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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. The craze for Calvin is on. After being the most active team in free agency, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ high activity continues in April and is spilling over into various Internet reports (see Yahoo!) and rumor mills (see ProFootballTalk.com) regarding pre-draft trade talk. The reason is obvious – Georgia Tech wide receiver Calvin Johnson, the player the Bucs covet the most in the 2007 NFL Draft.
We’ve all seen and heard recent rumors that suggest the Bucs may trade up with Oakland, parting ways with both second-round picks, as well as Tampa Bay’s third- and fourth-rounders, too. This was reported by Yahoo! and will not likely come to fruition. PewterReport.com has heard nothing concrete about the Bucs wanting to trade up with Oakland, surrendering four premium 2007 picks in the process.
To do so would be foolish. Johnson will be an elite player in the NFL, but wide receiver isn’t even a pressing need for the Buccaneers in 2007. Yet it just so happens that Johnson is the best player in this year’s draft and is a perfect fit for Jon Gruden’s offense, so that is why Tampa Bay covets him. If the Bucs can’t land Johnson, there is a good chance that the team waits until the second day of the draft to address wide receiver – if at all.
So where did this Bucs-Raiders trade rumor originate from? Oakland, of course. Oakland wants any team that wants either Johnson or LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell to know what the asking price would be for trading up to the number one spot – at least a high first-round pick, and the rest of a teams’ first day picks (and maybe more). The Raiders also want teams to know that they might be considering trading the pick if the right offer comes along.
Have the Bucs had discussions with the Raiders about moving up? Of course. Tampa Bay has likely talked with all three teams ahead of it in the draft, as well as some teams after the fourth selection to gauge which teams have a real interest in draft day movement and what veteran players are on the trading block. That’s what teams do in the last two weeks leading up to the draft.
Which brings me to the next trade rumor – the Bucs sending defensive end Simeon Rice to Detroit and swapping picks to the Lions and thus moving from the fourth overall pick to the second overall selection. This rumor has been reported by WDAE 620 AM and also by ProFootballTalk.com. Could this happen? Absolutely. It is something Pewter Report has speculated about for months, but based on our sources, we have not found any concrete proof that this rumor will come to fruition.
Detroit’s pass rush was just as bad – if not worse – than Tampa Bay’s was last year. Rice isn’t a happy camper in Tampa Bay and did not enjoy playing for defensive line coach Jethro Franklin, who replaced Rod Marinelli, who became the Lions head coach last season. Rice is coming off a season-ending shoulder injury, and at age 33 he will begin to slow down soon – if he hasn’t already.
Rice has had some clashes with Gruden in the past, and is entering the final year of his contract. That will likely be his last year in Tampa Bay. Rice, who has long been the NFL’s highest-paid defensive player, will undoubtedly want one final big contract. The Bucs seem prepared to move on – either in 2007 or most definitely in 2008.
There is no doubt that Tampa Bay’s pass rush would suffer a blow if Rice were traded to Detroit. If the Bucs are committed to trading up to number two to ensure that the team lands either Johnson or Wisconsin left tackle Joe Thomas, it makes more sense to trade an aging player who is coming off an injury and entering the final year of his contract rather than trading away a precious second-round draft pick.
I would endorse the move of trading Rice, just as championed my idea of trading away Warren Sapp for a premium pick after the Super Bowl instead of him coming back for a final season in 2003 and then losing him without any compensation in free agency in 2004 when it couldn’t afford to re-sign him (Sapp was livid with me for writing that). With Rice, the hope would be that Tampa Bay landed an impact defensive end or two in the draft that could start or contribute a great deal of snaps right away as a rookie to offset his loss.
But I still have a feeling that the Bucs will end up staying put with their first-round pick on draft day unless they get wind that Atlanta plans on dealing up to get in front of them to select Johnson, the hometown hero from Georgia Tech who could make an erratic thrower like Michael Vick appear to be accurate. The Falcons don’t want to face Johnson twice a year in the same division, and neither do the Bucs.
So who started the Bucs-Lions rumors? Detroit, of course. They’ve had conversations with the Buccaneers and decided to make them public to create a craze for Calvin at number two. If Rice was never discussed in trade talks (but I’m guessing he was) between the Lions and the Bucs, that could be Detroit’s way of letting Tampa Bay know what it would take to pull the trade off. It could also be a way to create a sense of urgency in Atlanta or with any other team that is considering trading up to number two.
The educated guess here is that Tampa Bay stays put and makes a pick at number four, hoping that Oakland drafts Russell, Detroit picks Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams –anyone but Johnson – and that Cleveland picks either Notre Dame quarterback Brady Quinn or Oklahoma running back Adrian Peterson. Tampa Bay wants Johnson, but it won’t be crying if the team can’t land him. If anything, it will only allow the team to concentrate on an area of immediate need, such as defensive line.
