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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:

FAB 1. Last week, I discussed Auburn running back Ronnie Brown at length in SR’s Fab Five, which created a bit of a buzz amongst Bucs fans. While there are plenty of Brown fans out there, some Pewter Insider subscribers gruffed at the thought of the Bucs drafting a running back in the first round. The reason? They would rather see Tampa Bay draft a defensive tackle in round one.

Folks, I doubt it will happen. Although general manager Bruce Allen wields more personnel authority than Jon Gruden does, Gruden is an offensive-minded head coach who will likely insist on needing more weapons to work with. Like last year, I expect the Bucs to draft an offensive player in the first round. My reason? Gruden can point to a lack of point production and not enough big plays in close, low-scoring losses at Washington (16-10), versus Seattle (10-6) and against Denver (16-13) that have really cost the team the chance at the playoffs this season.

Fans holding out for help along the defensive line will likely have to wait for the second round to roll around. Thankfully, the Bucs have a second-round pick this year, which they didn’t have in 2003. Defensive tackle is a need that will likely be addressed on draft day due to the problems at the position this year.

Starting under tackle Anthony McFarland has been called injury prone after his second season over the last three years has ended prematurely on the injured reserve list. But McFarland is not the only defensive tackle on the IR list this year. Reserve under tackle Ellis Wyms suffered a torn labrum, and backup nose tackle Damien Gregory tore his patella tendon against St. Louis. Only starting nose tackle Chartric Darby has managed to stay fully healthy in 2004, but he’s an unrestricted free agent in 2005 and may leave for bigger money elsewhere if he can find it.

So which draft-eligible defensive tackles might be the best fit for Tampa Bay’s one-gap scheme? It’s not Wisconsin’s Anttaj Hawthorne, who may be the first defensive tackle taken. He doesn’t have the high motor the Bucs crave along the defensive line and has been too inconsistent.

If the Bucs are looking for an under tackle candidate to challenge McFarland and Wyms to play the three technique, Iowa’s Jonathan Babineaux may fit the bill. He’s undersized at 6-foot-2, 280 pounds, but has first- or second-round ability. USC’s Shaun Cody is a bit of a ‘tweener like Wyms. He can play left defensive end or under tackle, and at 6-foot-4, 292 pounds, he has good size.

Florida State’s 6-foot-4, 290-pound Travis Johnson is getting a lot of buzz right now, but he’s a bit of a one-year wonder who didn’t get the chance to start until his senior season. Still, he’s a good player who the Bucs may be interested in in the second or third round.

If Tampa Bay is eyeing a player who can play nose tackle, which is the area that I feel needs to be addressed, there are some good ones in USC’s 5-foot-11, 292-pound Mike Patterson, Northwestern’s 6-foot-3, 305-pound Luis Castillo and Mississippi State’s 6-foot-2, 320-pound Ronald Fields. Patterson, who wears No. 99 for the Trojans and has been nicknamed “Baby Sapp,” has been mentioned several times by Pewter Report this fall.

The Bucs have had trouble stopping the run on occasion this season and getting a nose tackle that can anchor the middle of the defense has to be considered a priority at One Buccaneer Place. Darby has done a decent job in his first year as a starter, but at 6-foot, 270 pounds, he gets moved out of his gap too often and he’ll never be a Pro Bowl-caliber player.

Patterson would be an ideal pickup in the second round for the Bucs and has been a big-time playmaker this season for USC, evidenced by his 12-tackle, one-sack effort against California that also featured a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. He also started the season strong with four tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and a forced fumble against Virginia Tech. He has shown off his relentless playing style by making tackles downfield on screen passes and running from sideline to sideline to pursue the ball.

It’s interesting to note that USC head coach Pete Caroll is great friends with Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and defensive line coach Rod Marinelli and they have no doubt discussed players like Cody and Patterson during the offseason. Marinelli used to coach the Trojans’ defensive line and is still well connected there, and Kiffin’s eldest son, Lane, is USC’s wide receivers coach.

Castillo is a better prospect than Fields, but not quite as athletic as Patterson is. Still, Castillo has been a very productive tackler, plays with great pad level, is effective at drawing and stalemating double-teams, and has been a regular on the Big 10’s All-Academic Team.

There has been some speculation that Texas junior defensive tackle Rodrique Wright may opt for the NFL at the conclusion of the 2004 season. Wright may want to take advantage of a good, but not great crop of draft-eligible defensive tackles in 2005, but Texas players usually stay for their senior seasons. Just look at some top-flight talent who remained in Austin – wide receiver Roy Williams, quarterback Chris Simms, cornerback Rod Babers, defensive tackle Marcus Tubbs, and most recently, running back Cedric Benson and linebacker Derrick Rogers – two Longhorns who stayed for their senior seasons in 2004 and will likely be top 10 NFL draft picks.

