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Here are five things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. Tampa Bay linebacker Derrick Brooks is miffed that he didn’t get to go to his tenth straight Pro Bowl this year. Pro Bowls represent arrival in the NFL to young players making their first trip to the NFL’s all-star game. Pro Bowls represent validation to NFL players who get their second invitation. Pro Bowls represent that a guy still has what it takes to be an elite player in the NFL after 10 years in the game.
But when Pro Bowls don’t come around any more, it signals that a player is no longer elite. Such is the case with Brooks, Tampa Bay’s weakside linebacker who revolutionized the position in the Tampa 2 defense that has permeated the NFL over the last decade. Brooks, who was the MVP of the Pro Bowl a year ago, is the first alternate for the NFC squad this season, but no argument can be made that he deserves to be a Pro Bowler ahead of the likes of Dallas’ DeMarcus Ware, Chicago’s Lance Briggs and Seattle’s Julian Peterson. They simply had better seasons than Brooks did.
In my opinion, there is nothing worse than awarding Pro Bowl status based on reputation instead of giving those honors to a player based on merit. Some prime examples of this were Randall McDaniel’s unworthy Pro Bowl honors with Tampa Bay in 2000, and Paul Gruber missing the Pro Bowl for several years in the prime of his career because of a lack of exposure as hapless Tampa Bay was rarely in the national spotlight during most of his career. For this reason, I’m grateful that Brooks didn’t make the Pro Bowl and that the younger stars who deserved to go are actually going.
While Brooks did manage to lead the Buccaneers in tackles once again, he made less game-changing, splash plays than in years past and he did not force a fumble for the first time in his 12-year career. He finished the season with 150 stops which was his lowest tackle total since notching 133 in 1996, but the difference is that the tandem of middle linebackers Shelton Quarles and Barrett Ruud combined for 45 more tackles than Brooks did this year, which is quite astonishing and a departure from the past when Brooks led the team in tackles in most games. Surprisingly, Brooks only led the Buccaneers in tackles five times in 2006, and he was out-tackled by other Buccaneers defenders in five of the last six games.
Last year, Brooks was a key cog in Tampa Bay’s number one-ranked defense. The weakside linebacker is schemed to be the playmaker and the leading tackler in the Tampa 2 defense because a lot of the plays are funneled towards him. But we all saw Brooks lose a step in coverage or not be able to fill a gap in run defense this year more often than we ever have.
To Brooks’ credit, he fought through a leg injury that was not reported to the media, although he managed to start all 16 games and played about 96 percent of the snaps at weakside linebacker. That injury had to have hindered him, but how much of Brooks’ slow down can be attributed to that injury and how much of it can be attributed to the fact that Brooks is 33 years old and will turn 34 on April 18?
Brooks took a massive pay cut last winter to remain a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. Had he not, the Bucs would have been forced to cut him due to salary cap reasons, just as the team did with standout safety John Lynch in 2004. The Bucs were actually flirting with the idea of signing former Carolina weakside linebacker Will Witherspoon to replace Brooks last offseason, but it was important for the Florida State alum to retire a Buccaneer so he drastically slashed his salary to stay on board. Witherspoon ended up signing with St. Louis and played well in 2006.
While Brooks made a big concession last offseason, he may be forced to make another one. No, with close to $25 million in cap room in 2007, Tampa Bay won’t be asking Brooks to take another pay cut. However, they may ask the man who became the prototype weakside linebacker to make a position change.
The chance to get a premier weakside linebacker, such as Briggs, would be too good to pass up in free agency. Tampa Bay has the salary cap room to make a strong push for the two-time Pro Bowler, who is expecting a huge pay day in free agency and won’t be 27 until next November. It’s doubtful that the Bucs could lure Briggs to play the strongside until Brooks retired as the team tried to do with Ian Gold, so there may be some hurt feelings in the Brooks’ camp this March if Briggs is signed and promised the weakside linebacker job. Don’t think that can’t happen – it could and likely will happen.