As for the trade rumors, they are just that as of this moment – rumors. Oakland still owns the first overall pick, followed by Detroit, Cleveland and Tampa Bay. It could be that way until draft day. It could also be that way after the first full hour of the draft.
Making the pick at number four and keeping all of their draft picks is the most valuable thing the Bucs – a team with pressing needs at defensive tackle, defensive end, safety ane center – can do. Plus, there’s still a good chance the Calvin craze comes to Tampa Bay after the first three picks.
FAB 2. Why are the Bucs actually considering trading defensive end Simeon Rice? Aside from the reasons outlined in FAB 1., Tampa Bay feels that new defensive player Patrick Chukwurah could start in place of Rice and platoon at the position with a 2007 draft pick.
Is Chukwurah the second coming of Rice? Heavens no. In his prime, Rice was one of the most unique pass rushers in the NFL. The problem for the Bucs is that they don’t fully know if Rice is still in his prime or has past it. The addition of Chukwurah and the drafting of a defensive end in round one or two could help offset the loss of the 33-year sack artist, though.
Tampa Bay has never had a defensive player quite like Chukwurah, a ripped athlete who actually looks like a smaller version of Rice. Although he is listed as a linebacker and a defensive end, the Bucs are strictly working Chukwurah along the defensive line this offseason.
“I’m primarily playing at right end, but I could play either position,” Chukwurah said. “Playing defensive end and rushing the passer – that’s what they expect of me. That’s what they brought me out here to do. My goal has always been to get double-digit sacks in the season. If they give me the opportunity to do it, I’ll do it.”
The 28-year old Chukwurah bounced between linebacker and defensive end at Denver, recording only eight sacks in his six years in the league as a part-time starter. But 4.5 of those quarterback captures occurred in 2006 when he received more playing time, and the speedy Chukwurah feels he has the tools and the experience to become a pass-rushing force in Tampa Bay.
“I’ve always been this size and I’ve always had success rushing the passer, even as a linebacker,” Chukwurah said. “Speed kills, but you have to be strong and know how to use your hands, too. I do. Once you get around the corner, the tackles can still take you out unless you have strong hands. But my speed is my advantage.”
New Buccaneers defensive line coach Larry Coyer was Chukwurah’s position coach and defensive coordinator over the past three years in Denver and said that Chukwurah has the skill set to be a dangerous rusher off the edge.
“He’s a hard-working guy who is undersized and really fast – I mean really fast,” Coyer said. “He plays really hard, so he’ll bring that to the table. He’s still got to work on the same situations that we’ve always had to work on, like when they close the tight end to him he has to work his butt off to take care of himself there. But he’s a hard worker, a real hard worker. He fits right in with [defensive end Greg] Spires, [defensive tackle Chris] Hovan and some of the other guys we’ve had here.”
Coyer noted how undersized pass rushers have become en vogue in the NFL over the last couple of years, and it’s not uncommon to see a starting defensive end check in at 6-foot-1, 255 pounds these days, which happens to be Chukwurah’s measurements. Rice, who is generously listed at 268 pounds on the Bucs’ roster, is actually closer to 255-260 pounds.
“Speed and hands are the whole deal,” Coyer said. “There are a lot of medium-sized rushers – I don’t call them small because they are not small – they are medium-sized. The good ones have great hands and great feet, and that’s why they are successful. Whether it is [defensive end Derrick] Burgess in Oakland, [defensive end Robert] Mathis or [defensive end Dwight] Freeney, or [outside linebacker Tully] Banta-Cain at New England – all those kids are the same. They have great hands and great feet. They also have a liability when teams close to them. They all have to go to work and take care of their run defense.”
Holding up against the run is the concern with Chukwurah, just as it has been for Rice since he landed in Tampa Bay in 2001.
Chukwurah is far from being a proven pass-rushing product, but the plan is to have him contribute more as a defensive end in a 4-3 scheme and put him in situations where he can turn it loose against quarterbacks. Right now, Chukwurah is running with the first team at right defensive end while Rice is held out of on-field work during the OTAs due to his shoulder rehab. If Rice is out of the Bucs’ picture in 2007, Chukwurah could keep hold of that starting job.
FAB 3. The biggest misconception about defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and his famous Tampa 2 defense, is that the Buccaneers play mostly zone coverage. In fact, over the years as cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly have developed into Pro Bowl-caliber players, Kiffin has deployed more man coverage (called “China” in Tampa Bay terminology) and Cover 3, which is basically a type of man coverage for the corners as they have the deep thirds of the field on the perimeter. Regardless, the Bucs are playing less and less Cover 2 than they did in the mid- to late-1990s.
