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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:

FAB 1. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were thrilled with the production that they got from Ian Gold, who was the team’s strongside linebacker last year. Gold became the first Sam linebacker since Monte Kiffin’s arrival to record over 100 tackles. In fact, he logged 120 stops (including 70 solo), which ranked third on the team in 2004 behind Derrick Brooks (172 tackles) and Shelton Quarles (163 stops). That’s an impressive total considering that Gold often came off the field on third downs as the Bucs played nickel defense about half of the time in 2004.

Before Gold’s impressive tackle total, the most a strongside linebacker ever recorded in Tampa Bay since 1996 was Al Singleton’s 89 stops (54 solo) in 2003. Just as they had to do with Singleton, the Bucs were forced to part ways with Gold on March 1 after just one season due to salary cap reasons.

The team viewed the active and aggressive Gold as the perfect heir apparent to Brooks, but chalk this one up to a case of bad timing. Brooks likely has one more year in Tampa Bay – perhaps two – before he becomes a salary cap casualty himself. While the Bucs wanted Gold to consider staying, the fifth-year linebacker really wanted to play on the strongside.

Without having the cap space to afford Gold, and Gold unwilling to restructure his contract because Brooks was playing the position he wanted to play, general manager Bruce Allen was forced to part ways with him. But who is slated to replace Gold in 2005?

The answer may surprise you. There was some speculation that Gold’s replacement may be fourth-year pro Ryan Nece because he signed a five-year deal with the team instead of signing the one-year tender the team offered him in early March due to his status as a restricted free agent. But Nece won’t be challenging for the job, despite serving as the Bucs’ strongside linebacker for 15 games in 2003, in which he logged 70 tackles (37 solo) while playing in 15 games in 2003 as Singleton’s replacement.

Tampa Bay views Nece as a Will linebacker and he is currently the backup behind Brooks heading into the 2005 season. In fact, he practiced behind Brooks in 2004 when the move from the weakside to the strongside became permanent. Nece, who recorded just two tackles on defense last year, is second on the depth chart at Will behind Brooks and ahead of new free agent signee Josh Buhl.

So who sits atop the depth chart at Sam linebacker? Jeff Gooch.

Gooch backed up Quarles at middle linebacker last year, recording 37 tackles and half a sack last season, which was his first in Tampa Bay since 2001. While Gooch has primarily been a special teams ace during his eight seasons in the NFL, he was Tampa Bay’s starting Sam linebacker in 1998 and recorded 72 tackles (33 solo), a team-high four forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Due to his experience, he will get the first crack at replacing Gold, but the Bucs are expecting second-year player Marquis Cooper, who was Tampa Bay’s third-round pick last year, to provide stiff competition.

The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Cooper really came on last year in practice during the season after he began concentrating solely on the Sam position once the season started. He now has a good grasp of the defense to go along with his speed and football ability. While it is premature to say that Cooper will eventually unseat Gooch as a starter at some point in 2005, that possibility can’t be ruled out, either. Cooper is extremely coachable and apparently has done enough to convince the coaching staff to keep Nece on the weak side instead of making it a three-way competition to replace Gold.

Aside from the salary cap, a big reason why the Buccaneers decided to release Gold was Cooper’s development. If he is not starting at some point in 2005, expect Cooper to be an opening day starter in 2006 on the strong side.

FAB 2. Tampa Bay needs to start concerning itself with finding replacements for its aging linebacking corps. If the 2005 season were to start on April 18, which is the day Derrick Brooks turns 32, all three of the Bucs’ starting linebackers will be over the age of 30. Middle linebacker Shelton Quarles is 33 and will turn 34 on September 11. Jeff Gooch, who is slated to start on the strong side, will be 31 on Halloween.

Not only is Tampa Bay’s linebacking corps aging, it is getting increasingly expensive. Gooch’s cap value leaps from $715,000 in 2005 to just over $2 million in 2006. Quarles’ cap value increases by $1 million from 2005 ($3.575 million) to 2006 ($4.575 million).

Brooks’ skyrocketing salary cap value has been well documented by PewterReport.com. His cap value in 2005 is $9.657 million and that climbs to a whopping $11.657 million in 2006. Those three linebackers are scheduled to account for over $18 million of the salary cap next year, and it’s quite possible that none of them will be around past 2005.

While it may seem drastic, Tampa Bay could be undergoing a complete overhaul at the linebacker position. Gooch’s increasing salary and the position he plays (Sam linebacker), makes him vulnerable after this season. The same could be said for the handsomely paid Quarles, who is starting to get nicked up with greater frequency. As PewterReport.com has been saying for some time, Brooks has a year or two left in Tampa Bay before his salary becomes too much for the team to take.

