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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. It may be time for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to move on without left tackle Derrick Deese. Deese has been plagued throughout training camp with a foot sprain similar to the injury that hampered his preseason a year ago. Unless he gets some real answers from his specialist out in California and makes a miraculous recovery, Deese won’t be ready to go at the start of the Buccaneers’ 2005 season.
If that’s the case, Deese will be strictly an injured backup – provided he makes the active roster. I don’t think the Bucs should hold a roster spot for him. Based on what I’ve seen over the last two weeks from Todd Steussie, he looks like a much more viable option for the backup position behind Anthony Davis. Although he has been ruthlessly demonized in the local media, especially by a know-nothing columnist, Steussie looks more comfortable this year at left tackle than he did last year at right tackle, plus he’s healthy. Why not keep him and cut Deese?
According to Bucs head coach Jon Gruden and offensive line coach Bill Muir, Steussie is playing like he has something to prove. Given how much he made last year and how bad he flopped at right tackle, that doesn’t seem farfetched. From what I’ve seen at training camp, Steussie is playing with a chip on his shoulder.
At this stage of his career, the 35-year old Deese can only play left tackle. Much like Roman Oben was before him, Deese is a finesse player who isn’t big enough to play right tackle, and isn’t strong enough to play guard anymore. Although the 34-year old Steussie does not necessarily have an age advantage over Deese, he does benefit the Bucs by being significantly cheaper.
Deese is slated to make $1,725,000 and have a salary cap value of $2,137,500 in 2005, while Steussie signed a one-year deal for the league minimum ($765,000) and was not given a signing bonus in his second tour of duty in Tampa Bay. If the Bucs cut Deese prior to the start of the regular season, the team will have a cap hit of $412,500 this year, but will wind up creating $1,725,000 worth of salary cap room in 2005 in the process. However, cutting Deese in September will result in $1,650,000 worth of dead cap space in 2006.
FAB 2. Saturday’s preseason home opener is going to be critical for several young Buccaneers who are currently living life on the roster bubble. As it stands right now, I have the feeling that eight of the team’s 12 draft picks will make the 53-man active roster.
Those players are running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams (first round), linebacker Barrett Ruud (second round), tight end Alex Smith (third round), offensive tackle Chris Colmer (third round), guard Dan Buenning (fourth round), safety Donte Nicholson (fifth round), defensive tackle Anthony Bryant (sixth round) and wide receiver Paris Warren (seventh round). Of course, their performances in the next two preseason games can change my mind – and ultimately the Bucs brass’ minds.
I’m not going to go through all the list of the undrafted free agents and first- and second-year players who are also fighting for a roster spot, so the prominent bubble players in my mind are the draft picks – wide receivers Larry Brackins (sixth round) and J.R. Russell (seventh round), fullback Rick Razzano (seventh round) and safety Hamza Abdullah (seventh round).
With Tampa Bay putting so much of an emphasis on its running game and featuring Earnest Graham, Derek Watson and Ian Smart at Tennessee, one would think head coach Jon Gruden would likely switch up the game plan and showcase the Bucs’ young wide receiving corps, which includes Warren, Russell, Brackins and others such as Kevin Youngblood, DeAndrew Rubin and Derrick Lewis among others, against Jacksonville. But given all of the injuries along Tampa Bay’s offensive line, don’t be surprised if the strategy of the Bucs offense resembles last week instead.
The reason? Gruden probably doesn’t want to get his quarterbacks killed in the preseason by dropping back to throw 40 times against a very stout, talented and aggressive Jaguars defense. That will put a lot of pressure on the young receivers to catch every pass thrown their way because they may only get one or two opportunities to show off their hands and playmaking potential on Saturday.
The player I am most anxious to see play on Saturday night is Razzano – not Williams. Having watched a ton of Auburn games over the past four years, I know what Cadillac can do. I want to see Razzano block and blow linebackers up. I also want to see if he can stay healthy and how good his receiving skills are.
Because I know I’m going to be asked “Why do you think the Bucs will keep Warren over Russell at wide receiver?”, I’ll go ahead and answer that question. At this stage of the preseason, I think the Bucs like Warren better than Russell for number of reasons.