Barber said that the Bucs’ game against the Atlanta Falcons at Raymond James Stadium last year was the most man coverage he had ever played in Tampa Bay. The reason was because Phillip Buchanon was getting his first start as a Buccaneer cornerback, and he is much more comfortable and effective in man coverage because of his quick hips and ability to turn and run with wide receivers. Buchanon finished the game with an interception and several pass breakups.
Kiffin loves flexibility on defense and wants his defensive backs to be able to play man coverage as well as zone, especially because the Tampa 2 has become the trendy defense in the NFL, only rivaled by the sudden resurgence of the 3-4 defense lately. Kiffin even goes so far as telling the Bucs’ scouts that he wants the team to draft cornerbacks that can play man coverage instead of zone because it is much easier to teach zone concepts in the pros than it is to properly train corners to play man-to-man.
Throughout the years as more and more teams have incorporated the Tampa 2 defense and more teams have had experience playing against it, Kiffin has had to tweak his schemes to stay ahead of the curve. A couple of years ago, Kiffin threw a five-man defensive line against Atlanta to stymie mobile quarterback Michael Vick. The Bucs have even incorporated a 46 Bear defense on occasion, which is a Cover 1 scheme with a safety deep and man coverage for any non-blitzing defender.
Last year, Kiffin even sprinkled in some 3-4 schemes to mix up some defensive play calls and to get reserve linebacker Jamie Winborn on the field. There is a chance that Kiffin may even turn to the 3-4 defense more frequently in 2007. The reason is because of the new personnel that Tampa Bay acquired this offseason, most notably Pro Bowler linebacker Cato June, defensive end-linebacker hybrid Patrick Chukwurah and defensive tackle-defensive end Kevin Carter.
With June joining the likes of Derrick Brooks, Barrett Ruud, Jamie Winborn and Ryan Nece, Tampa Bay has a collection of experienced, playmaking linebackers. Using Tampa Bay’s traditional 4-3 defensive scheme, only three linebackers can be on the field at the same time. But by incorporating the 3-4 with more regularity in 2007, Kiffin could get more linebackers on the field to incorporate their skills into the defense and give opposing offenses some new wrinkles to game plan for.
“Monte, he’s a defensive genius,” Chukwurah said. “I wouldn’t be surprised if he did do that with some 3-4 packages thrown in. The different ways he could use us and the more we could mix it up the better.”
New linebackers coach Gus Bradley wouldn’t mind seeing more of his guys on the field this year in a 3-4 scheme and said, “Who knows? You try to use your talent the best you can.”
The 6-foot-1, 255-pound Chukwurah can rush the passer with his hand on the ground as a defensive end, or he can blitz the quarterback occasionally as a stand-up outside linebacker in a 3-4 or in a 4-3.
At 6-foot-6, 305 pounds, Carter has the size and strength to play inside at under tackle in a 4-3 front or hold his ground as a defensive end lined up over the offensive tackle in the 3-4. He is currently the starting under tackle ahead of Ellis Wyms, and sources tell Pewter Report that starting job is Carter’s to lose.
June has the coverage ability to play either strongside linebacker, where he is starting out with the Buccaneers, or weakside linebacker, where he might eventually end up in Tampa Bay.
The fact that Buchanon has been re-signed and will push for at least the nickel corner job, if not Brian Kelly’s starting assignment as the team’s left cornerback, is also an indication that Kiffin will continue to call for more man coverage situations. The flexibility Kiffin has with the three new defensive players – June, Carter and Chukwurah – might make opponents wonder where the famous Tampa 2 went.
FAB 4. In talking with several people in the Buccaneers organization regarding the 2007 schedule, the team views it as generally favorable. With parity running rampant in the NFL these days, and worst-to-first scenarios becoming commonplace each year (see New Orleans in 2006 and Tampa Bay in 2005), predicting wins and losses – especially before the draft, training camp and the preseason – is nearly impossible.
But Tampa Bay got the luxury of a well-placed mid-season bye week this year, instead of last year’s bye week, which fell after the first three games of the season. The Bucs also don’t have to play three games in 11 days as they did a year ago, and there are no Thursday night or Monday night games that will throw off Jon Gruden’s preparation schedule.
The Bucs don’t have any cold weather games this year as their December road contests are either indoors (at New Orleans and at Houston) or in San Francisco, which should be at least 15-20 degrees above freezing.
It should also be noted that there is not a heavy concentration of division games all at once, either. The Bucs don’t have to face division opponents back-to-back in any weeks and the division games are spread out throughout the entire schedule.
