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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:

FAB 1. Will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers part ways with veteran running back Charlie Garner after June 1? The drafting of Auburn rusher Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and a career-year by Michael Pittman, last year’s starting halfback, would seem to indicate that the Bucs are prepared to move on without Garner.

But a closer look at the salary cap – which is the primary reason why Garner would be a June 1 cap casualty candidate – indicates that the Bucs could afford to keep him, and ultimately, that might be the best move. While Garner certainly disappointed the team and Bucs fans by suffering a torn patella tendon in the Week 3 loss at Oakland, Tampa Bay would be better off with him than without him this year.

Tampa Bay’s rookie salary pool this year has been set at $6,037,440. Presently, the Bucs are $1.25 million under the 2005 salary cap, and need to free up just over $5 million in order to sign the team’s 12 draft picks. The presence of Williams and Pittman would suggest that Garner is headed for the chopping block, but I can present some evidence that may explain why the Bucs should consider keeping him around one more year.

All indications are that Garner’s rehab process is on schedule for him to participate in training camp. When healthy, Garner isn’t the speedy playmaker he used to be in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Oakland, but he has a supreme grasp of Jon Gruden’s offense, reliable hands and enough running ability to be an effective backup.

While Williams faces high expectations to turn in a big rookie season like last year’s first-round draft pick, wide receiver Michael Clayton, did, he has yet to step on to an NFL field and take a handoff. While Pittman proved to be a decent rusher, capable of piling up 1,000 yards over a whole season, and a great receiver, if his fumbling problems aren’t remedied, he will be in Gruden’s doghouse and of no use to the offense. Garner’s experience in the West Coast offense could come in handy in a backup plan if either Williams or Pittman falters in 2005.

If injury strikes or poor play leads either Williams or Pittman to the bench this season, the two-halfback offensive formation that Gruden wants to make a staple of in Tampa Bay will be in jeopardy, as it was last year. Gruden had planned on using Pittman and Garner in the backfield together in his “Rocket” package in 2004, but had to scrap those plans when Pittman missed the first three games of the season with an NFL suspension, and Garner missed the last 13 contests with his knee injury. If Williams or Pittman went down or were benched, Garner could step in and maintain the integrity of the “Rocket” formation.

It’s not as if the Bucs couldn’t afford to keep Garner around – even after paying first-round money to Williams. General manager Bruce Allen has carved out enough salary cap space in the Bucs’ backfield to accommodate all of the ballcarriers’ salaries. Mike Alstott took a $500,000 pay cut to remain a Buccaneer this year, and Pittman took a $408,000 reduction as well. Garner even took a $600,000 pay cut this winter to stick around, and typically those types of cuts are done in good faith with a strong indication from the team that the player will not be cut.

Altogether, Allen has shaved off $1,508,000 of 2005 salary cap room from the pay cuts from the Bucs’ backfield. On top of that, Tampa Bay’s backfield of Alstott, Pittman, Garner and fullback Jameel Cook (the only other member of the backfield who was on the roster for the full 2004 season and is under contract for 2005) make $930,334 less than they did last year.

Alstott’s 2004 cap value was $2,225,000. This year, it’s $1,500,000. Pittman’s cap value last year was $1,850,000. For 2005, it’s $1,692,000. Cook’s cap value in 2004 was $628,000. This year, it’s $540,000. Garner’s cap value actually climbs this year, but thanks to that $600,000 pay cut, it rises from $1,376,000 to only $1,692,000.

Even if Williams’ cap value for his rookie season is $2 million (Clayton’s was $1.25 million), it would only represent an additional $1,069,666 this year for the Bucs’ backfield and push the total for the team’s stable of running backs to around $6.5 million (including another back or two, such as rookie Rick Razzano, Earnest Graham or Ian Smart). Although Tampa Bay needs to clear some more salary cap space for its rookie class, keeping Garner isn’t putting too money into the backfield for one year – especially with the team supposedly making the commitment to upgrade its 29th ranked running game.

If Tampa Bay were to cut Garner after June 1, it would save $800,000. But the Bucs had better hope that Williams or Pittman don’t get injured or they will be in the same position they were in last year – relying on one back for the bulk of the carries and not having the “Rocket” package at their disposal. Allen may be willing to admit a mistake on Todd Steussie, who was given a $4 million signing bonus last year, but it would be a tough pill for him to swallow to have to cut Garner, who received a $3.7 million signing bonus in 2004, after one disappointing season, too.

