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Here are five things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers could be faced with one of the most interesting draft dilemmas in team history this April. What if the Buccaneers win the coin toss with the Cleveland Browns and then wind up with Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson and Wisconsin left tackle Joe Thomas falling into their laps at No. 3 in the first round?
While Johnson, a junior, is widely regarded as the best player in the draft in terms of talent, he may not be the first pick in the draft. We’ve seen teams draft a quarterback or a running back out of need at the top of the draft before, letting the top player slide down a pick or two.
Such was the case last year when running back Reggie Bush was universally tabbed as the best player in the draft, followed by quarterback Vince Young. But who did Houston end up taking with the first overall pick? Defensive end Mario Williams, allowing New Orleans to grab Bush while Tennessee pounced on Young with the third overall pick.
If Oakland and Detroit somehow let Johnson and Thomas slip to Tampa Bay at the third spot in the first round (it is unlikely that both players would be there at number four, should the Bucs lose the coin flip) the Bucs would have a very tough decision to make. Pewter Report has learned that Tampa Bay covets both players and that Johnson is the top player on its draft board right now. But the 6-foot-8, 310-pound Thomas is a close second.
Here’s where the dilemma comes to play. Johnson is a bit of a freak. He has some Randy Moss-like physical qualities, but he’s about 30 pounds heavier at 6-foot-4, 225, more physical and has outstanding character and work ethic. Not only is Johnson a great leaper when the ball is in the air, he has an amazing sense of awareness, timing and body contortion to make the most incredible catches.
Johnson is one of the most rare wide receivers to become available in the NFL Draft, much like Bush brought rare running back traits with his burst and his receiving ability to the table last April. His blend of size, speed (he’s expected to run in the high 4.4s at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis), character, work ethic and the way he adjusts to footballs in the air is special and uncanny. He has the tools to be better than Roy Williams, Larry Fitzgerald and Lee Evans, some of the top first-round receivers in recent years.
Thomas is an excellent tackle prospect, but he isn’t rare. He’s just as highly touted as Robert Gallery was coming out of Iowa and D’Brickashaw Ferguson was coming out of Virginia. Gallery has been a bust, while Ferguson has the upside to become a star left tackle in the mold of Washington’s Chris Samuels. Thomas has good size and a nice frame, but he isn’t a massive left tackle prospect that has uncommon traits, such as St. Louis’ Orlando Pace or Baltimore’s Jonathan Ogden.
Yet the aspect of Thomas that makes him unique is the fact that he plays left tackle, and dominant left tackles are hard to find. Sure, teams have found some gems in the second round and beyond at left tackle before. Auburn’s Marcus McNeil was a second-round pick by San Diego last year and became a Pro Bowler as a rookie. New England’s Matt Light was a second-rounder out of Purdue a few years ago and has helped the Patriots pocket a couple of Lombardi Trophies. But those are exceptions – and not the rule.
The other issue about dominant left tackles is that the only way you can really get them is through the draft – specifically in the first round. Seattle’s Walter Jones, Philadelphia’s Tra Thomas, Indianapolis’ Tarik Glenn, Minnesota’s Bryant McKinnie, Pace and Ogden all were first-round picks by their respective teams and haven’t even sniffed free agency.
Some of these teams have used the franchise tag on these players to keep them from leaving. Why? Because great left tackles are often the corner stone of franchises and they just don’t hit the market. And don’t think about trading for a dominant left tackle that is in his prime. A first-round pick just won’t do. Try a couple of first-round picks – and a prayer.
Wide receivers, on the other hand, are much easier for teams to acquire. It’s much easier to find a dominant wide receiver outside of the first round than it is to find a dominant left tackle. New Orleans’ Marques Colston was a dominant wide receiver this year and was a late seventh-round pick.
Top-flight wide receivers are more likely to hit the free agent market than left tackles are. They are also traded more frequently. Keyshawn Johnson, the top overall pick in the 1996 draft has already been traded – twice. The same thing goes for Joey Galloway, another first-round wide receiver, who has been traded twice in his career.
Yes, some left tackles that were first-round picks, like Willie Roaf and Wayne Gandy, have been traded before, but it was when both players were past their prime. Johnson and Galloway where traded when both where in their prime.
