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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are wrestling with the decision on what to do with strongside linebacker Ian Gold prior to March 2 when the team has to get under the NFL-mandated salary cap, which is expected to be around $85 million. Gold had a salary cap value of $833,333 in 2004, but his cap number jumps up to over $2.8 million in 2005 thanks to a $2.6 million option bonus. Adding in Gold’s cap value along with those of Derrick Brooks ($9.6 million) and Shelton Quarles ($3.5 million), and Tampa Bay’s starting linebacker corps accounts for roughly $16 million, which is about 17 percent of the Bucs’ entire salary cap for the coming year.
The Bucs were thrilled with Gold’s play last season as he became the first strongside linebacker under Monte Kiffin to notch the century mark in tackles. Gold finished with 120 tackles, which ranked third behind Brooks (172) and Quarles (163), and had one interception and half a sack. His four tackles for loss were the most of any Bucs linebacker and second only to cornerback Ronde Barber, who posted nine.
Gold had 11 games in which he posted at least seven tackles, which is quite a feat for a player who routinely came off the field when Tampa Bay went with its nickel defense package.
At the end of the season, Gold expressed some displeasure about his role as a strongside linebacker, which might seem a bit curious considering that he said he played that position in Denver although it was called the weakside linebacker with the Broncos. However, after a season in Tampa Bay, Gold stated in the Tampa Tribune that he wanted to play the true weakside position in the Bucs defense, but wisely noted that there is a player who has been to eight-straight Pro Bowls currently occupying that spot in Brooks.
The Bucs want to keep Gold, and keep him happy because they will likely call upon him to restructure his contract and help the team’s woeful salary cap situation, which is currently $14 million over the cap. At the young age of 26, Gold’s speed and striking ability rivals Brooks and he very could well be his successor at the ever-important “Will” linebacker spot in Tampa Bay.
The logical thing to do would be to open up the competition for the middle linebacker (or “Mike” linebacker) in Tampa Bay’s nickel defense. That position is currently held by Quarles, who is adept at zone coverage and dropping deep downfield in a pure Cover 2 defense, but any chance to make Gold an every down player could help bide the time for when he takes over for Brooks. This possible move is already being tossed around behind the walls of One Buccaneer Place, but there are those who are “Quarles loyalists” who don’t want to tinker with the success the defense has had with him patrolling the middle of the field on third downs and other long-yardage situations that called for nickel defense.
The bottom line is that Gold’s production, upside and youthful age must be heavily considered and dealt with very delicately. If Gold is seen as an ideal successor to Brooks’ position, which is a key cog in Monte Kiffin’s defense, Tampa Bay should not let him go, especially considering the fact that Quarles will be 34 next September and likely having just one season left in Tampa Bay due to his 2006 salary cap number of $4.5 million. The Bucs should at least open up the “Mike” linebacker spot in nickel defense to competition, or just make Gold, who is a solid coverage linebacker, the starter.
If the Bucs don’t come to an agreement with Gold regarding the restructuring of his contract and/or his role in Tampa Bay’s defense, the team might turn to second-year linebacker Marquis Cooper or former starting linebacker Ryan Nece. While finding another high profile linebacker in free agency to replace Gold might seem unlikely due to Tampa Bay’s bad salary cap situation, drafting a linebacker such as Texas’ Derrick Johnson, USC’s Lofa Tatupu, Clemson’s Leroy Hill or San Diego State’s Kirk Morrison could be a possibility.
FAB 2. One of the interesting aspects of watching the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Ala. last week was the difference in practice styles between Tampa Bay and Oakland. Having only watched one team practice – that being the Bucs – in my 10 years of covering the NFL professionally, I was astonished at the difference between the Bucs and Raiders practices.
Tampa Bay has always had a very up-tempo practice style since the arrival of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin in 1996, but the overall tempo increased even more when Jon Gruden arrived in 2002. The Bucs practice at such a fast pace that they get in a lot more reps on offense and defense, which aids in a player’s development. It also helps players to be better conditioned to play in hot, humid climates like the one in Tampa Bay.
Just because Gruden and Co. were coaching some college players at the Senior Bowl didn’t mean they were going to let up in the practice intensity. The only thing that let up a bit in practices was Gruden’s foul language, and that was probably due to the presence of ESPN cameras and the fact that he didn’t yet know these young players. In practice after practice, the Bucs coaches let the players know that they had to do the drills with high intensity and that weren’t going to be babied at the next level, which is exactly what those draft prospects needed to hear. Still, Tampa Bay’s coaches were very upbeat and positive in their constructive criticism.
Conversely, the Raiders staff was conducting practices at a much more relaxed pace. The North squad didn’t get in nearly as many reps as the Bucs’ South squad, and didn’t feature as many 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills either. The NFL scouts in attendance were overheard raving about how “professional” the practices were being run by the Buccaneers. They can’t get enough of the drills that feature player going against player, and quite frankly, that encompassed about half of the South’s practice time. The North practices featured a ton of individual drills with a variety of pads, but didn’t have a lot of “team-oriented” drills.
