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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. For the Buccaneers to make noticeable strides on offense, the team must come up with another Michael Clayton-like player or two in the 2005 NFL Draft. Tampa Bay must also become more willing to open up its wallet and pay for good offensive talent, but that’s hard to do with the salary cap challenges that the team currently faces.
The Bucs would love to trade for Indianapolis’ Edgerrin James or Seattle’s Shaun Alexander (their preference would likely be James) to help upgrade the NFL’s 29th ranked running game, but even Bruce Allen’s salary cap wizardry might not be enough to overcome the team’s cap problems. It is killing the Bucs’ brass to know that two proven, Pro Bowl rushers are available via trades this year for less than a first-round draft pick, but Tampa Bay simply can’t afford them at this time.
The reason the Bucs would have a hard time being able to swing a trade for James or Alexander is the amount of money that the Bucs have tied up in their defense. A quick glance at the top 10 salaries for the 2005 season illustrates this point.
BUCS TOP 10 SALARY CAP VALUES IN 2005
1. DE Simeon Rice – $10,700,000
2. LB Derrick Brooks – $9,657,083
3. CB Ronde Barber – $5,114,000
4. DT Anthony McFarland – $4,700,000
5. MLB Shelton Quarles – $3,575,000
6. CB Brian Kelly – $3,636,333
7. RT Kenyatta Walker – $3,403,333
8. RT Todd Steussie – $2,666,666
9. LT Derrick Deese – $2,137,500
10. WR Michael Clayton – $1,952,500
The first six players on this list line up on the defensive side of the ball, and their combined salaries total $37,382,416, which is almost half of Tampa Bay’s $85.5 million salary cap. In reality, the Bucs do have half of their salary cap taken up by those six players because with $9.6 million worth of dead cap money, Tampa Bay can only spend $75.8 million on current player salaries in 2005.
The total salary cap values for the 11 current, projected starters on defense (defensive ends Rice and Greg Spires, defensive tackles McFarland and Damien Gregory, linebackers Brooks, Quarles and Ryan Nece, cornerbacks Barber and Kelly and safeties Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen) are over a whopping $40.8 million
Conversely, the combined salary cap values for the 11 current, projected starters on offense (quarterback Brian Griese, wide receivers Michael Clayton and Joey Galloway, running backs Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott, tight end Anthony Becht and offensive linemen Derrick Deese, Kenyatta Walker, John Wade, Matt Stinchcomb and Jeb Terry) come to just $17 million. That means the starting defensive players make more than twice as much as the starting offensive players do.
Here are some other interesting tidbits that show just how out of whack the team’s salary cap structure has become. Half of the Bucs linebackers make more than minimum wage, yet nine out of the 11 wide receivers Tampa Bay has under contract only make minimum wage.
The combined salary cap values of the Bucs’ three quarterbacks (Griese, Chris Simms and Akili Smith) in 2005 is just $392,638 more than the total of Tampa Bay’s three left defensive ends (Spires, Dewayne White and Josh Savage). The Bucs’ starting four defensive linemen make in excess of $8.5 million more than Tampa Bay’s starting five offensive linemen.
With Steussie and/or Walker slated to be released after June 1, the amount of money the Bucs will be spending on offense will continue to shrink, although there is a strong likelihood that Tampa Bay will once again spend its first-round pick on an offensive player. For the Bucs offense to make progress in the future, more money will need to be spent on that side of the ball. If Tampa Bay had an extra $3 million worth of cap room in 2005, James or Alexander could be a Buccaneer.
FAB 2. I’d like to offer a rebuttal on something that was written last Sunday in the Tampa Tribune regarding the Bucs’ decision not to retain guard Cosey Coleman or safety Dwight Smith in free agency. The article said the Bucs were killing themselves by not re-signing those players. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
Coleman stunk, and was a part of the problem along the Bucs’ offensive line – not part of the solution. In NFL scouting terms, he was a turd.
Coleman was yet another failed offensive draft pick from the Rich McKay era, a player the team had invested a second- and a fourth-round pick in. The Bucs seem prepared to start second-year player Jeb Terry, who was a fifth-round pick a year ago.
