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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. It was last week after practice and I’m talking with the effervescent and insightful Ronde Barber in a one-on-one setting. We’re just shooting the bull, talking about some of the pro prospects like left tackle D’Brickashaw Ferguson and linebacker Ahmad Brooks from his beloved Virginia Cavaliers, the good start the Bucs are off to and about how Pewter Report picked Brian Kelly to go to the Pro Bowl this year in our September issue (Barber was happy with that selection and wasn’t mad at all that we didn’t pick him to go to the Pro Bowl, especially after I explained how he went to the Pro Bowl last year – meaning Kelly will get a ton of passes thrown his way as quarterbacks will stay away from number 20).
I wasn’t taping our conversation. It wasn’t on the record, but it wasn’t necessarily off the record, top secret-type stuff we were talking about. However, my brain instantly recorded one of Barber’s statements nearly verbatim when I asked him about the play of dazzling newcomer Blue Adams, who had an eye-opening preseason with 11 tackles, two fumble recoveries, two forced fumbles and two pass deflections, one of which was intercepted by fellow corner James Patrick.
Barber told me that a lot of corners have come through One Buc Place, but he thought that Adams could be the first one who could actually take away his job, which I interpreted as his starting spot.
Wow. Coming from a pro’s pro like Barber, that’s some very, very lofty praise. Of course, Barber didn’t mean that Adams, who is fifth on the depth chart behind more experienced corners like Kelly, Juran Bolden and Torrie Cox, was going to steal his job away this season or even the next. But Barber alluded to the fact that the talent, work ethic and drive are there for him to ascend up the depth chart in time and eventually become a starter with some improvement.
I took Barber’s comments to Tampa Bay’s defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin and his assistant, Raheem Morris, to see just how valid that statement was.
“That’s a hell of a compliment from Ronde, especially being the playmaker that he is,” Morris said. “I don’t want to say he’s going to take Ronde’s spot, but you can see the low-budget Ronde in him. And without making it a negative thing about Blue, he has that kind of ability and that type of awareness, and hopefully that playmaking ability. He’s a Ronde Barber clone. He follows him around. He studies him on the field. They both steal my desk every day. He’s a tape studier. He knows all of our techniques. He knows what we do. He loves it. He buys into it and that makes him kind of special. You love a guy like that, especially in a backup role right now.
“Blue is very detail-oriented. He hasn’t played a lot the last two weeks, but he was preparing as if he was starting. He does it every week. He prepares as if he’s Ronde Barber. He’s prepared to play nickel if Ronde goes down. His preparation makes you believe that he can be a starter in this league. This game is played 90 percent above the neck and he’s an above the neck guy in any situation you put him in.”
While the 30-year old Barber is still on top of his game, his contract will expire at the end of the 2006 season. At that time, general manager Bruce Allen might face the tough decision of whether to pay big money to an aging cornerback who will be approaching 32, or go with a younger, cheaper player. Perhaps Adams.
Adams and Barber have a good rapport, and I think Barber respects how hard Adams, who entered the league as an undrafted free agent from Cincinnati, has worked to get to where he is right now. After bouncing from the Detroit Lions to the Bucs’ practice squad and then to the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2003, Adams landed in Tampa Bay for good, reuniting with Tomlin, who recruited him out of high school for his ball skills when he was a defensive backs coach for the Bearcats prior to joining the Bucs in 2000.
“He’s a guy that has always been around the ball,” Tomlin said of Adams. “He was around the ball when he played for me at Cincinnati. He was around the ball when he was at Miami Senior (High School). He’s another instinctive guy. He has unique football instincts that probably go outside the norm in terms of what you see from guys who play his position. He’s a little linebacker. He’s a student of technique and he’s an attention-to-detail guy and an effort guy, so those things allow him to be in position to make plays. He’s very aware.
“Because of my prior experience with him, I knew what he would bring from a teammate standpoint – the effort, the attention to detail and the practice. Was he good enough to sort out in the mix? That, I didn’t know. But you knew that you wanted that type of guy around.”
