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Here are five things that caught my interest this week (coming back from vacation):
FAB 1. When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers decided to offer third-year linebacker Ryan Nece a five-year contract extension instead of the typical one-year tender for restricted free agents, it signaled that the team had confidence in the former undrafted free agent out of UCLA and wanted him in their long-term plans. Although Nece has started just 10 games at the strongside linebacker position (Sam) in his Buccaneer career, and has moved to the weakside linebacker spot (Will) to back up Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks, Tampa Bay feels that he has the chance to be an impact special teams player and a future starter at either the Will or Sam position.
Departures in free agency have robbed Tampa Bay of former draft picks Al Singleton and Nate Webster, and the Bucs’ brass wanted to make sure that there is life at the linebacking corps beyond Brooks, Shelton Quarles and Jeff Gooch – all of whom are in their 30s. Thanks to locking up Nece and the drafting of Marquise Cooper last year and Barrett Ruud this past April, Tampa Bay has three, promising linebackers waiting in the wings.
But while Nece waits for his opportunity behind Brooks, Buccaneers special teams coach Rich Bisaccia is counting on him to step up and take a leadership role on the squads he calls “We-fense,” especially with the loss of last year’s top three leading special teams tacklers – linebacker Keith Burns (23), safety John Howell (19) and cornerback Corey Ivy (17). Nece was fourth on the team in 2004 with 16 special teams stops.
“I think one of the things that Bisaccia kind of said was to be more vocal on the field and take on more of a leadership role,” Nece said. “That’s something that I have felt more and more comfortable with. After you play for three years, people respect you more. That’s only natural. My next thing is to step up on special teams because you can make a huge impact by making plays out there, too. I’ve made my mark and earned my spot on the team by playing special teams. When you lose those guys and you are still playing here, it’s natural that you have to pick up your play and pick up the slack. When I was a rookie, there were guys here who had made their mark on special teams and had to step up to the plate, be aggressive and make plays.
“If you look at the history of our linebacking corps, you’ve got guys like Al Singleton and Jeff Gooch and Shelton Quarles who have earned their keep even when they were starters. I’m the next in line.”
With so many new, young players who need to get acclimated to the way the Bucs approach special teams, Bisaccia wants Nece to step up and lead on the field, in the meetings and in the locker room.
“We’re looking for Ryan to take on a greater role for us, but a lot of people don’t know this but Shelton Quarles is in every meeting special teams-wise, and he’s played on a lot of special teams,” Bisaccia said. “Ronde Barber plays for us on teams. I can say something to Jeff or Ryan or Ronde and have those guys handle something in the locker room and visit with those other guys. They can explain some of the tricks of the trade when they are actually in the heat of the battle with their hands on those guys. Those guys understand our system and our philosophy on We-fense.”
Because he started 10 games at Sam linebacker in 2003 before Ian Gold’s arrival last year, some in the local media have inaccurately tossed his name into the mix for the starting strongside position this year. Gooch has been named the early starter while Cooper, a second-year pro, hopes a great preseason will give him enough of an edge to start instead, while Nece switched positions last year and is firmly entrenched as Brooks’ backup on the weakside.
“I was excited about the Sam position and I obviously got to start there for a while and enjoyed that spot,” Nece said. “I feel comfortable with that position, but the Will position in this defense is a playmaker position. You have a guy like Derrick Brooks there who is a Hall of Famer – one of the best ever. To be able to slide behind him and play behind him – I’m learning a lot. It’s amazing watching Brooks and his ability to read what’s going on before the ball is snapped. That’s his edge. To be able to learn those things and to be able to talk to him about what he’s looking at is making me a better player.
“If the coaches have the confidence in me to be behind him, then that’s a lot of confidence. Unfortunately, that doesn’t allow me to get on the field playing behind him, but I’m content because I know if something goes wrong they have the confidence in me to put me in.”
That confidence was evident due to Nece’s five-year, $4.8-million deal, which he was quick to sign in February.
“It was huge,” Nece said of his long-term contract, which included a $300,000 signing bonus. “It was something I contemplated and sat down with my agent and talked to my parents about – whether or not I wanted to do a long-term deal. For the team to present that, it showed that they had confidence in me on special teams, as a leader, as somebody who is a part of this team and a positive image for this team in the community – all of those things. It’s exciting. For that I’m very thankful, and I’m very blessed to have this opportunity.
