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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. Michael Clayton’s career with the Buccaneers is in jeopardy.
Did that sentence catch your attention? Hopefully it will catch Clayton’s attention, because that’s the message I got talking to a source within the walls of One Buccaneer Place about the team’s third-year wide receiver in Mobile, Ala. at last week’s Senior Bowl. His stock is falling in the eyes of the Buccaneers organization.
As great as Clayton’s rookie season was in 2004 when he established rookie records with 80 catches for 1,193 yards and seven touchdowns, his sophomore season in 2005 was extremely disappointing as he ended the year with only 32 catches for 372 yards and zero touchdowns. Clayton missed the final two contests of the season (versus New Orleans and Washington) due to a turf toe injury he suffered against Atlanta on Christmas Eve.
In the games he did play in, Clayton failed to catch a pass against New York, Chicago and on the road versus New Orleans, and posted only one reception in games at Carolina and against the Falcons before leaving that game with a sprained toe.
Clayton’s toe injury is the latest ailment that put him in head coach Jon Gruden’s doghouse. Gruden marveled at the fact that Clayton did not miss a practice and lauded his work ethic during his rookie season even though he was fighting through a knee injury. But when the offseason came around, Clayton waited too long to have surgery and then didn’t properly rehab the injury, which prompted another surgery, followed up by another round of lackluster rehab. As a result, Clayton was out of shape and missed virtually all of Tampa Bay’s offseason program.
Clayton came to training camp overweight and struggled to get his stamina and speed back. Because his body wasn’t responding like he wanted it to, a bit of self-doubt started to creep in and dropped passes ensued. Clayton dropped more passes during the first week of training camp than he did in all of training camp in 2004.
When he dropped a couple of passes in the season-opening win at Minnesota, Gruden’s strategy of shifting the game plan away from Clayton and towards blazing fast split end Joey Galloway was complete. While Clayton sat out of offseason workouts, Galloway dazzled in OTAs and the Bucs’ mandatory mini-camp, and the fact that he stayed healthy at training camp convinced Gruden to build his 2005 passing game around the 34-year old speedster rather than the struggling second-year receiver.
Due to the fact that he was out of shape, Clayton struggled to gain separation from opposing defensive backs in 2005. Because he wasn’t the fastest receiver to begin with, Clayton couldn’t afford to lose any ability to separate, but that’s exactly what happened with him not rehabbing his knee injury properly. A shoulder injury he got during the preseason didn’t help matters, either.
When asked about Clayton’s health heading into 2006 at his season-ending press conference following the loss to Washington, Gruden was terse and poignant:
“We expect his toe, his knee, his shoulder, his whole body, to be healed by March 20th,” Gruden said.
There are no assurances that he will be able to rebound to his 2004 form, although the embarrassment of such a disastrous sophomore slump have to eat away at a high-character player like Clayton and cause him to work harder than he did last year. But because Clayton had the reputation of being a hard worker, it was quite stunning that he slacked so much during his offseason rehab and was not ready to go by training camp.
There was a column in the January 29 edition of the Tampa Tribune indicating that the “Terrell Owens to Tampa Bay” rumors may have been started by the Buccaneers to light a fire under Clayton. That may certainly be the case and the Tampa Tribune was not out of line for suggesting it. Even if the T.O. rumor was not put out there by the Bucs with the sole purpose of lighting a fire under Clayton, if that would create a positive byproduct – so be it.
One thing can be said about Clayton through his nightmarish season. He was a good teammate in that he wasn’t jealous of Galloway, who became the team’s star receiver. Even though he didn’t like not getting the ball, Clayton understood that Galloway was on fire since training camp. Clayton also didn’t complain about not getting many opportunities even though he was itching for the ball inside.
But the bottom line is that Clayton had one great year and one terrible year and needs to have another great year to justify the number one pick and the millions of dollars the Bucs have invested in him. If he doesn’t produce in 2006, he might not be around in 2007. Expect Tampa Bay to brace itself for this possibility by looking to the draft to select another receiver, probably in the first four rounds.
FAB 2. There may be a shift in the Buccaneers’ philosophy when it comes to finding defensive assistant coaches. When Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin first came to the Bucs in 1996, he and Tony Dungy hired Ohio State linebackers coach Lovie Smith to serve in that same capacity in Tampa Bay, and did the same with USC defensive line coach Rod Marinelli. When Smith and defensive backs coach Herman Edwards left the Buccaneers in 2000, Kiffin went back to the collegiate ranks to find University of Cincinnati defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin and Joe Barry, who was an assistant coach at Northern Arizona and UNLV before a one-year stint as a defensive quality control coach in San Francisco.
