SR’s Fab Five appears weekly on PewterReport.com
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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. The best player in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history – linebacker Derrick Brooks – showed everyone on Sunday at the Pro Bowl that he’s still got it. There was Brooks, who will turn 33 on April 18, which is 11 days before the 2006 NFL Draft, racing 59 yards to the end zone with a Trent Green interception. Brooks showed he still had speed – then he kicked it into high gear and weaved a couple of AFC offensive players to record a key touchdown in the NFC’s 23-17 win over the AFC.
Despite a steep salary cap number of $11.657 million in 2006, Brooks is expected to return to Tampa Bay because he still plays at a very high level. But with Brooks entering the twilight of his career, and his salary cap value not once dipping below $10 million over the last four years of his contract, the Buccaneers must think about drafting an heir apparent to Brooks this year, as Tampa Bay did last year when it secured Shelton Quarles’ successor by selecting middle linebacker Barrett Ruud in the second round.
The 2006 group of linebacker prospects in this draft is a talented and deep class. The Buccaneers would like to draft an offensive player in round one – preferably an offensive lineman – but there may not be a player who represents great value with the 23rd pick in the draft. The top two tackles, D’Brickashaw Ferguson and Winston Justice, are expected to be off the board, and there is a growing question as to whether Auburn’s Marcus McNeill is worthy of a late first-round pick.
That could force the Buccaneers into trading down in the first round, or simply staying put and taking the best player available, even if it is on the defensive side. Come to think of it, that line of thinking has its advantages. Right now, the Bucs are forced to keep Brooks around for the foreseeable future because they don’t have a viable replacement at weakside linebacker. Marquis Cooper hasn’t shown that he can be anything more than a special teamer and a capable backup at this juncture of his career, and Ryan Nece is probably better suited to play Sam (strongside) linebacker. Neither Cooper nor Nece have shown the special athleticism and intangibles to replace Brooks as the Buccaneers’ premier defensive playmaker.
Without a potential heir apparent to Brooks, the Bucs also don’t have much leverage over Brooks, who may restructure his contract by turning part of his base salary into another signing bonus, but probably won’t take a pay cut. Spending a first-round pick on a weakside linebacker might force Brooks to take a pay cut in 2007 if he wanted to retire as a Buccaneer. In turn, that would dramatically help Tampa Bay’s salary cap situation.
So who besides Maryland’s D’Qwell Jackson, who I have written about several times in previous SR’s Fab Five columns, are first-round possibilities for Tampa Bay? Which players are the Buccaneers targeting? Actually, there are two prime candidates who resemble Brooks from an off-field and an on-field standpoint.
The first of which is Alabama’s DeMeco Ryans, who is expected to be a top 15 in April’s draft. But don’t be surprised if he slips into the latter part of the first round.
Why? Ryans has been timed at 4.7 in the 40-yard dash, and that may scare some teams who expect first-round linebackers to run somewhere between 4.4 and 4.6. That’s what happened with the Buccaneers last year when they were very high on USC middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu until he ran in the high 4.7s at his pro day workout. Then Tampa Bay jumped off the Tatupu bandwagon and opted to go with Nebraska middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who ran in the 4.5 range.
But like Tatupu, who was in contention for Rookie of the Year honors, Ryans possesses tremendous instincts and runs faster on the gridiron than he does on a track. Still, if Ryans, who didn’t stand out at the Senior Bowl, can’t crack the 4.6 mark, his stock could drop in the first round – much to the benefit of the Buccaneers.
Ryans is a high-character guy and a Derrick Brooks clone off the field. He is a civic-minded, charity-oriented individual, who possesses tremendous leadership skills. He is truly capable of becoming the leader and the face of an NFL franchise. Here is a sampling of his off-field accolades. In 2005, Ryans won the Lott Trophy, which symbolizes the nation’s top defender with respect to personal character as well as on-field performance. He was a finalist for the Draddy Award, whose nickname is the “Academic Heisman.”
Ryans was also a 2005 Wuerffel Trophy Nominee, which honors the player who has the best combination of academics, community service and on-field performance. The four-year, SEC All-Academic member was a nominee for the ARA Sportmanship Award, which honors the player who best exhibits sportsmanship on and off the field.