Although the Bucs haven’t performed well on Sundays during the past two injury-plagued seasons, you can tell why this team won the Super Bowl in 2002 because it was incredibly prepared and ready to play due to their up-tempo practices.
FAB 3. During this year’s Senior Bowl week, several other future NFL draft picks made their way to Mobile – but not to practice or play in the game. They went there to be seen by the greatest collection of NFL general managers, coaches and scouts this side of Indianapolis, where the NFL Scouting Combine will be held later this month.
Players like Arizona State quarterback Andrew Walter, Tennessee left tackle Michael Munoz, Florida middle linebacker Channing Crowder and Pearl River Community College wide receiver Larry Brackins (who visited with the Bucs) were seen mingling with the NFL brass in attendance during the week in Mobile. But one of the more intriguing players to watch from the sidelines was quarterback Adrian McPherson, who was dismissed from Florida State a couple of years ago and was the Arena Football League Rookie of the Year last season.
Pewter Report had a chance to catch up with the Florida native, whose athleticism and upside could see him get drafted as high as the second round. McPherson said the week in Mobile was very beneficial for him in terms of reminding NFL teams that he would be eligible for the 2005 NFL Draft this April.
“It went well,” McPherson said. “I met with a bunch of different teams. It gives them the chance to get a feel for me and the type of person I am, and also it gives them a chance to see how I look now.”
McPherson is referring to the fact that he is no longer a skinny, scrawny, 185-pound rail of a scrambling QB who played at Florida State.
“I’ve bulked up a bit. I’m up to 220 pounds and I’m still 6-foot-4,” McPherson said. “Right now I’m running a 4.46. My goal is to get down into the 4.3’s, but I’m running in the 4.4’s now.
McPherson, who is represented by top quarterback prospect agent Leigh Steinberg, said he was eager to talk to teams and admit mistakes that led to his arrest for involvement with stealing and forging a check, and discuss his alleged Internet gambling issues, which he was not charged with and maintained his innocence about. He also was happy to discuss his AFL success last year with the Firebirds in which he finished the season completing 237-of-397 passes for 3,297 yards and 61 touchdowns. McPherson, who also rushed for 19 touchdowns, which is the most ever by an AFL quarterback, was coached by former Tampa Bay quarterback Steve DeBerg.
“Going into the season I wanted to show people that I could go in and still play football,” McPherson said of his short-lived AFL career. “People haven’t seen me in a couple of years and I wanted to go out and show people that I was better than when I left Florida State. Coach DeBerg gave me a great opportunity and he taught me a lot. He taught me a lot as a quarterback and a professional athlete. I made the most of it.”
The Bucs have been interested in McPherson for some time now, as first reported last fall on PewterReport.com, and spoke with him at length at the Senior Bowl. McPherson was seen speaking with Bucs director of college scouting Ruston Webster and a regional scout, and apparently spoke with head coach Jon Gruden and personnel executive Doug Williams in Mobile as well.
“I talked to Jon and Doug [in Mobile],” McPherson said. “I hope it’s a situation where they take a hard look at me. I actually went to a couple of Bucs games this year and it was pretty exciting. Hopefully they’ll take a good look at me and see that I can play football and know that I’m a good kid. We’ll just see where it goes from there.”
With Chris Simms returning (possibly as a starter) and a chance that Brian Griese’s contract could be worked out to where he could return as the team’s starter, it’s hard to imagine the Bucs spending higher than a third-round pick on McPherson, who believes he will be selected on the first day of the draft, despite some character concerns and the fact he was dismissed from the Seminoles.
“Most definitely I’m a first-day guy,” McPherson said. “Anybody who watched me at Florida State knows that I can play football. That’s why I came to the Senior Bowl. I wanted to see some of these guys who they are saying are first-day guys. To be honest, I don’t see any of them that can do anything I can’t do. I feel like I bring a lot to the table, being able to throw the ball and move and just being a leader. My job now that I’ve met a lot of these [coaches, scouts and general managers] is to go to the NFL Combine and show them what I can do.”
We overheard one scout say this about McPherson during Senior Bowl week, “The best kid at the Senior Bowl isn’t even on the field. It’s the McPherson kid.”
FAB 4. One of the more interesting players at the Senior Bowl this year was Northern Colorado wide receiver Vincent Jackson, a player we first introduced you to in this column a few months back. A year after recording 66 catches for 1,462 yards (22.2 avg.) and 21 touchdowns, Jackson finished his collegiate career with 80 grabs for 1,382 yards (17.3 avg.) and 11 touchdowns despite facing constant double and triple-teaming.