But based on what has transpired during Senior Bowl week, the Bucs may be looking away from college coaches and towards proven NFL assistants. When asked to confirm this theory in Mobile, general manager Bruce Allen wouldn’t, and said: “You’re looking for the right ones. Monte was up ’til 11:30 last night interviewing coaches. We’ve met with some great coaches, and we’ve got more that are interested. We’ve got guys telling us to not hire anyone and let them get out of their certain situations first so that they can interview for some of our job openings. It’s truly impressive.”
But despite Allen not committing to this theory, there appears to be some indication that Tampa Bay is looking for an NFL veteran coach to tutor the Buccaneers’ defensive backs. It is believed that Tampa Bay wanted to speak with Houston defensive backs coach John Hoke, who was in limbo for a while at the Senior Bowl, but the team did not receive permission to do so. Hoke, who is still under contract with Houston despite the firing of head coach Dom Capers, spoke with several Tampa Bay coaches while in Mobile, but wound up being retained by new head coach Gary Kubiak.
When asked if he formally interviewed with the Bucs, Hoke told Pewter Report, “I wish. I’m under house arrest,” which likely meant that Kubiak would make him honor his contract to the Texans.
The Buccaneers have interviewed former Buffalo defensive coordinator Jerry Gray, in addition to former New Orleans defensive backs coach Willy Robinson, for their vacant defensive backs coach position. According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Bucs have interviewed former Rams assistant secondary coach Gill Byrd, and according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Tampa Bay has interviewed former Packers defensive backs coach Joe Baker. Robinson was recently hired by St. Louis, so he obviously won’t be coming to Tampa Bay.
One of the reasons that the Bucs are likely looking for an experienced secondary coach is the fact that they denied their own former quality control coach, Joe Woods, the opportunity to be the defensive backs coach. Woods was offered a multi-year deal to replace Raheem Morris as Tampa Bay’s assistant defensive backs coach, and was told that the Bucs wanted someone with more experience to be the actual position coach. That’s why Woods is up in Minnesota as the Vikings defensive backs coach under Tomlin instead of in Tampa Bay right now.
If the Buccaneers strike out at the NFL level in their search for defensive assistants, the team may have to look towards the college ranks. But the fact that the Bucs were searching for the right candidate with NFL experience in Mobile suggests that’s where Tampa Bay is looking first.
FAB 3. Based on the fact that a record 48 underclassmen have entered the 2006 NFL Draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are virtually assured of getting a premier player with the 23rd overall pick. The large number of junior entries this year have turned an already good draft in terms of quality and quantity into a great draft.
“I think it’s a solid draft,” said Allen, who rarely uses any superfluous language. “We’re still trying to add a number of young players to this team. We got off to a good start over the last two years.”
With as many as eight juniors possibly being drafted before Tampa Bay selects in the first round, a lot of very good senior first-round prospects will get pushed down to the Buccaneers this year. In some drafts, such as the 2004 draft, the first-round talent pool has an early drop off. When the Buccaneers picked wide receiver Michael Clayton with the 15th overall pick, there was a big drop off in talent a few picks later. That’s why Tampa Bay opted not to trade down in the round because they would essentially be getting a second-round player in the bottom third of the first round.
This year, the Bucs will be getting a bona fide first-rounder in the first round because of the depth of talent in this year’s selection pool. The prospects of Tampa Bay getting a legitimate second-rounder in the second round looks promising, too. In years with weaker draft classes, sometimes teams wind up getting third-round talent in the second round. That doesn’t appear to be the case in 2006.
