SR’s Fab Five appears regularly on PewterReport.com 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.
I apologize for the delay in producing this SR’s Fab Five. As you may or may not know, there was an ownership change regarding Pewter Report on June 7 and it has taken up a considerable amount of time for me now that I am the publisher of the magazine and the PewterReport.com Web site. From setting up an office, dealing with merchant vendors, helping to develop a new website, interviewing and hiring employees – and yes, covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – while producing an 80-page issue of Pewter Report, the month of June has been a whirlwind for me.
After working seven days a week for the past month (cue the orchestra strings for sympathy), I’m off to the shores of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina with my family for a long-overdue vacation. I’ll be returning in mid-July with another edition of SR’s Fab Five, but in the meantime, I certainly wanted to publish one before my plane takes off.
The hope is that once the operational set-up phase of Pewter Report is completed, the SR’s Fab Fives will come on a more predictable and regular basis. We’re still hiring some key employees, which will also help Jim Flynn and myself in terms of providing us with some much-needed manpower.
I understand how much the SR’s Fab Fives are enjoyed by you, the die-hard Bucs fan, especially this time of year when Bucs news is slow and training camp is close, yet so far away. I am flattered that the column is missed and realize that I’ve created a bit of a monster with it. Again, the goal is to get the column done as regularly as possible, but sometimes that proves to be difficult as tracking down stories and sources is a lot harder than it used to be. Remember, this isn’t the loose-lipped One Buc Place that Rich McKay used to run where McKay and his underlings would actually call reporters and tell them of the days events. Those days are gone, and that’s why you need Pewter Report now more than ever to get the inside scoop through our sources and methods.
The latter part of June presents its own challenges. Virtually every coach, scout and player is either on vacation or ready to embark on one before camp begins. Getting a hold of our sources during this time of year can prove to be difficult, such was the delay in the update on rookie tight end T.J. Williams’ injury. But as you should have noticed, PewterReport.com did get the story first.
Also realize that I have high expectations for the SR’s Fab Five and sometimes it needs to cook a little longer before it’s ready. I don’t want to put any “filler” in the column at all just to say that I produced an SR’s Fab Five. The goal is to provide cutting-edge inside scoop, interviews, analysis and observations you won’t find in the local Tampa Bay area papers or anywhere else – not “filler.”
I agree with you that this edition of SR’s Fab Five is a bit overcooked, so let me get off my soap box and serve it up. Grab a seat and dig in, and expect another one in mid-July after my return.
Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. So which Tampa Bay Buccaneers players have been generating the most buzz this offseason? This has been a popular question that many a Bucs fan has wondered. In talking with multiple sources at One Buc Place this offseason to reach a concensus, I’ve broken down the buzz players into groups of five offensive players and five defensive players. Here are the offensive players who have really caught the eyes of their coaches, scouts and teammates.
TE Alex Smith – The buzz around Smith is about as loud as 1,000 swarming bees. Smith has really built himself into a man, thanks to a rigorous offseason workout program. Bucs head coach has even produced signature plays and formations for Smith this year, including his own personnel grouping called “Tiger Stanford.” “Tiger” is a personnel grouping that features two tight ends, two wide receivers and one running back. In “Tiger Stanford,” Smith actually lines up as a receiver, so it’s essentially a three-tight end alignment with Smith split out wide. Some football followers have noticed that the Bucs have their own version of the “triplets” that may some day rival Dallas (quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith and wide receiver Michael Irvin) and Indianapolis (quarterback Peyton Manning, running back Edgerrin James and wide receiver Marvin Harrison) with quarterback Chris Simms, running back Cadillac Williams and wide receiver Michael Clayton. But the one player the pundits always seem to forget about is the tight end. Jay Novacek was Aikman’s security blanket and go-to guy on third down. Marcus Pollard played a similar role in Indy for Manning. Smith will be the same type of player for Simms this year. Expect him to have a big year.
TE Anthony Becht – Becht has been praised for his improved flexibility and agility this offseason. He is faster and has become a more fluid runner thanks to Mike Morris’ speed program at One Buc Place, in addition to a post-workout session with a personal trainer. Becht has spent a lot of time doing hip exercises and they have apparently paid off. While he is expected to still play an integral role in Tampa Bay’s run game, the Bucs hope that his increased fluidity will make him a better target in the passing game this year. Tampa Bay will once again run a lot of two tight end sets. If you are out at training camp and hearing Jon Gruden ask for “U” personnel groupings a lot, that’s the signal for two tight ends. With Smith and Becht both lighting it up this spring and summer, Tampa Bay’s offense will definitely feature the tight end this year.
