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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are not just shuffling their defensive line this week to better shore up their run defense. The fact that coach Rod Marinelli is moving his best defensive lineman, Greg Spires, to under tackle against New Orleans this Sunday is a move that will give Tampa Bay a look at a potential under tackle prospect in 2005. Spires has had a phenomenal season, notching career highs in tackles (69), sacks (5.5), forced fumbles (two) and fumble recoveries (two), but at 6-foot-2, 265 pounds he is very undersized to play the under tackle position. It will be interesting to see how he performs on Sunday.
After the team lost starting under tackle Anthony McFarland and top reserve Ellis Wyms due to injury, Chidi Ahanotu and Dewayne White saw action at under tackle in pass rushing situations and have performed well. But it has been against the run that the position has faltered – no matter which player has played under tackle.
McFarland has earned a reputation for being injury prone and some at One Buccaneer Place are beginning to question his toughness, especially after he shut down his season due to a torn biceps while others, such as Spires, who battled through a torn biceps in training camp, and safety Jermaine Phillips, who suffered a broken forearm, have refused to go on injured reserve. Because the under tackle position is so vital to Monte Kiffin’s defensive scheme, the brass at One Buccaneer Place is on the hunt for prospective under tackle candidates and are not convinced that that player is the oft-injured McFarland.
The team was disappointed that McFarland wasn’t hungry enough to start at under tackle and separate himself from Wyms prior to training camp. The fact that Wyms, who is a good player with a lot of heart and hustle, but a former sixth-round pick as well, was even making it a close race until an ankle injury in Orlando gave the job to McFarland by default. That made some within the organization cringe. There was also some grumbling at team headquarters about McFarland playing too much golf in the offseason instead of preparing himself to fill Warren Sapp’s shoes.
McFarland’s season-ending triceps injury only added to Tampa Bay’s disappointment. When he was healthy, McFarland produced against Seattle and St. Louis, but was ineffective against Washington and Oakland. Don’t be surprised to see the Buccaneers move McFarland back to nose tackle in 2005 and let players like White, Wyms or Spires take a shot playing the three-technique. Of course, Spires is a free agent in 2005 and would have to be re-signed for that scenario to occur.
There is no way the Bucs can unload McFarland without taking a severe salary cap hit. When former general manager Rich McKay signed McFarland to a contract extension, he inserted a $3.5 million option bonus into the 2004 season that virtually guaranteed that the Bucs would be on the hook for the back half of McFarland’s contract (years 2005-08). If the Bucs did not exercise that right this year, which they were essentially forced to do, McFarland’s signing bonus of $6 million, which he received in August of 2003, would have accelerated in its entirety this season and his salary cap value would have gone from $2.2 million to over $7 million.
With new general manager Bruce Allen needing to create as much additional salary cap room as possible this spring, there was no way the team could have afforded McFarland occupying $7 million worth of cap space. Plus, there was no way for Bucs management to know back in the spring that McFarland would be as ineffective and injured as he has been this season. The $3.5 million option bonus is known in the NFL as a form of “poison pill.” Unfortunately, the only ones who could have gotten poisoned with the ridiculous way this contract was structured are the Buccaneers – not McFarland. Yet another McKay contract extension seems to be coming back to haunt the Buccaneers.
As Pewter Report has previously mentioned, Tampa Bay has is interested in USC defensive tackles Shaun Cody and Mike Patterson, as well as Florida State defensive tackle Travis Johnson. There is a chance that Cody or Johnson could be first-round picks with stellar workouts, while Patterson seems like a second-round selection. While it would appear that offensive-minded head coach Jon Gruden would like to draft an offensive player in the first round, if a franchise-type under tackle candidate is available, Allen may decide to pull the trigger on a defensive player with the top pick instead.
FAB 2. In case you are wondering, the Pewter Report staff does its own research when it comes to draft prospects and does not rely on other scouting services for information. We pride ourselves in our draft coverage and were the first media outlet to point out how Tampa Bay would emphasize special teams in the 2004 draft, and the only media outlet to correctly predict that the Bucs would draft a wide receiver with their first-round pick. We spend an awful lot of time educating ourselves to come up with these correct predictions.