So the early dilemma for the Bucs is would they take the top player on their board in Calvin Johnson – even though Tampa Bay currently has back-to-back 1,000-yard wideout Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton, a former first-round pick, and promising young Maurice Stovall at the receiver position? Or would Tampa Bay not pass up the chance to draft a franchise left tackle like Joe Thomas?
Adding more intrigue to the decision is that Thomas is expected to be on the Senior Bowl’s North roster, which will be coached by Jon Gruden and his Buccaneers staff. Will spending a week coaching Thomas make the Bucs fall in love with him? That’s what happened in 2005 when the Bucs took running back Cadillac Williams with the fifth overall selection after coaching him for a week at the Senior Bowl.
Johnson’s junior status makes him ineligible to participate in the Senior Bowl. After a week in Mobile, if Thomas works and plays up to the expectation level, the Bucs’ decision in the first-round could become even more difficult.
FAB 2. Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen has been raked over the coals by fans and the media for releasing safety John Lynch in a salary cap maneuver in favor of the younger Jermaine Phillips. Allen has been hanged in effigy by fans and the media for signing over-the-hill retreads in running back Charlie Garner and offensive tackles Derrick Deese, Todd Steussie. He’s been booed by that same crowd for making fan-favorite receiver Joe Jurevicius a cap casualty and for letting running back Thomas Jones hit free agency.
Allen was also cast as the villain last year during the Senior Bowl week after denying popular Bucs linebackers coach Joe Barry the opportunity to get out of his contract that had one year remaining on it to join his father-in-law, Rod Marinelli, in Detroit as the Lions’ defensive coordinator.
But none of these mistakes have been Allen’s greatest sin. His biggest miscue as Tampa Bay’s general manager came in the form of having the contracts for Marinelli, defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin, assistant defensive backs coach Raheem Morris and defensive assistant coach Joe Woods all set to expire at the same time at the end of the 2005 season.
Allen couldn’t control the Buccaneers’ salary cap for the first couple of years because hardly any of the damning contracts that put the Bucs in salary cap hell were his. Allen couldn’t control the fact that Steussie couldn’t play right tackle, Deese had lost a step and Garner would blow out his knee. But as the chief executive officer of the Buccaneers, Allen does control the contracts of his coaches and he made a strategic error by not staggering out those deals upon his arrival in Tampa Bay.
Allen, the son of legendary, Hall of Fame coach George Allen, knows the value of coaches. He spoke glowingly about the coaching staff when he held his first press conference in Tampa Bay, calling it one of the strengths of the team. Yet that strength became a weakness on the defensive side of the ball in 2006 when Marinelli, Tomlin, Morris and Woods all left the staff at the same time last winter.
The result of that mass exodus – Marinelli to Detroit, Tomlin and Woods to Minnesota as defensive coordinator and linebackers coach, respectively, and Morris to Kansas State to become a defensive coordinator – was a fall from the number-one defense in the NFL in 2005 to the 17th-ranked unit in 2006.
Tampa Bay’s new position coaches, defensive backs coach Greg Burns and defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, were blamed for the demise of the Bucs defense, and rightly so as they were both fired after only one year on the job. And the players were also blamed for not putting forth the stellar production that they had a year ago. But Allen also deserves some blame for allowing the Bucs defensive coaching staff to be decimated in “coaching free agency.”
The Bucs’ plan was to have Morris succeed Tomlin as Tampa Bay’s secondary coach and have Woods succeed Barry in 2007 as the team’s linebackers coach. But that plan lacked execution in the form of contract extensions to both coaches that would have made it tempting enough for Morris and Woods to re-up with the Buccaneers.
The first shockwave came in late December of 2005 when new Kansas State coach Ron Prince hired the 29-year old Morris to become the Wildcats defensive coordinator for the 2006 season. The bottom line was that K-State stepped up to the plate and moved quickly while Allen didn’t. According to some of my sources at Kansas State, the Bucs tried to block the move by sending K-State some legal documents, but in the end there was nothing the Bucs could do as Morris’ contract expired a few weeks later in January of 2006.
With Morris the first to leave, Allen’s safety net for Tomlin’s departure was gone. Tomlin then surprised the Bucs by grabbing Woods to become his linebackers coach up in Minnesota. That forced Allen to keep Barry under contract because Woods, Barry’s eventual successor, was gone, too. Tampa Bay expected to lose Marinelli to the head coaching ranks, so his departure wasn’t a surpise.