“Now I have to go out and earn my money, but I still don’t feel comfortable here. Even though I signed a five-year deal, I’m still looking over my shoulder. That’s what keeps my edge and what pushes me. Playing behind Brooks, my goal is to play at his level. My goal and my desire is to start at that position. That’s what is pushing me as well as me looking over my shoulder.”
Simply put, the 6-foot-3, 224-pound Nece is not as talented as Brooks is. In fact, few are. Brooks is a former first-round draft pick, an eight-time Pro Bowler and the 2002 NFL Defensive MVP. But the one trait that Brooks and Nece share is their ability to diagnose plays quickly with their intellect and their instincts. That has helped Nece amass 72 tackles, two interceptions and three passes broken up on defense since entering the league in 2002.
“Sometimes it’s not always your ability or how fast you are or how much you can lift, but it’s something that goes on in between your ears,” Nece said. “I look at Brooks. He’s not the fastest linebacker – although he will tell you that he is. But what makes him the fastest guy on the field is his ability to process information so quickly. I think I have the ability to read things instinctively. That’s what gives me my edge. As long as I continue to learn this defense and take the thinking out of it and allow the instincts to take over then I know that’s where I am at my best.”
Barring injury, it will likely be another year or two before Nece really has a chance to see the field on defense. But this year, he plans on becoming a special teams ace and a leader on “We-fense” while he bides his time as Brooks’ replacement.
“I don’t look at (myself) as the heir apparent (to Derrick Brooks),” Nece said. “Right now, I’m behind Derrick. If something goes wrong, I’m right there and they have confidence in me. To sign me to a long-term deal shows that they feel like I can be around here for a long time. Whether that’s at the Sam position or the Will position, I’m confident at both of those spots – and on special teams.”
FAB 2. The Buccaneers have established a great track record for scooping up undrafted free agent linebackers who have turned into productive contributors for Tampa Bay’s defense and special teams over the years. From Jeff Gooch to Shelton Quarles to Ryan Nece, the Bucs have done a good job finding players who slipped through the NFL Draft, yet happen to be a great fit for their defense.
While it appears the team’s six linebacker roster spots are set heading into training camp – with starters Gooch, Quarles, and Derrick Brooks, and reserves Nece, Marquis Cooper and Barrett Ruud – there is one new linebacker who caught the eye of the Bucs’ brass this offseason and could make the 53-man roster or the practice squad. While several newcomers are big names who came from big-name universities, such as Matt Grootegoed (USC), Josh Buhl (Kansas State) and Bam Hardmon (Florida), it is Jermaine Taylor from little old Bridgewater College, an NCAA Division III school in Bridgewater, Virginia, who is receiving some rave reviews at One Buccaneer Place.
Taylor was a four-year starter at Bridgewater and helped the Eagles compile a 45-6 record during his college career. He was an American Football Coaches Association All-American selection during his junior and senior campaigns, and also won Old Dominion Athletic Conference Player of the Year honors during those two seasons, too.
Taylor was a tackling machine from his middle linebacker spot for the Eagles, amassing a staggering 447 tackles. To put that number in perspective, fellow Buccaneers middle ‘backer Barrett Ruud was Nebraska’s all-time leading tackler with 432 stops. Taylor racked up 148 tackles his senior season, along with 20 tackles for loss, five sacks, four forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and one interception.
Taylor, who wears number 59, wasn’t drafted due to his small school background and his size, but wound up in Green Bay last year and lasted until the final roster cut in September. While he is generously listed at 6-foot, 220 pounds on the team’s official website, the fiery Taylor is actually closer to 5-foot-10, 215 pounds.
“After my senior year I was picked up by Green Bay, but a lot of people said that Tampa would be a perfect fit because of the size issue,” Taylor said. “It’s just been a blessing that I was picked up by Tampa Bay after Green Bay released me. I feel welcome here.”
While he is small in stature, Taylor could be the fastest of the Bucs’ speedy linebackers, and he packs a real punch when he tackles, similar to the hitting style of former Tampa Bay linebacker Ian Gold.
