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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. The addition of Arkansas quarterback Matt Jones to the South squad of the Senior Bowl is an interesting one. With the South’s three quarterbacks already named – Auburn’s Jason Campbell, Georgia’s David Greene and Arizona State’s Andrew Walter – the Senior Bowl committee made a special provision for Jones to participate as a tight end/wide receiver, since he will likely have to play another position other than quarterback in the NFL. Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Jon Gruden will get an up close look at the 6-foot-6, 237-pound Jones, who oozes athleticism, and gets the opportunity to creatively use the former Razorback.
While he finished his Arkansas career by completing 417-of-755 passes (55.2 percent) for 5,857 yards with 53 touchdowns and 30 interceptions, it is Jones’ ability to run with the ball that has NFL scouts intrigued. Jones is the SEC’s all-time leading rusher with 2,535 yards on 382 carries (6.6 avg.) and scored 24 rushing touchdowns. His 4.55 speed is faster than some running backs and receivers who will be available in this year’s draft and allowed him to have eight runs of 39 yards or longer, including six of 50 or longer. That doesn’t include a 78-yard touchdown against Auburn in 2003 that was negated, either.
Jones doesn’t have the lightning-like quickness that NFL quarterbacks like Michael Vick and Donovan McNabb have, but he does have tremendous straight-line speed that allows him to outrace linebackers and safeties, as he did on a 72-yard touchdown jaunt against Ole Miss to cap off a day in which he had five rushes for 126 yards in 2004.
During his senior season, Jones completed 151-of-264 passes for 2,073 yards and 15 touchdowns with 12 interceptions, but he also rushed for 622 yards on 83 carries, scoring six touchdowns on the ground. In addition to the game against Ole Miss, Jones also topped the century mark in rushing with 111 yards on 10 carries and scoring a touchdown, too.
As a junior in 2003, Jones completed 132-of-230 passes for 1,917 yards with 18 touchdowns and seven interceptions. But again, focus on the rushing aspect to Jones’ game. He tallied 707 yards on the ground on just 96 carries, and scored eight times. He had seven carries for 132 yards and three touchdowns against New Mexico State. Against Kentucky, he had 15 carries for 112 yards and a touchdown. Versus Texas, Jones had a 62-yard run against the Longhorns and finished the day with 102 yards and one score on 12 carries.
With the NFL looking for tight ends in unconventional places, such as college basketball (see Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez, San Diego’s Antonio Gates and Indianapolis’ Marcus Pollard), scouts from all teams – including Tampa Bay – will have an eye out for Jones at the Senior Bowl. The big question will be whether he can effectively and consistently catch the ball or not. Jones does have four catches for 58 yards to his credit at Arkansas, and by the way, he did play basketball for the Razorbacks, too.
Jones lacks the mechanics, fundamentals and sound decision-making to be a quarterback at the next level. But due to the fact that he was a quarterback in college, he should make a quicker transition to tight end or wide receiver in the pros because he was called upon to read defenses at the line of scrimmage. The Bucs have a pressing need for tight ends as the contracts for Ken Dilger, Rickey Dudley and Dave Moore all expire in March. All three of those tight ends are also over the age of 33.
Jones never had a 300-yard passing day for the Razorbacks and only had 200 yards passing on four occasions during his senior campaign. He simply managed the Arkansas offense rather than orchestrated it. It will be interesting to see how Gruden uses him during practice and in the Senior Bowl game itself. All eyes will be on Jones at the Senior Bowl to see if he can make the transition from college quarterback to another position in the NFL as Bert Emanuel and Antwaan Randle-El did.
FAB 2. Before I discuss some more likely draft day targets of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I’d like to discuss Michael Pittman fumbles this season and put them into perspective if I can.
First, I think Pittman is a good, productive player whose skills fit Jon Gruden’s offense well. Pittman is not an elite back and will never become a Pro Bowler because his game has too many deficiencies, such as his upright running style, a lack of balance and vision and the inability to make something happen out of nothing. In other words, he is not a creative runner.
Second, Pittman fumbled six times this year and lost all six fumbles, which proved to be costly for the Bucs in several games. Without those six plays, Pittman is perhaps more glorified by the media and more appreciated by Bucs fans. After all, the guy nearly rushed for 1,000 yards despite missing the first three games of the season, and he scored a career-high 10 touchdowns. His improvement from 2003 to 2004 is undeniable.
