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Here are five things that caught my interest this week:

FAB 1. I would rather use the lead-off Fab 1 spot to discuss how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were on a roll at 4-5 and winning three games in a row after rallying to beat the Atlanta Falcons last Sunday. But we all know that wasn’t the case after the Bucs lost to the Falcons, 24-14, in the Georgia Dome, virtually eliminating them from contending for the NFC South title.

I’d like to point out that at 3-6 the Bucs were still in contention for a Wild Card playoff spot, and they still are mathematically. The only problem is that they are seven spots behind other NFC clubs that have better records – mostly at 4-5 or 5-4 – for the two Wild Card spots. With the exception of the game at Oakland, the Bucs have really been in every game this season (and even that game ended with only a 10-point loss), so it’s still too early to bury this team, which Pewter Report has yet to do, although we unfortunately have to admit that the shovels are out of the shed.

However, it is not too early to talk about the NFL Draft, and thanks to some shrewd trading by general manager Bruce Allen, the Buccaneers have stockpiled 11 picks for next April. After missing at least one pick (usually a first- or second-round selection) in each of the last three drafts, the fact that Tampa Bay has the ammunition to be a real player on draft day has to get fans excited for next year, even though this season has not gone as well as expected.

It’s too soon to do any real forecasting or mock drafts as Tampa Bay could wind up with a first-round pick in the top 10, or be closer to picking in the 20s depending on how it finishes the 2004 season. But we can talk about a player that the Bucs have in their sights and that’s Auburn running back Ronnie Brown.

While the Buccaneers could opt for a premium offensive lineman in the first round, Pewter Report believes that Tampa Bay will add an offensive skill position player such as a running back, a wide receiver or a tight end instead. The Bucs feel good about young players like Anthony Davis, Jeb Terry and Sean Mahan, but Jon Gruden wants players who can pick up first downs and put points on the board. Brown can do just that.

If you haven’t had a chance to watch Brown play yet, tune into the Iron Bowl this weekend on CBS between Auburn and Alabama. When you see No. 23, you’ll see why Pewter Report and the Bucs love this guy. Gruden wants a “Joker” type player who he can line up in the backfield, in the slot or flanked out wide and be a weapon anywhere on the field. Brown can do that and more.

While running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams is the headliner at Auburn and gets more carries and has more yards, Brown is more versatile and bigger. Williams is 5-foot-11, 204 pounds, but Brown is 6-foot-1, 224 pounds and can also run a 4.48 40-yard dash. He’s just as fast as Williams is, but isn’t as quick. On the season, Brown has logged 740 yards on 107 carries (6.9 avg.) and scored seven rushing touchdowns. He’s also hauled in 25 passes for 264 yards and one touchdown. Williams paces the Tigers with 963 yards and 10 touchdowns on 186 carries.

Over his five-year career at Auburn, Brown has totalled 2,534 yards and 27 rushing touchdowns to go along with 49 catches for 619 yards and two receiving scores. Brown’s best season came in 2002 when he took over the full-time rushing duties when Williams broke his leg early in the season against Florida. He finished with 1,008 yards on 175 carries and scored 13 touchdowns that year, and against the Gators, Brown had 166 yards rushing and two TDs in addition to a 54-yard touchdown catch. Later that year, he went on to post 244 yards and three TDs against Mississippi, and 184 yards and two TDs in a 13-9 win over Penn State in the Citrus Bowl.

What really separates Brown from Williams and others is his ability to catch the football out the backfield. Williams has decent hands and can catch screen passes and swing passes, but Brown can handle those duties as well as be a receiver downfield on “Wheel” routes, a la Michael Pittman against Chicago this year. Brown is also the better pass protector of the two Tigers running backs, and if you don’t think the ability to catch the ball and pass protect isn’t important to Gruden, just ask Travis Stephens, a former fourth-round pick who lasted just one year in Tampa Bay because he lacked those skills.

Brown is also a dominating run blocker who lines up at fullback half the time and leads the way for Williams. The fact that Auburn is running the West Coast offense this year makes Brown a dream for Gruden’s schemes. Both Williams and Brown will be first-round draft picks next April, and either one would look great in pewter and red, but Brown is a team-oriented, multi-purpose runner that Tampa Bay is looking for.

FAB 2. The Buccaneers could add another draft pick to their collection by trading away quarterback Brad Johnson. Johnson’s base salary balloons up to $5.75 million in 2005, which is up from $1.75 million this season, and that will make it difficult to trade him. The reason? Tampa Bay’s trading partner needs to have that much salary cap room to acquire Johnson’s contract, which includes that $5.75 million, but they won’t be liable for any signing bonus money as that is the Bucs’ responsibility.

While it may seem farfetched that a team would want to acquire the 36-year old Johnson’s hefty contract, just ask the Chicago Bears how important it is to have a viable option behind your starting quarterback. When Rex Grossman went down with an ACL injury, Chicago had to turn to Mike Quinn, who flopped miserably before giving way to rookie Craig Krenzel. The early season loss of Grossman killed a promising start to the Bears’ 2004 campaign.