Sure, Coleman helped the Bucs win a Super Bowl title in 2002 as Tampa Bay’s shaky offensive line somehow came together under Bill Muir for a great playoff run (Muir has failed to recapture the magic since, it should be noted). But Kerry Jenkins was not very good by the time he came to Tampa Bay, and he also won a ring, as did center Jeff Christy, who was let go the next year and never played another down in pro football.
If Coleman was so good, why didn’t he get a sniff in free agency last year? Why did he end up re-signing with the Bucs for a one-year, league-minimum contract? Granted, Coleman picked the wrong time to have an intestinal blockage, which required surgery last spring, but if a player is good enough, they can still command a decent contract even though they are injured. General manager Bruce Allen signed a still-gimpy Charlie Garner, who was fresh off minor knee surgery last spring, but that wasn’t necessarily a wise move.
Coleman started all 16 games for the Bucs last year and was one of the factors for the team’s 29th ranked running game. That’s a big reason why he could only command a $500,000 signing bonus and a two-year deal from Cleveland in free agency. Heck, the Green Bay Packers lost both starting guards, Mike Wahle and Marco Rivera, and didn’t even offer Coleman as much as Cleveland did. That should tell you something.
Youth does not equal talent or wins. The Arizona Cardinals had one of the league’s youngest crop of quarterbacks in Josh McCown, Shaun King and John Navarre, but they weren’t talented, and look what that got them. The Cardinals won a grand total of six games last year, thanks in part by beating the Bucs in the season finalé. Of course, Arizona was aided by a shaky performance by one young Chris Simms, who badly overthrew a wide open Earnest Graham in the fourth quarter on a wheel route downfield that could have proven to be the game winner for Tampa Bay. Had Brian Griese played in that game, I would have bet the Bucs would have prevailed.
As for Smith, he has proven himself to be an excellent nickel cornerback (2002), but just an okay starting corner (in 2003) and an okay starting safety (in 2004). Smith is a good football player, but the Bucs’ front office knew that his penchant for getting in trouble with the law and fetish for firearms would eventually be his undoing. Why take the risk on someone who has been arrested twice in three years? The team will likely turn to last year’s fourth-round pick, Will Allen, or possibly Dexter Jackson, if they can re-sign him, to replace Smith.
As one Bucs official told me, “It’s amazing. We don’t re-sign Smith and we get ripped (by the media). If we did sign him, we would get ripped for re-signing another guy with character problems.”
On a side note, it’s quite funny how Allen and Jon Gruden suddenly have a reputation for gravitating towards players with “character issues.” Gruden is guilty of lobbying to bring in Michael Pittman, whose arrests for domestic issues have been well chronicled, but Allen had nothing to do with that, as McKay was the general manager who ended up signing Pittman in 2002. In fact, Allen has forced Pittman to take pay cuts in consecutive years.
Sure, Allen and Gruden brought in troubled defensive tackle Darrell Russell, which caused all sorts of public relations grief last summer. But Russell had to walk the tightest of ropes to remain a Buccaneer and rehabilitate his image and ultimately failed. Allegedly, he had alcohol show up on a drug test, which was a forbidden substance for Russell, given his substance abuse issues with the league. Russell was in Tampa Bay long enough for a cup of coffee and Allen did the right thing by cutting him prior to training camp last year.
Allen and Gruden recently brought in free agent quarterback Quincy Carter, who has also had substance abuse problems, but they have not signed him as of yet.
The reality is that of the five Buccaneers players who have been arrested in the last three years, four of those players – Smith, Coleman (charged with beating the mother of his child), Kenyatta Walker (charged with disorderly conduct in Ybor City) and Ellis Wyms (charged with kicking a limo door) – happen to be draft picks dating back to the McKay-Tony Dungy era. That may come as a surprise to some fans.
The bottom line is that Smith and Coleman weren’t worth the gamble for a team that can’t afford to make any more mistakes given the salary cap situation that McKay left in his wake, and Allen contributed to with unwise signing of tackle Todd Steussie.
FAB 3. I certainly don’t want to beat a dead horse – and this has been one hot topic this offseason – but it’s time to clear up the Bucs’ salary cap mess once and for all.
