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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. If there is one position that is utterly unsexy on the football field it’s the guard. With the center being the brains and the anchor of the offensive line, and the left and right tackles usually having to be athletic enough to protect the quarterback from dangerous, pass-rushing defensive ends and red-dogging (blitzing) linebackers, guards are usually the overlooked and underappreciated members of the offensive line – unless you are a team like Seattle, Pittsburgh or Kansas City that has a good one (or two).
What I’m going to tell you next may shock you. The Buccaneers are strongly considering taking a guard with their first-round pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
Although guards play an unglamorous position, they do make up two-thirds of the starting offensive line, so when someone tells you that picking a guard in the first round isn’t good value that’s not necessarily the case. Value? What is good value anyway?
If the Buccaneers draft a guard at number 23 – which is a need position, by the way – and that player starts as a rookie and ends up being the starter for a while, you would have to say that Tampa Bay actually got good value with the pick. Where teams don’t get good value is drafting a player at a sexier position like defensive end and that player doesn’t pan out.
An example of this would be Eric Curry, the sixth overall pick in 1993, who recorded a whopping 12 sacks in four years as a Buccaneer. That’s bad value, in my opinion, but you can only ascertain real draft value years down the road.
I mentioned that guard was a need position for the Buccaneers, which may surprise you, and here is why. Tampa Bay believes Dan Buenning, who started all 17 games last year as a rookie, is a keeper. He’s an NFL starting-caliber guard. Now before you point out that Buenning was a fourth-round pick, if every guard drafted in the fourth round was a surefire starter, Tampa Bay would simply wait until the fourth round to pick its interior linemen.
The Bucs were fortunate enough to hit on a guard in the fourth round who looks like he will be a starter for quite some time. But that’s only one guard position. After seeing how Sean Mahan performed at right guard for 17 games in 2005, Tampa Bay thinks he is better suited to play at center. Mahan lacks the size and strength needed to go man-on-man with defensive tackles in pass protection, and doesn’t have the bulk or power to push the pile consistently in the interior running game.
Mahan was adept at pulling around the left side of the line because of his mobility, but the Bucs need to upgrade the right guard position. Jeb Terry, a fifth-round pick three years ago, has yet to mount a strong challenge for a starting guard spot as he is still developing his pass protection skills. The only other serious contender for a roster spot right now is former San Diego and Minnesota guard Toniu Fonoti, who is a 400-pound experiment that may not make it out of training camp.
So what happens if this team loses Buenning or center John Wade and Mahan has to play center? Then the Buccaneers will have to play Terry or Fonoti, if he ever gets into playing shape. Cadillac Williams can’t rush for 1,000 yards if he can’t get out of the backfield and Chris Simms can’t throw too many touchdowns while laying on his back.
Remember that the offensive line – not just offensive tackle – was the team’s biggest priority heading into the 2006 offseason. Despite having more pressing needs at offensive tackle and safety in free agency, the Buccaneers’ first offseason acquisition was Fonoti – a guard – although he came on the cheap.
Aside from having the sheer numbers the team wants at the guard position, one question head coach Jon Gruden has to be asking his scouts and coaches in the team’s pre-draft meetings: Who is the best guard in franchise history? Is it Randall McDaniel, an aging turnstile/free agent import from Minnesota who went to the 2001 Pro Bowl on reputation alone? Is it Ray Snell or Sean Farrell – the only two guards the Bucs ever drafted in the first round (in 1980 and ’82, respectively)? Each was only a four-year starter. Is it Tom McHale, Frank Middleton or Ian Beckles, a quality player who was a starter from 1990-96, but never sniffed a Pro Bowl?
Gruden would love to find the next Mike Munchak (drafted eighth overall by Houston in 1982), Bruce Matthews (drafted ninth overall by Houston in 1983), Jim Dombrowski (drafted sixth overall by New Orleans in 1986), Andy Heck (drafted 15th overall by Seattle in 1989), Reuben Brown (drafted 14th overall by Buffalo in 1995), Alan Faneca (drafted 26th overall by Pittsburgh in 1999), Damien Woody (drafted 17th overall by New England in 1999), Steve Hutchinson (drafted 17th overall in 2001) or Logan Mankins (drafted 32nd overall by New England in 2005).
Of course, Tampa Bay wouldn’t have minded drafting McDaniel (selected 19th overall by Minnesota in 1988), a future Hall of Famer, in the early stages and prime of his career, either.