This possibility could prompt Brooks to retire this offseason, which would be a stunner. Although Brooks has publicly talked about wanting to return to the Buccaneers for a 13th season, Pewter Report has talked to multiple sources that have said that Brooks is pondering retirement this offseason. In 2007, the civic-minded and charitable Brooks and former San Francisco 49ers owner Eddie DeBartolo are opening up a charter school in Tampa and that has the linebacker awfully excited about life outside of football.
Coupled with the fact that his position coach, Joe Barry, is gone to Detroit and Quarles likely won’t return in an offseason in which the defense will be completely revamped, Brooks may decide that he’s ready for new challenges away from the game rather than returning to a rebuilding project at One Buc Place.
The question the Bucs brass is asking itself right now is are the Buccaneers better off with Brooks at Will and Ryan Nece at Sam, or is Tampa Bay better off with Briggs at Will and Brooks at either Sam or Mike? Briggs is a younger version of Brooks and he would instantly make Tampa Bay’s defense better. Moving Brooks to Sam linebacker next year would also be viewed as a defensive upgrade, even if it is a blow to the ego of the leader of Tampa Bay’s defense. But there is no ego blow if Brooks decides to retire this offseason.
UPDATE: Brooks has told Pewter Report that he will not retire in 2007 and that the sources that I spoke with are incorrect. Afer my conversation with Brooks, I believe him and understand that the particular sources I used in this speculative piece were likely incorrect in their reading of the situation regarding Brooks.
FAB 2. One linebacker that was not mentioned in the first part of this edition of SR’s Fab Five is Jamie Winborn. The veteran was signed to a modest, two-year contract in the offseason with a sales pitch that was similar to the one given to Ian Gold, another young linebacker who was coming off an injury a few years ago. Winborn was given a chance to compete for the starting strongside linebacker spot and showcase what he could do to earn a more lucrative deal from Tampa Bay or another team when he was able to hit free agency.
Winborn had a good preseason on defense, but couldn’t beat out Ryan Nece for the Sam linebacker job. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin wound up moving Winborn to weakside linebacker to back up Derrick Brooks this year, and even worked him into the game on defense by incorporating four linebackers in a couple of 3-4 formations.
So is Winborn someone who could supplant Brooks as the team’s weakside linebacker in 2007? Maybe, provided that he is even on Tampa Bay’s roster.
Last week, Winborn revealed to PewterReport.com that he has a clause in his deal with the team that could allow him to become an unrestricted free agent in 2007 by buying out of his contract.
“I am very happy here in Tampa,” Winborn told PewterReport.com, “I signed a two-year deal, but it could be a one-year deal. My objective is to get on the field and play defense. That’s what I do. I can play special teams, and I do play special teams. But the people who know me, know that I can play defense. When I came here I was under that understanding. I took less money to come here and play defense. Things didn’t work out the way I wanted them to with regards to that aspect. My happiness is worth a little bit more. I just have to finish this season out and see what opportunities are there for me. I can buy out of my contract at the end of the year. If I exercise that right, I will be a free agent. I’d love to be back here … but I’ll just have to make that decision when the time comes.”
Despite the frustrations of not starting, as he did for years in San Francisco, Winborn has enjoyed his first season in Tampa Bay and has fit into the locker room quite well. He’s had a blast playing for the Buccaneers, despite the team’s four-win season.
“I’m having fun,” Winborn said. “I’ve been on teams with better records and it just hasn’t been as fun. We all know we get paid. I just like this team. Guys, and even the coaches, they never bring anything off the field to work. They want to win and that means a lot to me. We like to let it all hang out and play hard. They do a good job of that here.
“I’ve started and had great games on defense, but playing on special teams is fun, man. For a guy who is going into his sixth year and having been a starter, for me to be as pumped as I am on special teams, I just feel proud to be a part of this special teams unit. We’re super, super, super fast. Guys are running down there, racing each other to make a play. We want to keep that intensity out.”