The talented Crimson Tide linebacker, who was a four-time recipient of the Black Scholars Award and an Arthur Ashe Sports Scholar award-winner, was also honored with the prestigious NCAA Top VIII award, which is the top honor recognizing outstanding achievements in athletics, scholarship and community service and is given every year to a total of just eight student-athletes in Division I, II and III. Ryans capped off his senior year by receiving the Bryant Award, which is named after legendary Alabama coach Paul “Bear” Bryant and given by the athletic department to the Crimson Tide’s best student-athlete.
But this Alabama star that graduated cum laude with a degree in Management in just seven semesters, is just as good on the field. Ryans was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and finished his Crimson Tide career with 307 tackles, the fifth-highest total in Alabama history.
Ryans was also a finalist for the 2005 Butkus and Nagurski awards given to the best linebacker in college football, and this team captain and All-American was also named the Defensive MVP of the Cotton Bowl. He was the brightest star on a star-studded defense that ranked second in the nation in ’05 and included middle linebacker Freddie Roach, safety Roman Harper and defensive end Mark Anderson, who will all be drafted in April.
Ryans played strongside linebacker at Alabama, but best suited to play on the weak side in the NFL. He is one of the surest tacklers in college football and is exceptional in dropping into zone coverage. Ryans finished 2005 with 76 tackles, a career-high 15 tackles for loss, five sacks, one interception, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. Ryans tallied a personal-best 126 tackles in 2003, and also set a school record with 25 tackles in a game against Arkansas.
The Bucs will have to remember Tatupu and overlook Ryans’ 40-yard dash time if he’s available at number 23.
The other interesting linebacker candidate is Florida State junior linebacker Ernie Sims. Sims doesn’t have the character and academic prowess that Ryans has, but he is closer to Derrick Brooks in terms of his size and athletic ability. The undersized, 6-foot, 220-pound Sims can really run, evidenced by a blazing 4.45 time in the 40-yard dash. There may also not be a harder-hitting draft prospect, which really says something considering that Ohio State’s A.J. Hawk is also in this year’s draft class.
But all of that hard-hitting took a toll last year. Sims doesn’t enter the 2006 NFL Draft with much momentum as he suffered a string of mild concussions in 2005, and missed the Duke game because of a more severe concussion. Sims also broke his lower fibula in April of ’05. Those could raise medical red flags and cause his stock to drop into the second round, even though he has the athletic talent and ability to be a late first-rounder.
Sims also had allegedly shoved his girlfriend to the ground outside of his apartment during last summer that led to police involvement, so there are some character issues that need to be thoroughly investigated by the Buccaneers scouts, too.
But if Sims checks out fine medically and character-wise, he would be a great fit for the Tampa 2 defense that Monte Kiffin runs. In addition to his blazing speed, Sims also possesses the ability to drop in coverage and recorded two interceptions last year to go along with 72 tackles, a career-high 10 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks.
His best season came in 2004 as a sophomore when he notched a career-best 86 tackles, nine tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, five pass breakups, two forced fumbles and a blocked punt. Sims was dynamite on Florida State’s special teams and figures to be a special teams standout as a rookie in the NFL.
While Tampa Bay would like some immediate help for the 2006 season from their first-round draft pick, general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Jon Gruden might not be able to pass up the opportunity to select an heir apparent for Brooks, who plays one of the most important positions in Kiffin’s defense. And with a very talented group of linebackers in this draft, the opportunity to select one of the more talented ones, such as Ryans or Sims, may be too great to pass up.
FAB 2. In October of 2004, I suggested that Buccaneers general manager Bruce Allen trade Keenan McCardell to Kansas City straight up for disgruntled young running back Larry Johnson. The Chiefs were apparently shopping Johnson, who was unhappy in his second-fiddle role behind Priest Holmes, who was healthy and running wild two years ago. Tampa Bay needed a young, stud runner who could take the reins from Michael Pittman.
Can you imagine if Allen had pulled the trigger on this rumored trade possibility? Kansas City’s passing game would have a solid, chain-mover and touchdown-maker in McCardell, and Tampa Bay would have a had a young runner-receiver who amassed an eye-popping 1,750 yards rushing and 20 touchdowns despite starting only nine games. Johnson also caught 33 passes for 343 yards and a touchdown in 2005.
