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. SMITH IS BUCS’ ASCENDING PASS RUSHER
Sometimes a general manager makes a personnel mistake, but can rectify it with a nice save with another less heralded, but more productive player at the same position.
Such was the case in 2008 when former Tampa Bay G.M. Bruce Allen drafted wide receiver and return specialist Dexter Jackson in the second round. Jackson quickly proved to be a bust, but Allen had signed undrafted free agent Clifton Smith that year and he stepped in and became a Pro Bowl kick and punt returner for the Buccaneers.
One of the few bright spots in Tampa Bay’s dismal season has been the development of defensive end Jacquies Smith, who has been a real free agent find by Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht. While overpaid free agent signee Michael Johnson has been a bust, Smith has stepped in and has produced four sacks in the past four games to rank second on the team.
Smith got his first career start on Sunday against Chicago and responded with two big plays on third down – a pass breakup at the line of scrimmage and a sack, which was his third over the past two games. With nine tackles, four sacks, two batted passes, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery, Smith has been more productive in fewer snaps than Johnson, who has just 18 tackles three sacks and a forced fumble this season, has all season.
With a 4.59 time in the 40-yard dash as an undrafted free agent out of Missouri in 2012, Smith is the fastest edge rusher the Bucs have. And it was that speed that prompted me to call for Johnson to be benched in favor of Smith over a month ago in a SR’s Fab 5 column on Halloween.
The arrow is definitely pointing up for the 6-foot-2, 260-pound Smith, who resembles a more chiseled, sleeker version of another undersized Bucs defensive end, Greg Spires, who played on Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl team in 2002. Consider that Smith had just 9.5 sacks for the Tigers in college, including five during his senior year in 2011, in addition to six forced fumbles a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
“My junior year was probably my best year and I was getting the hang of things,” Smith said. “My senior year got cut short with an injury that I had. I missed three or four games and that hindered me. I tried to play the best I could but I was not 100 percent.”
With four quarterback captures in half his first NFL season, Smith appears to be just scratching the surface of what type of pass rusher he could be for Tampa Bay. Smith studied two of the NFL’s best undersized pass rushers while in college playing for legendary Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski.
“Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis,” Smith said. “Coach Kuligowski put their tape on and told me I can be like those guys. That was the mold he saw that I fit in and I saw it, too. I try to do some of those things that those guys do and emulate them.”
Imagine what Tampa Bay’s struggling pass rush would be like without Smith this year. Smith narrowly missed out on another sack against Cleveland as he came swooping around the edge and forced Brian Hoyer into the waiting arms of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who notched his second sack of the game.
“He listens and he’s not afraid to take coaching,” McCoy said. “He’s not afraid to make a mistake and then own up to that mistake and that’s helping him improve. One thing he can do is he can run. I told him – I said, ‘If you just run, I’ll help you. I’m going to draw a lot of attention for whatever reason that is, but if you just run, I’ll help you. I’ll help you make some plays. I just need you to just do what you do best and that’s get off the block.”
Johnson was supposed to be the defensive end that brings the heat and puts the constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks this year. Instead, it’s been Smith, and it’s proven to be a nice save for Licht, who jumped at the opportunity to sign him once he was released by Buffalo after the preseason.
Smith wanted to develop into being a starter and he’s accomplished that goal. Now it’s on to being the Bucs’ leading sacker this season.
“It would mean a lot,” said Smith, who trails McCoy by 3.5 sacks for the team lead. “I would just hope that more sacks would translate into more wins for the team. Every football player sets goals for what they want to achieve personally – whether it is to become a starter or get 10 sacks. If I was able to catch Gerald that would be big for me.”
Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier isn’t sure where Smith’s ceiling is. Is Smith an ideal starting-caliber defensive end capable of reaching double-digit sacks and playing the run? Or is his a situational pass rusher that will top out around six sacks per season as a wave defender?
“It’s so early in his maturation, but as he continues to develop, you can see he has some of those traits that you look for in guys that can rush the passer: the quick twitch, the ability to bend, turn the corner, and then to finish,” Frazier said. “So you see some things and we just have to continue to watch him perform and see if he continues to grow. But up to this point, he’s making good progress.”
The humble Smith is just thankful to be on the field rushing the quarterback in whatever role he’s called on by Frazier and the Bucs defensive coaching staff. The more Smith plays, the more his confidence grows.
“You ultimately get a lot of confidence,” Smith said. “It’s just not only me having confidence in myself; I want my teammates to have confidence in me and the coaches, they put me out there on the field and just hopefully I’ll go out there and fulfill the role that they’ve given me.