Before Adams staked his claim to a roster spot on the Buccaneers in August, he spent the latter part of the spring and the early part of the summer overseas playing for the Rhein Fire in NFL Europe, where he led the league with 16 passes defensed and was named All-NFLE with three interceptions. Tomlin was impressed that Adams didn’t resist going across the Atlantic and made the best of being allocated to NFL Europe.
“He went over there and worked on his craft and competed and had some success over there,” Tomlin said. “You practice being successful. I’m sure the plays he made over there helped how he approached his game as he headed into training camp.
“But he’s not the kind of guy that makes the team and breathes a sigh of relief. He’s always hungry. He’s in the building on his off days. You kind of have to kick him out of here. He has a thirst for knowledge.”
Adams’ work ethic and desire to be the best reminds a lot of folks around One Buc Place of another 5-foot-9, 180-pound corner. If he has half the career that Barber has had, the Bucs will certainly benefit from it. It’s too early to say that Blue Adams will be the next great cornerback in Tampa Bay, but don’t be surprised if he is, either. Barber won’t certainly won’t be.
FAB 2. Remember Chris Simms? The Buccaneers’ quarterback of the future? Well thanks to a sterling performance in the preseason, that moniker still applies. The Bucs’ brass was thrilled with the progress Simms made this past August in which he was Tampa Bay’s leading passer with a 107.8 QB rating while completing 31-of-47 passes (66 percent) for 353 yards with four touchdowns to go with just one interception.
Although Brian Griese shows no signs of relinquishing his starting role anytime soon, especially after the team’s 3-0 start, and has a multi-year contract, the Bucs are still very high on Simms and think he can be Griese’s successor in time due to the progress that he’s made.
Simms will be a restricted free agent in 2006, which means the Bucs can essentially keep him around one more year by signing him to a one-year tender that would likely require first- and third-round pick compensation.
According to a report in Newsday, the New York Jets inquired about Simms’ availablity via trade this week due to the loss of Chad Pennington, but were rebuffed when the Bucs’ asking price was a first-round pick. Although general manager Bruce Allen is probably itching to pull the trigger on a trade with three weeks left before the trade deadline, dealing Simms would not be wise at this juncture as the Bucs are off to a 3-0 start and may need Simms’ experience and improvement to win the team some games should an injury strike Griese.
Although the Bucs believe Simms can be their long-term answer at quarterback, every player can be acquired if the price is right. With Simms’ improvement visible to all teams who studied him this past August, the price would have to be at least a first-rounder to trade for Simms. However, if the 30-year old Griese has an outstanding year in 2005, the Bucs may feel obligated to stick with him and deal Simms in the offseason. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. A lot can happen between now and the end of the season.
Don’t look at Simms’ gaudy stats for evidence of his improvement. Look at his pocket presence, his command of the huddle and of the team at the line of scrimmage, and his poise in the face of oncoming pass rushers. That’s where Simms has improved mightily since his second – and last – NFL start, which came at Arizona in the 2004 season finale.
Simms was shaky to say the least in that game. Under siege from a stiff Cardinals defense, Simms misfired all day. His lone highlight was his first and only NFL touchdown pass – a 75-yarder to receiver Michael Clayton.
“It helped just to get an entire game under my belt,” Simms said, alluding to the fact that he didn’t play the first quarter of his first NFL game, which was against Seattle in 2004, and didn’t get to finish his first start, which came at New Orleans, due to a separated shoulder he suffered in the first quarter. “I hadn’t played a full game in basically two years. I got in there and got knocked around a little. I had to battle. The one that I took from that game more than anything is that it’s not always going to be pretty in this league. Sometimes you are just going to have to battle. You might have to win a game 17-14 or something of that nature. That was the type of game it was. I learned a lot from it.”
Simms has openly admitted that he got “too geeked up” at the start of football games in the past but has noticed that he was much more composed during the 2005 preseason.
“I definitely do,” Simms said. “I think my biggest thing this preseason was just getting over the first series of being so excited that I get a little ahead of myself. Mentally, I felt great all preseason. I just felt like I was in total control out there with everything the defense was going to throw at me. There were no surprises.”