As a subscriber to ESPN’s College Game Plan service, I have watched and taped literally hundreds of hours of college football this season. Every week I have taken in ESPN’s Thursday and Friday night games, followed by watching up to five different college games on Saturday from the noon kickoffs until the University of Hawaii games are over at 2:00 a.m. ET. While those five games are one consecutively on one television, I am taping another five on my other TV. Of course, the wife and my daughter are kicked out of the house during the day as I spend about 14-straight hours digesting games and NFL draft prospects while putting the finishing touches on that week’s issue of Pewter Report.
In fact, I love college football more than I do pro football and have often dreamt about being a college scout for an NFL team. But I have been having too much fun covering the Buccaneers and publishing Pewter Report for the past nine years, so those dreams are currently on hold.
As soon as the Buccaneers’ 2004 season is over, the newspaper writers will begin grabbing draft guides (and probably the Pewter Report Bucs Draft Preview Issue) and start writing about players they have probably not even watched before. Just know that Pewter Report has done its homework and that you can rely on us for the inside scoop on which draft prospects best fit the Bucs’ needs and schemes, and we will once again be at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. the final week in January and file our exclusive Pewter Insider reports.
There are lots of intriguing prospects to talk about between now and draft day, including a player who has jumped out at me several times this season – California defensive end Ryan Riddle. This 6-foot-2, 255-pound pass rusher has notched a school-record 14.5 sacks as a right end playing alongside Cal’s premier defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander. Riddle reminds me of a poor man’s David Pollack, although he doesn’t have the bulk that the Georgia All-American does, and doesn’t play on the left side like Pollack does. But Riddle does have a non-stop motor that Bucs defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli craves.
Riddle will be a Day Two selection, probably between rounds 5-7, due to his size and lack of starting experience, but Tampa Bay has become a haven for undersized linemen who possess speed and quickness, and Riddle, who runs a 4.6 in the 40-yard dash, would fit in quite well provided he can add 10 pounds of bulk. Riddle was a junior college player who only logged three starts in 2003, but notched six sacks in his limited opportunity.
Another interesting player is UAB (University of Alabama-Birmingham) wide receiver Roddy White, who is a mid-round, second-day prospect. I’ve seen a couple of UAB games this year, the first of which was a thrilling contest between the Blazers and the Memphis Tigers. I was scouting Memphis running back DeAngelo Williams when I kept getting drawn to No. 10 in green.
While watching the game live on television, I knew White was having a big day, but I didn’t realize how big until I went back and scouted the game tape earlier this week. White finished the day with eight catches for 177 yards and three touchdowns in the 35-28 win over Memphis and displayed great hands, a great feel for the passing game and the ability to gain separation. Granted, the Tigers defense can’t be compared to Auburn’s secondary or Miami’s, but White turned in a stellar performance, nonetheless.
As a junior, White totaled 39 catches for 844 yards (21.6 avg.) and seven touchdowns and showed off his 4.45 speed on a 95-yard touchdown catch against Cincinnati. In 2004, his senior campaign has seen him post 65 catches for 1,339 yards (20.6 avg.) and 13 scores heading into the Hawaii Bowl against Hawaii on December 24.
At 6-foot-2, 205 he has good size for Jon Gruden’s West Coast offense. If the Bucs pass on the opportunity for upper echelon receivers like Michigan’s Braylon Edwards, Oklahoma’s Mark Clayton, or Florida State’s Craphonso Thorpe, White could be had in rounds 3-5.
FAB 3. A couple of junior players have already declared for the 2005 NFL draft. Among them are South Carolina wide receiver Troy Williamson, Florida running back Ciatrick Fason and North Carolina State running back T.A. McClendon.