Not the actual salary cap. That’s Bruce Allen’s job.
The mess I’m talking about is the misinformation mess that keeps getting reported in the local papers and bantered about on Tampa Bay area sports radio by those who don’t do their homework.
First, Allen is not free from blame when it comes to Tampa Bay’s salary cap woes. Todd Steussie was an expensive bust last year, and it is debatable whether the signing of Derrick Deese could truly be considered an upgrade over the less expensive Roman Oben, who was traded to San Diego. Allen was also in charge of shelling out too much money for an aging and injured Charlie Garner, although he is not responsible for Garner’s torn patella tendon.
In addition, Allen is at fault for not having any real competition for Martin Gramatica in training camp, despite the kicker’s struggles in 2003, and for not cutting him sooner in 2004. He also gets the blame for not keeping Mark Jones, whose punt return ability would have been much more useful than Tim Brown’s pathetic efforts in 2004.
Allen also extended the contract of legendary linebacker Derrick Brooks to help free up cap room in 2004, a move that should be lauded by the same fans and the media who crucified him for cutting John Lynch and perhaps not re-signing Warren Sapp, even though it was former general manager Rich McKay who gave Anthony McFarland his big contract extension in 2003. That left no money for the team to bring Sapp back, unless Tampa Bay were to play with $9 million worth of defensive tackles.
To be fair, Allen also had a hand in signing several useful players (linebackers Keith Burns and Jeff Gooch and tight ends Ken Dilger and Dave Moore) to cheap contracts and upgrading the coverage and return units on special teams, drafting Michael Clayton, adding Brian Griese and Ian Gold in free agency, even if Gold’s stay in Tampa Bay was brief.
He should also be applauded for creating some necessary cap room and for being creative in the way that he structures contracts, which is not as rigid as McKay’s method was.
Having said all of this, the Bucs’ current cap crisis simply is not all Allen’s fault and to think so would be misguided. The combined cap values of Steussie, Garner and Deese take up only $6.2 million in this year’s $85.5 million salary cap. That’s a little over seven percent of the salary cap. Simeon Rice’s $10.7 million cap value in 2005 takes up over 10 percent alone.
Fans need to start opening up their eyes and asking some tough questions about McKay to get to the bottom of the salary cap disaster that has plagued Tampa Bay over the past two seasons. Why would he sign a kicker, perhaps the most erratic and volatile of positions in the NFL in terms of performance, to a seven-year contract and throw in a signing bonus of close to $2 million back in 2002? You should know that Gramatica is currently taking up $1.79 million worth of the Bucs’ $9.6 million in dead cap space this year.
Why would a general manager extend the contract of quarterback Brad Johnson, who despite winning a championship, was not a good fit for the head coach’s offense and whose skills were deteriorating in 2003 at age 35? By the way, Johnson, who will be 37 this year, is taking up $4.25 million worth of dead salary cap room in 2005. Johnson and Gramatica’s remnant cap money accounts for over two-thirds of the Bucs’ dead cap space this year.
There was yet another questionable move in 2003. Why would McKay restructure the contract of a player like Keyshawn Johnson, whom he knows clashes with the head coach? A general manager whose interests were to best serve the head coach simply would not do that. When Johnson was traded away last spring by Allen – and yes, Gruden’s ego was also in part to blame in the Keyshawn debacle – his dead cap money took up over 7 million cap-crippling dollars of the Bucs’ precious little cap room in 2004.
Was it also necessary for McKay to make Simeon Rice the league’s highest paid defender in 2003? At the time, Rice was under contract until 2005. Was paying him $20 million in signing bonuses and guarantees really necessary, especially because McKay was only negotiating with himself as Rice wasn’t on the free agent market at the time? It is a bit odd that he did not consult with Gruden or any of the other defensive coaches before lavishing such a huge signing bonus and guaranteed money on Rice that would end up strangling the team’s salary cap in the 2004-05 seasons.
