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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. Let’s start off the first SR’s Fab Five of the new year with some playoff analysis. Here are three reasons why the Buccaneers will beat the Redskins this weekend.
1. A healthy Derrick Brooks. – Brooks gutted it out with a severely strained hamstring when the Bucs’ beat the Redskins 36-35 and finished the game with 12 tackles. However, Brooks should have made a lot more plays against Washington than he did, and Pewter Report tallied at least four missed tackles in that game.
The Bucs’ Pro Bowl linebacker also had his share of blown coverages, too, allowing tight end Brian Kozlowski to roam free down the middle of his zone (although the pass was incomplete), and surrendering a 17-yard touchdown pass to running back LaDell Betts. Brooks was also limited in his ability to cover tight end Chris Cooley, who picked up a first down on fourth down late in the game by beating Brooks to the marker. Cooley finished the game with six catches for 66 yards.
With the Redskins heavily involving their backs (Clinton Portis – 30 catches, Mike Sellers – seven touchdowns on 12 catches and Betts – 10 catches) and their tight ends (Cooley – 71 catches, Robert Royal – 18 catches) in the passing game, Brooks will have to tighten his zone coverage, break up a couple of passes and perhaps record an interception or two.
Brooks was in position to make plays in the running game against Portis, but just didn’t have the explosion in his wounded hamstring to slide laterally or burst quickly upfield. Brooks is coming off a 15-tackle game against New Orleans and is much healthier heading into this matchup against the Redskins than he was the last one. The 11-year veteran has shown his age a bit this season, but he’ll need to have to recapture his youth to corrall the crazy legs of Portis, who rushed for 144 yards on 23 carries and a touchdown against the Bucs on November 13.
Personally speaking, I’ve never seen Derrick Brooks as serious as he is right now. He knows that he is in the twilight of his career and this may be his last playoff run. Brooks knows first hand how quickly winners can turn into losers in the NFL and he’ll want to make the most of this opportunity. Expect a landmark game from number 55. His team will need it to beat the Redskins.
2. Chris Simms is a better quarterback now. Tampa Bay’s young signal caller came of age against Washington on November 13, completing 15-of-29 passes (51.7 percent) for 279 yards and three touchdowns with no interceptions. Simms also received great protection from the Bucs’ young offensive line, which did not give up a sack. They’ll need to give Simms plenty of time to throw the football, and keep his uniform clean if the Bucs are going to win on Saturday.
Simms will be without Michael Clayton on Saturday, but the Bucs played well without him against Washington. Edell Shepherd and Ike Hilliard made their first and only touchdown catches of the season against the Redskins, and Tampa Bay’s MVP, wide receiver Joey Galloway, came up big with seven catches for 131 yards and a touchdown. Although the game plan will call for establishing the run with Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, he was held to just 20 yards on 10 carries in the first Bucs-Redskins game, and had a costly fumble at the Tampa Bay 5-yard line. Williams should have more success in Saturday’s game, but Simms must be prepared to deliver another 279-yard passing game if necessary.
Redskins defensive coordinator Gregg Williams is known for his variety of blitz packages, and you can bet that he’ll be studying film of the Bucs-Patriots game from a few weeks ago when Simms was sacked a season-high seven times. Although Washington doesn’t run a 3-4 defense like New England does, Williams will no doubt try to incorporate some of the same disguises and blitzes that confused Simms and his blockers in Tampa Bay’s 28-0 road loss on December 17.
This game could come down to Simms’ ability to recognize where the blitz is coming from and audibling to the right play. Simms has seven more games worth of experience since squaring off against the Redskins. That should serve him well on Saturday.
3. The game is in Tampa. The Buccaneers have been red-hot at Raymond James Stadium this season, matching the franchise’s best home record with a 6-2 mark. Tampa Bay is 4-1 at home in franchise playoff history, including a 2-0 mark at Ray-Jay.
Did Mike Alstott’s elbow hit the ground before the ball crossed the goal line on his famous, two-point conversion play? The instant replay was inconclusive, so the call on the field stood – likely because of a little home-cooking. That’s the advantage of playing games at home, especially in the playoffs. The Bucs will have that advantage on Saturday.