The 6-foot-2, 205-pound Williamson had 43 catches for 835 yards and seven touchdowns this season for the Gamecocks, as the Southeastern Conference’s top receiver. The speedy Williamson, who had a 99-yard touchdown against Virginia in 2003, was named to the All-SEC first team in 2004. He averaged 43.7 yards per catch and hauled in 65-yard score against Georgia. The next week against South Florida, he averaged 42 yards per catch and scored three touchdowns from 56, 55 and 73 yards out.
Williamson is rated between rounds 3-4 and joins players like Louisville’s J.R. Russell, UAB’s Roddy White and Northern Colorado’s Vincent Jackson in the second-tier class of receivers this year.
Fason, a 6-foot, 215-pound halfback, is extremely versatile. In addition to being a hard-nosed runner, who led the SEC with 1,173 yards rushing on 205 carries (5.7 avg.) and scoring 10 TDs, Fason is an accomplished pass catcher coming out of the backfield, hauling in 31 passes for 226 yards and two scores this year.
Nicknamed “C-4” because he wore jersey number 4, Fason had five 100-yard rushing days, including 210 yards against Kentucky, 139 yards against Georgia and 103 against Florida State.
Fason has the physical tools to be a late first-round pick, but his draft status will ultimately depend on how he works out for college scouts. His versatility makes him NFL-ready and he will definitely be a first-day selection. Fason is married and has two kids, and is said to be mature and motivated, which is why he is foregoing his senior season at Florida.
McLendon, a 5-foot-11, 225-pounder, has battled numerous injuries and has yet to make it through a full college season healthy. After fighting through numerous injuries while rushing for 1,101 yards on 245 carries (4.5 avg.) and scoring 18 rushing TDs as a freshman in 2002, McLendon’s injuries have mounted and his production has declined.
In 2003, McLendon was banged up and missed four games. He wound up logging just 130 carries for 608 yards (4.7 avg.) and nine touchdowns. This season, he has rushed for 770 yards on 167 carries (4.6 avg.) with six scores.
McLendon is an accomplished pass catcher, which will intrigue college scouts for teams who employ a West Coast offense. In his freshman year, McLendon caught 42 passes for 354 yards from Phillip Rivers. In 2003, he hauled in 40 balls for 368 yards and two scores. As a junior, McLendon caught just 11 passes for 136 yards and one TD.
When healthy, McLendon is an exceptional back with great power, moves, vision and balance. But his problem is staying healthy, which will raise numerous red flags among NFL scouts and send his stock plummeting to rounds 5-7.
There are also some rumblings that other juniors like Memphis’ Williams, Virginia left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and LSU offensive tackle Andrew Whitworth will soon opt to enter the NFL a year early.
FAB 4. If you remember back to the summer after the 2004 NFL Draft, both head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen went on record saying that they would like to add a fourth quarterback to their training camp roster – a scrambler who could mimic Michael Vick, Aaron Brooks and other scramblers the Buccaneers would face on Sundays. So who was that quarterback? Adrian McPherson (you knew Pewter Report would be able to dig it up).
If that name sounds familiar to you, it should. McPherson was the Florida high school phenom who got kicked out of Florida State during his sophomore year in 2002 and subsequently arrested and hit with multiple felonies stemming from charges of taking a blank check from an auto accessories company in Tallahassee, Fla., making the check out for $3,500 and cashing it. McPherson was also hit with a misdemeanor charge of gambling, including bets on Florida State football games, according to several published reports. McPherson was sentenced to 30 months worth of probation after he pleaded no contest to the felonies and misdemeanor. A 5-1 hung jury ended his misdemeanor trial.
During that sophomore campaign at FSU, McPherson appeared in nine games and went 3-1 as a starter, completing 80-of-155 passes for 1,017 yards with 12 touchdowns and just one interception. This coming just two years removed from being the only athlete named Mr. Football and Mr. Basketball in the state of Florida in the same year.
As he was still battling his legal woes in 2003, McPherson tried to latch on at Murray State and Tennessee State, but neither school would let him play until his matters in the courts were taken care of.