FAB 2. If the Bucs don’t release halfback Charlie Garner to free up some much needed salary cap room, three offensive linemen remain the most likely options to face the June 1 chopping block. Right tackle Todd Steussie, who has to go down as one of the biggest free agent busts in Bucs history, and easily Bruce Allen’s worst move as general manager, is a sure goner after June 1.

Although Steussie will leave $2,666,666 worth of dead cap space next year in 2006, his departure after June 1 would save the Bucs $2 million this season. That would leave Tampa Bay $3.25 million under the salary cap with about $3 million left to go.

Although his play improved in 2004, right tackle Kenyatta Walker is in jeopardy of being released due to his $2.5 million base salary. Because Walker played in over 65 percent of Tampa Bay’s offensive snaps, he triggered an escalator in his contract that resulted in a $1.81 million raise from his scheduled base salary of $690,000.

It’s no secret that Walker has given head coach Jon Gruden and offensive line coach Bill Muir a great many headaches since their arrival in 2002, and it is Pewter Report’s belief that the team can’t wait to jettison him. While it is a fact that Walker is truly the best option the team presently has at right tackle, what’s the purpose of keeping him around for one final year when he is sitting on some value cap room, especially during a rebuilding season?

Tampa Bay’s offensive line will struggle in 2005 as it will incorporate two or three new starters, but the hope is that the line will find some real continuity and dominance heading into 2006. It may seem radical for the Bucs to cut both of their right tackles after June 1, but if this line is going to go through some growing pains with new players, why not insert a new starter at right tackle for the future, too?

The Bucs have some options at right tackle with Anthony Davis, Jeb Terry, Matt Martin and Scott Jackson. The thought here is to let them duke it out in training camp and see how the 2005 season plays out. The upcoming offensive tackle class in the 2006 NFL Draft is supposed to be stellar.

The Bucs also have plenty of young, talented options at guard with Davis, Terry and three rookies – Dan Buenning, Jonathan Clinkscale and Doug Buckles. The time might be right to cut Matt Stinchcomb – a former first-rounder that Allen and Gruden imported from Oakland. Stinchcomb – who quickly earned the nickname “Stinkbomb” from Bucs fans on talk radio and Internet message boards – stunk up the joint last year while starting all 16 games at left guard.

Stinchcomb was effective on pulling plays last year, but gave up too much ground in pass protection and didn’t get enough push off the line of scrimmage on running plays. While the prospect of going into 2005 without any real experience at either guard spot (Cosey Coleman was not re-signed in free agency) is a bit daunting, cutting Stinchcomb would be applauded by this reporter. Doing so would free up $1.25 million after June 1, too.

If the Bucs were to cut Steussie, Walker and Stinchcomb – which seems a bit unlikely, but could happen – Tampa Bay would clear $5.75 million after June 1. That, coupled with the $1.25 million that is presently available, would give Tampa Bay $7 million worth of cap room. With $6.03 million going towards the rookies, the Bucs would then have just under $1 million in reserve to sign any free agents it may need as injuries and attrition strike the team during the season.

Cutting Steussie, Walker and Stinchcomb would not only signal a full-scale rebuilding mode along the offensive line, it would also leave just one lineman – Deese – who makes over $1 million in base salary on the Buccaneers. Center John Wade, who will draw a base salary of $800,000 in 2005, is the second-highest paid lineman.

FAB 3. Before stating that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers now have an exciting bunch of promising, young players along the offensive line, I must first give a history lesson. History, as they say, has a way of repeating itself.

I once thought that ex-Tampa Bay guard Cosey Coleman, who was a second-round pick in 2000, had Pro Bowl potential. However, I remember calling Coleman “a turd” (a term often used by NFL scouts to describe a bad player) a few SR’s Fab Five columns ago as he left for Cleveland in free agency this past March.

I also remember bestowing loads of praise upon former Bucs general manager Rich McKay for his shrewd, draft day trade that sent the team’s first- and second-round picks to Buffalo to move up to get offensive tackle Kenyatta Walker in 2001. I now know that McKay’s drafting prowess has been greatly overestimated, and that he can’t draft a good offensive player to save his life. That trade turned out to be a disaster as Walker never lived up to his potential – nor the two high draft picks the team invested in him.

I also remember being excited about the blue collar aspect of guard Jason Whittle in 2003, shortly before he became a walking injury who earned the moniker “Jason Brittle” prior to being shipped back to the New York Giants last August.

While I was never enthralled with the addition of Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel in free agency at the turn of the century, nor the drafting of Austin King and Lance Nimmo in 2003, I must say that I am eagerly awaiting the development of players like Anthony Davis, Jeb Terry, Dan Buenning and Chris Colmer. Only time will tell if my enthusiasm is warranted.