Winborn has made his mark on special teams in 2006, finishing fifth on the team with 14 tackles. He is also appreciative of Kiffin finding a way to get him on the field on defense with a 3-4 scheme, which is seldom used in Tampa Bay.
“I love this defense, but unfortunately for me there are three very good players that are starting, and a future Hall of Famer that I’m behind,” Winborn said. “They’re durable guys and I just have to wait my turn. If I couldn’t make my way into the starting lineup, which once I got moved to Will linebacker, I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I knew I had to make something happen on special teams. I don’t think teams thought I could play on special teams at all.”
With the Bucs not guaranteed to sign Chicago’s Lance Briggs or any other top-flight linebacker in free agency, they would be wise to do or say whatever they can to keep Winborn on the roster in 2007. They can’t afford to let another quality young linebacker slip away like Gold did after becoming the first Sam linebacker to rack up over 100 tackles under Kiffin in Tampa Bay. If it means making Winborn the starting Sam linebacker heading into training camp over Nece, then that’s what it might take.
“I can play any position on the football field,” Winborn said. “That’s how I play. I can play Sam. I’ve played safety. I’ve played cornerback in a Cover 2. I’ve rushed from the defensive line and I’ve rushed as a linebacker. I’ve done it all. I played Sam linebacker against the Bucs [with San Francisco]. We played left and right linebacker, so you could be a Sam or a Will at anytime. All I can do is to go along with the coaches and play where they put me.”
Winborn is totally healthy and has an intriguing upside to him. He wants to stay in Tampa Bay and play for Kiffin, but is looking for some assurances that he’ll be on the field with Tampa Bay’s defense in 2007.
“My injuries were kind of freak injuries, but I’m fine now,” Winborn said. “Actually, I’m even better. The thing that gets overlooked is that I’ve had five head coaches in six years. [In San Francisco] they wanted to move to a 3-4 defense. I was not able to find a home.
“Every year you have to go through the offseason and a training camp. I don’t care how many starters you have back. It’s still a different team. You have to find a way to gel and prepare with that group of guys. We’ve given great effort here; it just hasn’t come together for us. It’s good for the young guys to see that. I feel like we’re heading in the right direction. The effort is there, even though the outcome we want isn’t sometimes. I feel the wins are around the corner. I feel like you need to lose at times. I’m not saying you have to lose a lot of games, but you have to go through a down time at some point in your career to realize that this is where you could be if it’s not done properly. Still, it’s been a fun year in Tampa.”
But will Winborn be around Tampa Bay next year to have some more fun? If Brooks retires in the 2007 offseason, Winborn will likely be back.
FAB 3. Another key member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who may not return in 2007 is cornerback Phillip Buchanon. Buchanon, who will be an unrestricted free agent next year, was plucked off the waiver wire in Week 7 by Tampa Bay after the team had put cornerback Brian Kelly on injured reserve. Buchanon has played well after taking a few weeks to learn the intricacies of the Tampa 2 defense.
“I’m trying to finish strong,” Buchanon told Pewter Report heading into the last game of the season. “That’s my motto. Coach Monte Kiffin told me I’ll make some mistakes and I’ll miss some plays, but just go out there and play.”
Buchanon, who is just 26 years old, has been a natural fit at the left cornerback spot, which is traditionally the “island” corner in Tampa Bay’s defense. After just a few months with the Buccaneers, Buchanon has notched 28 tackles, seven pass breakups, two interceptions and one fumble recovery.
Kiffin has even altered his defense a bit to play more man coverage because that is Buchanon’s strength. Against Atlanta in Week 14, fellow cornerback Ronde Barber said that he couldn’t recall when the Bucs played as much man coverage as they did versus the Falcons.
“With me playing zone, it allows me to make more plays on the ball,” Buchanon said. “I love making plays on the ball. But at the same time, I’ve played man since high school. I know I can do that. I love the one-on-one matchups. Guys will make some plays against you, but I love going against teams’ best receivers. Ever since I was young, I was the guy my teams depended on. I’m used to being on an island. I love playing football, making plays and helping my team win.”