The Bucs began reconstruction of their linebacking corps last year by drafting the speedy and athletic Marquis Cooper in the third round. He is a probable starter on the strong side for years to come. Ryan Nece was signed to a contract extension, but hasn’t done enough for the team to be convinced that he is Brooks’ heir apparent. He is merely just an option at this point in time.

Tampa Bay has become increasingly interested in Texas linebacker Derrick Johnson, who was a turnover machine for the Longhorns, but it is doubtful that the Bucs will draft a linebacker with its fifth overall pick. But with its eye towards rebuilding for the future, Tampa Bay will look to draft a linebacker or two over the weekend of April 23-24.

The top two prospects who have caught the team’s eye are Nebraska’s Barrett Ruud and Georgia’s Odell Thurman, who is a junior. Both players are tackling machines at middle linebacker in the Hardy Nickerson mold.

Rudd will likely be gone in the second round, and with so many pressing needs on offense (receiver, running back and offensive line), he would have to be the highest rated player still on the board to become a Buccaneer. Still, he caught the team’s interest at the Senior Bowl playing for the North squad and had a great workout at his pro day at Nebraska. Ruud, whose father Tom played in the NFL, is Nebraska’s all-time leading tackler (432 stops). That should tell you something about his ability and instincts.

Thurman has first-round talent, but character issues and suspensions will likely cause his stock to drop. If he’s there at the end of the third round, expect the Bucs to seriously consider taking him. They have him rated as the top inside linebacker ahead of Florida’s Channing Crowder, who definitely should have stayed in school another year.

Thurman is a rangy, high-motor, seek-and-destroy Mike linebacker who would be a perfect fit in Tampa Bay’s Cover 2 defense. Either Thurman or Ruud would make an ideal successor to Quarles on the first day. USC middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu or UConn’s Alfred Fincher would be a prime Bucs target in the fourth round, with San Diego State’s Kirk Morrison having a chance to be drafted by Tampa Bay in the fifth or sixth rounds.

FAB 3. If Tampa Bay does not pull the trigger on a middle linebacker in the 2005 NFL Draft, the Bucs will still draft a linebacker, although he will be of the weakside or strongside positions. There are three ideal linebacker candidates from the South squad Senior Bowl that the Bucs will be eyeing on the second day of the draft – Clemson’s Leroy Hill, Southern Miss’ Michael Boley and Alabama’s Cornelius Wortham.

Those three players made the most favorable impression on Tampa Bay during the week they spent in Mobile, Ala. in late January. Hill actually played middle linebacker for the Tigers, but projects to the weak side in the NFL due to his size (6-foot-1, 220 pounds). Hill racked up eight sacks and 106 tackles, including 19 for a loss en route to being named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. He also had an outstanding Senior Bowl and was the South squad Defensive MVP.

The 6-foot-2, 236-pound Boley was named the Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year and finished his Golden Eagles career with 423 tackles, including 59.5 stops for a loss, 28 sacks and three interceptions and nine forced fumbles, including five as a senior. He is a tremendous athlete who would thrive in the Bucs’ style of defense, and would be an ideal candidate to replace Brooks on the weak side as a fourth-round draft pick.

Wortham impressed the Bucs at the Senior Bowl and is a strong side linebacker candidate at the next level. He can defend the run as well as drop in pass coverage. Wortham is a possibility for the Buccaneers in rounds 5-7.

Another weakside linebacker option is San Diego State junior Matt McCoy. The team really likes his speed and aggressiveness. At times, McCoy outshined notable teammate Kirk Morrison, and actually led the Aztecs in tackles last season. McCoy figures to be a second-day draft choice.

FAB 4. There has been some speculation that third-year pro Anthony Davis will win Tampa Bay’s starting left tackle job this year and that Derrick Deese, who started all 16 games at left tackle a year ago, will be moved inside to guard. That probably won’t happen. The team wants to have Davis, who is considered the favorite to win the job, compete with Deese this offseason and into training camp much like Tampa Bay did in 2004 at the under tackle position with Anthony “Booger” McFarland and Ellis Wyms.

The loser of that training camp battle – Wyms – did not simply start at nose tackle as a consolation prize. Chartric Darby had trained all offseason and earned the right to start ahead of Wyms. Wyms was relegated to backing up McFarland, and if Deese loses the left tackle spot to Davis, he likely will be forced into a backup role at left tackle rather than a starting job as a guard.

It’s not fair to Deese or the guards on the roster to have him compete at left tackle all the way through the preseason and then becoming an opening day starter at guard with minimal reps at the position. Barring the drafting of a stud rookie, Sean Mahan, Jeb Terry and Matt Stinchcomb will battle it out for the two guard positions.