Surprisingly, Simms traces his problems with poise back to his college days where he and a quarterback named Major Applewhite were yo-yoed in and out of the lineup as Texas coach Mack Brown never really found a comfort level with either player.
“That was tough on me early in my career when I was a freshman and sophomore and I was having the battles with Major, if I got the start I would definitely be too excited,” Simms said. “I had a game once where I threw a little 10-yard curl route way too hard and it bounced off my receiver’s facemask and got intercepted. Little things like that. As my junior and senior years came along, none of that stuff really happened. I can’t tell you how many times we scored on the first, second and third plays of the game on deep passes to Roy (Williams). It’s just something about playing, getting out there and getting used to the surroundings.”
But when he was thrust into his first NFL action after head coach Jon Gruden benched starter Brad Johnson in the second quarter of the Seahawks game last year, Simms was too psyched up and felt too much pressure to make something happen with such a small window of opportunity. But instead of touchdown passes, he threw interceptions that cost Tampa Bay a chance at victory.
“Look at last year during the Seattle game,” Simms said. “I had no reps at practice all week and was thrown in there playing my first live action as a starting quarterback. Everyone else is settled in the game in the second quarter where I’m getting my first snaps. I hadn’t gotten my jitters out. I look back at the New Orleans game. I was calm and I had practice reps all week. I felt totally in control. There was no more doubt. I had already played in a live game. We marched right down the field and got a field goal. There’s definitely something to that.”
Speaking of pressure, I asked Simms if the fact that the Bucs traded for Luke McCown, another young quarterback, gave him any extra drive or motivation to turn in such an impressive preseason.
“I don’t think that really mattered,” Simms said. “I’m going to play my game no matter what. At the start of camp, I felt pretty good. I didn’t have a great first two drives at Tennessee, other than that, I felt like I had a real smooth preseason. Luke’s a good guy to have around. He definitely has talent and he’s very athletic. But you don’t worry about the guys around you. You’ve got to worry about yourself or you are not going to get your own job done.”
Instead of crediting McCown for pushing his game to new heights, Simms praises new quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett for his improvement and development.
“It’s been unbelievable,” Simms said. “Hackett is a guy that’s been around the West Coast offense for as long as its been around. The other quarterback coaches we’ve had really weren’t West Coast guys. He came in here and he’s been very involved with it. He’s done so much for me in the timing sense of the offense. I would say that’s where I’ve made the biggest leaps and bounds. When to take a quick five-step drop, when to draw it out to a longer five-step drop. Things of that nature really help in this offense because it is a timing offense.”
Just like Griese, who was third on the Bucs’ depth chart at the quarterback position last year until Johnson was benched and Simms was injured in Week 5, did last year, Simms must bide his time and wait for another opportunity to take the field on Sundays.
“Just be ready – that’s all I can do this year,” Simms said. “You saw what happened last year, the third-string quarterback ended up being the starter and had a great year. You don’t know what can happen in this league. I just want to be ready to take advantage of my opportunity if it does come.”
History has proven that about half of the starting quarterbacks in the NFL don’t survive a 16-game schedule due to injury. Chances are, it’s not a matter of “if” Griese goes down, it’s a matter of “when.”
“You hope not because you don’t wish that on anyone, but at the same time, you look around the league and you see guys get injured at every position,” Simms said. “You know it’s a physical game and your number can be called at any time.”
And when his number is called, he’ll be ready?
“Without a doubt,” Simms said. “I’ll be readier than I was last year. I’ve been out there a few times now and there won’t be that question of what’s it like playing live action against the first team.”
Although Simms will be on the sidelines when the Detroit Lions come to town on Sunday, he’ll see a familiar face that will cause him to harken back to his Longhorn days when he was a starting quarterback and spraying touchdown passes all over the field to All-American wide receiver Roy Williams.
“I talked to Roy on Monday,” Simms said. “I talk to him all the time and I still tell people to this day that he’s the greatest athlete that I’ve ever been around. He’s a tremendous person who works hard. I’m excited to see him in person so I can talk some smack to him.”
Throughout the course of one of those telephone conversations, does Williams ever say that he wishes that Simms was his quarterback instead of the struggling Joey Harrington?