“I have to use what I have to my advantage,” Taylor said. “I try not to mess with the offensive linemen as much as possible. I try not to get too involved with them because once they get their hands on me the odds are that they will probably win. So I try to use my speed ¬- and I do have some strength, which I’ll use if I have to. I run under 4.6 (in the 40-yard dash). Actually, I run about 4.5, but it depends on who I’m chasing. I’ve been told that I’m pretty fast sideline-to-sideline, too.”
Taylor was a standout performer on the Eagles’ track team in college, winning conference championships in the 100-meter dash in his last three years at Bridgewater. But his legs aren’t the only fast traits about Taylor. His mind races too fast at times, which causes him to overrun plays and stray from his assignments. While the well-spoken Taylor is very bright, his emotions on the gridiron sometimes get the best of him, causing him to make mistakes.
“Sometimes I get a little one-track-minded and go for the ball when I see it,” Taylor said. “That’s getting me in trouble a little bit right now. I’m so focused on that, and I’m not really focused on the offense and the checks I need to make. It’s a habit I need to get out of. I’ve got to know when to turn (my emotions) down a notch.
“I’m still raw in some ways. I went to a Division III school where our defense wasn’t as complicated as it is here. My weakness is that I think too much and I try to overanalyze too much. I try to react when I play defense, and sometimes you have to read before you can react. That’s a weak point for me right now that’s holding me back. Once I overcome that I think things will go pretty smoothly.”
Spending last summer in the Packers’ training camp allowed Taylor to get adjusted to the speed and demands of life in the NFL, and he feels much more prepared to make a pro roster with his second go-around with an NFL team.
“It felt like a huge step coming out of Bridgewater College versus people who had gone to a Division I college,” Taylor said. “It was a shock at first, but then you deal with it and realize that they are just like you. You are in the same place in the same position, but the only difference is that you went to different schools. Now you are in the same position with the same opportunity wearing the same helmet and shoulder pads.”
Aside from Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, Taylor has been getting plenty of schooling this offseason from several of Tampa Bay’s veteran linebackers.
“All the vets – Shelton Quarles and Derrick Brooks – have made me feel real welcome,” Taylor said. “If you have any questions, you just ask them – especially to Shelton. During 7-on-7, he’s out there critiquing me and Barrett Ruud. It’s nice to have a veteran out there telling you what you are doing right and wrong.”
Taylor has no illusions that he is fighting an uphill battle to make the Bucs’ roster, and that he’ll likely have to win a spot on the squad with stellar special teams play, especially with Tampa Bay selecting Ruud in the second round of this year’s draft.
“I don’t want to say that I am putting special teams ahead of defense, but I pretty much have to if I want to make this team that’s where I have to make it,” Taylor said. “I knew that with Barrett Ruud coming in, I understood that situation. I’m focusing a lot on special teams right now and I’m putting my best foot forward on special teams drills and in meetings. It’s just as important – if not more important.”
Barry can’t wait to see this “sleeper” linebacker candidate in full pads this August. Neither can Taylor.
“I’m looking forward to training camp and putting the pads on. That’s the real thing. That’s when the hitting takes place, and I like to hit.”
FAB 3. One of the reasons why Tampa Bay spent a sixth-round draft choice on Alabama defensive tackle Anthony Bryant was to add size to the middle of its defense. The Bucs have long been the haven of shorter, undersized defensive linemen, but with offensive lines getting bigger and more athletic through the years, the Pewter Pirates had to change with the times and match size with size. Too often over the past two seasons the Bucs have been blown off the ball in the running game up the middle, especially in short-yardage situations on third down. It was time for the Bucs to find a situational player who had more size and enough quickness to be a run-plugger. Tampa Bay thinks it has that player in Bryant.
“You have to be able to move,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. “We didn’t want to be able to sacrifice very much mobility. We do need to get size and mobility together. Those are the guys who are tremendous, particularly at the nose tackle position. Teams that try to get into a two-back, two-tight end muscle personnel group, you’d like to be able to have enough versatility in your lineup to maybe make a substitution and counter that by bringing in some more size. We tried to bring in a guy last year [in Darrell Russell] and it didn’t work out. With (Anthony) McFarland and (Ellis) Wyms’ injuries last year, by God, we’re going to get a little more size and depth in here and we made every effort to do that.