I take no pleasure in criticizing McKay and have no motive for doing so other than to report the facts without bias. I certainly respect McKay. He did his part by helping to build a championship-caliber defense, and deserves every diamond on his Super Bowl XXXVII ring. Perhaps his greatest accomplishment in Tampa Bay was campaigning for a new stadium in the Hillsborough County penny tax voter referendum in 1996. Without McKay’s artful politicking to get the Glazers a new stadium, the Bucs could very well have been in another city today. For that, everyone should be grateful to McKay.
But his free-spending ways, disdain for using incentives in contracts, pumping too much guaranteed money into rigid contracts, and the questionable extensions of Johnson, Johnson, Gramatica and others largely points the finger in McKay’s direction when it comes to the Bucs’ current cap mess. It should come as no surprise that the two NFC teams that had the worst salary cap shape this year were Tampa Bay and Atlanta, where McKay now resides as the Falcons’ general manager.
FAB 4. I spoke before the Brandon Bucs Booster Club two weeks ago and was asked by a disgruntled Tampa Bay fan why the New England Patriots were able to keep going to Super Bowls and the Bucs weren’t. Simply put, the Patriots had drafted better than the Bucs (partly because they had first- and second-rounders Tampa Bay didn’t have due to the trade for Jon Gruden) in addition to some key, inexpensive, role-playing free agent additions.
As the 2005 NFL Draft approaches, a quick look back at history will show how Tampa Bay has wasted several premium draft picks on offensive players such as receiver Reidel Anthony (1997 first-rounder), tackle Jerry Wunsch (1997 second-round), receiver Jacquez Green (1998 second-rounder), center Todd Washington (1998 fourth-round pick) guard Cosey Coleman (2000 second- and fourth-rounders), tackle Kenyatta Walker (2001 first- and second-round picks), receiver Marquise Walker (2002 third-round pick) and running back Travis Stephens (2002 fourth-rounder).
That is an astonishing track record of failure and has left the Buccaneers with little talent on the offensive side of the ball through the draft. Those eight players represent two first-rounders, three second-round selections, one third-rounder and three fourth-round picks and a combined zero Pro Bowls. Only Kenyatta Walker remains in Tampa Bay.
Why have the Bucs fallen so far, so fast? Poor drafting in the past, especially on the offensive side of the ball, is a big reason.
Another reason why New England has sustained its winning ways is that it has also fully capitalized on its window of opportunity. The Patriots’ window was opened in 2001 when they rose to prominence in the AFC East under Bill Belichick and defeated St. Louis in Super Bowl XXXVI. The Bucs won the Super Bowl the next year, followed by two more New England championships in 2003 and 2004. The good news for New England is that Patriots’ window of opportunity is still open for another year or two, although it may be tougher sledding with coordinators Romeo Crennel and Charlie Weis. Many of the team’s star players are still in their prime, and the salary cap hasn’t choked the Patriots too bad – yet.
In Tampa Bay, the Bucs’ window of opportunity opened in 1999 when their defense became Super Bowl-caliber. Unfortunately, the offense was a mess – void of much talent outside of Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott. The Bucs went through three coordinators in three years as Mike Shula was fired in ’99, giving way to one year of Les Steckel and only three points in a 2000 Wild Card loss in Philadelphia before Clyde Christensen’s woeful offense paved the way for another first-round playoff loss in Philly and Tony Dungy’s dismissal after the 2001 season.
Gruden was able to inject some life into Tampa Bay’s offense, but had to add eight free agents – running back Michael Pittman, wide receivers Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius, offensive linemen Roman Oben and Kerry Jenkins, tight ends Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley and quarterback Rob Johnson – because the cupboard on offense was so bare. The Bucs were fortunate to win a Super Bowl in 2002, because in ’03 – the team’s last year of their window of opportunity – injuries, questionable coaching by Gruden, and a “fat cat” syndrome set in as egos ran amuck at One Buc Place, dooming the team’s chances for repeating as Super Bowl champs.
Age and the salary cap caught up with the Bucs in 2004, as they do with just about every team that wins the Super Bowl. In a five-year window of opportunity, the Bucs did not make the most of their run, largely because of poor talent and playcalling on offense. The Patriots have been a bit more balanced team, thanks largely to the play of Pro Bowl quarterback Tom Brady, have drafted better, and have made the most of their opportunities during their Super Bowl run.