If the 6-foot-5, 315-pound Wright did enter the 2005 draft, he would likely be a first-rounder, and someone who would likely intrigue the Bucs.

FAB 2. What are the Tampa Bay Buccaneers thankful for this year? The fact that they are in the mediocre National Football Conference.

“Absolutely,” said Bucs safety John Howell. “If we were in the AFC, it would probably be over. We’re still definitely in this thing for that reason. I’m very thankful that the NFC isn’t as strong as far as records go this year. That gives us the opportunity to climb back into this race. I think we’re going to do that. If you look at our schedule, I don’t think there’s a team left on our schedule that we shouldn’t be able to beat. But it comes down to us not beating ourselves and playing smart football.”

While fans can be optimistic that this team is two wins away from being at .500 for the first time this season, the reality is that the Bucs will have to go 6-0 or 5-1 down the stretch to earn one of two Wild Card playoff berths. Even a 6-0 run, which would give Tampa Bay a 10-6 record in 2004, would not ensure the Bucs winning the NFC South. They would need Atlanta (8-2) to lose two or three of its last six games, including the contest at Raymond James Stadium in two weeks, in conjunction with Tampa Bay winning all six for the Bucs to recapture the NFC South crown.

Still, this weekend could provide a huge boost to Tampa Bay’s playoff chances. Just two weeks ago, the Bucs were behind eight teams for the final NFC Wild Card playoff spot. If everything goes their way this Sunday and Monday, Tampa Bay could be in a three-way tie for the second Wild Card playoff berth. Here’s how.

Let’s start off by eliminating San Francisco (1-9), Carolina (3-7), Washington (3-7) and even Dallas (4-7) from playoff contention. For the sake of argument, let’s also pencil in the current division leaders as division winners – NFC East: Philadelphia (9-1), NFC North: Green Bay (6-4), NFC South: Atlanta (8-2) and the NFC West: Seattle (6-4). That leaves a whole host of 5-5 or 4-6 teams, including Tampa Bay (4-6).

On Thanksgiving, Indianapolis and Dallas helped the Bucs by defeating Detroit and Chicago. Both the Lions and Bears are now 4-7, along with Dallas, and if Tampa Bay beats Carolina on Sunday, the Bucs would have a one game lead over those teams at 5-6. If Philly can win at the New York Giants, which is possible, the G-Men would fall to 5-6. If Atlanta beats New Orleans at home, the Saints fall to 4-7. And if Green Bay beats St. Louis at Lambeau Field on Monday Night Football, the Rams will fall to 5-6, too.

After Monday, the Vikings could have the No. 1 Wild Card spot with a 6-4 record. The teams tied for the second Wild Card spot? New York, St. Louis and Tampa Bay – all of whom would have 5-6 records. If the Giants slip to 5-6, they will have lost five straight games. Even though the Rams would have lost two consecutive games, they would still hold the head-to-head tiebreaker advantage over the Bucs – but the playoffs don’t start for six more weeks, not next week.

This playoff projection exercise just goes to show you how pitiful the NFC is this year, and how thankful the Bucs are to be right smack in the middle of the playoff hunt – even at 4-6.

FAB 3. Pewter Report subscribers got the inside scoop on the fact that practice squad running back Ian Smart was impressing the Tampa Bay coaches. We suggested that he may be the next player to make the leap from the practice squad to the active roster, and that’s exactly what happened this week.

Now here’s some more scoop on Smart, who head coach Jon Gruden said may even dress to play this week at Carolina. The 5-foot-8, 192-pound Smart hails from C.W. Post on Long Island, NY where he became college football’s all-time leading touchdown and points producer. Smart finished his collegiate career with 95 touchdowns, amassed 570 points and rushed for 6,647 yards. His rushing total is the fourth-best ever in NCAA history, and he capped off his senior season with 2,023 yards and 30 scores.

Despite the gaudy stats, Smart’s diminutive size and the level of competition he faced kept him from being drafted in 2003. Smart latched on with the New York Jets before being released on September 4. He was signed to Tampa Bay’s practice squad nearly three weeks later.

Smart, whose dazzling runs in practice made the disappointing Jamel White expendable, has worked on his hands and his special teams this year on the practice squad and shored up his ability in those areas.

“I have developed myself into a better receiver coming out of the backfield,” Smart said. “It’s been going well. I played over in NFL Europe to help me develop into a receiver coming out of the backfield. I actually lined up at receiver and in the slot.”

Smart spent a summer with the Scottish Claymores in NFL Europe, starting half the season at receiver before finishing up as a running back where he totaled 201 yards and one touchdown on 41 carries. In the season finale, Smart had nine rushes for 80 yards and scored on a 41 yard cross-field run. He also had nine catches for 101 yards and returned 13 punt returns for 82 yards and 11 kickoff for 213 yards.

“In college, I was mostly a return man on special teams,” Smart said. “In Europe, I tried to expand my game and started playing on the coverage teams. I’ve got to do what I can to try to play every position to help me out. I got to work on my coverage skills and my return game over there.”