Tampa Bay also has won some real close games at home this season, including victories against Detroit, Washington, New Orleans and an overtime affair against Atlanta. Expect Saturday’s playoff game against the Redskins to be a nail-biter, and the fact that the Bucs have typically come through in the clutch at Ray-Jay, feeding off the home crowd, gives Tampa Bay a familiar feel as to how to win those types of games.
Interestingly, the weather for Saturday’s playoff game may favor the Redskins. The forecast high for Saturday is supposed to be 57 degrees with a low of 40 degrees. Because kickoff is set for 4:30 p.m. ET with the sun setting in the 5:00 hour, second half temperatures should be below 50 degrees.
While Tampa Bay has thrived in warm weather games, this could be a great tune-up weather-wise for what could be a frigid game at Chicago next weekend should the Bucs prevail against the Redskins.The guess here is that a possible Bucs-Bears would take place Saturday or Sunday night when temperatures will be around 30 degrees with a slight chance for snow. The league and its fans love snow games and may try to use scheduling procedures to try to create that scenario.
FAB 2. I’d like to comment for just a second on the abrupt demise of the Atlanta Falcons, whose 2-6 mark down the stretch translated into a disappointing 8-8 record – thanks to a humiliating 44-11 drubbing in Atlanta’s final home game of the season at the hands of the Carolina Panthers.
The luster has worn off faster for Atlanta head coach and media darling Jim Mora after leading the Falcons to the NFC title game last year than it did for Bucs head coach Jon Gruden when his team failed to repeat as Super Bowl champions in 2003. And with good reason. Mora, who was selected for the job over current Chicago head coach Lovie Smith by Atlanta general manager Rich McKay, appears to have some anger management issues that could have an impact on the Falcons.
The first example was his childish stomping of his headsets after the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the Falcons in the NFC title game last year. Then came a highly publicized temper tantrum against the officials in a nationally televised game at Chicago that drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty.
A week later at Tampa Bay, a clearly confused Mora was seen screaming on the telephone – which is prohibited by NFL rules – in overtime to a clearly unprepared McKay about what a tie would or would not do to the Falcons’ desperate playoff chances. After the Bucs’ victory in overtime, Mora’s temper flared again when he didn’t like a legitimate question posed by the Falcons radio network in a live post-game interview. The pouty Mora took off the headsets and slammed them to the ground and abruptly ended the interview.
This past Sunday, Mora’s team was unprepared, unmotivated and uninspired in one of the worst tank jobs in recent memory. The Falcons mailed it in in embarrassing fashion. A year ago, while the Bucs were sinking to a 5-11 in the desert wasteland of Arizona, McKay, the Bucs’ former general manager, must have been simply basking in the decision of abandoning ship just at the right time.
But I wonder what McKay is thinking this year after his Falcons were swept by the resurgent Buccaneers and Gruden – his personal nememis – and eliminated from the playoffs in Tampa Bay of all places. And I wonder what McKay is thinking about Mora – his handpicked golden boy who has embarrassed the Falcons on several occasions – now.
Don’t count the Falcons out in 2006. Fortunes change ever so quickly in the NFL these days. Want proof? Look no further than the 5-11 Bucs morphing into the 11-5 Bucs just a year later. But which way are the Falcons headed? They have a talented team and they will be better on defense with the return of middle linebacker Edgerton Hartwell. But what about the team chemistry?
You get the feeling that everything is not going to be hunky dory between prima donna quarterback Michael Vick – an overhyped Frankenstein’s monster created and perfectly packaged by ESPN – and Atlanta’s offensive coordinator and Mora ally Gregg Knapp. Vick hasn’t shown the patience or desire to become a more accurate quarterback. Rumors persist that Ty Detmer and Matt Schaub – the Falcons’ other quarterbacks – outwork and outstudy him in the filmroom, which has to wear on Knapp, who is in charge of Vick’s development.
Just watch the sidelines of Atlanta games. Vick is rarely seen tuning into Knapp on the sidelines, while Detmer and Schaub – who aren’t even playing – are glued to Knapp’s polaroids.