Here’s a list of 20 players who are safe bets to be first-rounders in 2006 – perhaps even selected in the first 20 picks of the initial round:
RB Reggie Bush (USC) (junior) QB Matt Leinhart (USC) QB Vince Young (Texas) (junior) OT D’Brickashaw Ferguson (Virginia) LB A.J. Hawk (Ohio State) DE Mario Williams (N.C. State) (junior) DT Haloti Ngata (Oregon) RB DeAngelo Williams (Memphis) QB Jay Cutler (Vanderbilt) OT Winston Justice (USC) (junior) TE Vernon Davis (Maryland) (junior) LB Chad Greenway (Iowa) CB Tye Hill (Clemson) S Michael Huff (Texas) WR Santonio Holmes (Ohio State) (junior) LB DeMeco Ryans (Alabama) RB LenDale White (USC) (junior) CB Jimmy Williams (Virginia Tech) S Darnell Bing (USC) (junior) RB Lawrence Maroney (Minnesota) (junior)
If those players comprise the first 20 picks in the 2006 draft, some of the following talented players could be there a few picks later at number 23:
DE Darryl Tapp (Virginia Tech) DE Tamba Hali (Penn State) DE Mathias Kiwanuka (Boston College) DE Manny Lawson (N.C. State) OT Marcus McNeill (Auburn) LB Ernie Sims (Florida State) (junior) LB D’Qwell Jackson (Maryland) TE Leonard Pope (Georgia) (junior) TE Marcedes Lewis (UCLA) DT Broderick Bunkley (Florida State) C Nick Mangold (Ohio State)
Considering that the Buccaneers could use another pass rusher coming off the edge, players like Tapp, Hali, Lawson and Kiwanuka would be great value picks at number 23 if they were still on the board. While this year’s wide receiver class is below average, Lewis and Pope would give the Buccaneers big weapons in the passing game. Tampa Bay needs to find an heir apparent to Will (weakside) linebacker Derrick Brooks and Sims and Jackson would be ideal candidates. Bunkley would be a good fit as a swing tackle that could play the three (under) and one technique (nose). Offensively, Mangold could be an eventual replacement for John Wade at center, while McNeill may be the best available left tackle option with the 23rd overall pick, if he’s still on the board.
It’s early, but there might be even better value for the Buccaneers to trade down a few spots in the first round and pick up an extra third-round pick in the process. That move could net them an additional good player in round three.
FAB 4. Coming off an 11-5 season and a surprising role as NFC South champions, there is plenty of star power in Tampa Bay. No, I’m not talking about Cadillac Williams, Simeon Rice, Chris Simms, Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber. I’m talking about Jon Gruden and Monte Kiffin.
While talking with nearly half of the Senior Bowl participants last week in Mobile, Ala., I found that Gruden and Kiffin are among two of the most famous and popular coaches in the NFL among the nation’s top senior college football players.
But let’s not kid ourselves. While all of the Senior Bowl players would be happy to go anywhere and play for anyone who would make them millionaires and give them a chance to live out their childhood dream of playing on Sundays, the gridiron greats I spoke with at Mobile were anxious to play for Tampa Bay because of the stellar reputations of the offensive-minded Gruden and Kiffin, who is the famed architect of the Tampa 2 defensive scheme.
Maryland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, a Largo, Fla. native who grew up as a huge Bucs fan, even told me to put in a good word for him with the organization. As a big fan of Jackson, who was a tackling machine for four years for the Terrapins, I was happy to oblige.
Here’s a sampling of what some of the Senior Bowl participants had to say about wanting to get drafted by the Buccaneers:
Maryland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson: “I’m passionate about football. That’s what I wanted to get across to them. I want to be a Buc and play for Monte Kiffin. That’s the mastermind right there. I would love to play for him. He’s a future Hall of Fame coach. Plus, I’d love to have the joy and excitement from playing at home. It would be a dream come true. I’ve been a Bucs fan going back to the orange and white and those old metal seats at Houlihan’s Stadium. I was out there watching them way back when.”
USC tight end Dominque Byrd: “I heard Jon Gruden has a very extensive offense from our offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin, who is Monte Kiffin’s son. He plays a lot of two tight ends. I’d be fortunate to go there.”
USC guard Deuce Lutui: “Jon Gruden’s a young coach, kinda my age, so it would be great to play for him. I’d love it.”
Virginia Tech defensive end Darryl Tapp: “I really hope they pick me. We’ll see. It would be a blast to play for Monte Kiffin.”
Stanford linebacker Jon Alston: “I would love to play for Tampa Bay. When Derrick Brooks came and played in the Senior Bowl he weighed in about 214 pounds and I weighed in at about 218. I’m not comparing myself to Derrick Brooks, but the undersized linebackers have thrived there as long as they can drop into coverage, which I can. I would love to be in Tampa, to be honest with you.”
UCLA tight end Marcedes Lewis: “I would love to play for Jon Gruden. He loves throwing the ball to tight ends. If I’m on the board that long, I definitely want to go to Tampa Bay.”