If Smart is activated for this week’s game at Carolina, he would likely replace Earnest Graham, who has not run as aggressively as the coaches think he should be running in spot duty this year. Graham has been paired with Torrie Cox on kick returns, and Smart would likely be able to handle those duties as well.

“We like him,” Gruden said. “He’s very quick. He’s thick and quick. He’s a good kid who knows his stuff. He’s got a chance. We’re going to try to work him in and there is a chance he could be up helping us out this week.”

If Smart sees the field, what kind of runner could Bucs fans expect to see?

“Because of my size, most teams characterize me as a third-down back, but I consider myself a slasher who can run through the tackles,” Smart said. “I have pretty good vision. I make good reads. I’m a patient back, so I give my blocks enough time to develop.”

Smart has shifty, quick feet, which helped him rush for 35 touchdowns at C.W. Post of 40 yards or more, including 14 scores from beyond 60 yards. In fact, two of Smart’s touchdown runs in college came from beyond 90 yards.

Don’t expect Smart to step in and unseat Michael Pittman. But understand that this guy might be a better backup than former Bucs rusher than Jamel White was. And Smart will be motivated to thank Gruden and Co. for signing him to the active roster by making a splash in his Buccaneer debut – whenever that is.

“I’m taking it one step at a time,” Smart said. “If I get a chance to play, I’ll do the best that I can do to bring home the victory.”

FAB 4. While Tampa Bay’s personnel department has come under fire from critics this season after signing free agents who haven’t panned out, such as tackle Todd Steussie and running back Charlie Garner, the front office deserves credit for two mid-season free agent additions.

Plucking defensive tackle Chidi Ahanotu off the streets has really helped shore up Tampa Bay’s defensive line. Ahanotu, a former Bucs starter at left end, has filled in nicely at under tackle for the injured Anthony McFarland. Through two games with the Bucs, Ahanotu, who signed a league-minimum deal, has seven tackles and 1.5 sacks.

To put those numbers in perspective, former Bucs under tackle Warren Sapp has languished in Oakland after signing a multi-million contract this offseason. Through 10 games, Sapp has just 26 tackles and half a sack and his transition to defensive end has not gone smoothly.

Ahanotu has provided solid play and leadership and is worth bringing back next year to training camp.

The other key free agent signing is Dexter Jackson. While the safety is not slated to start, having an experienced player like Jackson around could pay dividends later if Tampa Bay is fortunate enough to make a playoff run and another injury occurs at the safety position. Right now it’s Dwight Smith and John Howell manning the safety spots, but Jackson could step into either spot if necessary.

No front office is perfect when it comes to signing free agents, including Tampa Bay’s, but by picking up Ahanotu and Jackson, the Bucs’ personnel department has recovered nicely from a couple of costly gaffes like Steussie.

FAB 5 Here’s a couple of items to hold you over until next week:

• Speaking of Tampa Bay safeties, the team is very high on rookie Will Allen, who has starter potential down the road. Teammate John Howell said the heady Allen will soon be a real force in the Bucs’ defensive backfield: “I really like Will Allen. I like him on the field as a player and off the field as a guy. I think he’s going to be a great player for us here in the future. He’s another smart kid. He’s picked up this defense very quick. It took me a couple of years to really feel comfortable in this defense. Will has come in and just learned it real quick. Everybody feels that Will could step in and play for us if he had to. As a rookie, that’s a big compliment to him. He’ll get better and better with more experience.”

• Pewter Report was the first to tell you about Northern Colorado’s 6-foot-6, 235-pound wide receiver Vincent Jackson. We’ll have the chance to see him in person at the Senior Bowl this coming January as Pewter Report will once again make the trek westward to Mobile, Ala. to cover Senior Bowl practices live once again for our readers. Jackson, a big-time athlete who caught 80 passes for 1,382 yards and scored 11 touchdowns this season, is someone the Bucs have been keeping tabs on.

• Two offensive linemen to know come April are Fresno State’s Logan Mankins and Toledo’s Nick Kaczur. Both Mankins and Kaczur play left tackle in college, but will likely move inside to play guard at the next level. Mankins is just 6-foot-3, 309 pounds while Kaczur is similarly built at 6-foot-4, 307 pounds. Both players have the athleticism to get downfield on screen passes and the quickness to pass protect edge rushers at the collegiate level. But more importantly, both Mankins and Kaczur are tough, nasty guys who play with a mean streak. Kaczur may go as high as the second round, but will likely go in rounds three-five. Mankins will also likely go in rounds three-five. Either player would look great in red and pewter and has the kind of temperment that offensive line coach Bill Muir loves.
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. Be sure to read the latest issue of Pewter Report on-line in PDF format on PewterReport.com. Buccaneers merchandise in the world.

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: sr@pewterreport.com
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