I did a little research on Tampa Bay’s offensive line since 2000 and the amount of players that the Bucs have brought in through the draft and free agency is astonishing. What’s even more startling is that despite the amount of players that the team added over the past five seasons, their offensive line is still in flux and without any consistency or stability.

The lack of success and continuity along the offensive line is stunning when you consider the team has imported Christy, McDaniel, Whittle, Kerry Jenkins, Roman Oben, John Wade, Cornell Green, Matt Stinchcomb, Derrick Deese, Matt O’Dwyer and Todd Stuessie as free agents, and drafted Coleman, Walker, Nimmo, King, Terry, Buenning, Colmer, Russ Hochstein, Sean Mahan and Zack Quaccia since 2000. That’s a total of 21 different offensive linemen who had a chance to compete for a roster spot and/or a starting job.

Of those 21, only nine remain on Tampa Bay’s current roster. However, three of those nine linemen (Terry, Colmer, and Buenning) were drafted over the past two years and have not been given a full opportunity to win a starting job. Three of the remaining six (Steussie, Stinchcomb and Walker) must be considered June 1 salary cap casualty candidates, too.

In fact, there are four linemen on Tampa Bay’s current roster who entered the league as undrafted free agents and stand a better than decent chance of earning a roster spot (Jonathan Clinkscale, Doug Buckles and Scott Jackson) or starting (Davis) in 2005. That’s the stark reality of where the Bucs are at with their offensive line, and where they’ve come from. Let’s hope where they are going is a much better place.

FAB 4. One last note about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive line. A real interesting, intense training camp battle is slated at the center position this summer where starter John Wade is coming off a serious knee injury and faces a stiff challenge from Sean Mahan, who played the last eight games of the season in place of the injured Wade. The thing that makes this battle so compelling is that both players are good, but neither player has Pro Bowl ability. In other words, this is a relatively even fight.

Unlike the guard positions where rookies and unproven players like Jeb Terry, Anthony Davis, Dan Buenning and Jonathan Clinkscale will be squaring off against each other and veteran Matt Stinchcomb, or the left tackle spot where veteran Derrick Deese will try to fend off rookie Chris Colmer, Wade and Mahan both have starting experience, although the edge in this category goes to Wade. Mahan’s youth and his injury-free status give him an edge in the health category.

“I told John that he’s got a real fight on his hands,” Muir said, regarding Mahan’s solid showing in the starting lineup in 2004.

Keep an eye on this Bucs training camp battle when July rolls around. It may be the best, most hard-fought competition in Orlando this summer.

FAB 5. Here’s a couple of items to hold you over until next week:

• Here’s some more post-draft scoop. The Buccaneers really liked USC middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu’s instincts and ability to drop into coverage. However, when he ran a 4.8 in the 40-yard dash that scared the team and really removed him from being considered by the Bucs in the first four rounds. That also prompted the team to select a faster middle linebacker, like Nebraska’s Barrett Ruud, early in the draft.

• The Buccaneers made Pewter Report look good by drafting Ruud in the second round after we tabbed him as the Bucs’ Best Bet at linebacker in our Bucs Draft Preview Issue. As it turns out, Pewter Report was likely destined to correctly nail Tampa Bay’s second-round pick regardless, as the team was really targeting Fresno State offensive lineman Logan Mankins, who was our Bucs’ Best Bet at the guard position. In fact, the Bucs were trying to trade up to get Mankins, whom the team had coached in the Senior Bowl, at the bottom of the first round and at the top of the second round with San Francisco before New England drafted him with the last pick in the first round at No. 32 overall.

• While Pewter Report missed on connecting North Carolina State offensive tackle Chris Colmer to Tampa Bay, we almost nailed another Bucs’ Best Bet on Day 2 of the NFL Draft. The Bucs really loved Virginia running back Alvin Pearman and were slated to take him in the fifth round, likely with the 141st pick overall. However, Jacksonville drafted him late in the fourth round with the 127th overall selection. Speaking of Colmer, the Bucs’ decision in the later part of the third round came down to him and Maryland cornerback Dominique Foxworth. Although the Bucs had a pressing need to draft a developmental corner, Colmer was the higher rated player on the board at that time and ultimately became the selection.

• Pewter Report can confirm that the Buccaneers have not done any contract restructuring or paycuts since linebacker Shelton Quarles’ restructuring on April 22.


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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

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: sr@pewterreport.com
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