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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. Even after 10 years of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers it’s still hard to differentiate hype from reality when talking to coaches, scouts and team insiders following the NFL Draft. Sometimes it is too convenient for the higher ups to tell the media, “Oh, yeah, so-and-so was the highest rated guy on our draft board” or “We got the guy we targeted all along.” It makes them look good.
Pewter Report has already reported that Cadillac Williams was the Bucs’ top-rated running back in this year’s draft, slightly ahead of Ronnie Brown and way out in front of Cedric Benson. But was that really the case, or is it just convenient boasting to the media because Williams was the last of the big three to get drafted at the fifth overall spot to Tampa Bay? I believe running backs coach Art Valero, but I asked he and the team to prove it, anyway.
And prove it he did.
“I did a report for Bruce (Allen) once upon a time because (size) was something that always kept coming up with Cadillac,” Valero said. “He’s almost 5-11, and he’s 217 and everybody considers him a small guy. I had a list of current running backs I had compiled for Bruce. The guys on the list were Emmitt Smith and Tiki Barber and LaDainian Tomlinson. All of those guys were in the same size range. When you look at it, it kind of throws that ‘Big Back Theory’ out the door because all of these guys have been so productive in the league, especially over the past two years. You can throw Warrick Dunn in there and take all these so-called ‘little guys’ and they are all so very, very productive, not only in terms of their rushing yards and how many times they’ve carried the ball in the last two years, but how many times they’ve caught the ball and how many times they’ve put the ball on the ground – and they just don’t do that. I kind of put him in that area of guys.
“Now only time will tell if he is in that elite group. A lot of times you’ll watch Carnell on film and when he gets into traffic he runs bigger than what he is. He runs like he’s a 6-foot, 233-pound back. He’s his own worst enemy at times because he is so violent when he gets into traffic. To us, he gives us suddenness, he gives us the great ability to burst a longer run. Every time he touches the ball you gasp, because something good is going to happen. Plus, he was able to get those hard yards in short-yardage and goal-line situations. This guy is a natural fit for what we want to do.”
Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said that Valero’s report on the most productive running backs was eye-opening, and played a big factor in the team’s desire to draft Williams.
“We’ve done all the research on the size and the speed of the backs who are playing today,” Gruden said. “If you look at Clinton Portis, Tiki Barber, Priest Holmes and Curtis Martin, and the guys who are playing, for the most part they are very similar in size. They’re very similar – 5-foot-10, 202 to 5-foot-10, 211. Cadillic is physically cut from the same cloth, so size is not going to be a detriment in terms of how much he sees the ball, in my opinion.”
Tampa Bay linebackers coach Joe Barry concurred that Williams was not too small to be successful in the NFL, and was even surprised by his size when he had the chance to scout him first-hand in Mobile, Ala. at the Senior Bowl in January.
“The thing about Cadillac with us being in the South in Tampa, it’s very rare that we don’t get an Auburn game on TV on Saturday,” Barry said. “I’ve watched this kid over a number of years, so I’ve known about him. Getting the chance to go against him in Mobile, this kid was impressive. I always had the impression that this kid was a little back. I don’t know why I thought that, or had that notion in my mind. But he’s 217 pounds and can run, be explosive and change direction. If you are a linebacker and you’re blitzing and he’s responsible for blocking you, he’s going to step up and rock you. This guy, to me, is the entire package.
“Cadillac and Ronnie Brown shared time there at Auburn, and when you watched tape, he would be playing fullback and Ronnie would be playing tailback and Cadillac would be blocking. When you pick with the number fifth pick in the draft, you have to pick the complete player, and that’s what we got.”
But having adequate size isn’t Williams’ only redeeming quality. Barry said that Cadillac’s work ethic really stood out at the Senior Bowl. That’s quite a statement considering that Barry had the responsibility of tending to the South’s linebackers – not paying attention to the running backs.
“As far as being a teammate, the way he’s going to work at practice – that’s another thing we saw first hand,” Barry said. “He worked like no other running back I’ve ever seen before. When you bring that high-profile of a player in with the fifth pick, you better have a guy with his head screwed on right. Take away that he’s a great player. He’s got to be a grounded individual. As impressed as I was going into the Senior Bowl, when I left, I was thinking that this kid was an absolute stud. Just the work ethic he had. Going into the Senior Bowl he was a top 10 pick, so why was he even there? He doesn’t have to prove anything. He said that the game was played in Alabama and meant something to him as an Alabama kid. He was absolutely impressive to me.”
Valero’s running backs report and ringing endorsement put Williams at the top of the running backs on Tampa Bay’s draft board. Endorsements from the defensive staff and guys like Barry solidified his draft status at One Buccaneer Place.