Buchanon was discarded from Oakland, where he was a first-round draft pick, to Houston, where he flamed out after just one year. The knock on Buchanon in league circles was that he was soft and lacked courage against the run. But cornerbacks who don’t play physical football against the run don’t last long in Tampa Bay. Against Atlanta in his first start for the Bucs, Buchanon notched six tackles and followed up that effort the next week with eight tackles at Chicago.
“Coach Kiffin told me to play hard and don’t worry about the critics,” Buchanon said. “I just try to go out there and play hard.”
The speedy Buchanon is also an able punt returner, and could be a weapon there next year for Tampa Bay. Before playing a starting role on defense, Buchanon was tried as a punt returner, but failed to make an impact. In two games, he returned six punts for a disappointing 16 yards (2.8 avg.). But perhaps even worse was Buchanon’s decision to fair catch two punts against Philadelphia when there was able running room.
“I just had a bad day, but I’m focused on getting better,” Buchanon said. “I want to be the best. That’s my goal. I’ve always been a team guy, but I would love to return punts again. I wouldn’t mind returning kicks, too, if that is what the team wants me to do. I love having the ball in my hands. I would love to return punts again.”
Playing with 10 new guys on punt return upon his arrival in Tampa Bay, Buchanon’s lack of production is somewhat understandable. But his speed would be welcome next year in Tampa Bay’s return game. The Bucs’ longest kickoff return was just 44 yards while their longest punt return was only 18 yards.
Buchanon owns a 10.1-yard career punt return average and has returned three punts for touchdowns in his NFL career. His best season came in 2003 when he averaged 13.6 yards on 36 punt returns, scoring two touchdowns and producing seven returns over 20 yards.
There weren’t many suitors for Buchanon after he was waived by Houston, but he’s put some good tape together this year with Tampa Bay that has helped restore his image. There could be a market for his services in free agency, and with Tampa Bay flirting with the idea of trading the older Kelly, who wants a pay raise despite finishing his second year on injured reserve out of the last four seasons, the Bucs would be wise to lock up Buchanon before he hits free agency. He could really help Tampa Bay’s defense and special teams in 2007.
“Whatever happens after the games happens. Hopefully I’m here. If it doesn’t work that way, then it was a great experience for me.”
FAB 4. Like Phillip Buchanon, another Tampa Bay defensive player, end Dewayne White, is a 2007 free-agent-to-be. The Bucs have had a hard time gauging White’s monetary value. He is quick, athletic, hard-working defensive end with some good pass-rushing ability, evidenced by his career-high five sacks and 52 tackles. White also forced two fumbles and recovered three loose balls in 2006.
Tampa Bay also likes the fact that he is versatile enough to play either end position and also rushed the passer from the defensive tackle positions in nickel defense. However, the Bucs would have liked to seen a bit more consistent production from White, who has started eight games for injured defensive end Simeon Rice, rather than just potential.
The advantages White brings to the table for the Bucs aside from his youth and potential is the fact that he knows the defense inside and out, and possesses tremendous character. White knows he could have done more with his opportunity to start, but was stymied a bit due to the lack of opportunities to rush the passer as Tampa Bay has trailed in most of its games this year, which prompted its opponents to run the ball more often.
“It helps to have a lead because it gives you more opportunities,” White said. “Every 30 rushes on average you get one sack, but I think I did pretty good. I’ve put it on tape that I’m capable of starting somewhere, whether it is on the left side or the right side. I’ve put that on tape. It could have been better, but I’ve done what I wanted to do.”
White, the Bucs’ second-round pick in 2003, has been operating on his four-year rookie contract, and while he is looking for a big payday, White insists that playing time is the most important part of the equation in free agency.
“I just wanted to put some good film on tape,” White said. “I finally have a chance to start and that’s the most important thing – me playing and showing what I can do. Money, obviously, they’ll have to offer me the right money, but playing time will be the key – then money. My agent is going to want the money, and I’ll want the playing time. That’s how it works with agents.”