Vick doesn’t seem to have the ability or the inclination to elevate his ability as a passer. With each hit that his six-foot, 205-pound frame takes over the years, Vick will begin to wear down and slow down. In time, he won’t be able to out-athlete everybody on the field. The Bucs seem to have Vick’s number, winning the last three games against the Falcons.
I have no inside information to go off – just a hunch – but I think Mora and Vick will have a bit of a falling out some time in 2006 and Knapp will be involved, too. If and when that happens, the wheels could come off the wagon in Atlanta. Then McKay could be in a real pickle. Does he back his high-strung head coach, who may be a bit overrated? Or does he back his cocky quarterback whom McKay foolishly gave a $100 million contract?
My, how fortunes can change so quickly in just one year. I wouldn’t want to be in McKay’s shoes right now, but I wouldn’t mind being in Bruce Allen’s where the future is so bright … you know the rest.
FAB 3. At 4:07 p.m. ET on Sunday, January 1, the New Orleans Saints’ 2005 season mercifully came to a close. The Saints won only three games and have gone through the emotional torture of being uprooted from the flood-ravaged city of New Orleans following the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
But the Saints’ nightmare may just be beginning as the nation rings in the New Year.
While Tampa Bay, Carolina and Atlanta all appear to be playoff contenders for years to come, the other NFC South team – New Orleans – appears to be a mess for years to come.
Where exactly will the Saints play next year? A deal reached between Saints owner Tom Benson and NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue will likely keep the team in Louisiana with games being held in either Baton Rouge or New Orleans or both. But the Superdome has yet to be fully repaired, and despite the assurances that the team will play in Louisiana, many of the players are still without homes months after Katrina hit.
The status of head coach Jim Haslett is finally known – he’s been fired. There was speculation for weeks that Haslett simply wanted to be fired after a very trying 2005 season. Benson had yet to assure Haslett that his contract, which expired after 2006, would be extended. Understandably, Haslett didn’t want to deal with lame duck status. Benson, a very frugal owner, granted his wish on Monday with a pink slip.
Who will replace Haslett? Sure, there are only 32 NFL head coaching jobs, and head coaches make more money than assistants, so luring someone to fill Haslett’s vacancy wouldn’t be impossible. But finding the right person might be. Even before Hurricane Katrina hit, New Orleans wasn’t a prime coaching opportunity. With all of the disarray and losing ways, Benson will be hard-pressed to lure top-flight candidates to coach the Saints.
If finding the right coach seems like an uphill climb for the Saints, trying to sign free agents might prove nearly impossible. Unless the Saints were the only team to offer a player a big-money contract, it seems reasonable to expect that many of the best free agents will have New Orleans way down on their lists of teams to play for. Benson doesn’t have the track record to overpaying for players and won’t seem likely to start after a year in which he lost money by playing games in other places besides the Superdome.
And exactly who will be in charge of evaluating the free agents? It is rumored that general manager Mickey Loomis, director of player personnel Rick Mueller and Haslett didn’t see eye to eye, and that Haslett wanted the final say in personnel matters. This only complicates matters for the Saints as they wade into the 2006 offseason.
The only good news for the Saints as they had into 2006 is that they have the second overall pick in the draft. That means New Orleans has a shot at a premier player such as USC quarterback Matt Leinhart, USC running back Reggie Bush, or Texas quarterback Vince Young – if he leaves school early – or Virginia left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson. What if the player whom the Saints draft demands to be traded and refuses to play for New Orleans given the instability and the challenges the team faces in ’06?
John Elway didn’t want to play for the Baltimore Colts. Bo Jackson didn’t want to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Most recently, Eli Manning didn’t want to play for the San Diego Chargers. Who would want to play for the New Orleans Saints? That’s a sad, but true question that will likely surface in the coming months and will be just one of the many hurdles the Bucs’ NFC South rival will face in 2006.
FAB 4. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 2005 turnaround can be traced back to last January when the coaching staff went to Mobile, Ala. to coach the South squad at the Senior Bowl. The Bucs got a first-hand look at some of the nation’s top senior draft prospects and wound up selecting five players from the Senior Bowl in the 2005 NFL Draft. The Tampa Bay staff personally coached the team’s first round pick, running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, in addition to defensive tackle Anthony Bryant, who was drafted in the sixth round. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, tight end Alex Smith and guard Dan Buenning – who were drafted by Tampa Bay in rounds two, three and four, respectively – played against the Bucs coaches for the North squad.