Since drafting Farrell in the first round in 1982, the closest the Buccaneers have come to selecting a guard in the first round was taking Cosey Coleman in the second round of the 2000 draft. Because the team had traded away both of its 2000 first-rounders for Keyshawn Johnson, Coleman was actually Tampa Bay’s first draft selection that year. While he was a four-year starter and helped the Buccaneers win a Super Bowl in 2002, Coleman never lived up to his second-round billing and was just an average player who is battling for a roster spot in Cleveland.
So will Tampa Bay draft a guard in the first round? If it does, it will be USC’s Deuce Lutui. The team is very high on the 6-foot-4, 330-pounder, and with good reason. He has the ability to come in and possibly be the opening day starter at right guard for the Bucs. Coming off an 11-5 regular season record and an NFC South championship, Tampa Bay doesn’t have a lot of holes, but right guard could be one of them. Ideally, teams want to get their first-rounders on the field as soon as possible so they can start paying the team back for all of that signing bonus money.
Would a first-round defensive end like Tamba Hali start ahead of Simeon Rice and Greg Spires. No. Heck, would that end get more snaps that emerging star Dewayne White? Probably not.
Would a first-round linebacker such as DeMeco Ryans start ahead of Derrick Brooks? Um, nope.
Would a first-round offensive tackle like Marcus McNeill beat out Anthony Davis or Kenyatta Walker in his rookie campaign? As much as you might want the answer to be “yes” it is likely going to be “no.”
Lutui may be able to step in and beat out Mahan, Terry and Fonoti, though, and that’s an intriguing thought for the Buccaneers. He had a dominant senior season inside blasting holes for Reggie Bush and LenDale White and also showed incredible athleticism in getting downfield to block. Not only did Lutui get to the second level (linebackers) with regularity, he often made it to the third level (safeties) to help spring USC’s terrific tandem.
The other interesting note is that Lutui spent the 2004 season starting every game at right tackle protecting the blindside of left-handed quarterback Matt Leinhart the year he won the Heisman Trophy. Although he’ll likely play inside at the pro level, the fact that he could play right tackle in a pinch increases his versatility and his value to teams like the Buccaneers.
Add Lutui’s name to the list of Ryans, McNeill and Hali as Tampa Bay’s first-round possibilities at number 23. He’s the Bucs’ highest-rated guard this year. If the team opts to go in a different direction, perhaps grabbing Hali at 23 or even trading down a bit, Oklahoma guard Davin Joseph could be the option in round two, which is what Pewter Report had forecasted in its mock draft in the 2006 Draft Preview.
By the way, when I interviewed Lutui at the Senior Bowl and asked him to describe his game, the first words out of his mouth were, “Well, I’m sexy. You’re not going to find a guard who is this sexy.”
Perhaps drafting a guard like Lutui in the first round would be a sexy pick after all.
FAB 2. After making the case for the Buccaneers drafting a guard in the first round, the case could also be made for Tampa Bay selecting a tight end in round one. Aside from drafting a guard, selecting a tight end in the first round would probably draw groans from fans who would question the pick, especially a year after drafting promising tight end Alex Smith in the third round.
While Smith does have considerable upside and could be considered a future starter as early as 2006, the Bucs are extremely thin at the tight end position. Anthony Becht, who is more of a run blocker than a receiver or pass protector, is returning for his second season in Tampa Bay and is Smith’s main competition for the starting job. But after Smith and Becht, the cupboard is bare with only Dave Moore, who is more of a long snapper at this stage of his career, and unproven camp guy Mark Anelli on the roster.
With an excellent class of tight ends in the upcoming NFL Draft, expect Tampa Bay to snatch one, possibly as early as the first round. But why would the Bucs select one that high?
Suppose Smith gets injured or has a sophomore slump, Jon Gruden’s offense could be far less effective than he is planning on it being in 2006. Why because he’s planning on using two tight ends with great regularity again in 2006. With the re-signing of left tackle Anthony Davis and right tackle Kenyatta Walker, the Bucs didn’t really upgrade their personnel at the tackle positions. Because Gruden didn’t trust Walker and Davis in obvious pass protection situations last year, he probably won’t be in position to trust them in 2006 until they prove him wrong and show that they can handle pass-rushing defensive ends one-on-one.
