis Winston drafted by the Bucs. Verner first made that declaration on an NFL Network appearance in March, but he went into greater detail with me last week in an interview for PewterReport.com.
“I haven’t seen him play too much, so I can’t really comment on him as a player,” Verner said. “I saw him play against Clemson as a freshman and last year against Oregon. He’s a good athlete and obviously he won the Heisman, but the thing I like about him is his confidence, his command in the huddle and his presence. That’s easy to see right off the bat. I remember when they played Clemson he was getting the team fired up as a freshman, and that’s not something you expect. That’s what I like about him.”
• Eyebrows were raised this week when Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston revealed that he received a “hook-up” from a Publix employee, who green-lighted Winston taking the crab legs without paying for them. Fearing reprisals from the NCAA, Florida State head coach Jimbo Fisher predictably said this seemed like an “isolated incident.” Fearing reprisals from Publix’s headquarters, the Tallahassee Publix store predictably disputes Winston’s claims.
I know the real story, and so do the Buccaneers and other NFL teams. What you now know is only half the story. But what was revealed by Winston on ESPN when talking to Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh is consistent with what he told the Bucs and other teams. That’s why the Bucs aren’t surprised and it doesn’t change their evaluation of Winston one bit.
So did Winston lie about this incident? No, not really. He left the store without paying for the crab legs, so he did in fact steal the food – whether he got the hook-up or not. And the Publix hook-up really happened. What Winston did at Publix was no different than what Derrick Brooks did by taking free shoes at Foot Locker in Tallahassee back in the 1990s. By the way, Brooks was suspended two games at Florida State – twice as many games as Winston was by the football team.
• After spending years with the New England Patriots organization and being around Tom Brady – one of the all-time greats at the quarterback positions – it’s easy to see why Buccaneers general manager Jason Licht and director of player personnel Jon Robinson want a fiery, vocal leader like the charismatic Brady in Tampa Bay. The quarterback that best fits that description is Florida State’s Jameis Winston. The quarterback that least fits that description is Oregon’s Marcus Mariota.
I’ve been telling you this whole offseason that the Bucs organization puts a good deal of weight into personal interviews with quarterbacks and evaluating the personality and leadership style is part of that evaluation. That’s why Winston is the leader in the clubhouse for Tampa Bay and always has been despite some immaturity issues that the team believes he’ll grow out of.
Winners take chances. Losers wait for chances. After mostly a decade spent as losers, it’s time for the Bucs to be winners again. This franchise’s fortune changes on Thursday, April 30 at about 8:20 p.m. ET.
• And finally, I celebrated my 43rd birthday last night at Grimaldi’s Pizza at Citrus Park mall last night and had a tremendous meal. The coal-fired pizza cooked in a brick oven gives Grimaldi’s Pizza a distinct gourmet flavor. Bucs fans, you know that football and pizza go hand-in-hand, and if you haven’t checked out Grimaldi’s Pizza yet, I encourage you to do so by clicking on their banner ad on PewterReport.com and visiting their website. Grimaldi’s Pizza has three Tampa Bay area locations at Citrus Park, Westshore Plaza and Countryside in Clearwater and it’s worth the trip.
This isn’t delivery pizza, folks. This is restaurant-quality pizza in a nice, authentic, New York-style environment complete with a large beer and wine menu. Click on the Grimaldi’s Pizza banner and give them a try this weekend and let me know what you think.
Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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