Now there’s no way of saying that he would have replicated those numbers in Tampa Bay. Obviously, with the likes of Willie Roaf, Brian Waters and Will Shields, Kansas City’s offensive line is much more talented than the Bucs’ O-line. But with Johnson in the fold, Tampa Bay could have addressed another need besides running back.
Perhaps the Bucs would have drafted a wide receiver such as Mike Williams or Troy Williamson. Or perhaps the Bucs would have selected a cornerback like Antrell Rolle or Carlos Rodgers to eventually replace Brian Kelly or Ronde Barber, or even a defensive end like Demarcus Ware or Shawne Merriman to become the heir apparent to Simeon Rice.
Hindsight is a beautiful thing, especially when you guess right. Heaven knows I’ve been wrong plenty of times in my 11 years of covering the Buccaneers professionally. Here’s what I wrote in my Buccaneer Blitz column of Pewter Report in October of 2004:
“If Allen didn’t pull the trigger on trading McCardell to Kansas City for a draft pick or unhappy running back Larry Johnson, the Chiefs’ first-round draft pick in 2003, he needs to do so in the offseason. The Chiefs want to rid themselves of Johnson, who is upset because he was only drafted as an insurance policy in case Priest Holmes’ hip injury didn’t heal properly and is wasting away on their bench. Kansas City desperately needs McCardell to upgrade its receiving corps.
Johnson could be a good, young running back for head coach Jon Gruden to re-build his offense around. He racked up 5,045 all-purpose yards to break the previous Penn State record of 4,982 set by Curt Warner, and his 2,953 career rushing yards ranks fifth on the Nittany Lions’ all-time rushing list behind Warner (3,398), Blair Thomas (3,301), Curtis Enis (3,256) and D.J. Dozier (3,227).
As the 6-foot-1, 228-pound Johnson learns the West Coast offense, he could be a big contributor on special teams. He had 59 kick returns for 1,347 yards (22.8 avg.) with one TD at Penn State, and returned three punt for 64 yards (21.3 avg.). He also blocked two punts and scored on blocked punt returns of 15 and 40 yards.
While Johnson needs to show some improvement and tenacity in blitz pickup, he does have the ability to be a good receiver, evidenced by his 65 career catches for 681 yards (10.5 avg.) and seven receiving touchdowns. Being able to catch the ball is essential in Gruden’s offense. Just ask Travis Stephens, a former Tampa Bay third-round pick in 2002, who was cut the next year because he couldn’t catch a cold.
Johnson, who has a powerful, straight-ahead, tackle-breaking running style, led the nation in rushing as a senior at Penn State with 2,087 yards on 271 carries (7.7 avg.) with 20 TDs, and he hauled in 41 catches for 349 yards (8.5 avg.) with three scores. He’s worth trading for, and because he was a former first-round pick, he is good value in exchange for McCardell.
Johnson signed a seven-year deal as a rookie in 2003, and will earn base salaries of $515,000 (2004), $628,000 (2005), $741,000 (2006), $854,000 (2007), $967,000 (2008) and $1.08 million (2009), in addition to workout bonuses of $50,000 each year from 2004-09. Because the Bucs won’t be on the hook for his $3.3 million signing bonus due to the trade, Johnson is an affordable risk to take – either this season or in the spring of 2005.”
In the end, the Buccaneers wound up with Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, who won NFL Rookie of the Year honors this year, along with developmental offensive tackle Chris Colmer. Not bad at all, but the prospects of having Johnson in Tampa Bay make you want to say, “What if…”
FAB 3. Maybe Dan Reeves knew what he was doing after all in Atlanta. Although Falcons team owner Arthur Blank fired the only coach that got the team to the Super Bowl after the 2003 season, Reeves was able to get the best out of marvelously athletic, but somewhat inaccurate Michael Vick. Amid complaints in last week’s Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he is “lost” in the Falcons’ West Coast offense, and taking some subtle shots at offensive coordinator Gregg Knapp’s playcalling, Vick simply hasn’t found the type of success under Jim Mora, Jr. that he had under Reeves.
The fact that Mora told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the team does not run the West Coast offense is a big signal that neither he nor Vick are on the same page, a sign that trouble could be looming in Atlanta. At least not in sync like Reeves and Vick appeared to be in 2002 when the rocket-armed lefty had a career-high 231 completions for a personal-best 2,936 yards with 16 touchdowns, eight interceptions and the highest QB rating – 81.6 – he’s ever achieved. Vick was also his most dangerous on the ground, too, rushing for a 777 yards and career-best eight touchdowns.