If Davis doesn’t win the starting left tackle job this year there will be a great sense of shock at One Buccaneer Place this season. He starred in offseason workouts last spring and proved he could be a starting-caliber left tackle in the preseason by going up against the likes of Miami’s Jason Taylor, Jacksonville’s Hugh Douglas and Cincinnati’s Justin Smith and holding his own despite having zero NFL regular season experience.

“Coach (Bill) Muir said if I’m not a starter by the first regular season game this year, that’s because of me and something I did or didn’t do,” Davis told PewterReport.com. “I’ve got to come on strong and make that happen and I will. I’m hungry. I’m getting in here, getting the weight back down from the offseason, and hitting the weights hard. Now this is my year to come on strong.”

The Bucs have such a strong feeling that they have uncovered a gem from their 2003 practice squad that general manager Bruce Allen tried to lock up the future starter to a long-term deal this offseason, even though Davis was just an exclusive rights free agent.

“We talked,” Davis said. “They talked with my agent and tried to do a four-year deal, but I thought it was in my best interest to just sign a one-year deal. The way I clawed my way up from the practice squad last year, we just thought it was best. If I become a starter this year – and that’s the goal – then I’m going to want to put myself in the best situation (as a restricted free agent). I’ve worked too hard for this opportunity.”

While Davis did take some practice reps at right tackle last season, don’t look for him to change positions – even though the team can’t wait to get rid of Todd Steussie and Kenyatta Walker.

“I’m a left tackle,” Davis said. “That’s what I’m comfortable with and that’s what I’m familiar with. That’s where I’ll get my shot. I want to learn some left guard, too. I don’t think learning the left guard spot is that difficult because as a left tackle you have to know what he’s doing, too. The more places you can play, the more valuable you are.”

The Bucs see the value of Deese pushing Davis to become a great left tackle – hopefully in 2005.

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

• The Buccaneers have been linked to Florida State quarterback Adrian McPherson and Auburn signal caller Jason Campbell, whom Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden got to coach at the Senior Bowl. But there are other sleeper quarterbacks on the radar screen, including Akron’s Charlie Frye and Harvard’s Ryan Fitzpatrick. Frye’s stock is improving thanks to a strong showing for the North squad in the Senior Bowl. He is challenging Campbell for the third-rated quarterback behind California’s Aaron Rodgers and Utah’s Alex Smith and figures to be a second-round pick. Fitzpatrick will be a second-day selection, likely in rounds 5-7. As for the Bucs’ preference of the top two quarterbacks should either fall to Tampa Bay, which owns the fifth overall pick? Tampa Bay would take Smith over Rodgers due to his size, intelligence, speed and scrambling ability. Both top quarterbacks have good arm strength and accuracy.

• We mentioned Virginia’s Alvin Pearman last year in an SR’s Fab Five as a running back the Bucs could be targeting. Mark it down. Tampa Bay loves him, and if they don’t draft Auburn’s Carnell “Cadillac” Williams in the first round, look for Tampa Bay to grab Pearman, who had 138 career catches for the Cavaliers, in the third or fourth round. Tampa Bay also really likes Louisiana Tech’s Ryan Moats and Miami’s Frank Gore, both of whom figure to be drafted in rounds 3-5.

• Tampa Bay wants to establish more of a perimeter running game in 2005 to help boost its sagging rushing attack, which ranked 29th in the NFL last year. The fact that the Bucs lost guard Cosey Coleman in free agency was a blessing as pulling was not his strength. The Bucs’ interior is not strong enough to consistently power an inside running game. Second-year player Jeb Terry is a fast, athletic guard, and Sean Mahan, a third-year pro, excelled as a pulling guard at Notre Dame. While I am not a fan of Matt Stinchcomb, his best blocking was done on the perimeter last year. Should Terry and/or Mahan crack the starting lineup at guard this year, look for the Bucs to also be involved in more screen passes, as well. The addition of tight end Anthony Becht will also help the Bucs’ efforts to become more of a perimeter running team. Becht did a good job of sealing off defensive ends in New York to help Curtis Martin win the 2004 NFL rushing title. With quick backs like Michael Pittman and Charlie Garner (should his rehabilitation continue to go smoothly) in addition to a rookie the team adds in the draft, the Bucs will try to play to their strengths and run outside rather than force the action inside between the tackles.

• The Buccaneers are facing some fan apathy after two consecutive losing seasons. Drafting former USC wide receiver Mike Williams, who is a Tampa native, with the team’s first-round pick could go a long way to helping the Bucs public relations-wise. Williams would generate more fan interest and enthusiasm in the Tampa Bay area and would help drive up the names on the Bucs’ season ticket waiting list, which has taken a bit of a hit this offseason as some fans have opted not to renew their season tickets due to the team’s declining record. However, despite the defections from some season ticket holders, Raymond James Stadium is expected to be sold out for an eighth-straight season.
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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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