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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. To the casual Buccaneers fan, there appeared to be some surprises when Tampa Bay released its final roster cuts. But to Pewter Report and Pewter Insider subscribers, it was no surprise to see the names of linebacker Marquis Cooper and wide receiver Edell Shepherd among the players the Buccaneers waived. Linebacker Antoine Cash had been making a steady push for Cooper's reserve linebacker spot during training camp and the preseason, and Cooper injured his shoulder at the wrong time. As I said in last week's SR's Fab Five when I hinted that Cash could make the team over Cooper, the Bucs weren't punishing Cooper by cutting him for getting hurt, they were simply rewarding Cash for taking full advantage of the opportunity he was given by getting some extra playing time due to Coop's injury.
In the end, Cooper's third-round draft status from three years ago wasn't enough to save him. While he did make significant progress from his rookie year to his second year, the Bucs didn't see much progress this year from last year. In other words, his play had stagnated and it appears as if Coop may be as good as he is going to be. The team didn't see the same kind of steady progress it has seen from someone like Ryan Nece, who ascended from undrafted rookie status in 2002 to the role of starter over time.
With Cash, it has a player with similar special teams ability as Cooper has, but whose ceiling is yet unknown. When the Bucs are looking at their reserves, they will almost always keep the player who hasn't reached the ceiling yet, and that's why Cash is a Buc and Cooper is not.
The release of Shepherd falls along the same lines as the cutting of Cooper. The Bucs know what they have in Shepherd – a backup receiver who will make enough good plays to earn a roster spot, but then will make enough mistakes to wish you hadn't kept him. In a word, Sherpherd is a heartbreaker.
Sure, let's all fondly remember his dramatic, game-winning touchdown catch against Washington during the regular season last year, but don't forget his costly end zone drop against that same Redskins team in the playoffs – or his fumbled kickoff in overtime against Atlanta. The Bucs surely didn't.
And while Shepherd had a gutsy, second-half performance against Miami in which he helped rally the Bucs with 93 yards on three catches, including a touchdown, he also contributed to a game-clinching interception by unintentionally deflecting a late Bruce Gradkowski pass by having the ball ricochet off his hand and into the arms of a Dolphins safety. Against Houston, his illegal motion penalty late in the fourth quarter cost the Bucs a key fourth-and-12 conversion.
Shepherd seemed to do enough to salivate the mouths of the Bucs coaches and scouts, yet somehow left them cotton-mouthed at the end of the day with his mistakes. It truly wasn't a surprise that Tampa Bay cut Shepherd. The real surprise was that the team kept seven receivers – including Paris Warren. Even that move came as a surprise to Pewter Report.
Team insiders tell Pewter Report that Warren was kept because of his intelligence and the fact that he rarely makes mistakes from the receiver position. So Pewter Report's analysis of the fact that Warren was a "poor man's Ike Hilliard" in our first 53-man roster cutdown prediction was accurate. Like Hilliard, Warren knows all three wide receiver positions – split end, flanker and slot receiver. Pewter Report just didn't think that would be enough to keep him around.
Yes, Warren did have some gaffes as a punt returner, muffing two punts against Jacksonville and Houston. However, the Bucs were attempting to make Warren a return man when it is obvious that he is more comfortable as a receiver. Yet when he did actually catch a punt, Warren made some things happen. He averaged 12.5 yards while returning four punts a total of 50 yards, including a 34-yarder against Houston.
With Mark Jones still recovering from a sprained ankle, perhaps the Bucs wanted to keep Warren to have a backup punt returner for the Baltimore game in case Jones can't go. But Tampa Bay does like Warren as a receiver. And by the way, Warren also led the Bucs in touchdown receptions in the preseason with two.
FAB 2. The other surprise that came with the final roster cuts was the fact that Tampa Bay kept just seven defensive linemen along with seven linebackers. If I were crafting the Bucs' 53-man roster, I would have kept eight defensive linemen and only seven linebackers.
The reason for Tampa Bay keeping seven linebackers? Supposedly special teams. The Bucs wound up keeping Wesly Mallard and cutting defensive tackle Jon Bradley. Bad move, Buccaneers.