I had the chance to meet the bright, articulate, and yes – big, wide receiver, who is a muscle-bound dude at 6-foot-5 and 235 pounds. I came away very impressed with him. After being a superior player at the Division I-AA level, Jackson was thrilled that he got the chance to go up against upper echelon talent at the Senior Bowl while playing for the North team.
“It feels great,” Jackson said. “I’m glad I got this invitation and it’s finally an opportunity for me to showcase my talents on a level where the questions can be answered. I’ve dominated Division I-AA, but how would I do against the big-time people? I’ve had a great week and felt comfortable here. It’s been a great experience.”
Jackson did take his game to a higher level against the toughest opponents on Northern Colorado’s schedule in 2004, namely Montana, UC-Davis and Division I-A school Florida Atlantic.
“Definitely,” Jackson said. “Those were opportunities where my coach challenged me. He said it was a test. Those teams aren’t your average, everyday opponent. They were a little better than what I was used to seeing. I loved that challenge. I love competition.”
Against Montana, Jackson caught a career-high 15 passes for 227 yards and scored one touchdown. The next week against UC-Davis, he hauled in a personal-best 246 receiving yards and three touchdowns on nine catches. Against Florida Atlantic, Jackson used his big frame and blazing speed to haul in 10 catches for 228 yards and two scores.
In fact, some NFL teams have pondered putting 20 pounds on him and making him the next Tony Gonzalez-type tight end. While Jackson might be open to that role down the road, he is concentrating on playing wide receiver right first at the next level.
“Right now my focus is primarily to play wide receiver,” said Jackson, who will likely get drafted in rounds 3-4. “It’s what I’ve always played. I have the speed and the agility to play the position. If I got on a team and it was going to be something serious for me, maybe we’ll talk about it then.”
While Jackson did not disclose how fast he expects to run in the 40-yard dash this winter for pro scouts, it has been reported that he has 4.5 speed, which is remarkable for someone his size.
“I’ve been invited to Combine and I plan to run fast – pretty fast,” Jackson said. “I can guarantee you that it won’t be tight end speed.”
Because of his physical talents, the fact that he came from a small school and his solid showing in Mobile, Jackson was one of the more sought after players after practice by NFL scouts and coaches.
“I spoke with the Bucs,” Jackson said. “They need some wide receivers. I hope they check out my film and hopefully they like what they see. I’d love to play for Coach Gruden.”
That feeling could be mutual.
FAB 5 Here’s a couple of items to hold you over until next week:
• Tampa Bay has turned down an interview request made by San Francisco for defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin regarding the 49ers defensive coordinator position. The request came shortly after Tomlin re-signed with the Bucs for one year on Wednesday, January 26, a story first broken by PewterReport.com. We have also learned that the Bucs denied Green Bay permission to interview assistant defensive backs coach Raheem Morris for a defensive backs coaching position. Morris’ contract is up at the end of the 2005 season so he, like Tomlin, will be a free agent coach.
• There is some great debate inside One Buccaneer Place regarding Kansas State running back Darren Sproles. The diminutive speedster, who weighs 188 pounds and is just a shade under 5-foot-6, has his fans in the Tampa Bay organization. One source told me during the Senior Bowl week that Sproles would be the MVP of the game. While Akron quarterback Charlie Frye wound up being the game MVP, Spoles was the North squad’s offensive MVP with 55 yards rushing on five carries, including a 24-yard touchdown run. But Bucs head coach Jon Gruden thinks Sproles is too small to play running back in the NFL due to the rigors of pass protection, which is a critical part of being a halfback in his offense. “Do you think he could block Brian Urlacher coming on a blitz?” There is also a concern that because of Sproles’ short arms and penchant for fumbling during his senior season, that ball security may be an issue at the next level. But that isn’t to say that Sproles couldn’t latch on with the Bucs as a returner on special teams.
• Word out of Mobile, Ala. from last week’s Senior Bowl is that Buccaneers quarterback Brad Johnson, who figures to be a salary cap casualty at the end of the month, will likely land in Oakland as a backup to Kerry Collins. Johnson had a very productive year in Norv Turner’s offense in Washington in 1999 and has always had a great relationship with Turner. Baltimore could be another destination due to Johnson having worked with head coach Brian Billick in Minnesota when both were with the Vikings in the mid-1990s.
• Pewter Report spoke with Drew Rosenhaus, the agent for Bucs defensive end Greg Spires, who is set to become a free agent, at the Senior Bowl regarding a signing bonus rumor that we reported last week. Rosenhaus politely said that he does not discuss contract negotiations and did not confirm or deny the rumored request of a $9 million signing bonus for Spires. Pewter Report has learned that the signing bonus that Spires is seeking is in the $6-7 million range as opposed to the $9 million rumor that we noted in last week’s SR’s Fab Five column.
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