Florida State defensive tackle Broderick Bunkley: “That would be real nice, playing for Jon Gruden and Monte Kiffin and next to Simeon [Rice]. I’d do that. That would be great. I’d love to go back and play at home with your family and friends watching. Growing up in Tampa, I was always a Buccaneers fan.”
Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka: “I watched a lot of Simeon Rice, actually. He’s a great player in the league. I’d love to play in Tampa Bay. I think it would be a great opportunity to play alongside or behind a player of that caliber. Naturally, I’d rather be drafted higher and play in a starting role, but if it didn’t work out, I’d love to get drafted by Tampa and play behind or alongside Simeon Rice.”
Arizona State wide receiver Derek Hagan: “Playing for Jon Gruden would be great. I’ve watched Gruden over the years and he seems like he would be a fun coach to play for, especially because he’s offensive-minded. He knows how to get receivers open with his schemes. Now he’s got a quarterback that can get the ball down the field, too. Tampa Bay has had some great receivers come through. I know Gruden likes bigger receivers. They don’t necessarily have to be the fastest, but they just have to get the job done.”
North Carolina State defensive end Manny Lawson: “I would love to play for Monte Kiffin. I could definitely see myself in Tampa Bay and playing in Florida alongside my old teammate Chris Colmer once again. Let’s do it.”
Penn State cornerback Anwar Phillips: “We played zone coverage at Penn State similar to what the Bucs do. Jon Gruden seems like my kind of guy. He really gets you going. They produce players, especially corners, down there.”
Miami (OH) wide receiver Martin Nance: “I know Coach Gruden does a great job. I watched how he handled the Senior Bowl last year and look at how well his teams have done the past few years. I would like to think that I would fit well in a system like that and would love to be drafted by them.”
Ohio State center Nick Mangold: “I watched him last year when ESPN did some coaches special on him. Coach Gruden looks like he would be a fun coach to play for. He really knows his stuff and he’s really passionate about what he’s doing. That’s the best person to be with – someone who’s passionate about what they’re doing.”
Perhaps the most interesting feedback on the Buccaneers came from Boise State left tackle Daryn Colledge, who interviewed with Tampa Bay while in Mobile: “It would be a great opportunity for me and for my mom. She’s a real big Tampa Bay fan. She would be very disappointed if I didn’t meet with them while I was here. She loves Jon Gruden. She thinks he’s great.”
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• Buccaneers linebackers coach Joe Barry was still steaming over the fact that general manager Bruce Allen did not to release him from his contract, that has one year remaining on it, so that he could become Detroit’s defensive coordinator and work with his father-in-law, Rod Marinelli. Apparently the meeting between Barry and Allen got rather heated at One Buccaneer Place on Friday. Pewter Report didn’t see Barry and Allen sharing close quarters anywhere in the Riverview Hotel or at the Senior Bowl practices Monday through Wednesday. Allen and Barry are both professionals. Allen won’t hold a grudge against the hot-tempered Barry and Barry won’t let this episode affect his coaching in 2006. Both people understand that Barry will likely leave in 2007 to become a defensive coordinator when his contract expires.
• While the Buccaneers were unable to come away with a cornerback on either the first or second day of a very rich cornerback draft a year ago, there is a chance that Tampa Bay may not be able to select a cornerback until the second day of the draft because of more pressing needs along the offensive and defensive lines (perhaps the first two rounds) and at wide receiver or tight end (perhaps round three). The Buccaneers have two young, development cornerbacks in Blue Adams and James Patrick the team is excited about waiting in the wings to eventually take over the nickel cornerback position or possibly moving even further up the depth chart with improvement over time. The Buccaneers like several first-day corners in this draft, including Clemson’s Tye Hill, Texas’ Cedric Griffin and Penn State’s Anwar Phillips, but may have to wait until the second day of the draft to get players like West Virginia’s Jahmile Addae or Georgia’s DeMario Minter.
• One player the Buccaneers should target in free agency is New Orleans’ LeCharles Bentley. Bentley is an aggressive, high-motor offensive lineman, who has earned the respect of Tampa Bay during its two annual meetings over the last four years. The best part about Bentley is his ability to play center or guard. Bentley came in the league as a center out of Ohio State, which has produced some fantastic centers lately, such as Alex Stephanovich, whom Tampa Bay liked in last year’s draft, and Nick Mangold, a possible first-rounder in this year’s draft. Bentley could start immediately at right guard in place of Sean Mahan, who got overpowered last year in pass protection, and eventually replace John Wade at center if Mahan gets big enough to anchor at right guard or Jeb Terry improves enough to crack the starting lineup. With it being a down year for interior linemen in the 2006 free agent class, Bentley might be too expensive for the Buccaneers, especially due to the fact that he is so versatile.