In his first year under Mora, Vick had 181 completions for 2,313 yards with 14 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a passer rating of 78.1. Vick did scramble for a personal-high 902 yards, but only scored three touchdowns.
In 2005, Vick posted 2,412 yards on 214 completions and threw 15 touchdowns and a career-high 13 interceptions en route to a 73.1 quarterback rating. Due to a gimpy knee, Vick’s rushing production fell to 597 yards, but he did score six times.
While he scored 21 total touchdowns last year, Vick still fell three TDs short of the 24 total scores he had in 2002 under Reeves. Vick also had 19 turnovers, including five lost fumbles, in 2005. He actually fumbled 11 times, but either he or his teammates recovered six loose balls.
This comes on the heels of Vick fumbling 16 times, while losing seven, and producing a total of 22 turnovers during the 2004 season. The Virginia Tech product had just 14 turnovers under Reeves in 2002.
For all of the hype and hoopla surrounding this running quarterback, where are the obvious signs of improvement? His completion percentage has gone up just a tick, but he’s still a career 54-percent passer. Given the $100-million contract bestowed on him a couple of years ago by Falcons general manager Rich McKay (which is looking a bit foolish now), Vick has the franchise on his shoulders and how he plays not only determines whether Atlanta wins or loses, but also how long Mora has lead this team.
Because Vick is the face of the franchise – not Mora – Vick must grow and flourish as a quarterback under the temperamental head coach, or Mora will get canned. Perhaps that is why Mora fired Vick’s quarterback coach and hired Bill Musgrave (who comes to Atlanta with questionable credentials) already this offseason.
If Vick doesn’t get back to Reeves-level production, Mora may join Reeves in the fraternity of fired Falcons coaches.
FAB 4. There is no inside information or hard facts on this segment of the Fab Five, just a personal theory. Could the Buccaneers possibly flirt with the idea of putting defensive end Simeon Rice on the trading block? There were rumors of Rice possibly going to San Diego or perhaps even Dallas last year (that the Bucs denied, of course), and I wonder if the team may put feelers out there again this season.
Rice has a high salary cap value of $9.2 million and the Bucs definitely need to create some cap room on the defensive side of the ball to help fortify Tampa Bay’s offense. The emergence of defensive end Dewayne White as a pass rusher and the loss of defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who did a great job of controlling Rice’s ego, could prompt the Bucs to part ways with the 32-year old Rice this offseason while he still has a high trade value.
With 14 sacks, six forced fumbles and one interception in 2005, Rice has enough Pro Bowl-level production to possibly warrant a first-round draft pick from a team that won’t have a chance at getting North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams, who is slated to be a top 5 pick. Consistent pass rushers and game-changers like Rice are hard to find, and while it may seem crazy to trade away a player like that, the last year of Rice’s deal is 2007, and do you think that the Bucs are going to want to shell out a signing bonus and contract worth tens of millions to a 34-year old defensive end two years from now? Probably not.
Rice’s production is going to drop off at some point in time, and given his age, it will likely be sooner rather than later. I suggested in column in Pewter Report that the Bucs trade Pro Bowl defensive end Warren Sapp before the start of the 2003 season because he was in the final year of his contract. Coming off the Super Bowl, Sapp’s league-wide visibility was at its highest and his production had just started to slip. The Bucs could have probably gotten a second-rounder from the right team (perhaps Cincinnati, who had the first pick in each round that year) based on Sapp’s reputation and history as a pass rusher.
As it turned out, 2003 was one of Sapp’s worst statistically as a Buccaneer. His production slid even more than it did in 2002, and former general manager Rich McKay wisely opted to sign nose tackle Anthony “Booger” McFarland to a contract extension rather than Sapp. New general manager Bruce Allen wisely decided not to re-sign Sapp, whose contract expired prior to the 2004 season. In the end, the Bucs got nothing in return for simply letting Sapp’s contract expire. In my opinion, Tampa Bay should consider trading Rice while he is still marketable.