“Oh, we won’t comment on that!” said a smiling Simms.
FAB 3. One of the untold stories thus far in the 2005 season is how John Wade has returned from a devastating knee injury to help anchor the offensive line and propel Tampa Bay’s potent ground game. Wade has shown no ill effects from the dislocated knee cap that cost him the final eight games of the 2004 season, and Sean Mahan took advantage of the situation to get his first eight starts of his pro career at center. That experience helped Mahan gain a competitive edge over second-year player Jeb Terry in training camp and win the starting right guard position next to Wade.
Should something happen to Wade, who is 30 years old, Mahan would likely replace him at center while Terry slides in at right guard. But it has been quite a while since the Bucs have drafted and developed a prospect at center. Austin King, who was drafted in 2003, couldn’t stay healthy and flamed out after a year. With the 2006 NFL Draft stocked with a solid group of centers, now might be the time to draft an eventual successor for Wade, who is only under contract through 2007 and will see his 2006 cap value rise to $1.85 million.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the privilege of watching Minnesota’s Greg Eslinger, who is one of the most dynamic centers I’ve ever seen in college football. Eslinger, who has been a four-year starter for the Golden Gophers, is vying for the top center spot in the draft with Ohio State’s Nick Mangold and Florida’s Mike Degory, and has the edge in my evaluation.
Minnesota has had one of the most potent running games in college football over the last four years, and it hasn’t been solely because of the likes Marion Barber, who opted for the 2005 NFL Draft after his junior campaign, or junior Lawrence Maroney, who is currently leading the nation in rushing. Eslinger has played a huge role in powering the running game and the zone blocking scheme by pulling on virtually every perimeter running play.
The 6-foot-3, 290-pounder has the speed, agility and awareness to get around the corner and pave the way for the Golden Gophers’ rushers. The Bucs frequently pull guards Mahan and Dan Buenning, but rarely pull Wade, who isn’t overly athletic. Should Tampa Bay draft Eslinger in the second round next April, he would give the Bucs a brand new dimension in their zone blocking scheme.
Eslinger’s biggest obstacle in the NFL will be his lack of size, and he’ll likely have to “redshirt” his rookie season and add about 10-15 pounds of bulk to hold up. But Eslinger is a technician who has the intelligence and leverage needed to be a successful player in the NFL for quite some time. NFL scouts say his game compares favorably to Pro Bowlers like Jeff Christy, Olin Kruetz and Kevin Mawae, whom Tampa Bay offensive line coach Bill Muir knows from his days with Mawae with the New York Jets.
Eslinger has the frame to add the necessary size needed to play pro football, but has been discouraged from gaining weight at Minnesota, whose offensive line averages just 292 pounds and is among the lightest in NCAA Division I-A. In fact, head coach Glen Mason has said “fat guys can’t play here.”
With All-American and Academic All-American status, Eslinger will interview well at the Senior Bowl and the NFL Combine. The unassuming kid from North Dakota has a great work ethic, is self motivated, always hustles and is looking to improve every day. His favorite team has always been the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it should come as no surprise that his favorite NFL player is blue collar fullback Mike Alstott.
If the Bucs can’t land Eslinger in the draft, Mangold wouldn’t be a bad option to fall back on. Like Eslinger, the 6-foot-3, 296-pounder has been a starter since his freshman season in 2002, and helped the Buckeyes win a national championship. Mangold is more of a powerful player in the running game, as opposed to a technician. He possesses good quickness, and although isn’t in Eslinger’s class as far as pulling, he is better suited to run block at the line of scrimmage. Mangold is a team captain who possesses great leadership ability.
Degory is a high effort player who brings great intelligence and solid technique to the table. At 6-foot-4, 298 pounds and not overly athletic, Degory resembles Wade in many ways. He’s a guy you can win with, and a player who is equally adept at pass protection and run blocking. He needs to add more strength and bend his knees better, but he figures to be a good player at the next level.