Warren was drafted higher than Russell in the seventh round to begin with, so he started out with a better grade in the minds of the coaches and scouts than Russell did coming into the NFL. From the rookie mini-camp, Warren stood out for his polished route-running ability while Russell didn’t stand out much at all. I’ve heard head coach Jon Gruden mention Warren’s name too many times in casual conversation.
For example, when Jim Flynn and I were interviewing Gruden for the “Teamwork” article this summer, Gruden said that when he and Bruce Allen and their families go out to dinner, they still talk about – and I’m paraphrasing here – football and guys like Paris Warren. I can’t remember the exact quote, but I know he said Paris Warren. As a journalist, you learn to take mental notes about the little details like that. It was obvious that Warren was front and center on his mind at the time, and I’m guessing it was positive in nature.
Warren also drew some public praise (and got some helmet stickers) from Gruden for his run blocking and physical play at Tennessee. Gruden did not mention Russell’s name in his comments following the game.
Gruden likes physical receivers and would probably rather have a tough receiver than a fast receiver. I think Russell can be physical when he wants to be, but I was not impressed with Russell’s play on special teams where a player must be tough. There was one punt coverage opportunity where Russell had the chance to make the tackle and actually pulled up and let someone else make the stop.
Of course, Russell, like Razzano and others, gets at least two more chances to impress the coaches and make this team, but they better hurry before the bubble bursts.
FAB 3. Tampa Bay linebacker Josh Buhl didn’t play a down against the Tennessee Titans. When a healthy player, whose roster spot is far from secure, doesn’t play in the first preseason game, that’s usually a sure-fire sign that he will be among the first players to be cut when the turk comes calling on August 30 when the roster must be trimmed down to 65 players.
Yet Buhl will likely survive the Bucs’ first round of roster cuts. Why? Because he played in NFL Europe this past summer and Tampa Bay has a roster exemption because of it. In fact, other NFL Europe players such as defensive tackle Bryan Save, cornerback Blue Adams, defensive end Delbert Cowsette and wide receivers Derrick McCoy and Terrance Metcalf all played in NFL Europe this summer, and have roster exemptions that allows them to not count against the Bucs’ 65-man roster.
The NFL Europe roster exemption does not last past the final roster cutdown to 53 players on September 4, and a Bucs official tells Pewter Report that players like Buhl and the other NFL Europe players will likely see significant playing time in the fourth preseason game and “need to play their butts off.”
The problem with the NFL Europe players not being featured so prominently in the preseason opener is that they might be behind other players in the minds of coaches and will really have the pressure on them in that final preseason game. It’s essentially a “do or die” situation where the NFL Europe players must make a real statement against Houston to be kept on the final roster.
For example, it is Pewter Report’s opinion that reserve strongside linebacker Bam Hardmon had a particularly good outing at Tennessee. Because Hardmon played and Buhl didn’t in the first preseason game, it is only natural that Hardmon may be further ahead than Buhl in the evaluation process. Buhl had better be ready to play light’s out football in an extended look against Houston or face the turk.
The one NFL Europe player who I feel currently stands a great chance to make the team is Adams. If you’ve read Pewter Report’s training camp Pewter Insider stories you know that Adams has made a big impression in training camp and fared well last week against the Titans.
FAB 4. With assorted injuries hitting Tampa Bay’s offensive tackle position hard in training camp, there is one prominent lineman left in free agency who could help. But is Ross Verba really an option for the Buccaneers?
Verba, a left tackle who has played eight seasons in the NFL (the last four in Cleveland after a four-year stint in Green Bay), wanted so badly to be a free agent this summer that he repaid a $425,000 roster bonus that was given to him in March to ensure his release. Verba had threatened to hold out to get a new contract, but when the Browns refused to negotiate, they abided by his wishes and released him after signing left tackle L.J. Shelton.
Asking for his release so that he could become a free agent has seriously backfired on Verba, who wants an outlandish amount of money in the form of a signing bonus for a player who will be 32 years old on Halloween. He has since parted ways with his agent, Tom Condon, who probably suggested that Verba not request to be cut, for not getting him another big payday in free agency this summer.