Fast forward to 2004 and McPherson finally put his troubles behind him and got to play football – in the Arena Football League. Thanks to a rigorous weight-training program, the 6-foot-4, 20-year old had transformed his body from the wiry, 185-pounder he was at Florida State to a 210-pounder who was capable of taken on the rigorous punishment he would face in pro football.
As a rookie with the Indiana Firebirds, McPherson took the AFL by storm. He completed 237-of-397 (59.7 percent) passes for 3,201 yards with 61 touchdowns and just five interceptions. The lightning quick McPherson, who runs a 4.5 in the 40-yard dash, also rushed for 259 yards on 65 carries (4.0 avg.) and scored 19 touchdowns on the ground while earning 2004 AFL Rookie of the Year honors.
Aside from helping his brother Jon as a Buccaneers offensive assistant, Jay Gruden coaches the Orlando Predators arena league team and got a first-hand look at McPherson’s talents in Orlando’s 50-38 win over Indiana. The mobile quarterback finished that contest 22-of-37 for 267 yards and five touchdowns and made a strong impression on the Grudens, who tried to sign McPherson this past summer.
But NFL eligibility issues prevented him from signing with any team as the necessary paperwork was not submitted to the league. McPherson missed his chance for the 2004 draft or a supplement draft, but he will be eligible for the 2005 draft. With the Indiana franchise having folded after the 2004 season and McPherson not signing with the Predators or another AFL team, it looks like he will leap to the NFL in 2005.
In several recent interviews he has professed how he made made mistakes but has become more mature because of them. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers likely to draft a young quarterback to groom behind Brian Griese and Chris Simms in 2005, McPherson might be the one to fill that role.
FAB 5 Here’s a couple of items to hold you over until next week:
• You’ve probably read in Pewter Report that Louisville quarterback Stefan LeFors used to throw passes to the Bucs’ own Michael Clayton in high school in Baton Rouge, La. The Bucs are intrigued by LeFors, a left-handed passer who enters the AutoZone Liberty Bowl on track to break the NCAA all-time passer efficiency record of 183.3, set by Tulane’s Shaun King in 1998. LeFors has completed 74 percent of his passes this year for 2,403 yards, throwing 18 touchdowns and just two interceptions while directing the nation’s most potent scoring offense (50.7 points per game). This year, Louisville became the first team in NCAA history to score 55 points or more in five consecutive contests. If Adrian McPherson isn’t draft eligible or isn’t available later in the 2005 draft, look for the Bucs to pull the trigger on LeFors, who reminds some of Ty Detmer, a quarterback who Jon Gruden coached in Philadelphia. Despite his strong resume`, the 6-foot, 200-pound LeFors lacks ideal NFL size and will likely be a late-round draft pick. After Brad Johnson is cut or traded, Tampa Bay will need another signal caller to back up Brian Griese and Chris Simms.
• Pewter Report managing editor Jim Flynn nailed it in this week’s Countdown To Kickoff upcoming opponent preview when he suggested the key matchup would be New Orleans receiver Joe Horn versus Tampa Bay cornerback Brian Kelly. If Kelly holds Horn scoreless and under 75 yards, I think the Bucs win. While fellow receiver Dante` Stallworth has emerged as a playmaker, the other player who has been a thorn in the Bucs’ side is tight end Boo Williams, who has touchdown catches in three out of the last five games he has played against Tampa Bay.
• New Orleans cornerback Mike McKenzie, who was acquired in a trade with Green Bay just prior to the first Bucs-Saints game this season, has changed the way the Saints play defense over the last month. His ability to shut down the receiver he is covering has allowed safeties Jay Bellamy and Tebucky Jones to play in the box with greater frequency down the stretch. New Orleans’ run defense was once porous, but the addition of McKenzie has allowed defensive coordinator Rick Venturi to deploy more eight-man fronts. With the Buccaneers having success running the football at home, the Saints will be primed to stop Michael Pittman. If the Bucs rush for over 100 yards on Sunday, they will likely emerge victorious.
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