If the Bucs could get an extra first-round pick for Rice, don’t be surprised if they don’t consider packaging a couple of picks and trying to move up to get Virginia left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson. Tampa Bay is absolutely smitten with him and has been that way for the past two years (Ferguson thought about leaving the Cavaliers as a junior in 2005). Of course, the same could be said for 31 other teams, too. The All-American Ferguson is expected to be a top 5 pick in the 2006 draft, and the Buccaneers definitely need to upgrade the offensive tackle position.
If you haven’t seen the 6-foot-5, 295-pound Ferguson play before, think along the lines of a Chris Samuels, or smaller, yet more athletic Jonathan Ogden rather than Kenyatta Walker. Ferguson will be a standout left tackle for years to come, and the Bucs would be rewarded for making such a bold move on draft day that they will have the next Paul Gruber – a franchise cornerstone on the offensive line for the next decade.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• For the second-straight year, Bucs personnel man Ruston Webster has been rumored to be going to Seattle on the ProFootballTalk.com website as another rumor surfaced last week. Webster couldn’t be reached for comment – not that he would any way – but our guess is that his interest in Seattle might be motivated by money. Not that Webster, who is genuinely one of the nicest guys in the NFL, is all about money. But when you have the opportunity for a pay raise – you capitalize on the moment. In the NFL it’s always good when you are in demand, but it’s better when you are in demand by at least two teams who can bid for your services. The guess here is that Webster will wind up staying with the Buccaneers, who might have to shell out some more dough for this future general manager. Although Webster and Seattle general manager Tim Ruskell are buddies from their days together in Tampa Bay, Ruskell, who is more of a football guy than a cap guy, did a great job with his initial draft last year, especially landing linebackers Lofa Tatupu and Leroy Hill, both of whom were starters. Does Seattle really need Webster? No, but Tampa Bay does. Sure, the Glazers might have to shell out some more coin to keep Webster around, but in an offseason where the Bucs have lost several good coaches, the Glazers have actually gotten to save some money. Surely new defensive line coach Jethro Franklin won’t command as much as Rod Marinelli did, and new defensive backs coach Greg Burns won’t make as much as Mike Tomlin did. The Bucs need to do whatever it takes to keep Webster in-house until a team comes calling for him to be their general manager. This guy is one of the league’s best talent evaluators. As the Bucs continue to re-build through the draft, Webster’s importance to the organization is immense.
• Here’s a hunch that Jon Gruden’s new assistant head coach will either be quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett or running backs coach Art Valero. Hackett worked wonders with Chris Simms last year, and the Bucs had to turn down several teams who expressed interest in having Hackett interview for their offensive coordinator position this offseason because he is under contract in 2006. As a reward, Gruden may anoint him as the assistant head coach. Or Gruden could reward Valero, who is one of his most loyal lieutenants. Valero has been promoted from tight ends coach to running backs coach in the past, and did a great job in 2005 in developing Cadillac Williams, helping Mike Alstott return to form and eliminating Michael Pittman’s fumbling problems. Valero is well-liked and well-respected in the building and has the makings to possibly be an offensive coordinator one day. Pewter Report doesn’t know which coach will get the assistant head coaching title that was vacated when Rod Marinelli left to go to Detroit, but our bet is on Valero or Hackett landing the gig.
• Sources tell Pewter Report that cornerback Torrie Cox will likely not be back in 2006. Off the field, Cox was arrested on DUI charges twice within a nine-month span last year. On the field, he never made progress as a cornerback and lost his starting kick return job early in the season after failing to catch the ball cleanly. Second-year player Blue Adams and rookie James Patrick have shown enough promise that the team can part ways with Cox without being left in the lurch at the cornerback position. Without his biggest advocate – defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin, who is now in Minnesota – Cox may not have enough people in his corner at One Buccaneer Place. Cox is scheduled to become a restricted free agent in 2006, but may not receiver an offer from the Buccaneers.
• And finally, here’s a follow up report on one of the topics that was discussed in my last edition of SR’s Fab Five – wide receiver Michael Clayton. It seems another source at One Buccaneer Place read my column, and while that person agreed with what was written about him, the other member of the Buccaneers went on to say that Clayton is diligently working out already at the team headquarters. That’s a good sign. The source also went on to say how embarrassed Clayton was with his dismal second season in the league and that maybe he got too full of himself after a breakout rookie campaign. Here’s hoping for a more humble and hard-working Clayton in 2006.
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