The other reason Allen had to keep Barry was because he couldn’t put the burden of having Monte Kiffin train an entire coaching staff all on Kiffin’s shoulders. He knew Kiffin needed Barry to be his lieutenant, which was the role Barry played in 2006.
While Allen’s gaffe contributed to the downfall of the Bucs defense, he deserves credit for rectifying the situation by targeting Morris this winter and doing whatever it took to bring him back to Tampa Bay in 2006. What did it take? A lot of money. More money than he was making at K-State as the school’s defensive coordinator. According to my sources in Manhattan, Kan., it was a financial package that Morris simply couldn’t turn down, and likely puts his salary in the top 5 in terms of NFL defensive backs coaches.
Allen wasted no time in getting Morris back. And although the Bucs could have used him last year, Morris did gain an invaluable amount of experience installing Kiffin’s Tampa 2 by himself at K-State and then calling his own plays for 13 games.
Yet it wasn’t just money that brought Morris back to the Buccaneers. It was the implicit opportunity to become Kiffin’s eventual successor that had the most appeal to the 30-year old Morris. Years ago, the Bucs’ brass figured that either Tomlin or Barry would assume the throne in time when Kiffin retired, but both young coaches got too good, too quickly. Now Morris, who is one of Kiffin’s all-time favorites and has a similar personality to the high-energy, effervescent Tomlin, figures to be the heir apparent when Kiffin eventually puts away the playbook.
Morris also gets the chance to become Kiffin’s lieutenant, assuming the role that Marinelli held for years and a role that Barry occupied last year. Together, Kiffin and Morris will help acclimate new defensive line coach Larry Coyer into Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense, and help develop the young coaching talent of new linebackers coach Gus Bradley, who worked closely with Barry last year in his first season in Tampa Bay.
Credit goes to Allen and Kiffin for including the notion of grooming Morris to become Kiffin’s successor in their pitch to him last December. And Allen and Kiffin also deserve credit for admitting a mistake by firing Burns and Franklin after just one year.
But if Allen had acted sooner, Morris never would have left Tampa Bay and the chances of the defense falling apart last year, especially in the secondary, could have been avoided. Yes, Morris is that good of a coach. His return to One Buccaneer Place instantly improves the secondary and the players I have spoken with are psyched about his return to Tampa Bay.
FAB 3. While we’re on the subject of Tampa Bay general manager Bruce Allen, he deserves an awful lot of credit for releasing tight ends coach Ron Middleton from his contract with the Buccaneers so that he could take a coaching job at Alabama on Nick Saban’s staff. The reason for the unexpected decision to leave the Bucs was documented in a story PewterReport.com broke last week, in which Middleton cited the need to get his ailing wife urgent medical treatment the University of Alabama-Birmingham hospital.
Allen’s policy regarding coaches under contract has been universally believed to be unwavering in the past. He has denied defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, linebackers coach Joe Barry, special teams coordinator Rich Bisaccia and senior offensive line assistant Aaron Kromer the opportunity to interview elsewhere – even when the position they were interviewing for was a promotion.
When confronted about this policy in his season-ending press conference by a reporter, Allen told that reporter to quit reading his own stuff. In other words, the policy was not universally applied and that there could be some exceptions to the rule.
Understand that Allen’s mission as the Buccaneers general manager is not to look out for career advancement for his coaches. His obligation is to the Buccaneers franchise as a whole – not its coaches. His job is to produce the best team possible. This approach may be viewed as cold-hearted by some who are sympathetic to the growth opportunities of some coaches, but it generally serves the team well.
Allen certainly has his detractors. The Tampa Tribune recently quoted an unnamed league source in saying that Allen lacks a “moral compass.” The guess here is that insult came from former director of player personnel Tim Ruskell, who has some grapes from being passed over as the Bucs’ general manager in favor of Allen in 2004.
Bucs coach Jon Gruden didn’t care for Ruskell’s style, didn’t trust him and may have viewed him as Rich McKay’s lap dog, which is why Gruden preferred Allen over Ruskell to fill the role of general manager in 2004. Ruskell high-tailed it to Atlanta to follow McKay, who left the Buccaneers during the 2003 season to become the Falcons team president.
Allen may not be as fan-friendly and media-friendly as the politically-savvy McKay was. McKay knew that by feeding information to the media on a regular basis it would lessen the criticism he would face when making some unpopular moves like cutting fan-favorite nose tackle Brad Culpepper, and losing key contributors like middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson and running back Warrick Dunn in free agency. That’s not Allen’s approach, and he doesn’t get a pass from the media the way the always-grinning McKay did.