“We had a guy in Darby who played pretty well against the run and was disruptive. But we also had DeVone Claybrooks here our first year [in 2002] who gave us some key snaps. In our rotation, we’re going to have seven men active for each game. We would like for one of those guys to be an Elephant-type guy who can play left end, right end and even the under tackle position. You’d also like to have a guy with the size to play nose and the versatility to be a backup under tackle. I think Anthony Bryant can do that, and I think Chris Hovan can do that. Hopefully, Lynn McGruder and Damien Gregory, if he ever gets healthy, they can do that, too.”
At 6-foot-3, 336 pounds, Bryant is the biggest defensive lineman on the Bucs roster. He showed flashes of quickness, agility and the ability to penetrate to go along with that size at the Senior Bowl where he played for the Tampa Bay-coached South squad. But Bryant was known for taking plays off for the Crimson Tide and wound up losing his starting job his senior season, which caused his stock to drop to the sixth round of the 2005 NFL Draft.
There were fears that Bryant would be this year’s version of Dewayne White, who struggled mightily with his conditioning as a rookie in 2003, but Bryant appears to be working out awfully hard and doesn’t think that stamina will be a problem in training camp.
“It’s good and it’s getting better,” said Bryant about his conditioning. “I’m going to go back home and lose about 10-15 pounds. I’m going to work out twice a day when I go back home to Alabama to try to get used to this heat. My ideal playing weight is 335. When you play the one technique you’ve got to have the weight to stop the double team, but be light enough to rush the passer.”
Bryant acknowledges that his pass rushing skills need a lot of work, evidenced by his career totals of 19 quarterback pressures and only 1.5 sacks at Alabama.
“I need to work on my pass rush and reacting faster to plays,” Bryant said. “I just need to become more of a pass rusher than a run stopper here. Coach Rod (Marinelli) is always bringing up pad level. This is basically the same defense we ran in college, just with different (terminology).
“I really want to help the Bucs out and a player with my size can do that. Even if I don’t start, I want to be a great role player for them. I want this team to win and win another Super Bowl. I want to come in start and I’m learning the playbook. I want to come in and great shape and work hard.”
That will be Bryant’s key. If he can get in shape and stay in shape (he would balloon up to 350 pounds at Alabama), maintain good pad level, stuff the run, develop some pass rush skills, and most importantly – play with a high motor, Bryant stands a decent chance of winning a roster spot this year given the fact that Bucs are making a concerted effort to get bigger in the middle of their defense.
FAB 4. The Bucs’ most improved position this year might be at running back, and not just because of the addition of first-round draft pick Carnell “Cadillac” Williams or the career-year turned in by Michael Pittman in 2004. Instead, one of the biggest factors for an improved rushing attack may be the quality depth the team has at the halfback position.
The emergence of second-year players Earnest Graham, who had a great offseason according to Bucs coaches and players, and Ian Smart, who may be the fastest and most explosive back on the roster, is a big plus. Graham is entering his third training camp with Tampa Bay, while Smart is embarking on his first after being picked up last fall after the New York Jets released him.
Another reason for the optimism at running back is the return to health of Charlie Garner, who is nearing the final weeks of his rehab treatment for the torn patella tendon he suffered in the Week 3 loss to Oakland in 2004.
“We’re not discounting Charlie Garner coming back to play, either,” said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. “I’ve known this guy a long time. I’ll make no predictions. He says he feels good. He says he’s on schedule. On July 28 we’ll find out. He’s been here every day – privately, when no else is around, working out in the morning. He’s become quite the fisherman, too, in his free time. He’s ornery. He’s an ornery human being. He’s looking forward to playing and competing.
“Here’s a guy who is a very good player when healthy. He took a pay cut, by the way, and he makes the (league) minimum now. It’s a credit to him and what he wants to do. He wants to continue playing. He cut his salary all the way down to the stinking minimum to keep playing here. If he’s ready to go, he’ll be in the mix. Earnest Graham is quietly a very good back. I’m interested in this number 22. This number 22 is a very good back, and with Mike Alstott we have some backs who we’re excited about.”
