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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. Ronde Barber’s name has come up quite frequently this offseason. Whether it is a reporter pining for a raise for Barber or Barber being mentioned in possible trade whispers across the Internet, Tampa Bay’s Pro Bowl cornerback has his name firmly stuck in the rumor mill. But why?
There has been some friction between Barber and Bucs management lately. He has been approached over the last two years about restructuring his contract in order to create some much-needed salary cap room, but has failed to oblige. Instead, Barber suggested and hinted that he get a pay raise, although he has never demanded one to Pewter Report’s knowledge.
Towards the end of the 2004 season, he spoke openly about the team’s lack of discipline, echoing some of the comments made by outspoken defensive end Simeon Rice, who called out Jon Gruden. While he publicly supported Gruden on his weekly radio show last fall, that may have been just a facade.
Barber is one of the Bucs’ most important players on defense. Not only can he cover wide receivers in man or zone coverage, he has great instincts, has a nose for the football and is the team’s best blitzer in nickel defense.
But Barber turns 30 on April 7, and with two years remaining on his contract, he is vulnerable and his future with the team is in doubt. While the cap-strapped Bucs would not cut him and give him away for nothing, a trade would not be out of the question since doing so would clear approximately $2.3 million of cap room this year. But if the Bucs do plan to rid themselves of Barber they would be much better off doing so after the 2005 season.
If Barber was shipped off to Indianapolis where he could be reunited with former Tampa Bay head coach Tony Dungy in exchange for disgruntled running back Edgerrin James, the Bucs’ secondary would become extremely vulnerable. Tampa Bay would be forced to start Torrie Cox, a rookie or a free agent acquisition opposite Brian Kelly in 2005.
Cox proved last year that he is a work-in-progress, and a rookie would likely go through his share of a learning curve, too. Free agent corners have never panned out in Tampa Bay under Monte Kiffin. Terrell Buckley, Tom Knight and Mario Edwards are prime examples of veterans who failed to grasp the intricacies of the Bucs’ schemes and didn’t last long. The Bucs are hoping to sign cornerback Juran Bolden, but he isn’t starting material and would likely replace Edwards as the nickel corner.
The fact that the Bucs will be breaking in a new safety to start opposite Jermaine Phillips is also another good reason to hang on to Barber for at least another season. The last thing Kiffin needs is to break in a new starting corner, a new nickel corner and a new starting safety.
While Tampa Bay didn’t draft a cornerback last year until it acquired training camp fodder in Lenny Williams in the seventh round, the Bucs will surely target a cornerback or two in this year’s draft. The Bucs have had tremendous success selecting cornerbacks in the second and third rounds, coming away with Donnie Abraham (third round, 1996), Barber (third round, 1997), Kelly (second round, 1998) and Dwight Smith (third round, 2001).
Although the cornerback position hasn’t been talked about as much as the Bucs’ lack of depth at wide receiver, running back, offensive line and defensive tackle, Pewter Report is telling you that it is a priority. All appearances suggest the Bucs will draft a wide receiver or a running back with their first-round pick, especially with the offensive-minded Gruden at the helm, but it should be noted that general manager Bruce Allen was on-hand with a contingent of scouts at the pro day workout of Miami’s Antrell Rolle last week and Kiffin was at Adam “Pac-Man” Jones’ workout at West Virginia on Friday. Rolle and Jones have top 5 talent and are vying to be the first cornerback off the board come April 23.
While the Bucs drafting a cornerback at number five can’t be ruled out completely, expect Tampa Bay to use one of its third-round picks on a corner instead. Florida State’s Bryant McFadden, LSU’s Corey Webster and Oklahoma State’s Darrent Williams are some names to keep in mind.
Tampa Bay appears to be in a pickle regarding Barber. Because they haven’t groomed his successor, they are pretty much forced to keep him this year, which is certainly not the end of the world. But there will come a day when Barber will demand a pay raise, especially with players like Fred Smoot and Ken Lucas getting ridiculous signing bonuses and contracts in free agency this spring.
The Bucs won’t be in position to give Barber a raise for fear of having to do the same for Kelly, who is a year younger and is every bit as good as Barber is right now. Kelly debated holding out in 2003, but wound up reporting to training camp instead. However, his agent is Gary Uberstine, who is the same agent for Keenan McCardell – and we all know how that saga ended.
Not only will the Bucs draft a cornerback with the aspiration that he could become the team’s nickel corner this year, but they will likely be counting on him to be Barber’s replacement in 2006.