RG Jeb Terry – The biggest question this offseason pertaining to the offensive line was supposed to be where will Sean Mahan play – center or right guard? A strong offseason by Terry, who is now in his third year with the Bucs, is helping to answer that question. First-round draft pick Davin Joseph has not been as dominant out of the gate as Dan Buenning was last year, and is not a lock to start. That’s not to say that Joseph won’t be a fine player and an eventual starter. He very well could be – and is expected to be. But in the meantime, Terry is the one who is making some noise at right guard and he may force the team to play Mahan at center. This was a very interesting battle last year in camp until Terry got hurt in the first preseason game at Tennessee. That allowed Mahan to claim the right guard position. Terry’s elevated stock doesn’t bode well for newcomer Tonui Fonoti, who didn’t do himself any favors by missing the first day of the Bucs’ mandatory mini-camp.
RT Jeremy Trueblood – While Joseph is not impressing as much as expected, Trueblood, Tampa Bay’s second-round pick, has been very impressive this spring. Trueblood, who scored a 37 out of 50 on the Wonderlic, is an intelligent player who doesn’t make many mistakes. While his technique could use a lot of polishing, he gets the job done more often than not with his physical traits and his scrappy mentality. With Chris Colmer looking like a bust after missing the entire offseason program due to shoulder surgery, he’s endanger of losing his roster spot with a great camp by Trueblood. In fact, the buzz about Trueblood has grown to the point where an excellent training camp may be what it takes to for him to unseat starting right tackle Kenyatta Walker. Expect Trueblood to increase his versatility by playing some left tackle in training camp, too. The acquisition of former Dallas Cowboys offensive tackle Torrin Tucker looks like a mistake based on the few mandatory mini-camp practices I was allowed to watch, and considering there has been little – if any – buzz on him this offseason.
QB Chris Simms – Simms has been brilliant at times this offseason. He has a firm grasp of the concepts of Gruden’s offense and its terminology. He has elevated his poise and leadership this year and is clearly comfortable leading the team. In fact, he has the whole team behind him. They believe in him. Simms has the traits to be special. The thing that has really impressed me is his ability to improvise in the pocket. Working through the play as it is drawn up on the chalkboard is one thing. But when the play breaks down, playmakers need to emerge, and that’s what I’ve seen (and heard about from multiple sources) with Simms this offseason. Despite the young lefty entering his fourth season with the Bucs, I still consider him to be a rookie. In my book, a player isn’t a rookie anymore once they’ve actually started 16 NFL games. I know there are plenty of folks at One Buc Place who think along the same lines I do. Simms has 12 regular season starts. Add the playoff game against Washington and he’s got 13. Let’s call him an experienced rookie – on the rise.
FAB 2. After revealing the offensive players who have been generating buzz this offseason, let’s take a look at some of the defensive players who have been the most talked about by the Bucs’ brass, coaches and players this offseason.
SS Kalvin Pearson Pearson may be the most improved player on the team and has had a marvelous offseason. The 5-foot-10, 190-pound spark plug plays like he’s 6-foot-2 and weighs 230 pounds. He may be the hardest hitter on the team. This former practice squad player earned a roster spot last year due to his special teams prowess and he became an instant star covering kicks and punts and leading the team with 25 tackles, including 18 solo stops, and also recovering a fumble. Pearson is expected to continue his role as the Bucs’ special teams ace again in 2006, but he may even emerge as the team’s third safety overall on the depth chart. Because Tampa Bay cross-trains its safeties to play either free or strong, Pearson might be the first player off the bench if there was an injury to Will Allen or Jermaine Phillips. The team has been raving about Pearson’s energy, hustle and playmaking ability. He’s done a great job of honing his instincts. Watch out for number 39 in training camp and in the preseason. This headbanger is ready to make some noise.
DE Dewayne White White has slowly, but constantly, been building momentum over the past two seasons. His growth at defensive end was stunted a bit in 2004 when he was forced to play so much defensive tackle due to Anthony McFarland, Ellis Wyms and Damien Gregory being on injured reserve by midseason. White saw time, almost exclusively, at defensive end last year and really made some strides. On special teams, he blocked a potential game-winning field goal at home against Atlanta on Christmas Eve that allowed Tampa Bay to win the game in overtime. In the season finale against New Orleans, White recorded a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery for a touchdown in the game’s waning minutes to seal the Bucs’ win. White is in a contract year and he knows it. Expect him to put a significant amount of heat on Greg Spires for the left defensive end spot this year at training camp.