First, Bradley should have been kept instead of rookie defensive lineman Julian Jenkins. Bradley (six tackles, including several behind the line of scrimmage) clearly outplayed Jenkins (one tackle) in the preseason finale at Houston, which a Bucs insider admitted to Pewter Report. However, Tampa Bay was true to its word when it said it would keep the best 53 players for the team – not necessarily the best 53 players.
As it was explained to me, the Bucs knew that Bradley was as good as he was going to get. He's a backup nose tackle who has some limited versatility and he's a decent special teamer. Tampa Bay viewed Jenkins, a fifth-round draft pick this year, as having the potential to have a bigger upside on defense and to be a better special teams player.
Huh? Based on what? Jenkins got manhandled when he started at left defensive end at Houston, and couldn't get off blocks. He didn't impress when he played defensive tackle in the first three preseason games, registering four tackles throughout the entire preseason despite extended playing time. To put that number in perspective, Anthony McFarland registered three tackles while barely playing in the preseason and sitting out the finale at Houston.
I understand the Bucs' reasoning for keeping Jenkins over Bradley (it's essentially the same reasoning that led to Tampa Bay to keep Warren over Shepherd), but I don't agree with it in this instance. I think the Bucs are trying to convince themselves that they can make Jenkins into an Ellis Wyms-type player. The difference is that Wyms, a sixth-round draft pick in 2001, continued to ascend from his rookie season and became a player versatile enough to learn all four defensive line positions and be the first defensive tackle off the bench to back up McFarland or Chris Hovan this year.
But I don't see Jenkins as the same type of athlete that Wyms is. I didn't see it in my film study of Jenkins when a draft prospect at Stanford. I didn't see it at training camp or in the preseason, either. Think of Jenkins as this year's Donte Nicholson. Nicholson, Tampa Bay's fifth-round pick in 2005, didn't deserve to make the roster last year, but was given the benefit of the doubt due to his draft status. A year later? Nicholson was among the 21 players released on Saturday.
Before you think that I'm rooting against Jenkins, just know that I'm not. I just think if Jenkins was a sixth-round draft pick instead of a fifth-rounder (in hindsight, it's a crime that he got drafted ahead of Bruce Gradkowski, who was Tampa Bay's first sixth-round pick), he might not have been kept around.
I don't see the wisdom in Tampa Bay deciding to keep seven linebackers and just seven defensive linemen. I could see the heat index at Raymond James Stadium on opening day next Sunday being well over 100 degrees when you factor in the humidity. I could also see Baltimore coming in to Tampa with an efficient, ball control offense that features a Steve McNair-led short passing game and a stout running game featuring Jamal Lewis and Musa Smith.
As well as Tampa Bay's starting defense played in the preseason, I could see the need for wave defensive linemen on Sunday. After the 300-pound McFarland and the 298-pound Hovan exit the game for a breather, Tampa Bay's next wave includes the 290-pound Wyms, who replaces Hovan, and the 273-pound Dewayne White, who replaces McFarland. The next – and only – available option after Wyms and White? Jenkins – the 277-pound rookie. In my opinion, the Bucs could miss the 300-pound Bradley on opening day and regret keeping seven linebackers.
FAB 3. I discussed it last week and I'll discuss it again this week. The defensive tackle position is a weakness in Tampa Bay. The Bucs better hope that Anthony McFarland plays as well in the regular season as he has played in the preseason while recording two sacks. They also better hope that he and nose tackle Chris Hovan stay healthy this year. All they have in terms of a quality backup is Ellis Wyms.
Sure, defensive ends Greg Spires and Dewayne White could play under tackle in a pinch, especially from a pass rushing perspective. But how would Spires and White, who are both less than 275 pounds, hold up against the run if a team ran the ball 35-plus times? And how would rookie Julian Jenkins hold up? The guess here is not very well.
Didn't Tampa Bay learn its lesson in 2004 when injuries ravaged the defensive tackle position and McFarland, Wyms and Damien Gregory were all on injured reserve by midseason? With the exception of signing Hovan off the free agent scrap heap in 2005 – and they had no idea that he would play as well as he has – the Bucs have ignored the defensive tackle position for far too long.