However, those fumbles will cause the Bucs to look at for a back in free agency and/or draft a running back in the first three rounds of the 2005 draft because if they continue at the present pace or escalate next season, Pittman will quickly be out of the league. His fumbles caused some team chemistry issues at the end of the 2004 season, but Gruden was forced to play him because Pittman was the most productive rusher by 800 yards on the team and the head coach didn’t have the same confidence in reserves like Mike Alstott, and youngsters such as Ian Smart and Earnest Graham.
But in analyzing Pittman’s fumbles throughout his career, it’s important to note that the six fumbles is not too out of the ordinary for him. What is out of the ordinary is the fact that not one fumble was recovered by himself or one of his teammates. While the fumbles are ultimately the responsibility of the running back who coughed up the ball, it is nice when that player’s teammates help out by preventing those fumbles from becoming turnovers.
Pittman fumbled 10 times in his last two years in Arizona prior to becoming a Buccaneer – five times each in 2000 and 2001, which was one less fumble than he had in 2004. He lost three of those five fumbles in 2000, while touching the ball 314 times, and lost two fumbles in 2001, while touching the ball 246 times. In 2000, Pittman fumbled every 62.8 times he touched the ball, and lost the ball every 104.6 times he touched the rock. In 2001, he fumbled every 49.2 times he touched the pigskin, and but only turned it over every 123rd touch.
In his first year in Tampa Bay in 2002, Pittman touched the ball 263 times, fumbling on three occasions and only losing one fumble. That represented a fumble every 87.6 touch, and a turnover every 263rd touch. In 2003, he touched the ball 262 times and fumbled four times, but only lost the ball once to the other team. That represented a fumble every 65.5 times Pittman touched the ball, and a turnover every 262nd touch.
The fact that he had seasons with five fumbles (2000, 2001) and one with four fumbles (2003) shouldn’t make Pittman’s six fumbles in 2004 seem so unusual, especially because he touched the ball 260 times, which is roughly the same amount of times he possessed the ball in 2001 and 2003. However, Pittman has never lost more than three fumbles to the opposition in one year prior to 2004. Last year, he doubled that total with all six of his fumbles resulting in turnovers. Pittman averaged a fumble and a turnover every 43.3 times he touched the ball in 2004. The fact that all six of those fumbles ended up in enemy arms was the real problem for Pittman and the Bucs.
Through 101 career games, Pittman has fumbled 27 times and turned the ball over 15 times. On average, Pittman will fumble once every 3.7 games and turn the ball over once every 6.7 games. Believe it or not, that number ranks favorably with some other NFC rushers such as Carolina’s Stephen Davis, the New York Giants’ Tiki Barber and New Orleans’ Deuce McAllister.
Davis has played in 115 games in his pro career, fumbling the ball 22 times and losing 15 of those fumbles. While Davis doesn’t fumble as much, an average of just once in every 5.2 games, he turns the ball over nearly as often – an average of once every 7.6 games.
Barber, who is extremely productive despite his notorious reputation as a fumbler, has played in 122 career games and fumbled 40 times. That means he averages a fumble every 3.1 games and a turnover in every 4.2 games.
McAllister has played in 61 games in his NFL career and has 16 fumbles, which means he fumbles once every 3.8 games he plays in. However, due to the fact that he has lost 11 of those fumbles, McAllister turns the ball over an average of every 5.5 games.
Pittman had a year in which he didn’t do a good job of protecting the ball, and when he coughed it up, neither he nor his teammates were able to recover the fumble and keep possession of the ball. Part of that is just bad luck. If you don’t believe me, just ask Alstott, who has been labeled a fumbler despite having only two seasons in which he lost five or more fumbles (five in 1998 and six in1999). Alstott has 31 career fumbles in his nine years in the league, and 24 of them have been turnovers because neither he nor his teammates could recover the ball.
Alstott fumbled four times in 1996, losing the ball twice. He fumbled five times in 1997, turning the ball over three times. In 1998 and 1999, Alstott fumbled five and six times, respectively, with 11 fumbles becoming turnovers.
Since 2000, Alstott’s fumbles declined. During that season, he fumbled three times and lost two of those fumbles. In 2001, Alstott fumbled twice and lost both. In 2002, Alstott fumbled four times, despite only touching the ball 181 times that season, but lost only two of them. After not fumbling in four games in 2003, the A-Train fumbled twice in 2004 despite only logging 96 touches, but lost both fumbles.
Alstott would not have been labeled a fumbler if he or his teammates had landed on more loose balls. The same goes for Pittman. Still, Pittman must do a better job of holding on to the ball regardless.