If Johnson were dealt to a team on the first day of free agency when teams have the most available money to spend, there would be a handful of teams that could acquire him. The money Johnson is due to make could be turned into a signing bonus and another two years could be added to his contract, which is set to expire after the 2006 season. If that option isn’t financially feasible, the team that acquires him could simply just ask him to take a pay cut.

I don’t know the specific salary cap situations of Chicago, Dallas and Baltimore, but those teams might be the most likely suitors as Johnson still has the ability to be a decent starter for a couple of games if necessary.

Most NFL observers felt that the Jacksonville Jaguars were simply going to cut the aging Mark Brunell this past spring instead of trading him, but enough of a market developed for his services that Washington traded a second-round pick for him to be its starter this year. There likely wouldn’t be the frenzy for Johnson that there was for Brunell, but perhaps Allen could squeeze a team for a fourth- or fifth-rounder. After all, he worked wonders to get a third- and a sixth-rounder from San Diego for Keenan McCardell.

FAB 3. The Buccaneers kick return unit has been dazzling this week since Week 1 when Frank Murphy got Tampa Bay fans out of their seats with a 54-yard return, followed by a 71-yarder that was negated due to a holding call. Second-year cornerback Torrie Cox has picked up where Murphy, who ruptured his Achilles tendon, left off and is averaging 27 yards per kick return this year.

Out of all of Cox’s big returns this year – his longest of which was a 59-yarder against St. Louis on Monday Night Football – the one that came closest to going the distance occurred last week at Atlanta. On Cox’s first attempt, which he took back 39 yards to the Tampa Bay 39-yard line, he weaved right and left before cutting hard to the right where he had a convoy of blockers, no Falcons in sight and plenty of green fake grass to run.

However, as Cox was making his cut, he stumbled on the slick artificial surface at the Georgia Dome that had players from both teams slipping all day. Cox fell down and was tackled by Atlanta rookie Etric Pruitt. Although he did not cross midfield, as he had done twice against the Rams and once against New Orleans this season, that return by Cox was the one that had gotten away – extending Tampa Bay’s dubious kick return streak without a touchdown to 1,684 returns.

“After you rewind the film a couple of times – and the thing with the film is it is always ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ – this one right here, we could have had this one,” said Bucs special teams captain Jeff Gooch. “He found the hole perfect. That could have been it. That could have been the one.”

Cox flashed his gold-filled smile in the Bucs locker room this week when he explained to me that after watching the film, history should have been made against the Falcons.

“That one was gone,” Cox admitted. “It was gone when I saw it and made the cut. I cut back and saw the blocks. If I had just picked my feet up it was six. It just wasn’t meant to be. If it didn’t happen, it wasn’t meant to be. That’s our goal and that’s our plan this week – make it happen and make it be perfect.”

Although the Bucs could have used a first quarter touchdown against Atlanta, the perfect scenario could be returning the first kickoff for a touchdown in team history this week against San Francisco at home in front of the long-suffering Buccaneers fans.

“It was a little slippery up there [in Atlanta], but there is no excuse this week,” Cox said. “We’re on grass on our homefield. We have to go the distance with it. I’d rather do it at home and I’d rather do it in a win. I think this is the week. I’m confident about it and the team is confident about it. We’ve just got to go out and do it.”

Gooch said that the kick return unit is full of confidence this year and knows it is only a matter of time before Cox breaks one.

“You can see what’s happening. Each week guys are getting more comfortable with it and comfortable with each other. We’re getting that attitude. We’ve put so much work into it. When you see Torrie come up with a 35- or 40-yard return then you just come alive. You say, ‘If we could just get one more block we could take this to the house.’ That’s what’s happening right now.”

When asked if Gooch or his kick return unit mates have given Cox any grief over the turf monster getting him last week or kicker Jeff Wilkins tackling Cox twice against the Rams, Gooch laughed and said no.

“Nah, we want him to keep consistently doing what he’s doing,” Gooch said. “Even more than taking one to the house, we just want to be a team that establishes good field position. Our goal is to have consistent long returns. When you do that, then the one to the house will come.”

How about this Sunday at Raymond James Stadium?

FAB 4. If you haven’t had the chance to see North Texas running back Jamario Thomas play yet, you’ll need to watch the Mean Green in the New Orleans Bowl on December 14. If you think Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson or Michigan’s Mike Hart are the best freshman runners in college football, wait until you see Thomas.

He may not be the pro prospect Peterson is and hasn’t proved himself against too much top-shelf competition yet, but Thomas has easily outgained Peterson this season and is leading all NCAA rushers with 1,709 yards on 256 carries prior to Thursday night’s game against Arkansas State, which he missed with a hamstring injury. In fact, he has amassed that yardage playing in only nine games this season, as senior Patrick Cobbs was the starter before being lost for the year with a knee injury in early September. Thomas has a chance to break Ron Dayne’s Division I-A freshman rushing record of 1,863 yards with 155 yards rushing in the New Orleans Bowl.