Williams, Buenning and Smith have started for the Buccaneers all season, while Ruud and Bryant have played sparingly on defense and on special teams during their rookie campaigns. Given the amount of success Tampa Bay had with drafting the heavily-scrutinized Senior Bowl players, it’s a safe bet that a couple of 2006 Senior Bowl participants will become Buccaneers on draft weekend – even though the Tampa Bay coaching staff will be watching the practices rather than running them.
For the third straight year, PewterReport.com will be at the Senior Bowl practices providing Bucs fans with the inside scoop on the players Tampa Bay is targeting. Although the full roster has yet to be named and confirmed, here is a list of players who have accepted invitations to the Senior Bowl:
Alabama quarterback Brodie Croyle
Clemson quarterback Charlie Whitehurst
Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley
UAB quarterback Darrell Hackney
Vanderbilt quarterback Jay Cutler
QB ANALYSIS: The Bucs are fond of Vandy’s Jay Cutler, but aren’t looking for a franchise-type quarterback with Chris Simms showing such promise. Cutler figures to be a first-round pick, and obviously wouldn’t be coming to Tampa Bay. The other quarterbacks on this list aren’t too exciting and come with their own warts. The bottom line is that the Bucs won’t be coming to Mobile to look at quarterbacks – at least not these guys.
Colorado fullback Lawrence Vickers
LSU running back Joseph Addai
Memphis running back DeAngelo Williams
Mississippi State running back Jerious Norwood
South Florida running back Andre Hall
Washington State running back Jerome Harrison
RB ANALYSIS: Tampa Bay loves DeAngelo Williams because of his running and receiving ability, but he’ll go in the first round. Besides, the Bucs already got a Williams – Cadillac Williams – from last year’s Senior Bowl. This just in – he’s pretty good. The rest of the running backs fit what Tampa Bay likes to do offensively, and will be scouted hard. The Bucs may have a need to draft an eventual replacement for Michael Pittman on the second day of the draft.
Arizona State wide receiver Derek Hagan
Boston College wide receiver Will Blackmon
LSU wide receiver Skylar Green
Miami wide receiver Sinorice Moss
Michigan wide receiver Jason Avant
Oklahoma wide receiver Travis Wilson
WR ANALYSIS: The key player here is Derek Hagan. Tampa Bay is high on Hagan, who could be the first wide receiver taken in 2006 and still be around in the bottom of the first round. While it’s doubtful that the Bucs will use a first-round draft pick on a wide receiver, Michael Clayton’s sophomore slump has the Bucs’ brass worried. Plus, can you imagine where Tampa Bay’s passing game would be if Joey Galloway were lost to injury? That scary thought has the Bucs looking hard at wide receivers.
Colorado tight end Joe Klopfenstein
North Carolina State tight end T.J. Williams
Tulsa tight end Garrett Mills
UCLA tight end Marcedes Lewis
TE ANALYSIS: The Bucs like Marcedes Lewis, but he must improve his blocking and his 40-yard dash time to merit consideration in the second or third round of the 2006 draft. Joe Klopfenstein has some Chris Cooley-like qualities, but must be more physical in the run game. Tampa Bay found a gem in Alex Smith, but would like to pair him with somebody other than Anthony Becht next year.
Boise State offensive tackle Daryn Colledge
Boston College offensive tackle Jeremy Trueblood
California offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan
California center Marvin Philip
Georgia offensive lineman Max Jean-Gilles
Miami offensive tackle Eric Winston
Minnesota guard Mark Setterstrom
Oklahoma offensive lineman Davin Joseph
Tennessee offensive lineman Cody Douglas
Tennessee offensive lineman Albert Toeania
Virginia offensive tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson
OL ANALYSIS: Despite spending two draft picks on offensive linemen last year with Dan Buenning and Chris Colmer, Tampa Bay will look to draft at least two more offensive linemen in 2006. The Bucs will be looking hard at the offensive tackle position with guards like Buenning, Sean Mahan and Jeb Terry already in the fold. Tampa Bay is smitten with D’Brickashaw Ferguson, but given the fact that he’ll likely be a top 5 pick, it is doubtful they’ll be able to draft him. The Bucs will also be taking a close look at Eric Winston, Jeremy Trueblood, Ryan O’Callaghan and Daryn Colledge.