“I want to get better and the fact that I’m still young that helps. The different places I’ve been I feel like I’ve been able to take pieces from everyone that I’ve been around. I’ve soaked it up like a sponge from guys like Cameron Wake and Randy Starks in Miami and Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes in Buffalo. I’ve been waiting for my shot to produce on the field. I know my senior year wasn’t the best with the injury and it hurt my draft stock, but I’ve always believed I can be a double-digit sack guy. My goal this year is still to get to 10. I can still do it if I keep it going.”
Smith has been a great find by Licht and the personnel department this year, and has provided a great spark to Tampa Bay’s defense, which has improved greatly since the bye week.
FAB 2. TAMPA BAY COULD TARGET THE PASS-RUSHING RAY IN FIRST ROUND
I’ve spent a few SR’s Fab 5 columns discussing some of the potential first-round prospects the Buccaneers could target in next year’s draft for all of you draftniks out there that want to watch and study some of the NFL’s future stars when they are in college.
The top pass rusher in the 2015 NFL Draft – if he forgoes his senior season – is Nebraska’s Randy Gregory, a 6-foot-6, 240-pound defensive end that resembles former Dolphins great Jason Taylor. Considering that Bucs general manager Jason Licht is former Nebraska guard, it’s a safe bet that he likes Gregory.
The problem is that the 2-9 Buccaneers are currently picking fourth overall right now behind a pair of 1-10 teams – Jacksonville and Oakland – and the 2-9 New York Jets. If Tampa Bay isn’t fond of either Mariota or Winston – or neither is there when the team is on the clock – the Bucs will have to make a different selection.
Scherff is one of those players that could immediate help Tampa Bay’s woeful offensive line. Another is Missouri pass rusher Shane Ray, a 6-foot-3, 245-pound defensive end, whose game is similar to that of Bucs defensive Jacquise Smith, another Mizzou product.
“Shane has come a long way,” Smith said. “You can tell that he’s always had the energy and passion for the game. I remember when he was a freshman and I was an older guy and he told me how much he wanted to play more. I told him once his time comes to kick the door down. His time has come and he’s really kicked the door down.”
After recording just 4.5 sacks as a sub in 2013 behind defensive ends Kony Ealy, a 2014 first-round pick, and Michael Sam, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Ray has enjoyed a breakout season as a junior, setting the Missouri single-season sack record with 13.5 with possibly three more games to play. After posting 39 tackles, including nine tackles for loss as a sophomore, Ray has produced 56 tackles and 19.5 tackles for loss.
But rushing the passer is what has Ray’s stock soaring into the top 10 in some 2015 mock drafts. Ray has been a model of consistency in that area, notching at least a half sack in all but two games (a loss to Georgia and a win against Vanderbilt), and recording two sacks in five games this season (Toledo, UCF, South Carolina, Florida and Kentucky). He’s also forced two fumbles as he did in 2013 while also recovering a loose ball against Oklahoma State last year in the Cotton Bowl and returning it 73 yards for a game-clinching touchdown.
Nearly the same size as Smith, the difference between Ray and Tampa Bay’s unheralded pass rusher is the production in college and the edge he brings to the gridiron.
“He’s quick off the ball and uses his hands very well,” Smith said. “He has a little mean streak – a little nastiness to him. He’s gotten better every year and he’s blossomed into the player he’s become.”
Ray has a knack for making plays behind the line of scrimmage, and for a team like Tampa Bay that deploys a one-gap penetrating scheme he would be an ideal fit – possibly to replace Michael Johnson, a free agent bust that might get cut in the offseason.
“He is relentless,” Smith said of Ray. “That’s something his D-line coach preaches – to be around the ball and be around the quarterback. That’s something he does very well. He’s probably the same size as me. Shane’s a quick-twitch guy that uses his hands well and he’s not afraid to stick his nose in there and use some power.”
Could Tampa Bay get away with having two undersized defensive ends next year in Smith and Ray – two former Mizzou Tigers? It worked for the Indianapolis Colts for years as Freeney and Mathis combined for an amazing 187 sacks between 2003-12.
FAB 3. LOCKETT WOULD BE A GREAT RETURN SPECIALIST FOR BUCS
Tampa Bay released Marcus Thigpen this week after he muffed punts in each of the last two games. With Bobby Rainey expected to handle punt and kick return duties against Cincinnati, he becomes the Bucs’ fourth return specialist this year.
Rookie Solomon Patton was ineffective for the first month of the season and was replaced by Trindon Holliday, whose oft-injured hamstring flared up. Thigpen replaced Holliday for three games before being replaced, and there is no clear-cut return specialist for the future in Tampa Bay.