FAB 2. The thing that strikes me most about rookie wide receiver Larry Brackins is that Pearl River Community College only had four offensive coaches, which is typical of the coaching staffs at JUCOs or smaller colleges. By contrast, Tampa Bay has eight offensive coaches (playcaller Jon Gruden, offensive coordinator/line coach Bill Muir, senior assistant/offensive line Aaron Kromer, quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett, running backs coach Art Valero, tight ends coach Richard Mann, wide receivers coach Richard Mann and offensive assistant Kyle Shanahan) on its staff.
To say that Brackins is raw is an understatement. He did not receive top-flight coaching nor the attention needed to refine his game. But his physical tools are so intriguing that will the help of Mann and Shanahan, Brackins could develop into a quality NFL player within a year or two.
Brackins knows that one of the things he has to eliminate from his game is the unnecessary leaping when making a catch.
“I’ve got to learn to play in the NFL and get some of the kinks out of my game,” Brackins said. “I’ve got to learn the offense and run the correct routes. Also, exactly how to run routes and get out of my breaks and stuff like that.”
Brackins interviewed with just about every NFL team, but was thankful that Tampa Bay was the one to draft him due to the rapport he had built with Mann during the month of April.
“I looked at the depth chart coming into the draft, and Coach Mann told me that they don’t have but two receivers coming back, so that’s a good fit for me,” Brackins said. “(Gruden) has got a good offensive scheme with guys going short, long, underneath, across the middle – all kinds of stuff. I like to go downfield, and (Gruden) likes to throw the ball a lot.”
Brackins entered the NFL Draft for financial reasons straight out of community college despite being recruited by the likes of Texas, Texas A&M, USC, Miami, Florida State, LSU and other major universities. But had Brackins opted to go to university instead of the NFL, which school would he have transferred to?
“I was probably going to go to USC or Florida State,” Brackins said. “It was right after the season when I made my decision. I decided to come on out and not lie to anyone and just be straight up and let everyone know I was coming out. Financially, I saw the opportunity to take care of my family. That’s really why I made the decision.
“The spotlight really doesn’t matter to me. I just like to play. Even though I didn’t go to a big college, I think I’m going to make a name for myself in the NFL. I think I’m just as good as some of these guys who came out. I felt like I was really in a rhythm. That’s why I came out because I dominated that level. I thought I was good enough to come out.”
FAB 3. After spotlighting running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and wide receiver Larry Brackins – two of the more high profile picks from Tampa Bay’s draft class of 2005, I want to focus on a an unheralded guy who has the chance to be a real steal for the Buccaneers. I’m talking about fifth-round pick Donte Nicholson, a strong safety from Oklahoma.
My film study on Nicholson tells me he’s an athletic, smart player who does most of him damage near the line of scrimmage. Nicholson is a solid, hard-hitting enforcer in the running game, and a dangerous blitzer in the passing game.
He played a key role in Oklahoma’s back-to-back wins in the Red River Shootout against Texas over the past two seasons. Longhorns quarterback Vince Young is one of the most dangerous players in college football due to his scrambling ability, yet Nicholson notched a sack on the athletic Young and forced an errant throw while blitzing that was picked off by fellow safety Brodney Pool. Nicholson showed tremendous body control on both blitzes and the elusive Young wasn’t able to sidestep and juke this stud Sooners defender.
“Vince Young is a great player and Texas is a great team,” the humble Nicholson said. “We just came in ready to play. The coaches had us ready and we came out on top.”
If there is an area Nicholson must work on, it is his pass coverage downfield. In fact, it was the question mark about his coverage ability that caused him to slide down on Day 2 of the 2005 NFL Draft.
“A lot of teams overlooked me on that,” Nicholson said. “I just want to get out here and show them that I can do both – play the run and the pass.”
One thing working in Nicholson’s favor is his familiarity with the Tampa 2 defense, which he played in at Oklahoma. The fact that he will be working on the architect of the famed scheme – defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin – brings a big smile to Nicholson’s face.
“Coach Monte Kiffin, he’s a great guy,” Nicholson said. “The way he breaks down Cover 2 is unbelievable. We can do so many things out of it. He’s the mastermind behind it.
“I believe I’m a good fit for his defensive scheme. The type of defense we ran at Oklahoma is pretty similar to this defense. We did watch them and we got a lot of schemes off them at Oklahoma. It’s basically the same defense, but with different names.”
While looking for a endorsement of Nicholson during the scouting process, Kiffin went to a trusted source.