FAB 2. The Internet has been filled with various mock drafts, suggesting that the Bucs will be taking a wide receiver or a running back in this year’s draft. But what no one has reported is the possible nightmare draft day scenario that would send Tampa Bay’s war room reeling.
What if San Francisco waited until the second round to select Auburn quarterback Jason Campbell and took Michigan wide receiver Braylon Edwards with the first overall pick instead of California quarterback Aaron Rodgers or Utah passer Alex Smith?
What if Miami, who desperately needs a ground game, took Auburn running back Ronnie Brown with the second pick in the first round?
And what if Cleveland shocked the masses and drafted Texas running back Cedric Benson to beef up its rushing attack?
That would leave the Chicago Bears in position to draft Southern California wide receiver Mike Williams with the fourth overall pick and leave the Bucs without any worthy wide receiver options with the fifth overall pick.
What if the Bucs couldn’t trade down and were faced with drafting Auburn running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams or drafting a cornerback – Miami’s Antrell Rolle or West Virginia’s Adam “Pac-Man” Jones?
While Williams, Rolle or Jones would certainly help the Bucs, the draft would be dictating to Tampa Bay rather than the Bucs dictating the draft. It is Pewter Report’s belief that the three top players the Bucs are considering at number five are Edwards, Brown and Williams in that order. Those three players would be gone for Tampa Bay in this nightmare scenario on draft day.
FAB 3. One of the Bucs’ best offseason moves was extending the contract of defensive end Greg Spires. Not only did it free up needed salary cap room, Tampa Bay ensured Spires would be a Buc for the foreseeable future.
The hard-working Spires was the team’s best defensive lineman in 2004, recording personal bests in tackles (88) sacks (eight), forced fumbles (three) and fumble recoveries (two). Most of those gaudy stats came at his natural left end position, but Spires also saw action at under tackle over the last three games of the season and was a real force inside.
So with his new contract extension, did the Bucs discuss playing Spires at under tackle, a key position along the defensive line that was hit hard by injuries last season when Ellis Wyms and Anthony “Booger” McFarland were both placed on injured reserve?
“I’m happy playing left end,” Spires said. “That’s where I want to play. If they really want me to play under tackle I will, but I really doubt I will play there with Booger and Ellis coming back. I’d just as soon stay at left end and build on what I did last year.”
Spires improved his stock with the coaching staff by being willing and able to play under tackle, and while he will almost certainly be Tampa Bay’s starting left end in 2005, defensive line coach Rod Marinelli may shuffle the lineup a bit in certain situations and move Spires inside for a couple of plays to create a mismatch.
The Bucs also want to help third-year defensive end Dewayne White get on the field more in 2005. White had a breakthrough season last year, notching 29 tackles and a career-high six sacks. White got a few starts at left end while Spires was playing under tackle, but also played some under tackle as well in passing situations.
Tampa Bay is hoping that McFarland and Wyms will come back strong from their injuries and battle it out for the starting under tackle spot. But if injury or ineffectiveness affects the three-technique spot once again, Spires or White may have to step in, unless the Bucs wind up drafting another under tackle prospect in April, which is a possibility.
FAB 4. A year after taking significant steps to upgrade its special teams coverage and return units, Tampa Bay might be taking a step backwards in these areas. In 2004, the Bucs added key special teamers in linebackers Keith Burns and Jeff Gooch, re-signed safety John Howell and cornerback Corey Ivy, and added speedy return man and coverage ace Frank Murphy. Where do the Bucs’ special teams stand right now?
At this point in time, Burns, Howell, Ivy and Murphy have yet to be re-signed, and Tampa Bay also lost a valuable special teamer in Dwight Smith to New Orleans in free agency. Word out of One Buc Place is that Ivy may not be back, but look for Howell and possibly Burns to be brought back.
But what about Murphy? After winning the kick return job in the preseason with several long returns, Murphy dazzled the Bucs on opening day at Washington with a 54-yard return in addition to a return over 70 yards, which was called back due to a penalty. Murphy averaged 31.3 yards per return that day, but saw his season cut short a few weeks later after blowing out his Achilles’ tendon against Denver.
Murphy was slated to be a restricted free agent this spring, but was not tendered a contract due to the fact that he is still recovering from his injury. He is expected to be ready to pass a physical by April 15, and there is a chance the Bucs could be interested in re-signing him at that time or even later in the summer, which would be a wise thing to do.