“That’s a real dangerous game, giving that kind of guaranteed money to someone his age,” said a Bucs official, who requested anonymity. “His contract demands were ri-dic-ulous. He’s looking for $10 million in guaranteed money.”
The Bucs like Verba and still feel like he can play, but certainly don’t want to pay him that amount of money. If Verba was smart, he would accept a one-year deal for about $1 million and play lights out in 2005 to prove he’s worth a bigger contract next spring in free agency when a lot more teams have a lot more money. August is the wrong time to be allegedly asking any team for $10 million.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• The Bucs have not been pleased with the consistency of their young group of wide receivers. Dropped passes were a common occurrence during training camp, and despite the vacancy for at least two more receivers on the Bucs’ 53-man depth chart behind Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard, the team has not seen a young receiver rise to the occasion and claim a roster spot yet. The early word is that few of the young receivers are making an impact on special teams, which will likely be a critical component in the evaluation process of the team’s reserve pass catchers. If a young receiver or two does not emerge over the next two preseason games, don’t be surprised if Tampa Bay signs former Bucs receiver Frank Murphy to a one-year deal. While Murphy’s receiving skills aren’t much better than the young receivers the Bucs have in training camp, he is a dynamite special teams player, who can return kicks and cover punts and kicks. With the Bucs needing players to step up and replace departed special teams aces such as John Howell, Corey Ivy, Dwight Smith and Keith Burns among others, Murphy, who has already been in contact with the team, might be able to help.
• It will be interesting to track the Buccaneers’ tendencies in their running game this preseason. Most NFL teams are “right-handed,” which means they generally run to the right. Right tackles in pro football are typically bigger and more physical in the running game than left tackles are. Therefore, teams usually run to the right side of the line rather than the left. In Tampa Bay’s first preseason game, it ran the ball 14 times to the left (generally behind left tackle Anthony Davis and left guard Sean Mahan), 14 times between the tackles in the middle of the line, and six times to the right. These statistics do not include the two quarterback scrambles and the quarterback kneeldown at the end of the first half. The Bucs haven’t been able to run to the left too often in Jon Gruden’s tenure because left tackles Roman Oben and Derrick Deese excelled in pass protection rather than run blocking. If Davis wins the starting left tackle position, as expected, the Bucs will likely become a much more balanced team running the ball, and distribute the carries more evenly to the left, right and middle. This can greatly reduce the predictability of the Bucs offense and further confuse defenses.
• The early buzz on the Buccaneers’ player radio shows on WDAE 620 AM and US Country 103.5 FM is that while the Mike Alstott, Ronde Barber and Michael Clayton shows are all slated to return this year, the Booger McFarland show was cancelled by the Buccaneers. As we reported last year, the Bucs’ brass was not too keen on McFarland continuing his radio show while spending half the season on injured reserve. And as I wrote in my Buccaneer Blitz column in the July issue of Pewter Report, there was a growing perception at One Buccaneer Place that McFarland was becoming too attached to his radio gig and his frequent appearances Fox’s “Best Damn Sports Show. Period.” The fact that the Bucs disapproved of continuing Booger’s radio show and canceling it suggests the insight I offered was indeed correct. Ultimately, McFarland is in a contract year and needs a big, productive season in 2005 to remain a Buccaneer. With the unfortunate passing of his mother, Nancey, this week, McFarland doesn’t need any more distractions that a weekly radio show can become. McFarland needs to focus on football and the Bucs should be applauded for canceling his weekly radio appearances on the flagship station.
• One last item for you. With last week’s preseason game at Tennessee going into overtime, I would like to state for the record that kissing your sister is okay in August. In other words, I think it’s appropriate for the NFL to have ties in the preseason instead of football games that approach four hours in length with the overtime period … especially that late at night. There is no reason why preseason games should end past 11:30 p.m. ET. It makes for a very long night for the traveling team, the fans and not to mention the writers who have to stay up into the wee hours of the morning to write about it.
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