Even if the Buccaneers draft an offensive tackle in the first round and that player winds up starting, he will still be a rookie and unlikely be able to handle defensive ends on a down-in, down-out basis in pass protection, so the need for tight end help will still be prevalent.
Gruden will be relying on two tight end sets again in 2006 because both young quarterback Chris Simms and rookie running back Cadillac Williams thrived in that offense during the second half of the ’05 season. However, running a two tight end set becomes difficult if either Smith or Becht go down with an injury, which emphasizes the need to take advantage of this deep and talented tight end class and for Tampa Bay to draft one.
Gruden has used two tight end sets, or “U” personnel, effectively in Tampa Bay, beginning with his first season with the Buccaneers in 2002 when Ken Dilger and Rickey Dudley helped the team win its first Super Bowl. Because both Dilger (34 catches for 329 yards and two TDs) and Dudley (16 catches for 192 yards and 3 TDs) were effective pass catchers, defenses were kept guessing where the ball was going to be thrown – if it was going to be thrown at all. Not only is “U” personnel hard to effectively blitz, its balanced formation really lends itself to a 50-50 chance of pass or run, which keeps defenses off balance.
The Buccaneers have been fond of UCLA pass catcher Marcedes Lewis (58 catches, 741 yards and 10 touchdowns), who at 6-foot-6, 256 pounds, is a dangerous target inside the red zone because of his size. Lewis has great hands and runs well down the seam, but isn’t a burner – running a 4.88 in the 40-yard dash. But he carries a lower first-round grade with the Bucs and would give Tampa Bay a nice set of pass-catching tight ends that would complement Williams, Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton.
In a draft that is so deficient in quality wide receivers, drafting a stud tight end like Lewis when Gruden plans on using a bunch of “U” personnel formations makes sense. With Becht not being the receiver the Bucs had hoped he would be last year, and fighting through a lot of injuries, Tampa Bay would be wise to shore up this important position early on the first day. If the Bucs go in a different direction than Lewis in round one, Tampa Bay is also high on Notre Dame’s Anthony Fasano and he would be a great addition in round two, while North Carolina State’s T.J. Williams is an option early on day two.
Throw Lewis into the mix with USC guard Deuce Lutui, Auburn left tackle Marcus McNeil, Penn State defensive end Tamba Hali and Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans as bona fide options for the Buccaneers in round one.
FAB 3. Speaking of Alabama linebacker DeMeco Ryans, there is currently a tug of war going on within One Buccaneer Place about which linebacker the Buccaneers would take at number 23 if the organization was going to draft a linebacker. Would it be Ryans, the SEC Defensive Player of the Year, and someone this Buccaneers beat writer has openly admired in previous SR’s Fab Fives? Or would Tampa Bay pass up Ryans to draft Iowa linebacker Chad Greenway if he’s still on the board at number 23?
Without naming which factions support Greenway and which factions support Ryans within the halls of One Buc Place, Ryans appears to be gaining the edge. The Ryans supporters view him as an outside linebacker, that is what he played at Alabama, and love his instincts, intelligence, character and leadership. He has Derrick Brooks’ qualities except elite athleticism.
While Ryans has run the 40-yard dash in the high 4.6’s, he isn’t as explosive as Florida State’s Ernie Sims is now or Brooks was in his prime. The fear is that Ryans will turn into a 4.7 linebacker as he is entering his prime and won’t have the exceptional speed required to play in space in zone coverage and pursue ballcarriers in the Tampa 2 defense.
Greenway is a bit of an enigma because he had a great week of practice at the Senior Bowl, had an underwhelming performance at the Indianapolis Scouting Combine, but then lit it up at his pro day. In Indy, Greenway recorded 40-times of 4.75 and 4.77 and benched pressed 225 pounds a measly 16 times, but managed to better those times at the University of Iowa by running a 4.58 and a 4.62 and improved his bench press to 19 reps of 225.
Was Greenway, who comes from North Dakota where he played eight-man football, intimidated by the high-pressure setting in Indianapolis? Maybe, and that’s what the Buccaneers are thinking right now, although some concerns have eased given his improved measurables from his pro day.
Some at One Buccaneer Place view Greenway as the truest fit to what the Bucs are looking for as an heir apparent to Brooks on the weakside, while Ryans may actually be a better middle linebacker at the next level because he may not have the sideline-to-sideline range that candidates for the weakside need to have.