In his first college start, Thomas gained 247 yards on 32 carries and scored two touchdowns in a 52-21 loss at Colorado. After rushing for 58 yards and a touchdown the next week at Baylor, and 179 yards and two scores versus Middle Tennessee State the following week, Thomas has been over the 200-yard mark in five-straight games, which is an NCAA freshman record.

He lit up Utah State for 256 yards and two scores, gained 258 yards and a TD against New Mexico State, had 218 yards and three touchdowns against Louisiana-Monroe, posted 203 yards and two TDs versus Louisiana-Lafayette and had a career-high 291 yards and four touchdowns against Idaho last Saturday.

The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Thomas has a similar running style to Auburn’s Cadillac Williams and even the legendary Emmitt Smith. He runs with a good body lean, has shifty feet and great acceleration. Thomas has home-run ability and has produced 10 touchdown runs of 25 yards or more. He has runs of 77 and 70 yards this year, in addition to a 58-yard jaunt, and a pair of runs over 50 yards against Colorado.

Thomas has yet to get involved in the passing game, and has just two catches for 10 yards on the season. But remember, this kid is a true freshman and will only get better.

While he won’t be a factor in this year’s draft or even next year’s draft. He has very good pro potential and by dropping the name of North Texas’ Jamario Thomas at your next football huddle at the water cooler or tailgate party, you’ll impress your friends who haven’t heard of this talented freshman yet.

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

• If the Bucs pass on a running back in the first couple of rounds in next year’s draft, they could turn their sights to Kansas State’s Darren Sproles, whose stock will drop to the second day of the draft due to his size. Listed as 5-foot-7, when Sproles gets measured at the Senior Bowl weigh-in or the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis, jaws will drop among league scouts. Sproles is short, and I am not talking about Warrick Dunn short or James Brooks short. We’re not even talking about Aaron Lockett, who was 5-foot-7, short. We’re talking freakishly short at just over 5-foot-5. Because there is no track record for success for a player of that size, the 184-pound Sproles will likely be drafted somewhere between the fourth and sixth rounds. NFL scouts I have talked to said that he has the production, ability, hands, character and work ethic to go in the first round if he was three inches taller. He is K-State’s all-time leading rusher with 4,812 yards and has scored over 40 touchdowns in his career. Sproles has the ability to be an impact return man as a rookie and has 4.4 speed and the instant acceleration to be a home-run hitter in the NFL as a situational back. With 150 yards in his collegiate finale against Iowa State, Sproles will have amassed 6,702 all-purpose yards which will move him past Ron Dayne and into fifth place on the NCAA Division 1-A all-time list. The Bucs, who use a running back-by-committee approach, may take a shot on Sproles in the fourth or fifth round if they haven’t drafted a running back yet.

• It should have come as no surprise to any Pewter Report or Pewter Insider subscriber when the Buccaneers released running back Jamel White. We have been forecasting this move since Week 3, but injuries to the running back position (see Charlie Garner and Mike Alstott) have allowed White to hang around longer than expected. As Pewter Report stated in this week’s issue, the Bucs were smitten with Tulane’s multi-purpose running back Mewelde Moore, but with Garner and White already in the fold through free agency, Tampa Bay opted to fill other needs at linebacker in the third round with Marquis Cooper and safety in the fourth round with Will Allen. The Minnesota Vikings scooped up Moore in the fourth round of last April’s draft and he has already turned in a banner rookie campaign for them.

• One more note about Cox. Look for him to be the starting nickel corner this week after replacing Mario Edwards in that capacity last week at Atlanta. Edwards drew an ugly pass interference penalty in the end zone covering rookie receiver Michael Jenkins, using poor technique and footwork on the play. Cox, a talented second-year corner, played well in his most extensive action on defense last week. “Right now I’m just working in [as a nickel corner], and whatever happens just happens,” Cox said. “I’m just taking it one play at a time. If I get out there you know I’m going to try to make a play to try and help the team win as best I can. It was fun. It’s always fun to out there and show your talent and make a play. [Coach Mike Tomlin] stuck me out there in the mix of things and I did what I was supposed to do – read my coverages and make some plays.”

• The NFL has readjusted some sack totals after reviewing tape of the Bucs-Atlanta game. Linebacker Ian Gold actually split a sack with defensive tackle Chidi Ahanotu and linebacker Shelton Quarles wound up splitting a sack with defensive end Greg Spires. Simeon Rice leads the Bucs with five sacks, followed by Spires and Quarles, who each have 3.5 sacks, then Dewayne White and Anthony McFarland, who have three sacks apiece. Jermaine Phillips and Ronde Barber each have one sack this season, followed by Gold and Ahanotu, who each have half a sack.
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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