Other center prospects include Wisconsin’s Dominic Raiola (6-foot-2, 297), New Mexico’s Ryan Cook (6-foot-6, 322), California’s Marvin Philip (6-foot-1, 290) and Boston College’s Pat Ross (6-foot-3, 295). The Bucs have a good read on Raiola after scouting Buenning and Jonathan Clinkscale last year at Wisconsin. He’s a smart, intense player who excels in the running game, but is not as mobile as Eslinger and Mangold. Cook’s advantage over this group of centers is his size and long arms. However, he is strictly a power player who does not have good quickness or footwork and doesn’t get the proper knee bend to play with good leverage.
If you have a chance to watch Minnesota play this year, keep an eye on Eslinger (number 61). I’ll bet you come away impressed. Eslinger’s teammate, left guard Mark Setterstrom (number 68) is pretty good, too.
FAB 4. Tampa Bay long snapper and reserve tight end Dave Moore was the biggest loser prior to the Bucs’ first win at Green Bay since 1989 last Sunday. Moore, who has the longest tenure on the team dating back to 1992, has had to endure 11 straight losses at the hands of the Packers at Lambeau Field. Needless to say, Sunday’s win against Brett Favre and Co. meant more to the old NFC Central guys like Moore, Derrick Brooks and Mike Alstott than it did to the Bucs’ young pups like Carnell Williams and Michael Clayton.
“It’s kind of funny because when we got there, Mike and I were down on the field talking about some of the games we had up there,” Moore said. “We’ve played up there in September and had beautiful sunny days and we’ve played in the real cold ones, too, and the playoff game. We’ve lost a couple of times in overtime, so we’ve had our share of opportunities to win up there if we had made a field goal and had homefield (advantage) throughout the playoffs in 2000. There were certainly a lot of memories.
“For me, that was my 12th time up there – I went once with Buffalo and we lost, too. So I was 0-11 before Sunday. It was finally nice to win one. We knew the formula because in the past we knew that Brett Favre was going to throw you some balls that you’ll have an opportunity to intercept. If you intercept them and capitalize, you’ll have a chance to win the game. It’s not a very difficult formula, but sometimes it is hard to execute. We had the chance to intercept some balls, and fortunately, our running game was going. In past years, that wasn’t as good as it could have been. I think that was the deciding factor. It was nice coming out of there with a win.”
Moore mentioned the Bucs’ overtime loss in the season finale of the 2000 season, and out of the 11 defeats he has experienced at Lambeau Field, he said that one sticks out in his mind more than any other.
“The most painful loss was in 2000 and we had the ball on the 23-yard line and if we make the field goal we get a bye and have homefield advantage throughout the playoffs,” Moore said. “You know as well as I do, especially playing down here in Tampa that getting a bye at that time of the year, it puts you at a real advantage. Instead, we spent 36 hours in a hotel room because we flew up early for a snowstorm in Philly. That was the year we went up there to Philly and lost the first time in the Wild Card game. We played up in Green Bay in the playoffs in 1997 and lost, but the one in 2000 really did a lot of damage. Ultimately, that one put Tony Dungy on the hot seat.
“We had a lot of time to think about that loss in Green Bay. There was nothing to do in Philly with the weather. We flew up there so early and we sat around in our hotel mad about the fact that we didn’t get that win up there. That one really took a big blow out of us.”
With Moore and the Bucs being the victims of so many fourth quarter comebacks at the hands of Favre, it was a rare treat to see him standing helplessly on the sidelines where he couldn’t hurt Tampa Bay during the final five minutes as Williams and the offensive line were grinding out game-winning first downs with its newfound running game.
“There’s no question about it,” Moore said. “We know he’s very grey these days – which makes me feel good because I’m about as old as he is – but Brett still can throw that thing. We saw some beautiful passes on Sunday. He’s still a weapon. That running game in the fourth quarter was really the deciding factor. The biggest way to defend him is to keep him off the field and that’s what we were able to do in the last four minutes. Brett’s one of those guys that kind of thrives on that fourth quarter stuff. He’s definitely come back on us. You never felt like you were safe. I don’t know what his statistics are in terms of coming back and winning games, but I would say it is too many for my liking.”