However, with Jamie Winborn in the fold and the team still high on the improving Marquis Cooper, a third-round pick in 2004, the Buccaneers may not want to even invest a first-round pick in a linebacker. Considering that Brooks, Shelton Quarles, Ryan Nece, Barrett Ruud, Marquis Cooper and Jamie Winborn all stand a strong chance of making the 2006 roster, there may not be room for a seventh linebacker in Tampa Bay’s locker room come the regular season.
All of these questions are currently being debated and sorted out this week. By the start of next week, the Buccaneers will have a clearer direction in terms of which position and player they will likely target in the first round and subsequent rounds of the 2006 NFL Draft. And Tampa Bay will have decided if it likes Ryans better than Greenway, or vice versa.
FAB 4. So what is the latest with free agent defensive back Charles Woodson? Inquiring minds want to know.
While it is unclear what Tampa Bay offered Woodson, a cornerback who would likely become a safety should he sign with the Buccaneers, it is probably safe to say that he does have an offer from general manager Bruce Allen in hand. Woodson has also fielded an offer from Green Bay, but according to published reports in Wisconsin, it did not meet his financial demands.
Woodson is represented by the notorious Poston brothers, and the former Oakland Raiders franchise player is seeking to break the bank in free agency, which seems to be the goal for all Poston clients, including linebacker LaVar Arrington (Washington). The good news for Tampa Bay is that Allen has dealt with the Postons before in a similar situation with linebacker Ian Gold two years ago.
Gold wasn’t signed until after the draft and Allen constructed a contract that was fair to both Gold, who was coming off knee surgery from the previous season, and the Buccaneers. It was basically a one-year deal that gave Gold a chance to show that he was finished with his rehabilitation and, if he performed well, could cash in with either Tampa Bay or another team with a great 2004 season.
That’s exactly what happened. After a year in which Gold became the first strongside linebacker in Tampa Bay under Monte Kiffin to post 100 tackles, he signed a lucrative, long-term deal with Denver after the salary cap-strapped Buccaneers weren’t prepared to pick up certain bonuses that would allow his contract to continue into and beyond the 2005 campaign.
Expect Allen’s and Jon Gruden’s personal history with Woodson to give the Buccaneers the edge in landing the former Heisman Trophy winner, along with Allen’s history of working with the Postons, who are reportedly difficult to work with because they drive such a hard bargain. Aside from past business relationships, there are two other factors at play in the Buccaneers’ pursuit of Woodson.
The first is that Tampa Bay is simply waiting Woodson out, much like the team did with Gold. Woodson’s value to teams will only go down after the 2006 NFL Draft, which is plentiful with good defensive backs. The fact that Green Bay (and perhaps Seattle) is the other team in the Woodson derby is also an advantage for the Buccaneers. Without many suitors to drive the bidding up, Woodson’s value has likely stalled out and will only fall, primarily because he doesn’t want to play for the Packers.
That brings me to the third factor that aids the Bucs. Woodson does like the high life, and although Green Bay is Miller Beer territory, Woodson’s high life consists of nightclubs and partying. While the Appleton Octoberfest can be enticing with the beer and the smoked ears of corn, that isn’t exactly as enticing as the clubs in Tampa Bay’s hopping Ybor City bar district. Sources close to Woodson tell Pewter Report that the 29-year old defensive back doesn’t want to be stuck in rural Green Bay, Wisconsin and play for the rebuilding Packers, who likely won’t smell the playoffs for a while. Woodson’s best bet for a good time – on and off the field – is in Tampa Bay, and that’s why the Buccaneers are firmly entrenched in the driver’s seat.
Allen is playing the waiting game to perfection because he knows he has everything Woodson wants – the familiarity with Gruden, the playoff-ready team, the best defensive coordinator in Monte Kiffin, the nightlife of Ybor City and the Channelside district and enough cap room to get a reasonable deal done. The Postons know Allen can afford to be patient because of the Gold deal and the Bucs’ penchant for being very picky and value-conscience over the last two years in free agency. This negotiating stance by Allen is not out of the ordinary and could pay off by signing Woodson to a conservative deal either right before or right after draft weekend (April 29-30).