FAB 5. Here’s a couple of items to hold you over until next week:
• There is not much to report on the free agent front, other than the fact that wide receiver Joe Jurevicius being heavily pursued by Seattle. Former Tampa Bay starting nose tackle Chartric Darby signed with the Seahawks on Saturday, but he was expendable as the Bucs are very high on Damien Gregory, who is currently slated to replace Darby in 2005. Behind Michael Clayton and Joey Galloway, the team only has Edell Shepherd, which will make losing Jurevicius a little tough. But for those who think Jurevicius is the “second coming” or starter material based on his ever-important 71-yard catch-and-run against Philadelphia in the NFC Championship Game, and his two-TD performance at Philadelphia in the 2003 season opener, the fact that he has yet to be signed after three weeks on the free agent market speaks volumes in NFL front office circles. Jurevicius won’t get a bank-breaking contract in free agency and will end up as a third wide receiver in either Tampa Bay or Seattle. He’s a good – not great – player when he’s healthy. But in Tampa Bay, he has refused to play unless he’s 100 percent, and that has been an issue. One more note on Seattle, with former Bucs personnel director Tim Ruskell now serving as the team president, Mike Holmgren will likely be coaching on borrowed time.
• Next week’s SR’s Fab Five will be filled with draft scoop, but in the meantime, here are a couple of draft tidbits. For those who prefer Tampa Bay draft Auburn running back Ronnie Brown instead of teammate Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, go back and look at the game film. Who did Auburn trust with the ball the most on third downs? Who got the ball near the goal line? The answer? Williams, whose 45 rushing touchdowns to Brown’s 28 scores should speak volumes. Keep in mind that when Williams returned from an injury in 2002, he, not Brown, who was more than effective as a replacement, was the Tigers’ starter for the 2003 and ’04 seasons. This info, coupled with the fact that the Bucs coached Williams and not Brown at the Senior Bowl, should tell you which back Tampa Bay prefers.
• Don’t be surprised to see the Bucs use two of the team’s 11 picks on running backs in the upcoming draft. Tampa Bay would like to have a stable of three capable halfbacks, and that never happened last year as Michael Pittman missed the first three games due to an NFL suspension, Charlie Garner missed the final 13 after tearing his patella tendon and Jamal White never panned out as the third-string option. With the likelihood that Garner may not be here after June 1 as a possible cap casualty, or certainly past the 2005 season, the Bucs want to remake their backfield. Miami’s Frank Gore would be an intriguing option for the team on the second day, even if the Bucs were to draft Auburn’s Cadillac Williams or California’s J.J. Arrington on the first day.
• PewterReport.com is likely the first place you’ll hear this, but the Bucs have a pressing need to draft a cornerback, even with the addition of Juran Bolden, who is expected to compete with Torrie Cox for the nickel back assignment. Bolden is 30, Pro Bowl corner Ronde Barber will turn 30 on April 7 and fellow cornerback Brian Kelly is 29, and the Bucs want to get younger at this position. Specifically, Tampa Bay will need to groom an eventual replacement for Barber, whose contract expires after the 2006 season and is set to have cap values of $5.1 million in ’05 and $4.8 million in ’06. While the Bucs will draft a cornerback on the first day, it likely won’t be in the first-round, although the team is smitten with West Virginia’s Adam “Pac-Man” Jones and is also fond of Miami’s Antrell Rolle. A more probable scenario has the Bucs drafting a cornerback with one of their two third-round picks. Florida State’s Bryant McFadden and Nebraska’s Fabian Washington are on Tampa Bay’s radar screen. It may not seem obvious at first, but cornerback is a big need at One Buc Place.
• Finally, various league sources tell PewterReport.com that the projected top 5 in the NFL Draft is settling into place as pro day workouts come to an end. Here’s what we’ve been hearing:
1. San Francisco – QB Aaron Rodgers (California)
2. Miami – RB Ronnie Brown (Auburn)
3. Cleveland – QB Alex Smith (Utah)
4. Chicago – WR Braylon Edwards (Michigan)
5. Tampa Bay – a Williams, either Cadillac (Auburnn) or Mike (USC)
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