FAB 3. Under Bucs head coach Jon Gruden, Tampa Bay has drafted two smallish punt return prospects in the seventh round, Kansas State’s Aaron Lockett in 2002 and Tennessee’s Mark Jones in 2004. Neither player wound up making the roster (the Bucs had hoped Jones would clear waivers so that they could sneak him on their practice squad, but the New York Giants claimed him off of waivers before that could take place), and Tampa Bay’s punt return game has suffered as a result.
During the 2004 season, Tampa Bay attempted to sign rookie Wes Welker to its practice squad, but Miami wound up signing him to its active roster instead. Welker ended up becoming a special teams standout for the Dolphins this past season.
With the Bucs still having a need for a game-breaking punt returner who can dramatically shift field position and even score on occasion, look for the team to once again draft a punt return man in the later rounds of the draft. The player Tampa Bay could be (and should be) targeting is Hawaii wide receiver Chad Owens.
Known as “Mighty Mouse” for his 5-foot-7, 175-pound frame, Owens has the same body type and speed that Lockett and Jones possessed, only he is a much more accomplished return man and receiver. That could mean that he would have to be targeted in the sixth round as opposed to the seventh.
In 2004, Owens returned five punts for touchdowns, which was more punt return scores than Ohio State’s Ted Ginn, Jr. (four), Miami’s Devin Hester (three) and USC’s Reggie Bush (two) had. Owens averaged 14.75 yards per return on 36 returns as a senior. Throughout his Hawaii career, Owens has averaged 11.9 yards per punt return and scored a total of six times.
Owens has also hauled in 239 catches for 3,031 yards and scored 29 receiving touchdowns over his Warriors career. His best season came as a senior in which he set career highs with 102 catches for 1,290 yards and 17 touchdowns. Owens, a former walk-on, had landmark games against Tulsa (eight catches for 182 yards, two TDs), Northwestern (nine grabs for 155 yards, four touchdowns and a punt return TD), Michigan State (13 catches for 283 yards and four scores) and UAB (eight catches for 114 yards with two TDs and a punt return score).
As a junior, Owens logged 85 receptions for 1,134 yards and nine touchdowns. As a freshman, he had two kickoff returns for touchdowns and also returned a punt for a touchdown. In Hawaii’s season-ending 72-45 drubbing of BYU in 2001, Owens had four punt returns for 93 yards and a touchdown, and also returned six kickoffs for 249 yards (41.5 avg.) and a score.
Like Welker, Owens doesn’t have a blistering 40-yard dash time. In fact, he will likely time in the 4.5’s at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. However, he has electric feet, tremendous quickness, great toughness and an uncanny ability to start and stop and make defenders miss on returns. As a receiver, he runs great routes, has solid hands and is not afraid to go across the middle.
Owens, who won the 2004 Mosi Tatupu Award for the best senior special teamer in college football, would be an ideal pick in the sixth round for a Tampa Bay team that needs to add some playmaking ability to its wide receiving corps and some juice in its punt return game.
FAB 4. Speaking of Mosi Tatupu, the son of the legendary New England Patriots running back and special teamer has opted to forego his senior season and enter the NFL Draft. Lofa Tatupu, a junior middle linebacker for the two-time national champion USC Trojans is expected to be drafted between rounds 2-4, depending on how fast he times in his pro day workout later this spring, and expect the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to be interested.
The 6-0, 225-pound Tatupu has the ideal size and quickness to play in Tampa Bay’s one-gap defense. In fact, he played a similar style of defense for the Trojans under defensive-minded head coach Pete Carroll. Carroll has visited One Buccaneer Place and watched Buccaneers practices several times in the offseason and happens to be very close with defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, whose son Lane, is the Trojans’ wide receivers coach.
Tatupu transferred to USC from Maine in 2003 and immediately made an impact in his first game as the starting middle linebacker, recording 12 tackles against Auburn and helping the Trojans shut down the Tigers’ deadly running back duo of Carnell “Cadillac” Williams and Ronnie Brown. Against Oregon State and 2004 first-round draft pick running back Steven Jackson, Tatupu had 14 tackles, one forced fumble, one fumble recovery, two sacks and two interceptions. In the 2003 Rose Bowl, Tatupu shined again, notching 12 tackles and recording a key interception against Michigan.
He finished his sophomore season at USC with a team-high 98 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, 10 pass breakups, four interceptions, three sacks, and a touchdown against California.