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until next week:
• I think the Buccaneers sudden fascination with USC right tackle Winston Justice is a smokescreen. That’s not coming from a Tampa Bay official (no one can be trusted between now an the draft) – that’s coming from my gut instinct. Justice, who was brought in to Tampa for a visit a week ago, will not be around by the time the Buccaneers are on the clock for the 23rd pick. The Bucs aren’t interested in trading up to get him, either. Even if Justice fell to Tampa Bay at number 23, I doubt the Bucs would pull the trigger on him. Despite the workout warrior numbers at USC’s pro day, he’s still raw and immature physically and mentally at this stage of his football career. Yes, the Buccaneers had a contingency of eight scouts and coaches at the USC pro day, but the player I believe they were honing on in was guard Deuce Lutui – not Justice. However, by bringing in Justice for a workout, the Bucs’ interest in Lutui, his teammate, is masked somewhat.
• If the Buccaneers pass on a linebacker in the first two rounds of the 2006 NFL Draft, one guy that could be targeted in rounds 4-5 is Virginia Tech’s James Anderson. Anderson doesn’t have the household name that A.J. Hawk, Chad Greenway and DeMeco Ryans does, but what he does have is athleticism. The 6-foot-3, 229-pound Anderson is adept at blitzing and covering and could play the weakside or stronside spots in Tampa Bay. Anderson was overshadowed on a defense that featured defensive end Darryl Tapp, cornerback Jimmy Williams, defensive tackle Jonathan Lewis, safety Aaron Rouse and linebackers Nathaniel Adibi and Vince Hall, but still managed to record 82 tackles, three sacks, pick off two passes (returning one for a touchdown) and recover a fumble in 2005. Anderson wasn’t always around the action, but that’s because he was usually doing his job and blanketing backs and tight ends, thus forcing quarterbacks to throw in another direction. Pewter Report has learned that the team is also high on Miami’s Rocky McIntosh, who could be an option earlier in rounds two or three. Tampa Bay is also growing fonder of UTEP’s Thomas Howard, who will likely be a second-round selection. While I like the fact that Howard can line up and cover any back or tight end due to his safety-like speed and athleticism, I think he’s too raw and lacks the instincts to be an impact player in the NFL, but the Bucs apparently think differently.
• One Buccaneers insider told me that this year’s wide receiver corps flat out stinks. With only two mediocre first-round talents in Ohio State’s Santonio Holmes and Florida’s Chad Jackson, this crop of pass catchers lacks explosion and special qualities. With Ike Hilliard back in the fold, along with Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton, the Bucs are likely looking to fill three more receiver spots. Those spots could be filled in-house by Edell Shepherd, return specialist Mark Jones or one (or two) of the three receivers the Bucs drafted last year – Larry Brackins, J.R. Russell and Paris Warren. Tampa Bay doesn’t necessarily have to draft a wideout this year, but the Bucs do like a couple of prospects, including Notre Dame’s Maurice Stovall, who was in for a visit in early April, Western Michigan’s Greg Jennings, Arizona State’s Derek Hagan and New Mexico’s Hank Baskett. However, there are a couple of other second-day receivers who are popping up on the Bucs’ radar. Akron’s 6-foot-2, 200-pound Domenik Hixon. Hixon is a smooth playmaker with speed (4.36), evidenced by his sliding, 36-yard touchdown catch against Northern Illinois in the MAC championship game with sealed the Zips’ win with 13 seconds left in regulation and send his school to its first bowl game. Hixon set Akron receiving records in 2005 with 75 catches for 1,210 yards (16.1 avg.) and eight touchdowns. This came after a junior campaign in which he posted 66 catches for 882 yards and six touchdowns. But the interesting aspect about Hixon was that he spent his freshman and sophomore seasons on the defensive side of the ball as a starting safety. In fact, Hixon led the Zips in tackles with 111 (78 solo) in 2003 with a fumble recovery and an interception. Remember that one of the qualities Jon Gruden admired in Michael Clayton was the fact that he also played some safety. Aside from the ability to play offense and defense, Hixon is also an exceptional return man, averaging 24.9 yards on kick returns and scoring a touchdown as a junior, and 23.5 yards per kick return as a senior. He also averaged 17.2 yards per punt return and scored a TD as a junior before averaging 7.7 yards returning punts in 2005. Hixon is a guy that Pewter Report didn’t mention in its Draft Preview, but he is a guy that we are letting you know about right now. Two other second-day receivers to remember are Monmouth’s Miles Austin and Mount St. Joseph’s Andy Wellendorf. I’ll have more on those players in my next SR’s Fab Five.
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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