DT Ellis Wyms Speaking of heat, Wyms has returned to where he was two years ago when he was applying the heat to McFarland for the starting under tackle position. Wyms is healthy and in great shape and is feeling the pressure of carrying a salary cap value of over $3 million this year. Two years ago, he was poised to perhaps beat out McFarland in training camp until a high ankle sprain dashed away that opportunity. McFarland is more athletic, but Wyms’ work ethic and hustle has made him more effective at times, especially in pass rushing situations. The team was disappointed by McFarland’s lack of production in 2005 as he only generated two sacks in 16 games, including the playoff loss to Washington, and he had the least amount of tackles (41) among the four starting defensive linemen. Wyms didn’t play nearly as often as he was a reserve at both under tackle and nose tackle last year, but he did manage to record three sacks, including one against the Redskins in the postseason, and notch 17 tackles. This training camp battle at under tackle isn’t on too many folks’ radar screens, but with a new defensive line coach in Jethro Franklin, everyone has a clean slate. Don’t count Wyms out.
There have been other Bucs defenders that have earned some praise this offseason – notably cornerback Juran Bolden, middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, who appears set to keep last year’s second-round pick, Barrett Ruud, at bay for another year, and rookie Alan Zemaitis, who will likely be an impact player on special teams this year. But the buzz surrounding these players wasn’t as loud and as unanimous as it was regarding Pearson, White and Wyms.
FAB 3. There might be some pundits who may find it disappointing that Tampa Bay’s 2005 second-round pick, middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, is not yet in a position to beat out Shelton Quarles for the starting Mike linebacker position. Don’t be. Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry certainly isn’t.
With apologies to Pro Bowl MVP Derrick Brooks, Quarles was arguably the best linebacker on the team for the Bucs last year. Quarles established an early lead in terms of tackles over Brooks and never looked back, out-tackling the Bucs’ tackle king 196-174 and recording a sack for a safety, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery along the way. With production like this, it is easy to see why Ruud was riding the pine last year, and will have an uphill battle this year to earn playing time against the 34-year old Quarles, who is still in his prime.
“Shelton has had some up and down years after the Pro Bowl year he had in 2002, which was obviously his best year as a Buccaneer,” Barry recalled. “In 2003, he had the freak accident and broke his wrist on the Thursday before we played Philly. He missed the first six games. In 2004, he got banged up and missed a couple of games. Last year, we came up with a plan and we did the same thing this offseason and were smart with Shelton and Derrick in terms of practice reps. Both of them are over 30 years old and they are at the point in their careers where they don’t need the wear and tear and the reps that they did when they were younger. In the OTA days, after they get a few reps, we get them out. At this point in their career, they can get as much out of practice by watching than by getting the reps. That was the key to Shelton having a big year for us.”
While most observers credit nose tackle Chris Hovan for the team’s resurgent run defense in 2005, Quarles played just as an important role in stuffing the run for the league’s number one-ranked defense.
“Shelton played in all 17 games last year and had his best season ever. He played well. I know a lot goes into the Pro Bowl balloting, but selfishly, I don’t know how Shelton Quarles didn’t make the Pro Bowl after the year he had. He had a phenomenal year for us and was a big reason why we were the best defense in the NFL.”
Barry told me that Ruud is coming along just fine behind the scenes in terms of his development, but stresses patience with regards to the second-round pick’s draft status because there is an awful lot that goes into playing middle linebacker in the Tampa 2 defense.
“The Mike linebacker is the quarterback of our defense he runs our huddle,” Barry said. “He gets everybody lined up and makes all of our checks. Nobody ever seems to have a problem with a quarterback who gets drafted high that doesn’t play right away because, ‘Oh my gosh, he’s the quarterback and he has to learn the system.’ Our Mike linebacker is the same way.
“Barrett has come in and done a great job. I would say he is light years ahead of where he was at this time last year, but he still has a ton of growth potential. I think the future is bright for Barrett Ruud and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He’s a fine linebacker. He’s a great pro who comes to work every day. He loves the fact that he’s playing for the Tampa Bay defense and gets to come to work every day and learn from Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles. He really appreciates that. I expect big things from him. Just because he was a second-round draft pick, he is playing behind Shelton Quarles, who is a Pro Bowler in my mind.”
While he hasn’t locked down the starting gig at Mike linebacker yet, the one thing Ruud has done is create a level of comfort with the defensive coaches. In his limited opportunities on defense as a rookie last year, he didn’t have any assignment errors when he took the field, so he has earned the trust of the coaches.