In 2004, Tatupu once again led the team in tackles with 104, including 13.5 tackles for loss. He also had six sacks, three interceptions, eight pass breakups, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. Tatupu was a seek-and-destroy player for Division I-A’s second-ranked run defense. The next closest USC defender in terms of tackles was outside linebacker Matt Grootegood, who had 68 stops in 2004. The Bucs will also want to take a look at Grootegood, who may be a weakside linebacker or a strong safety at the next level.
Tatupu capped off his college career with 12 tackles against Adrian Peterson and Oklahoma, and also recorded a sack of quarterback Jason White. After consulting with his father, who was a former USC running back who played for the Patriots from 1978-1990, Tatupu opted to go pro after two extremely productive seasons in college.
With Tampa Bay looking to upgrade its run defense, which finished the season ranked 19th, giving up 123 yards rushing per game, Tatupu would be a player who could help. Because the Trojans play a similar defensive scheme to Tampa Bay’s defense, and deploy some of the same Cover 2 elements, Tatupu’s ability to drop in coverage and make plays on the ball, evidenced by seven interceptions and 18 pass breakups, would fit nicely with what Kiffin does defensively. And don’t think for a minute that Tampa Bay linebackers coach Joe Barry, who was a USC linebacker himself, wouldn’t like to coach a stud Trojan.
Shelton Quarles, Tampa Bay’s starting middle linebacker, will be 34 next year and is set to have a salary cap value of $3.57 million in 2005. Jeff Gooch, Quarles’ backup, will be 31 next year and despite receiving quite a bit of playing time in 2004, he doesn’t appear to have starter qualities. If drafted in the second or third round, Tatupu could help the Bucs defense get younger, cheaper, and hopefully better in 2005.
FAB 5 Here’s a couple of items to hold you over until next week:
• I spoke with wide receiver Joey Galloway’s agent, Shawn Trell, this week to ask him about the status of his client and if he has had any discussions with the Buccaneers about signing an extension. Trell said that it is still early and that he did not envision anything happening with his client for some time – likely not until general manager Bruce Allen restructures the contract of quarterback Brian Griese and others to clear approximately $14 million worth of salary cap space.
• You probably heard about Northern Colorado senior wide receiver and sleeper NFL Draft prospect Vincent Jackson right here in SR’s Fab Five on November 4. You’ll be hearing a lot about Jackson, who will be at the Senior Bowl, in the coming weeks. Here’s another small school sleeper you’ll need to know about: Pearl River Community College sophomore wide receiver Larry Brackins. Brackins, who is a 6-foot-5, 220-pound man-child and has been described by some as a Terrell Owens-type player, recently declared for the NFL Draft on the heels of catching 11 passes for 167 yards and touchdowns in Pearl River’s 35-14 national JUCO championship victory. Brackins finished his sophomore year with 55 catches for 1,117 yards and had 11 touchdowns. He also had three punt returns for touchdowns. Brackins originally signed with Troy State out of high school in 2002, but wound up at Feather Ridge (Calif.) CC where he played basketball. He transferred to Pearl River CC a year later and caught 45 passes for 772 yards and nine touchdowns as a freshman. Before opting for the NFL, Brackins was considered the top JUCO prospect in the college ranks, and was being recruited by the likes of USC, Texas A&M, Miami (Fla.), Florida State, Auburn and other elite colleges. The athletic Brackins, who has NBA-level vertical leap to go along with his 4.5 speed, also played hoops for Pearl River in 2003 and averaged 17 points and 9 rebounds per game. It is unclear where Brackins will be drafted at this point as NFL scouts are still scrambling to locate and watch Pearl River CC games, but his size, speed, hands, physical presence and leaping ability make him intriguing. He has the ability to adjust to the ball in the air and has great run-after-catch ability according to scouts. “He’s as difficult to defend as anyone in the country,” Hatten said. “Larry is 6-5 and a tremendous leaper with great hands and very good speed. He’s tall, strong, fast and runs great routes. You just can’t guard him man-to-man and he is great with yards after the catch.” We’re not sure if the Bucs are interested in Brackins, who may have some deficiencies in some areas such as intelligence or study habits (otherwise he would have been playing Division I-A football rather than JUCO ball), but Brackins is a player you’ll be hearing a lot about in the near future. You heard about him first right here.
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen met with virtually every Buccaneers player privately at the end of the season to discuss the player’s future with the team and how that person’s value relates to the salary cap. Allen wanted to talk with the players first before he spoke with their agents. This way, Allen can communicate directly with the player and appeal to him directly first without having to go through a filter such as an agent. This practice could pay dividends when it comes time to call upon some high-priced players to restructure their contracts to help Tampa Bay’s very tight salary cap situation.
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