• If new Detroit head coach Rod Marinelli winds up with former St. Louis Rams head coach Mike Martz as his offensive coordinator, the only thing that could stand between the Lions and the playoffs is the play of their quarterback. Martz is an offensive wizard who would re-energize the Lions’ talented, but underachieving wide receiver trio of Roy Williams, Mike Williams and Charles Rogers. He even has a sound running game thanks to the talented Kevin Jones. If Martz could find a quarterback or get Joey Harrington to live up to his first-round draft status, the Lions could be a team to watch in 2006. Marinelli would eliminate the laziness that has long plagued Detroit and will get the team – especially the defense – playing harder. Martz needs to rehabilitate his image if he wants to become a head coach in the NFL again, and working for a no-nonsense guy like Marinelli would help raise his stock.
• You know what they say about opinions … everyone has one. What’s interesting to note is the differing opinions coming out of the Senior Bowl coverage this week in the media. As you will see from a few examples from the Sporting News’ War Room and the ESPN team of Mel Kiper and Scouts, Inc. when it comes to evaluating players, beauty is in the eye of the beholder:
ESPN on Penn State’s Anwar Phillips (who actually played cornerback at the Senior Bowl, by the way): “Safety Anwar Phillips (Penn State) dropped from a second-round pick into Day 2 with his Senior Bowl performance. Phillips struggled in coverage all week.”
Sporting News on Phillips: “Penn State’s Anwar Phillips, who has good size and great hands, is a natural receiver and has caught everything thrown his way. He’s tall and thin and has good feet and changes directions well. He also spent some time catching punts before practice and looked very natural. He has all the skills to be a good cover corner at the NFL level, though he lacks elite speed. He’s looking like a third-rounder, maybe even a second-round pick if he continues to impress.”
ESPN on Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka and Virginia offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson: “DE Mathias Kiwanuka from Boston College is a great athlete, but needs some technique work. D’Brickashaw Ferguson got the best of him in Monday’s practice.”
Sporting News on Kiwanuka and Ferguson from Monday: “Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka came to Mobile to prove he is the No. 1 defensive end in the ’06 class. He certainly looked more prepared than Virginia offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson in their one-on-one matchups. Unlike Kiwanuka, Ferguson’s Day 1 performance makes him look like a guy who is just trying to hang on to his high draft status. Ferguson must step up his play as the week progresses.”
ESPN on Boston College corner/receiver Will Blackmon: “Will Blackmon struggled at corner. He had some playing time at corner during his time at Boston College, but the Eagles moved him to wide receiver in 2005 and used him in the return game. Ultimately, Blackmon will probably have to play wide receiver to make it in the NFL.”
Sporting News on Blackmon: “Will Blackmon of Boston College came to Mobile as a wide receiver this week, but the coaches are saying that his best chance to make the NFL is as a cornerback. Ideally, he’s a cover 2 corner who’s quick and athletic enough, but doesn’t have the top-end speed or second gear to play on an island in coverage.”
ESPN on Georgia safety Greg Blue: “Georgia’s Greg Blue and Florida State’s Pat Watkins are two of the bigger-name defensive players at the Senior Bowl this year, but both have failed to live up to expectations thus far. Safety can be one of the most difficult positions to play in an all-star game because of all the man-to-man coverage drills. Instead of being protected by zone coverage, these bigger defensive backs are forced to match up one-on-one versus quicker and faster receivers. Regardless, neither Blue nor Watkins has done much to improve his NFL draft stock this week. Blue is a big-hitting strong safety that is high-cut with stiff hips and embarrassingly poor ball skills. Over the course of the last two days, he has dropped at least four potential interceptions during drills. Blue may be best suited to add some bulk and make the move to Will linebacker in the NFL.”
Sporting News on Blue: “Georgia’s Greg Blue also has helped himself this week. He’s a better athlete for his size than most would expect. There is some concern about his awareness, but his physical tools are impressive and he could push his way into the second round.”
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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: firstname.lastname@example.org