“Barrett has made unbelievable strides in picking up the defense and learning the nuances of the position,” Barry said. “He had a great camp last year as a rookie, and I expect him to have a great training camp and a great preseason.”
The Mike linebacker position is one of the key spots on Tampa Bay’s defense and when the right person is in there (i.e. Hardy Nickerson or Quarles), the Bucs have a championship-caliber defense. When it has had to rely on players like Jamie Duncan and Nate Webster, there has been a fall-off in production. Ruud is a very intelligent player who scored in the high 30s on the Wonderlic, which was one of the reasons why the Bucs drafted him because the Mike linebacker has so many responsibilities in the Tampa 2 defense.
“It’s a unique position,” Barry said. “A lot of guys can turn and run just straight ahead. But basically, the Mike linebacker is running sideways down the middle of the field because they are looking at their receiver threats and they are trying to see the quarterback and break on the ball. It’s definitely a unique position and one that takes time to learn. Shelton was able to pick it up fairly quickly [in his first season as a starter at middle linebacker] in 2002, but he was already our starting Sam (strongside linebacker) so he had some real playing experience and exposure to the position.
“One of the things that has helped Barrett was that in his sophomore and junior seasons at Nebraska, Bo Pellini did run some of our Tampa 2. I think that did help him as far as the learning curve. Obviously, there is a huge difference between the college game and the pro game, but Barrett has God-given linebacker instincts. He loves football. He’s a gym rat. He loves picking up little tips from Monte and I. He’ll ask Shelton, ‘Why did you do that? What did you see?’ He’s going to only get better.”
But as long as Quarles is still the best linebacker on the Bucs – or at least right up there with Brooks – Ruud will remain a backup.
FAB 4. The loss of one of the Bucs’ sixth-round draft picks, tight end T.J. Williams, is not too significant for the Buccaneers. Williams, who tore his Achilles tendon during the team’s last mandatory mini-camp session last Thursday, had shown some promise and was working hard to get into shape, but he was actually being outperformed by seventh-round pick Tim Massaquoi, especially in the area of special teams. Special teams is where the team’s third tight end would have to earn a roster spot, and Massaquoi was a bit faster and more adept to playing on special teams than Williams was as he was the bell cow on offense at North Carolina State over the past two years.
As I stated earlier, the Bucs have been thrilled with the offseason performances of tight ends Alex Smith and Anthony Becht, so there would have been little chance for Williams to see the field on offense had he made the team as Tampa Bay’s third-string tight end. The real battle for the third tight end will come down to Mark Anelli and Massaquoi.
Anelli is interesting because he’s very intelligent, and Jon Gruden’s complex terminology and playbook is definitely for the thinking man. The Bucs are pleasantly surprised with Anelli. He also has some long-snapping skills and if he can beat out veteran Dave Moore in that category, he’ll definitely be a lock to make the team.
The odd-man out at tight end is rookie Boone Stutz, who is strictly a long-snapper, and needs to bulk up so he won’t be a liability protecting the punter. Stutz won’t cut it as a tight end based on what I’ve seen during the three-day mandatory mini-camp. Anelli and Massaquoi are much better athletes and have a much better feel for the position.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• Tampa Bay wide receiver Michael Clayton will not be doing his popular radio show on WDAE 620 AM this year. The reason? It might be the same one that befell his LSU brethren, defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. It is believed that production may have played a role in that. Clayton’s sophomore slump might have played a role in his radio gig not being renewed this year. The Buccaneers usually have four player shows on WDAE, in addition to a one-hour interview show with head coach Jon Gruden.
• The Bucs are prepared to go to training camp with the safeties the team currently has on its roster. However, should New Orleans part ways with safety Dwight Smith, who was originally drafted by Tampa Bay in 2001, the Bucs would be interested in re-signing him. The Saints have been trying to deal Smith this offseason, but to no avail. Word has it that New Orleans was really raising the asking price for Smith in discussions with Tampa Bay compared to other teams because the Bucs are a playoff team within the NFC South division. Sources tell Pewter Report that the Bucs won’t trade for Smith – no matter what the Saints’ asking price is.
• PewterReport.com is hearing that the Buccaneers are close to reaching an agreement for the former Miami and NY Jets signal caller to become a Buccaneer as early as Thursday morning. PewterReport.com broke the story about Fiedler’s visit to One Buc Place a week ago, and both Fiedler and the team did not hide their mutual interest in each other. If Fiedler is signed as a replacement for injured QB Luke McCown, as we suspect he will be, he will give the Bucs an experienced, high character QB that can not only back up Chris Simms, but Fiedler can also be a good mentor for the young lefty, too.
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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: email@example.com