“We like Donte,” Kiffin said. “I talked to Bo Pellini about him. Bo was the defensive coordinator at Nebraska a year ago and then he became the defensive coordinator this year at Oklahoma. We talked about Barrett Ruud, and we compared Nicholson to the safety they had at Nebraska – (Josh) Bullocks. I talk to Bo a lot. I know him and I trust him. He was very high on Donte Nicholson, even though he only had him for one year. We heard a lot of good things about him. I always feel good when I can call a coach that I know personally. Some coaches will embellish and things like that to get you to draft their players, so you have to be careful who you talk to.”
With Pellini’s testimonial backing up everything Tampa Bay saw on tape, at the NFL Scouting Combine and at his pro day workout, Nicholson was drafted to compete with incumbent Jermaine Phillips for the Bucs’ starting strong safety spot. While most rookies who are drafted in the fifth round are content on playing special teams and attempting to just try to make the 53-man roster, Nicholson indicated he was gunning for the starting assignment right away.
“I see it as a challenge,” Nicholson said. “I’m not going to back down from it. I’m going to give it my all. I love competition. That’s what the game is all about.”
While Phillips has a decided edge over him due to playing time and NFL experience, Nicholson should be considered an upgrade over John Howell at the strong safety position. Given the fact that Phillips has wound up with a broken forearm at the end of the last two seasons, Nicholson better be prepared to play in 2005. I have a feeling he will be ready. He’ll enter this year as Phillips’ backup, but could be a real contender for the starting job in 2006.
FAB 4. With the presence of Anthony McFarland, Ellis Wyms, Chris Hovan, Damien Gregory, NFL Europe’s Brian Save and a couple of rookies, Tampa Bay’s defensive tackle position is loaded with potential this year. Unfortunately, potential is a very dangerous word in pro football.
While McFarland is an accomplished NFL player, he has had trouble staying healthy and has not yet made the impact that the Bucs have hoped for at the under tackle position. After a promising start in Minnesota, Hovan’s stock has bottomed out in the NFL and he is hoping that Tampa Bay defensive line guru Rod Marinelli can salvage his career. Backups like Wyms and Gregory haven’t sniffed the starting lineup yet despite impressive showings with the second unit defense last year until injuries ended their 2004 campaigns prematurely.
On paper, the Bucs defensive tackle position looks well stocked with veteran talent. On the field, a pair of rookies may shake things up once training camp rolls around.
Sixth-round draft pick Anthony Bryant has good quickness to go along with his tremendous size at 6-foot-3, 337 pounds. With the Bucs getting run on up the middle so much over the past two seasons, having some added girth at the nose tackle position may help.
But Marinelli and Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin must help Bryant get in better shape and keep his motor running on each play for him to actually make the 53-man roster.
“He’s big,” Kiffin said. “He’s got to get in shape. It’s hot now, but it will get hotter in (Orlando). There’s a misconception (that I don’t like big defensive tackles). I love big, quick guys, but they’re hard to find. They have to be quick for their size. You can’t expect a big guy to be as quick as a little guy. If we can get bigger, we will. It’s just that sometimes you can’t find them.
“I like big corners, but I don’t like big corners who aren’t quick and don’t have good feet. It’s the same way with a nose tackle. Every once in a while you will find a big guy. At the Senior Bowl, I really liked Anthony’s quickness.”
While Bryant’s size stands out on the Bucs’ practice field, another rookie defensive tackle has caught the eye of Tampa Bay’s coaching staff.
“We have the guy from Oklahoma – Lynn McGruder,” Kiffin said. “He’s got some good size and quickness. We like him, too.”
McGruder, who signed with the Bucs as an undrafted free agent, has the size (6-2, 302) and traits to fit in at either the nose tackle or under tackle position in Tampa Bay. What kept him from being drafted was the lack of experience as he saw little playing time until his senior year after spending the last couple of seasons behind All-American Tommie Harris, who was Chicago’s first-round draft pick last year.
McGruder is hungry. That’s obvious from the extra work he put in with “coach” Simeon Rice after OTA practices. Rice goes to great lengths to help young, unheralded defensive linemen with their “get off”, technique, pad level and handwork. Among Rice’s former pupils include Chartric Darby, who was also an undrafted free agent, and Wyms, who was a sixth-round pick.
Because Oklahoma ran a defense that was very similar to Tampa Bay’s scheme, McGruder should have an easier learning curve than other newcomers at the defensive tackle spot. With the potential they possesses, I expect McGruder or Bryant to make a real push and win a roster spot in training camp.
Bryant brings much needed size, but will he wilt under the hot and humid conditions in Orlando? Can McGruder master the playbook and let his natural ability take over to the point where he can contribute in 2005? These are questions to keep in mind as training camp creeps closer.
FAB 5. I’ve got a very special Fab 5 for you this week.