Read Middleton’s comments about Allen in PewterReport.com’s story about his departure and then ask yourself if Allen lacks a moral compass.
FAB 4. Word out of the East-West Shrine Game in Houston was that the Buccaneers scouts were very, very active and doing a ton of interviews. Perhaps even more active than in years past. Pewter Report is expecting the same type of activity at the Senior Bowl this week.
Why were the Bucs scouts scurrying around so much at the East-West Shrine Game? Because the talent level at that college all-star game is not nearly as strong as the crop of kids at the Senior Bowl, some teams relax when it comes to scouting the East-West Shrine Game as mostly second-day draft picks and priority undrafted free agents play in that game. If the Bucs had relaxed in the past, they certainly weren’t doing that this week, according to our sources.
Let’s face it. Tampa Bay’s recent drafting on Day 2 has been quite poor and has helped to contribute to the team’s woes when injury hits. I’ve pointed out Tampa Bay’s draft failures on the second day of the draft several times, and the best illustration is the Bucs’ selection of defensive end Julian Jenkins over Mark Anderson in the fifth round this past April. In case you missed it, Jenkins finished with nine tackles while Anderson, who was drafted by Chicago, finished his rookie season with 28 tackles, 12 sacks and a forced fumble.
This was a clear, easy whiff by Tampa Bay. Anderson is a pure pass rusher, which is something the Bucs were clearly missing last year, who lit it up at the Senior Bowl. Jenkins is a try-hard guy, who is limited athletically and will likely be nothing more than a backup in Tampa Bay. However, I could see Anderson become a starter over time in Chicago.
Take a look at New England, whose scouting department may be the best in the NFL. Their playoff roster includes kicker Stephen Gostkowski (fourth round, 2006), right tackle Ryan O’Callaghan (fifth round, 2006), safety James Sanders (fourth round, 2005), cornerback Asante Samuel (fourth round, 2003), center Dan Koppen (fifth round, 2003), outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain (seventh round, 2003), defensive end Jarvis Green (fourth round, 2002), quarterback Tom Brady (sixth round, 2000) and fullback Patrick Pass (seventh round, 2000). Gostkowsk, Sanders, Samuel, Koppen, Banta-Cain and Brady are starters, while the others are active role players.
Tampa Bay needs to quit fooling around on the second day of the draft and come through with some players who will become starters. Not just players who make the roster – I mean starters. The Bucs can’t afford to get cute with projects like wide receiver Larry Brackins from Pearl River Community College (sixth round, 2005), tight end Nate Lawrie from Yale (sixth round, 2004), fullback Casey Cramer from Dartmouth (seventh round, 2004) or Southern cornerback Lenny Williams (seventh round, 2004).
Not when there are gems like Indianapolis linebacker Cato June (sixth round, 2003), Miami safety Yeremiah Bell (sixth round, 2003), Dallas receiver Patrick Crayton (seventh round, 2004), New Orleans wideout Marques Colston (seventh round, 2006) and some guy a few years back named Brady to be found.
The Bucs can’t afford to strike out on the second day anymore. Yes, Dan Buenning, the team’s fourth-round pick in 2005 is a solid starter-type. The jury is still out on Will Allen, Tampa Bay’s fourth-round pick in 2004. The Bucs’ best second-day pick over the past three years has been quarterback Bruce Gradkowski, who was a sixth-round pick last April.
The Bucs better have had their eyes peeled at the East-West Shrine Game. After all, that was the game that a little-known receiver named Colston from Hofstra shined in last year.
FAB 5. Here are some things to hold you over until
• A couple of players who had a very good week of practice at the East-West Shrine Game were Oregon State safety Sabby Piscatelli and Central Michigan defensive end Daniel Bauzin. Both are on the Buccaneers’ radar and figure to be drafted between rounds 3-5. Piscatelli, a native of Boca Raton, Fla., is a big, fast and physical safety in the mold of John Lynch. Bauzin is a high-motor pass rusher who reminds some of Cincinnati’s Justin Smith or Kansas City’s Jared Allen. Bauzin, who had 26.5 sacks and nine forced fumbles over the last two years for the Chippewas, had 2.5 sacks and two tackles for loss in the actual East-West Shrine Game. The Bucs need help at safety and defensive end, so keep an eye on these two.