Oh how the Bucs goofed in not signing veteran return specialist Devin Hester, who signed with divisional rival Atlanta and set the NFL record for most returns in a career against his former head coach, Lovie Smith, and Tampa Bay in Week 3. Smith could have landed Hester due to the relationship he had with the former Chicago Bears return star, but thought his age (32) and salary demands ($3 million per season) were too high for the Bucs’ liking.
As a result, Tampa Bay will have to go back to the drawing board and address the return specialist role again in 2015.
I’ve touted two wide receivers – USC’s Nelson Agholor and East Carolina’s James Hardy, who has the most career catches in FBS history – that I’ve liked in college football this year. Without sounding like a homer, I’ll bring your attention to another one who plays at my alma mater, Kansas State, who could really help the Buccaneers on special teams.
Wildcats receiver and return specialist Tyler Lockett, is one of the best players in college football and has one of the neatest stories. This season, 5-foot-11, 175-pound senior broke Kansas State’s all-time receiving yardage record – set by his father, Kevin. The elder Lockett, who played at K-State in the 1990s when I was there, caught 217 passes for 3,032 and 26 touchdowns.
Tyler Lockett has 3,269 yards on 213 catches and needs just five more catches to break his dad’s career mark. That will likely happen on Senior Day in Manhattan, Kan. this Saturday when the Wildcats play in-state rival Kansas. Lockett also needs three more touchdowns over the next three games, including the bowl game, to break his father’s record for receiving touchdowns, too.
If the name Lockett sounds familiar, it’s because Tyler’s uncle and Kevin’s brother, Aaron, was a seventh-round pick by Tampa Bay in 2002, but didn’t make the 53-man roster. Aaron “The Rocket” Lockett was a fast, undersized receiver and return specialist who proved to be too small for the NFL at 5-foot-7, 165 pounds.
Tyler Lockett battled through an early season hamstring injury to catch 70 passes for 1,074 yards and six scores this year. With three games left Lockett will have a chance to surpass last year’s stats where he caught 81 passes for 1,262 yards and 11 touchdowns.
He’s coming off back-to-back games in which he’s produced 196 yards while catching 11 passes and a touchdown against TCU and 10 passes against West Virginia. Lockett reminds me more of Pittsburgh’s Antonio Brown in that he has blazing speed, excellent acceleration and very good hands.
He had a coming out party against West Virginia as a sophomore in 2012, catching nine passes for 194 yards and two touchdowns. As a junior, Lockett lit up TCU and its top cornerback Jason Verrett, who was a first-round pick last year, for eight catches for 123 yards, including a 74-yard touchdown.
Lockett also had 13 catches for 237 yards and two touchdowns against Texas last year and owned Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin while catching 12 passes for a career-high 278 yards and three touchdowns, including a 90-yarder. He capped off the 2013 season with 10 catches for 116 yards and three touchdowns against Michigan in K-State’s 31-16 win in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl.
The Tulsa, Okla. native could help the Bucs as a slot receiver, but make more of an impact on special teams. Lockett has four kickoff returns for a touchdown, including a pair of 100-yarders in his prestigious career, while averaging 29.5 yards per return.
In his first season as the Wildcats’ primary punt returner, Lockett has returned 16 punts for 328 yards and two touchdowns, including one last week against West Virginia. He’s also had a punt return touchdown called back earlier this year. Lockett’s 20.5-yard punt return average currently leads the FBS.
Lockett is currently rated as a third-round prospect by NFLDraftScout.com, and would be a solid selection by Tampa Bay next May.
FAB 4. FRAZIER SEES QUANTIFIABLE DEFENSIVE IMPROVEMENT
Buccaneers defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier spent his press conference on Wednesday discussing how the defense has improved over the past five games since the bye week.
“We’re definitely playing better,” Frazier said. “One of our statisticians gave me some numbers over the last five weeks coming out of the bye [week] on where we are and how much improvement we’ve made and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s pretty good.’ Part of it is guys having a better understanding for sure, we’ve been together longer now, they’ve heard these terms a lot more often at practice and they’re practicing their techniques a lot more at this point in the season, but I think also some of the changes.