Alabama defensive end Mark Anderson
Boston College defensive end Mathias Kiwanuka
LSU defensive tackle Kyle Williams
LSU defensive tackle Claude Wroten
Michigan defensive tackle Gabe Watson
North Carolina State defensive end Manny Lawson
Oklahoma defensive tackle Dusty Dvoracek
Tennessee defensive end Parys Haralson
Tennessee defensive tackle Jesse Mahelona
DL ANALYSIS: Tampa Bay will be investigating defensive ends and tackles in Mobile. The Bucs really like Parys Haralson and Manny Lawson, even though they will likely need to add 10-15 pounds to play right defensive end at the next level. The Bucs will also scrutinize Mathias Kiwanuka, even though he’ll likely be gone by the time Tampa Bay picks in the first round, and Claude Wroten, who plays the three technique.
Alabama linebacker Freddie Roach
Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans
Colorado linebacker Brian Iwuh
Maryland linebacker D’Qwell Jackson
UCLA linebacker Spencer Havner
UTEP linebacker Thomas Howard
LB ANALYSIS: D’Qwell Jackson is a Tampa native who would make an ideal Will linebacker in the Tampa 2. He’ll likely still be on the board in the first round when the Bucs pick. DeMeco Ryans is a stud, but he’ll likely be a top 15 pick and out of Tampa Bay’s reach. Thomas Howard has all the measurables but lacks the necessary instincts the Bucs are looking for.
Alabama defensive back Roman Harper
Clemson cornerback Tye Hill
Georgia safety Greg Blue
Georgia cornerback Tim Jennings
Georgia cornerback DeMario Minter
Miami cornerback Kelly Jennings
Nebraska safety Daniel Bullocks
DB ANALYSIS: Tampa Bay has a need for a young cornerback to groom behind Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly. Tye Hill and DeMario Minter are worth closely scouting. The Bucs had success with Georgia’s Jermaine Phillips. Greg Blue could be the next Bulldog safety Tampa Bay adores.
Colorado punter John Torp
SPECIAL TEAMS ANALYSIS: With Tampa Bay pleased with Matt Bryant and Josh Bidwell, the Bucs will be focusing more on long snappers and kick return candidates than kickers and punters.
The 2006 Senior Bowl will kickoff at 4:00 p.m. ET on Saturday, January 28 and will be nationally televised on ESPN. PewterReport.com’s Senior Bowl coverage begins on Sunday, January 22.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• Let’s rewind a couple of weeks ago and give some props to the real unsung hero from Tampa Bay’s 27-24 overtime against Atlanta. Look past defensive end Dewayne White, who came through with a critical blocked field goal in overtime. Go farther than holder Josh Bidwell, who was able to retrieve another bad snap from Dave Moore and get it down in time for Matt Bryant’s 41-yard game-winning field goal. Search beyond Mark Jones, whose 28-yard punt return kick-started Tampa Bay’s final scoring drive in overtime. The real unsung hero of that game was running back Michael Pittman, who raced about 45 yards to track Atlanta cornerback DeAngelo Hall down from behind after he intercepted a Chris Simms pass just before halftime. Hall ran back that pick 65 yards and may have scored a touchdown if not for Pittman’s hustle. When he went to make the tackle, Pittman slammed Hall, a Pro Bowler, down to the turf and knocked him out for the rest of the contest with a separated shoulder. Without Hall to contend with in the Atlanta secondary, Simms was able to move the ball through the air more freely in the second half and in the overtime period. But the biggest asset to Pittman’s tackle at the 13-yard line was that it saved a touchdown. The Bucs defense wound up holding Atlanta to a field goal just before the half, and those four saved points made a huge difference in the game. “We finish plays around here,” Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. “That’s a real credit to this team. They do finish plays. That was a classic example. Just because you throw an interception and their best player has the ball doesn’t mean you are going to watch him score. Go get him and take him down to the ground. If you can strip the ball and recover the fumble, that would even be a better play.”