That’s what makes the Bucs’ win at Green Bay even sweeter.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden has always fancied the use of a two-tight end set in both the running game and the passing game, and all it took was one look around the league in 2004 to realize that the Buccaneers’ tight end position needed revamping. Gruden saw San Diego’s Antonio Gates, Kansas City’s Tony Gonzalez, New York Giants’ Jeremey Shockey, Atlanta’s Alge Crumper and Dallas’ Jason Whitten as real weapons for their respective teams. Gruden even drew inspiration from the Super Bowl champions to sign Anthony Becht in free agency and draft Alex Smith. “The New England Patriots – look at their tight ends,” Gruden said. “They’ve got (Christian) Fauria, they’ve got Dan Graham and they’ve got (Ben) Watson, and they all play all the time. If you watch the good teams that are playing, they play a lot of tight ends. Jiminy Christmas! What a great idea!”
• One tight end to keep an eye on in college football is Purdue’s Charles Davis. He’s not an elite prospect like Nebraska’s Matt Herrian or Georgia junior Leonard Pope, but at 6-foot-6, 260 pounds he is a great athlete with a basketball background who can develop into a solid pro in time. Like Alex Smith was at Stanford, Davis is more of a receiver who must improve his blocking skills. Davis, who wears number 87, has nine catches for 130 yards (14.4 avg.) this season, and his lone touchdown came on a 49-yard pass at Minnesota. Last year, Davis hauled in 34 catches for 416 yards (12.2 avg.) and scored three times. He has the speed to go deep, evidenced by gains of 55 and 61 yards in 2004. The way Anthony Becht’s contract is structured, there is a chance he may not be around in 2006 if the Bucs have more viable options at tight end.
• The reason for the superb play of the Buccaneers defense in 2005 is not just the addition of new players, such as nose tackle Chris Hovan and nickel back Juran Bolden – although they have certainly made an impact. Instead, it is the fact that every defender is sticking to doing his job only, and not trying to overcompensate or do too much. By playing a one-gap, zone defense, big plays usually happen when players drift out of their gaps or out of their zones. “That was one of our major problems throughout last year – not trusting the next man to do his job,” said middle linebacker Shelton Quarles. “We made a concerted effort this offseason to trust the guy next to you, that they were going to do their job and let everything fall where it may. And we’ve been playing real well this year because of that.”
• Although Pewter Report’s season predictions haven’t amounted to much over the past couple of years (remember the 0-2 start we predicted for the Bucs this year and the 10-6 record we forecasted last season?), we did predict that Brian Kelly would be Tampa Bay’s top interceptor this season. And with three picks in three games, he is making us look pretty good. I asked if Kelly, who started off the season with a bang with two INTs at Minnesota, felt like he was in a groove. “No, I’m not even getting into a groove yet, which is a good thing,” Kelly said. “To be at three and not even be in a groove is a good sign. There are still a lot of areas I want to work on and I want to take advantage of a lot of opportunities out there. The way we are playing – stopping the run and rushing the passer – there are going to be many more opportunities. I predict plus-five interceptions for everybody on this starting secondary. Everybody is going to be getting the balls pretty soon.”
• That sound you hear, if you listen closely in the media trailer at One Buccaneer Place, is the sound of the gnashing and gritting of teeth of several local reporters who must painstakingly write how the Bucs are 3-0. Why is it so difficult to heap some praise on the Pewter Pirates’ good start after two losing seasons? Because more than one writer and columnist still can’t stand general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Jon Gruden, and hopelessly prays that Rich McKay (who spoon-fed them a lot of their information over the years) will magically return to his rightful throne atop One Buccaneer Place one day. It’s sad, but true, Bucs fans. What’s even sadder is that their personal biases prevented them from giving Allen a fair shake when he replaced McKay two years ago. Pewter Report wisely did, and was criticized by some as being an Allen-Gruden apologist. It was much more fun for some in the local media to write columns like “Gruden, Allen Need Some Kind of Plan” and pretend that they didn’t have one. But after turning in two dynamite drafts, clearing up some leftover salary cap problems and racing off to a 3-0 start, it is painfully clear that Allen and Gruden did have a plan for 2005 and beyond. It’s also painful to have to write about it for some local reporters, who have no choice but to hop back on the Bucs’ bandwagon.
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