If White could have his wish, he would love to remain in Tampa Bay. With Greg Spires coming off a disappointing year in which he had a poor start to the season, and the whispers that Rice will be traded in the offseason, there will be an opportunity to start for the Buccaneers.
“If the money and the playing time are here, why would I have to pack up and change addresses?” White said. “It would be an ideal situation for me here. I know this defense. I know these guys. People look up to me here. That would be the ideal situation. We’ll see what happens.
“I’ve come a long way. At my first mini-camp as a rookie, I was Captain Fatigue. I came into training camp a little better that year. But I’ve really come a long way. I’m just learning. It’s been a bumpy road and a smooth sailing, too. I’ve had a wide range of emotions here with the winning and losing.”
“We have talked a bunch, but there is nothing imminent,” White’s agent, Jason Chayut, told PewterReport.com.
When asked if he thought his client would hit free agency or if the Bucs would come in and sign him before he hit the open market, Chayut said, “I really don’t know. I don’t want to speculate because I’m not sure what their plans are for him.”
The early guess here is that White will hit free agency. There just doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency on the Bucs’ part to re-sign him. Tampa Bay appears to be treating this situation similarly to how they dealt with running back Thomas Jones and cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly by allowing the market to set their value.
FAB 5. Here are some things to hold you over until next time:
• This edition of SR’s Fab Five has been linebacker-heavy in terms of content, and there is some more news on that front. While Derrick Brooks might be contemplating retirement, we’re hearing that middle linebacker Shelton Quarles is strongly considering retirement. Although he played at an extremely high level this year, especially when he returned from a four-game hiatus due to injury, Quarles’ body got absolutely beaten down this season and he was often seen walking gingerly in the locker room and grimacing due to the multitude of bumps, bruises and nicks he accumulated this season. He will be 36 years old when the Bucs kickoff the 2007 season and will only subject his body to more abuse, although he did manage to finish second on the team in tackles with 136. If either Quarles or Brooks does retire this offseason, they would make great candidates to replace former linebackers coach Joe Barry, who became Detroit’s defensive coordinator on Wednesday. Not to slight Brooks, but I think Quarles would be more cut out for coaching. Brooks has so many charitable endeavors going on that I think his greater interests lie outside of football. Quarles is also very active in the community, but the thinking man from Vanderbilt has been a coach on the field for several years already and would be a great choice to succeed Barry. There was even some talk about moving him into the director of player development position last offseason, which is now occupied by another Vanderbilt product and former Buc in Eric Vance, but Quarles wanted to return for one more season.
• In the last edition of SR’s Fab Five, I spoke about some of Tampa Bay’s young guns in the front office – director of college scouting Dennis Hickey and director of pro personnel Mark Dominik – and how the newspapers are trying to suggest that the Bucs need to bring in a personnel man. Nice theory, but it’s shortsighted and not properly though out. The problem with bringing in a personnel man right now to lead the efforts in free agency and the draft is that that person is unfamiliar with Tampa Bay’s needs on offense and defense, and unsure of the types of players Jon Gruden wants on offense and Monte Kiffin wants on defense. If you are Gruden, who are you going to listen to when it comes to free agency – Dominik, who has been here since your arrival in 2002, or the new guy? The same could be said with regards to Hickey and the draft this coming April. Bringing in a personnel guy at this juncture could only cause Dominik and Hickey to engage in some second-guessing and create some confusion as to who Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen need to listen to in the war room. The time to bring in a replacement for former Bucs director of player personnel Ruston Webster was this past summer when Webster left for a promotion in Seattle. Bringing in a new personnel man at this juncture would only undercut Dominik and Hickey, who have been groomed for this offseason by their predecessors and must have their chance to deliver the right players for the team. Pro Football Weekly has floated out the name of Oakland personnel man Mike Lombardi coming to Tampa Bay to assist the front office, but don’t believe it.