The number 22 Gruden is referring to is former South Carolina rusher Derek Watson, who is the sleeper running back Pewter Report first told you about a few weeks ago in previous edition of SR’s Fab Five. Watson drew rave reviews for his running prowess during the OTA days and the mandatory mini-camp. He’ll be one to watch during training camp, especially when the pads come on. While players like Jacque Lewis and Jonathan Reese are in the mix, the battle for the three or four halfback roster spots will likely come down to Garner, Graham, Smart and Watson with Williams and Pittman locks to make the team. Regardless of which runner(s) winds up backing up Williams and Pittman, the Bucs’ running game should be better because of the more talented depth.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• First-year player DeAndrew Rubin, who spent last year on the practice squad, may secure the special teams-oriented wide receiver role that Frank Murphy occupied last year. The Bucs need to come out of training camp with two flyers to replace Corey Ivy and Murphy, who are no longer with the club. Cornerbacks Torrie Cox and Ronyell Whitaker appear to be the early favorites, but look for Rubin to make his mark on punt coverage, as well as returning kicks and punts, which he did exceptionally well at the University of South Florida in 2003. Rubin has also developed enough as a receiver to really challenge newcomers Paris Warren, Larry Brackins and J.R. Russell for a roster spot.
• It’s a safe bet that the contract the Bucs offered former New England cornerback Ty Law is a one-year, league-minimum deal. Quite frankly, it’s all the Bucs can afford and should offer Law. Why would Tampa Bay want to sign an overweight, 31-year old corner who has no experience in Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 scheme and is coming off a broken foot, but not pay their own 30-year old Pro Bowl corner Ronde Barber, who happens to be unhappy with his contract, one penny more than he’s making right now? It doesn’t make sense, and that’s why you won’t see Law in Tampa Bay unless he’s desperate and forced to sign a one-year deal for the league minimum.
• Do you wonder if the Buccaneers have already started to do some game-planning for the season-opener at Minnesota? I posed that question to head coach Jon Gruden at the conclusion of the team’s mandatory mini-camp in late June. “It’s hard to look ahead at the Vikings because they are going to be different,” Gruden said. “Randy (Moss) is not there. Their center [Matt Birk] is out right now. One of their running backs [Onterrio Smith] is gone. Defensively, they have added a lot of players. They’ve added (Fred) Smoot and (Darren) Sharper. They made a number of changes. Their offensive coordinator [Scott Linehan] left to go to Miami. You don’t know what the hell they are going to do. You’ve got to look at what they’ve done and you’ve got to see what they’ll do in the preseason. But we have looked at them, and obviously, you’ve got to look at Buffalo, the number one defense in the league, too.” The Bucs face the Bills in the home opener the week after playing the Vikings.
• Here’s something to consider about Jon Gruden and his supposedly big ego. If Gruden has such a huge ego, why in the world would he be willing to let a Hall of Fame coach like Bill Walsh come in and watch practice, review game tape, sit in on team meetings and address the team? Why would a supposed ego-maniac like Gruden openly embrace any outside help at all? Don’t ego-driven people think they have all the answers themselves? Like most people in the NFL, Gruden has an ego, but it’s not as big as you think, or the media makes it out to be – especially after a humbling 12-20 record following his team’s Super Bowl victory in 2002.
• Here’s a parting shot – and I do mean “shot” – from Jon Gruden, who was talking about the team chemistry: “I feel good about it. Last year, obviously, we had a situation where we had a contract problem and it hurt us. It hurt our football team. (Keenan McCardell) was a team captain. It was hard to swallow for a couple of days and certainly throughout the season. We had a couple of players [perhaps Dwight Smith, Ian Gold and/or Todd Steussie?] who wanted to play other positions that had bigger roles, which is normal. But I do believe that everybody understands what needs to be done to win – do your job. If you are a backup, and somebody goes down, you have to play better than the guy you are replacing. If you are a role player, by God, do your role. And if you have a problem – don’t let it fester. See Rick Stroud or Ira (Kaufman) or somebody, tell them about it, and they’ll be sure to let the world know.”
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