With Warren Sapp's departure in 2004, McFarland failing to live up to his first-round draft status and lucrative contract extension in 2003, and Wyms failing to crack the starting line up, the signs have been flashing for the Bucs to shore up the defensive tackle spots. Now the team cuts Jon Bradley, a decent backup, and Anthony Bryant, a developmental, sixth-round draft pick in 2005. Bryant deserved to be cut, but I think they should have kept Bradley, for reasons I expressed in Fab 2.
But the failure to stockpile talent at the defensive tackle positions is baffling, especially when the success of Tampa Bay's defense is predicated on the ability to stuff the run and pressure the passer from the front four.
In last week's SR's Fab Five, I pointed out that the Buccaneers haven't drafted a defensive tackle on the first day since drafting McFarland with their first-round pick in 1999. But the real crime is that Tampa Bay has only drafted two defensive tackles – period – since Jon Gruden took over as head coach in 2002.
The Bucs ignored the position in Gruden's first three drafts until deciding to spend a sixth-rounder on Bryant, a classic underachiever at Alabama, in 2005 after coaching him in the Senior Bowl. Tampa Bay then proceeded to spend a fifth-round draft pick on Jenkins, a defensive end-defensive tackle 'tweener. That's it.
The Bucs have supplemented the defensive tackle position with undrafted, throwaway players like Gregory, Cleveland Pinkey and yes, Bradley. But why haven't they spent more draft picks on defensive tackles, especially with a defensive line guru like Rod Marinelli around to coach them up?
By contrast, the Buccaneers have spent a whopping seven draft picks on wide receivers since Gruden's arrival in 2002. Here's the list:
WR Marquise Walker (round three – 2002) WR Aaron Lockett (round seven – 2002) WR Michael Clayton (round one – 2004) WR Mark Jones (round seven – 2004) WR Larry Brackins (round six – 2005) WR Paris Warren (round seven – 2005) WR J.R. Russell (round seven – 2005) WR Maurice Stovall (round three – 2006)
To Gruden's credit, of the seven receivers drafted by Tampa Bay, four of them are still on the team. But adding quality wide receivers in free agency is easier than adding quality defensive tackles. Just look at what Gruden has been able to do with the likes of Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius, Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway, who was acquired in a trade with Dallas.
The Bucs lucked out at the defensive tackle position in 2005 when McFarland started 15 games, Hovan started 16 and Wyms and Bradley were also available every week for relief. But Tampa Bay didn't luck out in 2004 when the team was forced to start White and former defensive end Chidi Ahanotu at defensive tackle down the stretch after injuries hit the position hard. The end result was that Tampa Bay couldn't stop the run and wound up finishing with the 19th-ranked run defense, and more importantly, a 5-11 record.
I'll get off my soapbox now and move on to other topics aside from the defensive tackle position. If I have to address it again in the SR's Fab Five, it likely won't be good news.
FAB 4. Ask most Bucs observers, including fans and media pundits, who should be Tampa Bay's backup quarterback – electrifying rookie Bruce Gradkowski or blase Tim Rattay – and the answer is unanimous. Gradkowski.
The facts bear that out. Gradkowski presided over 17 drives during the preseason and led the Bucs to five touchdowns (all Gradkowski TD throws) and a field goal. Rattay only had nine drives during the preseason, but only led Tampa Bay to two field goals.
To round out the preseason drives, starter Chris Simms commandeered 12 drives and produced a touchdown (a Mike Alstott scoring plunge) and two field goals.
NFL head coaches want their quarterbacks to not make mistakes and get the ball in the end zone. With five touchdown passes, three interceptions and a fumble, Gradkowski had more pluses than minuses. Rattay, who had two interceptions and fumbled once (although it was recovered by running back Earnest Graham), failed to get the Bucs into the end zone.
So Gradkowski deserves to be the backup right? Well, yes and no.
As good as the rookie quarterback has been this season in terms of making plays and bringing excitement into the Bucs huddle, let's not forget that Gradkowski is still a rookie. I think Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden will make Rattay his number two quarterback due to his NFL experience, and that's not a bad idea. Rattay might be the guy that Gruden wants to come off the bench and be the caretaker of his offense for a couple of quarters if Simms is injured.