Considering that the Bucs have never returned a kickoff for a touchdown in their 29 years of existence, pairing Murphy with Torrie Cox, both of whom averaged 26 yards per kick return in 2004, would be a deadly combination. Who would you want to kick to if you were the opposing team’s head coach? Both players have quickness and home-run ability in addition to the toughness to break tackles. Cox and Murphy would also be willing blockers for each other, too.
With the Bucs losing Ivy and Smith this year, the team will need to find new gunners on punt coverage. Those two players have set the bar high over the last three seasons, but the tandem of Murphy and Cox could likely handle the job in this area of special teams, too.
Murphy has a strong ally in special teams coach Richard Bisaccia, who believes in him. Hopefully, he has just as strong an ally in general manager Bruce Allen, who can also see how effective having Murphy and Cox could be in routinely bringing the ball out past the 30-yard line so that Jon Gruden’s offense could have the best starting field position possible.
FAB 5 Here’s a couple of items to hold you over until next week:
• Wide receiver Michael Clayton is still finding ways to impress the Bucs coaching staff – even in the offseason. Coming off a great rookie season, Clayton, last year’s first-round pick, is playing an active role in helping the team find new talent this year. Not only did Clayton attend former USC wide receiver Mike Williams’ pro day workout at the University of South Florida on Thursday, March 10, he also attended the Senior Bowl game and worked the sidelines of the Bucs-coach South squad, talking to players and getting a feel for who they are. Some up-close and personal scouting if you will.
“I had a couple of people I’ve played against and wanted to see come out,” Clayton said, recalling the Senior Bowl in January. “I wanted to be there for those guys to let them know that I’m a living witness. I came out early and I overcame a lot of things to be successful in the league. My best friend, Marcus Spears, was coming out and I really tried to relax him and to show him the ropes and be the whisper in his ear. I was just trying to tell him what to do and what not to do to have that perfect meeting with these coaches.”
Clayton said he was happy to help the Bucs coaching staff and front office, even if it was on his own personal time.
“I love these guys,” Clayton said of the Bucs’ brass. “They’re awesome. They treat me like a king. You just try to give them the same respect. When they want you to be there, they’ll let you know. I’ll take the time out. I’m not doing anything. I flew into Louisiana and then drove to Alabama. I called our coaching staff and got me and my friend on the sidelines to watch.”
And do some scouting.
• The Bucs were well represented at the West Virginia pro day, and not just to see cornerback Adam “Pac-Man” Jones. Tampa Bay was interested in seeing running back Kay-Jay Harris, a Tampa native whom the coaches had coached at the Senior Bowl. Harris rushed for 1,483 yards and 14 touchdowns on 256 carries (5.8 avg.) for the Mountaineers, and also demonstrated his great hands by hauling in 25 passes for 292 yards and three touchdowns. He began his senior season with a bang, rushing for 337 yards and four touchdowns against East Carolina before injuring a hamstring that limited his effectiveness for the rest of the season. Harris only topped the century mark three other times in 2004 (142 yards vs. Maryland, 112 yards vs. Boston College and 134 yards vs. Florida State). He finished the season with 959 yards rushing. At 6-foot, 235 pounds, Harris is one of the better athletes in this draft and posted a vertical jump of 40 inches and was timed at 4.47 and 4.51 in his 40-yard dashes. Harris is a running back whom the Bucs could be interested in in the fourth round, but a concern is the fact that he is 26 years old. Harris played several years of minor league baseball before playing football at West Virginia for two seasons.
• The Bucs front office may be a little leery of restructuring the contract of under tackle Anthony McFarland. The team has approached Karl Benard, McFarland’s agent on a number of occasions this winter to let him know that restructuring McFarland’s deal could be necessary in order to clear more salary cap room, but general manager Bruce Allen hasn’t pulled the trigger yet despite the oft-injured McFarland having a $4.7 million cap value in 2005. Why? There may be some hesitation in restructuring the contract because it would likely call for an extension to be worked out. McFarland is already signed through 2008 and if he does not stay healthy or does not raise his level of play this season, the Bucs may want to unload him and his huge salary in 2006 when his cap value will rise to $6.2 million.
This story is intended to be read by Pewter Insider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers. Be sure to read the latest issue of Pewter Report on-line in PDF format on PewterReport.com. Buccaneers merchandise in the world.
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: email@example.com