• Tampa Bay ended a seven-year streak of scoring off interception returns. The Buccaneers have returned 17 picks for touchdowns since 1998, but didn’t have one this year. Tampa Bay had three defensive touchdowns in 2005, but all came on fumble recoveries by safety Will Allen (versus Miami), under tackle Booger McFarland (at Atlanta) and defensive end Dewayne White (versus New Orleans). Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber led the Bucs with five interceptions for 105 yards, and had the longest return of the year for Tampa Bay – a 42-yarder at New Orleans – but couldn’t make it to the end zone.
• You’ll have to excuse Bucs cornerback Brian Kelly for not playing up to his usual standards over the last couple of weeks. Kelly has played good, but not great, and has been victim of several questionable pass interference penalties lately. The reason Kelly has been pressing too hard to make plays down the stretch and has given up some big plays instead? He’s been trying too hard to reel in a fifth interception. No, Kelly, who finished the season with four picks on the year, didn’t necessarily want to tie fellow cornerback Ronde Barber for the team lead in interceptions. That elusive fifth pick that never came was actually worth $1.1 million due to an incentive-based escalator clause in his contract. Because he finished with four picks he lost out on the extra $1.1 million. Ouch. Hopefully Kelly, who is one of the nicest and most pleasant guys on the team, can earn back some of that lost money by racking up some playoff dough. Don’t feel too bad for B.K., though. He’s still set to earn a base salary of $2.4 million in 2006 and has a $400,000 roster bonus coming to him in March.
• Let’s stick with cornerbacks for one more minute. Despite a terrible outing at New England, Juran Bolden has provided the Buccaneers with their best option at nickel back since Dwight Smith occupied that role in 2002. After signing a one-year deal with Tampa Bay last offseason, the 6-foot-3 corner, who had a key interception against New Orleans on Sunday, will be an unrestricted free agent in 2006. The 31-year old Bolden, a Tampa native, wants to return next year, but will likely seek more than a one-year deal for league minimum that he played for in 2005. “I’m going to leave that up to the front office and my agent,” said Bolden. “I wanted to come in and show what I’m capable of doing. I’m still a good corner. Hopefully I played well enough this year for them to want to do something with me next year. If not, I had a great time. I played well and played a full 16 games. I’ve been blessed. I can’t complain. Hopefully things work out where I can stay here and play. If not, there’s no hard feelings. That’s just football. I’ll just have to run it to them like I ran it to Atlanta and have fun with it.”
• Credit Bucs head coach Jon Gruden and special teams coach for putting Michael Pittman in to do kick returns. Pittman produced the longest kick return of the year with a 37-yarder on Sunday against New Orleans. The Bucs’ previous long was just 30 yards per return from both Torrie Cox and Edell Shepherd. Neither Cox nor Shepherd averaged more than 20.7 yards per return this year, but Pittman averaged 28.3 yards per return against the Saints on Sunday. He definitely deserves to get another shot at returning kicks.
• Despite Pewter Report’s suggestions that Tampa Bay Buccaneers under tackle Anthony McFarland could be a salary cap casualty in 2006 due to his $8.1 million salary cap value, sources tell Pewter Report that will likely not be the case. Despite registering only two sacks, ranking last among the starting defensive linemen in tackles, and missing the better part of two games with a hamstring injury, McFarland actually appears to be safe for the coming year. The reason? The Bucs will likely give him one more year to become a dominant force at under tackle, which is a position he has only played for the last two seasons. There could also be a reward at play for McFarland restructuring his contract this past October to accommodate Tim Rattay’s salary when the Bucs traded for the San Francisco quarterback. Because McFarland just restructured his contract, he will have to wait until next October to once again restructure it. That probably won’t happen and the Bucs will use the 2006 season as a measuring stick to determine whether McFarland will still be on the roster in 2007. Tampa Bay also needs a year to ramp up to potentially replace McFarland. With only Ellis Wyms as a viable alternative, the Bucs need to shore up the under tackle position before even think about jettisoning their 1999 first-round pick. Of course, McFarland can quiet such talk with a much better showing in 2006. Still, look for Tampa Bay to spend a first-day draft pick on a defensive tackle.
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