Now if the injury is significant and Simms is poised to miss more than one game, I think Gruden would roll the dice with Gradkowski and ultimately make him the starter over Rattay because of his playmaking ability. Let's face it. If Simms is out for an extended period of time in 2006, Tampa Bay is in trouble as the team's hopes this year rest on his left arm. So then getting Gradkowski some playing experience isn't a bad idea, and hopefully his flair for making plays gets the Bucs more wins than they expect.
Of course, the X-factor in Tampa Bay's quarterback mix is Luke McCown, who is on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list. If McCown recovers from his torn ACL and is ready to return after the first six weeks of the season, Rattay may be jettisoned.
Jay Fiedler is also an option if his shoulder comes around in rehab. Fiedler never practiced with the team during training camp, but the cerebral Dartmouth grad did learn Gruden's offense during his brief stint with Tampa Bay. If McCown can't make it back from ACL rehab and the team wants a veteran alternative to Rattay, Fiedler could be the guy near midseason. Here's hoping that Simms can stay healthy this season and all this discussion regarding backup quarterbacks is a moot point.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
ï¿½ Here are some preseason defensive and special teams superlatives for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Linebacker Jamie Winborn led the team with 20 tackles (15 solo), followed by safety Blue Adams (12 solo) and linebacker Barrett Ruud, who each had 16 stops. Under tackle Booger McFarland led the Bucs with two sacks. As a whole, Tampa Bay recorded 11 sacks. Winborn, Ruud, Shelton Quarles, Wesly Mallard and Antoine Cash (half sack) each had sacks from the linebacking corps, while Steve Cargile, Kalvin Pearson and Jermaine Phillips (half sack) had sacks from the safety ranks. While the Bucs did not record any interceptions, they did force four fumbles and recover three. Cash led the Bucs with five special teams tackles, and rookie defensive end Charles Bennett blocked a field goal. Cornerback Torrie Cox had one kickoff return for 49 yards.
ï¿½ And now some preseason offensive superlatives. Earnest Graham once again led the Bucs in preseason rushing with 161 yards on 37 carries (4.4 avg.). Quarterback Bruce Gradkowski had the highest rushing average (6.0 avg.) with 66 yards on 11 carries. Fullback Mike Alstott averaged 5.0 yards per carry, rushing for 25 yards on five carries. Rookie tight end Tim Massaquoi led Tampa Bay with nine catches for 59 yards and scored one touchdown, while wide receiver Edell Shepherd led the Bucs in receiving yardage (119) and average (23.8) on five catches while turning in the longest pass play – 48 yards – of the preseason. Gradkowski led the team in all passing categories with 45 completions, 61 attempts, 73.8 percent completion percentage, 511 passing yards, five touchdowns, three interceptions and a QB rating of 105.3. Chris Simms was sacked a team-leading five times.
A final word on rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski from Bucs head coach Jon Gruden: "This guy has got some talent. He's an accurate passer. We're going to stay after his ass and help him become a great quarterback. He's learning quick. He's got a lot of pride. He wants top learn. He irritates me because he's always in front of my door when I come in at 5:00 in the morning. He's looking for answers. He wants to get better. I'm really proud of him. I've been hard on him and with good reason. We might need him because this is a long season." Gruden is right. Did you know that in his four years with the Bucs that Gruden has only had a quarterback go wire-to-wire once? That's right, Brad Johnson started all 16 games in 2003, but was benched after the first quarter of the season finale loss (33-13) at Tennessee. Gruden is suspecting that he'll need to play Gradkowski at some point.
ï¿½ Here's a few "programming notes" for our Pewter Insiders to look out for this week. The new PewterReport.com site will be unveiled this weekend. It is in the final stages of production right now and it looks impressive. We can't wait to get your feedback on it. Also, my weekly radio show, the PewterReport.com Buccaneer Blitz, can be heard on Wednesday at 5:00 p.m. on WDAE 620 AM. I also make an appearance on Catch 47's Bucs Xtra Point show this week. Check your local listings for dates and times.
This story is intended to be read by Pewter Insider subscribers only. Sharing of the PI content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.
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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