“I think Jacquies Smith is giving us something at the left end position, he’s helped us with his pass rush ability and his ability to win one-on-ones. Gerald [McCoy] is Gerald, he’s always a big-play guy. Also seeing our secondary improve; I think Major Wright is definitely giving us a shot in the arm and we’re playing better on the backend. It hurt not having Lavonte [David], but Mason [Foster] has stepped up and he’s gotten better form early in the season and that’s made us better. I think Michael is getting a little bit healthier and his play has picked up some and it will continue trending forward. We’re a little bit healthier and I think we’ve been together a little bit longer and guys have a better feel of what we’re asking them to do and it’s showing on the field.”
In the first six games of the 2014 season, Tampa Bay’s defense surrendered 2,537 yards, a woeful average of 422.8 yards per game. The fewest yardage total the Bucs defense surrendered was 334 yards on opening day to Carolina in a 20-14 loss. Tampa Bay gave up at least 475 yards of total offense in three games (488 to Atlanta, 511 to New Orleans and 475 to Baltimore).
Since the bye week, the Bucs have allowed just 1,510 yards in five games with the most coming against Minnesota (332). Since that game in Week 7, the defense has shown improvement in giving up 330 yards to Cleveland and 322 yards to both Atlanta and Washington. The real improvement came in last week’s 21-13 loss at Chicago in which the defense allowed just 204 yards.
Over the past five weeks the Bucs defense has been among the top 5 in the NFL in total yardage allowed – 302 yards per game. A more important statistic – points allowed – has also seen tremendous improvement.
The Bucs defense gave up 190 points in the first six games of the year, an embarrassing average of 31.7 points per game – including three contests in which the defense gave up at least 37 points (37 to New Orleans, 42 to Atlanta and 48 to Baltimore). Since the bye week, Tampa Bay’s defense has only given up 90 points in five games, an average of 18 points per game.
The combined record of the teams that the Bucs faced in the first six games of the 2014 campaign was 29-36-1. The combined record of Tampa Bay’s five most recent foes is just 23-32, so it wasn’t like the opponents the Bucs faced prior to the bye week were much better teams. The two toughest teams were Pittsburgh and Baltimore, both of whom have 7-4 records.
Tampa Bay faced 7-4 Cleveland a month ago and faces a fourth team with a winning record on Sunday when 7-3-1 Cincinnati visits Raymond James Stadium. The Bengals come to Tampa averaging 348.6 yards and 21.8 points per game, and the Bucs defense will face its stiffest challenge in weeks. On Sunday we’ll find out just how much Tampa Bay’s defense has improved.
FAB 5. SR’s BUC SHOTS
• Bucs defensive end Jacquies Smith is just one of a long line of Missouri defensive linemen to make it into the NFL. After seeing last year’s Tigers defensive ends, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam enter the NFL as first- and seventh-round picks, Missouri could put two more defensive ends in the league with Shane Ray and Markus Goldon. Ray is projected to be a first-rounder, while Goldon will likely be a mid-rounder.
“It started with Justin Smith and Aldon Smith at Missouri,” Smith said. “C.J. Mosley is still in the league. Then you got me, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, and younger guys like Shane Ray and Markus Goldson – you really have to tip your hat to Craig Kuligowski, who was our defensive line coach. He’s been able to find guys he likes and he teaches and molds them into pass rushers and gets them to the next level. We’ve been fortunate enough to get them in.”
• The Bucs’ fourth quarter defense has gotten better over the past two weeks. After allowing points – a total of 33 – in five straight fourth quarters from the Baltimore game to the Atlanta game three weeks ago, Tampa Bay has shut out the last two opponents in the fourth quarter, while scoring a total of 10 points (seven against Washington and three versus Chicago).
The Bucs have outscored opponents 85-50 points in the fourth quarter, which is the only quarter Tampa Bay has a scoring advantage. Unfortunately, that’s because the Bucs are usually trailing their opponents. Tampa Bay has been outscored 82-30 in the first quarter this year, 73-40 in the second quarter and 83-52 in the third quarter.
• The Bucs have 43 catches of 20 yards or more this season, and rookie Mike Evans has played a huge role in contributing to that with a team-high 18. Of Tampa Bay’s nine receptions of 40 yards or longer, Evans leads the way with four of those catches, followed by Louis Murphy, who has two catches of 40 yards or more.
In fact, Murphy, who doesn’t get near the amount of playing time as Vincent Jackson does, has six catches of 20 yards or more, while Jackson has nine. Because the Bucs haven’t been getting much production from tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who has three catches for 23 yards in the past two games, play-caller Marcus Arroyo would be wise to use more three wide receiver sets against Cincinnati, especially with Murphy coming off a six-catch, 113-yard effort at Chicago. Murphy has more big-play potential than the rookie tight end does.