• One player Jon Gruden won’t be falling in love with at the Senior Bowl is Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn. Quinn, who was invited to the game and was expected to play on the Gruden-coached North squad, is not expected to participate due to a minor knee injury. Personally, I think Quinn is overrated and is better suited to be selected in the middle of the first round. Yet, some teams have him in the top 10 or even in the top 5. With the Bucs having more pressing needs than taking on another young quarterback, I for one am glad that Quinn won’t be around to tempt Gruden.
• Speaking of Notre Dame, the Bucs are disappointed by the decision of Fighting Irish wide receiver Jeff Samardijza to sign a lucrative deal to play Major League Baseball instead of wanting to play in the NFL. The Bucs ranked Samardijza’s ability to contort his body and adjust to balls in the air second only to Georgia Tech’s Calvin Johnson. He would have been an intriguing option for Tampa Bay to consider at the top of the second round. The Bucs were anxious to get a look at him at the Senior Bowl, too, but he will likely not play due to his future in pro baseball.
• Pewter Report has learned that some of the players that the Buccaneers will be taking a close look at the Senior Bowl include safeties LaRon Landry (LSU), Eric Weddle (Utah), Brandon Meriweather (Miami), Josh Gattis (Wake Forest), Michael Griffin (Texas) and Aaron Rouse (Virginia Tech); defensive tackles Amobi Okoye (Louisville), Tank Tyler (N.C. State), Brandon Mebane (Cal), Kareem Brown (Miami), David Patterson (Ohio State); defensive ends LaMar Woodley (Michigan), Anthony Spencer (Purdue) and Chase Pittman (LSU); offensive linemen Joe Thomas (Wisconsin), Dan Mozes (West Virginia), Josh Beekman (Boston College) and Joe Staley (Central Michigan). With the names on this list, it is obvious that Tampa Bay has pressing needs along the defensive line and at the safety positions.
• Although quarterbacks coach Paul Hackett will be accompanying the Buccaneers to Mobile for the Senior Bowl, that doesn’t necessarily mean that he will be back with Tampa Bay in 2007. In 2005, the Bucs lost offensive quality control coach Jeremy Bates at the Senior Bowl when he interviewed with the New York Jets and accepted their offer to become their quarterbacks coach after the first practice. Hackett’s contract expires at the end of the month and wants to become an offensive coordinator or a head coach again. Because the Senior Bowl also serves as job fair for NFL teams, don’t be surprised if Hackett gets interviewed and moves on during the week. The Bucs want him back, but don’t have any leverage. They just have to hope that Hackett doesn’t get any offers while he is in Mobile. In 2005, then-defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin interviewed with Miami for its defensive coordinator post under Nick Saban, but the Dolphins wanted to go in a different direction and and Tomlin wound up re-signing with the Bucs for another year.
• Speaking of Mike Tomlin, if he winds up coaching the Pittsburgh Steelers then congratulations are in order for one of the hottest young coaches in the NFL not named Sean Payton. “Mike T.” as he is affectionately known around One Buc Place, was a joy to work with. In 2004, Tomlin donned the cover of an issue of Pewter Report that boasted the headline – “The Next Big Thing.” Did we know we were on to something? You bet we did. Mike T. has star quality and it was only a matter of time before he would become a defensive coordinator and then a head coach. The guy is my age – 34 – and he’s got to succeed. Just watch.
• Finally, one more coaching note. Pewter Report spoke with Bucs assistant head coach/running backs coach Art Valero on Friday, a day after Larry Coyer was named defensive line coach and … assistant head coach. Does Tampa Bay have two assistant head coaches – one for offense and one for defense? Or did Valero get stripped of his title? Either way, Valero didn’t know anything about Coyer being name assistant head coach until he was listening to 620 AM WDAE on the way home on Thursday. That’s not good, and reflects poorly on general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Jon Gruden for not notifying Valero, who didn’t want to speak about it on the record, but was clearly miffed. The Bucs made the right call by getting someone experienced to run the defensive line. But they clearly fumbled by giving Coyer the assistant head coach title without notifying Valero first. Valero is a loyal, team guy who has been a valued member of the staff since 2002. He deserved better. He deserved a phone call from Allen or Gruden rather than hearing that he may be demoted on the radio.
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