May 19, 2005 marked my 10th anniversary in Tampa working for Pewter Report (formerly Buccaneer Magazine). I can’t believe it has been 10 years since I graduated from Kansas State and embarked on my journey to Florida. I want to thank publisher Jeffrey Neil Fox and his wife, Sara, for giving me the opportunity to live out a boyhood dream of covering an NFL team. Jeff and I have spent 10 wonderful years together and I look forward to the next 10. Thank you for believing in me and for continuing to strive for excellence with Pewter Report, which has gone from a black and white tabloid-sized newspaper to a full-color glossy magazine this year.
I want to thank everyone at the Authentic Team Merchandise – Buccaneer Heaven store, which is Pewter Report’s sister company, for their support through the years, especially stalwarts like Gerry D’Angelo, Richard Kelly, Cindy O’Donoghue, Jim Griffin and Lynda Damiata who I have worked closely with through the years. I want to thank Jason Armendarez for his work in our subscriptions department and his help on game days. I am also indebted to Mike and Paula Custer, Cliff Welch and Keith Russell for their work on producing our fine publication, which I think is getting better with each issue.
I also must thank some true believers. WDAE’s Steve Duemig has been a good friend and has played a big role in helping establish Pewter Report’s reach and credibility in the Tampa Bay market by developing the “wildly popular” Buccaneer Blitz show which has been a big hit with Bucs fans and 620 AM listeners since 1999. I want to thank the Big Dog for the opportunity and I’m looking forward to another great season with him. I’d also like to thank Chris Elias, Rock Riley and the good folks at Bay News 9 for making the Pewter Reporters regular guests on the Sports Connection. Chris, Rock and the gang have also done a great job of introducing Pewter Report to Bucs fans. In fact, that’s how Jim Flynn discovered our publication – thank goodness.
A big thanks goes out to Jim, who is my compadré and great friend in this crazy profession I’m in. Many folks could not even begin to fathom how hard we work and the hours we put in to be the best source for Bucs news and the inside scoop. It’s not easy working for a small, independent media source like Pewter Report, and I simply couldn’t do it without Jim’s help. I’m proud to say that he’s developed into a dynamite reporter over the years and I couldn’t imagine a better partner to work with as we continue to compete with the local newspapers and offer in-depth information you won’t find anywhere else.
Without the support of my loving wife, Elisa, and my family, I simply wouldn’t be able to fulfill my dream. I thank them for understanding while I have missed countless family time and family functions while reporting on late-breaking stories and talking phone calls from various sources almost around the clock it seems. Football is truly my mistress, and there are a lot of moments of guilt associated in my long hours of work.
I would also like to thank my family for fostering my love of football through the years, especially Mom, who would fight me for the sports section and make sure we were home from church on time to see the Chiefs play at noon when we lived in Kansas City.
I must thank the Buccaneers public relations staff for recognizing our fair reporting and hard work and for putting Pewter Report on an equal footing with the rest of the big media. I must also thank the numerous sources and contacts I have at One Buccaneer Place and in the locker room for your trust in me and Pewter Report. A lot of you subscribe to the Pewter Insider “to find out what’s really going on” as you say, and I take that as a tremendous compliment. Thanks for your trust and your correspondence with me, on and off the record.
And last, but certainly not least, I want to thank you, the Pewter Report and Pewter Insider subscribers. To make the commitment to subscribe and read my analysis, insight, opinions and reports is the highest form of support one can get. From the bottom of my heart, thank you. Thank you for turning to Pewter Report and PewterReport.com for your Bucs news over the years. You are the reason why we work so hard and do what we do. I’m honored to be your eyes and ears at One Buccaneer Place, and before I write each article, I have you in mind. What would you want to know? Who would you like to read about? My goal is to make each one of you Buccaneer experts. After all, I was a former subscriber myself. Thanks for a great 10 years – SR.
• One last note before I sign off this week. I invite you to join me and my wife, Elisa, and Pewter Report publisher Jeffrey Neil Fox and his wife, Sara, and travel with over one hundred Bucs fans up in Green Bay to see the Bucs battle the Packers and arch nemesis Brett Favre – perhaps for the last time – on September 25. We are traveling with Dennis Pfeiffer and BucFanTours up to Lambeau Field on a chartered plane full of nothing but die-hard Bucs fans like you. Aside from a tour of the historic Packers Hall of Fame, I’ll also be hosting a private party and a Q&A session with Tampa Bay fans on Saturday night at the hotel our traveling party will be staying at. This road trip is going to be a lot of fun. I’d love to meet you, answer your questions and share some inside info with you in person on this great road trip. Sign up today at BucFanTours.com or call (813) 960-4155. I won’t be working this game from the press box, either. I’m going to be in the stands with a brat and a beverage in hand, sitting with you! Don’t wait. Reserve your seats today, and make sure you tell BucFanTours that Scott Reynolds sent you.
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