• Despite reports in the local media that Tampa Bay quarterback Chris Simms has $5 million worth of guaranteed money in new, two-year contract, he doesn’t. Simms’ only guarantee is a $3 million signing bonus he received for executing the contract. The other $2 million that is supposed to be guaranteed is actually Simms’ 2007 base salary. It is highly unlikely that Simms would not be on Tampa Bay’s roster next year, so that’s why the Simms camp is suggesting that the $5 million is guaranteed. But barring an unforeseen trade, which Pewter Report doubts would happen, the Bucs would only be on the hook for $2 million – not $5 million. Why? Because $1 million of Simms’ $3 million signing bonus was applied towards the 2006 salary cap.
• One of the perks about my job is that if I ever have a football-related question or a player-specific question to ask I have the Buccaneers coaching staff at my disposal. I certainly don’t know everything about football, but it seems like each week that I have been on the job over the last 11 years I seem to learn a little more about the game. One question that was on my mind was why Jon Gruden didn’t use more bootlegs and rollouts during Bruce Gradkowski’s final games as Tampa Bay’s starting quarterback. He seemed to have success with rollouts in his first couple of starts as a Buccaneer, but didn’t have as many opportunities down the stretch. So I went to the head man – Gruden – to find out. “A 3-4 defense often times prevents rollouts because they’ve got an outside ‘backers on the line of scrimmage. It’s hard to run bootlegs on Dallas and Pittsburgh because they are in that defense. We ran a couple against Atlanta. We try to change the launching spot of the ball, but there are some hard teams to do that against because of the way they play. Sometimes it is not an option because you could roll your quarterback right into a blitzing linebacker off the edge.”
• A few weeks ago, The St. Petersburg Times alleged that this year’s team is the worst Buccaneer team ever. Most disappointing? Perhaps. Most underachieving? Sure. But the worst Buccaneer team ever? This screams “agenda” to me. How in the world can a team with four wins get labeled the worst team over a 0-14 Buccaneers team or 2-14 or 3-13 squad? Why, because this year’s team was “supposed to” win more games than it did? That’s lame. This game is all about wins and losses. The teams with the most wins get to make the playoffs. The teams who lose in the playoffs go home. If the Bucs won four games, then they are automatically ahead of every Tampa Bay team that had zero, two or three wins in a season. End of story.
• There was a reported rumor in Pro Football Weekly last week suggesting that Tampa Bay may trade defensive end Simeon Rice to Detroit where he could be reunited with former Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, who is the head coach of the Lions. That stole a little bit of thunder from a Pewter Report story we have coming out in our next issue, which will be mailed in late January. Pewter Report proposes that Tampa Bay attempt to trade Rice to Detroit for defensive tackle Shaun Rogers, who has racked up 224 tackles, 22 sacks, five fumble recoveries and four forced fumbles in six seasons. The Lions need a pass-rushing force off the edge in Marinelli’s defense, especially considering that Detroit’s defensive ends combined for just nine sacks. Corey Redding played most of the season at defensive end where he notched six sacks before moving to under tackle where he grabbed a couple more. Kalimba Edwards has recorded just three QB captures, while his backup, Corey Smith, has just two sacks. Jared DeVries didn’t record a single sack all year despite a lot of playing time. Rice could be just what Detroit needs. As for Tampa Bay, if Redding is re-signed before free agency, he could battle Shaun Cody for the right to start at under tackle. Rogers is a good, young player, whom Detroit may not want to give up, but they have options at under tackle as long as Redding is re-signed. If Rodgers is not offered up in a trade, the only way Marinelli might get Rice would be to trade Detroit’s second-round pick. Either way, the Bucs would make out. Aside from clearing $7.5 million in cap room by trading Rice, Tampa Bay would have a big, promising starter at under tackle in the 6-foot-4, 345-pound Rogers, or a very good draft pick at the top of the second round in which to draft a defensive tackle. With four picks in the first two rounds, Tampa Bay could do a lot of damage in the 2007 draft.