• There are already several interesting commitments for the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl that should interest the Buccaneers. At the East-West Shrine Game, players like Memphis cornerback Bobby McCain, Norfolk State defensive end-linebacker Lynden Trail, Louisville guard John Miller, Louisville tackle Jamon Brown and South Alabama tight end Wes Saxton. You can see the entire list by clicking here.
The Senior Bowl features a lot of intriguing players that could help Tampa Bay, including East Carolina wide receiver Justin Hardy, Pittsburgh right tackle T.J. Clemmings, Michigan State safety Kurtis Drummond, Ole Miss cornerback Senquez Golson, Louisville defensive end-linebacker Lorenzo Mauldin, Stanford wide receiver Ty Montgomery, Ole Miss safety Cody Prewitt, Utah defensive end Nate Orchard and Mississippi State defensive end Preston Smith. Here is a full list of Senior Bowl invites. More 2015 NFL Draft prospects for the Senior Bowl and East-West Shrine Game will accept invites in the month of December.
• Why is running back Doug Martin still starting despite not rushing for 200 yards in six starts? The oft-injured Martin is averaging a disappointing 2.8 yards per carry and has not rushed for more than 47 yards in any game this season. So why did he get the start over rookie Charles Sims and Bobby Rainey, the team’s leading rusher with nearly 400 yards and a 4.3-yard average?
There is a division of opinion on Martin at One Buc Place with some within the organization ready to turn the page on the former Pro Bowler, who believe he was a one-year wonder in 2012 when he rushed for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns. Others, led by head coach Lovie Smith, blame Martin’s rushing woes on poor run blocking by the offensive line. The fact that Martin is still starting is Smith’s call because it’s his football team and he gets to decide who the starters are.
Considering the fact that ProFootballFocus.com listed Rainey in the top 10 backs that have caused missed tackles this season, and the fact that Martin has rushed for just 27 yards in each of his last two games, averaging 2.7 yards against Minnesota and 2.5 yards against Chicago, Smith stubbornness is hurting the team. PewterReport.com has been beating the drum all season regarding Martin’s decline, which is apparent for most to see. How many more starts will it take to convince Smith that carries are better spent in the hands of Sims, who appears to be the future at the position, or Rainey, who has twice as many rushing yards as Martin does with only 24 more carries?
• Tampa Bay’s defense has seen a rash of injuries this year with every single full-time starter except for defensive tackle Clinton McDonald missing at least one game. Think about that for a second. I was chatting with some media colleagues about that earlier this week. When was the last time that many Bucs starters missed at least one game due to injury in a season? We couldn’t think of one where every regular starter on defense – except for one player – missed at least one game due to injury. The lack of continuity from a personnel standpoint has to be a factor when considering how slowly the team has digested the Tampa 2 scheme.
• PewterReport.com has a new contributing columnist on game days, and it is the award-winning Gary Shelton, formerly of the Tampa Bay Times. A long-time friend of PewterReport.com, I’ve enjoyed Shelton’s commentary on the Buccaneers and the world of sports during my 20 years in Tampa covering the team. Be sure to check out Shelton’s latest column on PewterReport.com following the Bucs-Bears game right here. Look for Shelton’s post-game column on PewterReport.com following the Bucs-Bengals game on Sunday. I also encourage you to visit Shelton’s new website, GarySheltonSports.com and to follow him on Twitter at @Gary_Shelton.
• If you haven’t had the chance to check out my weekly State of the Buccaneers column on PewterReport.com I encourage you to do so. Each week I take a fair and balanced approach of covering the Bucs by listing four things that are currently going right in Tampa Bay and four things that are going wrong with the pewter-clad pirates. If you like my SR’s Fab 5 column, then I know you’ll enjoy The State of the Buccaneers column, which is published each Tuesday. Here’s a link to this week’s column. And don’t miss my SR’s Pick 6 column on the Bucs-Bengals game tomorrow on PewterReport.com.
• There will be no Pewter Report Chat today on PewterReport.com due to the Thanksgiving holiday and Black Friday shopping. The weekly PR Chats will resume next Friday, December 5, on PewterReport.com with yours truly hosting.
• And finally, I hope you had a very Happy Thanksgiving with your families. My family enjoyed a delicious smoked turkey and ham dinner from Holy Hog BBQ for Thanksgiving. I wanted to take this time to thank you, the die-hard Bucs fans that visit PewterReport.com, for your patronage. This site, and the livelihoods of the PewterReport.com employees rely on your daily visits to our website for Buccaneers news. On behalf of everyone at PewterReport.com, we are honored and thankful to you, and hope you all enjoy the holiday season.
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: email@example.com