Perhaps the Bucs’ two most important division games – against Atlanta and Carolina – occur at home on December 16 and December 30, respectively. The homefield advantage of Raymond James Stadium could be the deciding factor of whether the Bucs make the playoffs in 2007 in both of those contests. Of course that depends on how well the team fares in the beginning part of the season.
Tampa Bay has a tough two games to open the schedule – at Seattle and at home against New Orleans. A 0-2 start would be disastrous for Jon Gruden as he has not shown the ability to rally any of his Buccaneers teams from an early season slide.
The season opener at Seattle reminds me of the 2005 season opener at Minnesota. The Bucs are flying under the radar and coming off a double-digit losing season, just as they were three years ago, and will face a team that many feel will be a playoff contender. Minnesota never lived up to the hype in 2005 and of course the jury is still out with regards to how Seattle will fare in 2007.
If Tampa Bay can steal the season opener on the road, hang on to something. The Bucs could rocket into the playoff orbit once again. If Tampa Bay loses in Seattle and has to come home to face the NFC South division champion Saints, hang on to something. And brace for a crash landing if the Bucs drop their home opener.
FAB 5. Here are some things to hold you over until next time:
• One player the Tampa Bay Buccaneers may consider drafting in the seventh round or signing as a priority free agent is North Dakota State safety Craig Dahl. Dahl played for Bucs linebackers coach Gus Bradley for three years when Bradley was the Bison defensive coordinator from 1997-2002. Tampa Bay defensive quality control coach Todd Wash also has familiarity with Dahl as he was the Bison defensive line coach up until this year. The 6-foot-1, 213-pound Dahl, a two-time captain, starred on a defense that was ranked first overall in 2005 and ranked eighth in 2006 in Division I-AA. He finished as the school’s all-time leading solo tackler with 134 stops, in addition to seven career interceptions. Dahl, who was invited to the Combine, possesses 4.53 speed and figures to be an impact player on special teams in the NFL. “I haven’t seen film on him from this past year, but he’s a great person with an unbelievable work ethic,” Bradley said. “He just got better and better while I was there. He was one of the leaders of our team. He is a tremendous track and basketball athlete, too. He ran pretty well and played great on special teams. I hope he becomes a Buc. That would be great. He has a real chance to have an outstanding career.”
• Not only does the presence of Phillip Buchanon and Sammy Davis mean the Buccaneers could go without drafting a cornerback next week, it also might mean the end of the road for veteran Juran Bolden in Tampa Bay. Bolden excelled as the nickel corner two years ago, but when asked to step into the starting role once Brian Kelly was lost for the season, Bolden struggled and was benched late in the season in favor of Buchanon. Bolden is a great locker room guy, but the team wants to get younger at cornerback as he, Kelly and Ronde Barber are all over the age of 31. There has been some speculation about Bolden possibly moving to safety, but that was generated by the media, and is not in the team’s plans based on what Pewter Report has been told. In fact, the team is down on Bolden and he may not make the team this year unless Kelly gets traded or there is a significant injury to one of the cornerbacks who figure to make the team. Pewter Report projects that Tampa Bay’s five corners for 2007 will be Kelly, Buchanon, Barber, Alan Zemaitis and either Davis or Torrie Cox – with Bolden being the odd-man out.
• One of the oddest things to happen between pro and college football lately was what transpired between Kansas State University and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Assistant defensive backs coach Raheem Morris took the job as the Wildcats defensive coordinator after the 2005 season, only to return to Tampa Bay and become the Bucs secondary coach after Greg Burns was fired in early June. As fate would have it, Burns landed at K-State as a position coach this winter, and actually replaced Morris, who also served as the Wildcats’ defensive backs coach. “That was crazy, wasn’t it?” Morris said. “I’m happy for Greg Burns that he got a job out there and I hope he does a good job. He’s got a bunch of good guys to work with in Manhattan. Those guys will respect him. I hope it works out well for him. He’s got a lot of college coaching in his background. K-State is like my second college. I feel like I went to school out there. He’ll love it.”
• There are rumors that Philadelphia may want to trade their 2005 third-round draft pick, running back Ryan Moats, because he is deemed to be the same type of runner that starter Brian Westbrook is. The Eagles are believed to be interested in drafting a bigger running back to complement the smallish Westbrook. Consider Tampa Bay interested as the Bucs had Moats in for a pre-draft visit in 2005 and were contemplating drafting Moats or Miami’s Frank Gore if they missed out on Cadillac Williams in the first round. It’s doubtful the Bucs would want to part ways with their third- or fourth-rounder this year. If Moats isn’t moved by Philly before the fourth or fifth round, Tampa Bay might come calling and offer next year’s third- or forth-round pick. Head coach Jon Gruden doesn’t necessarily need a bigger back to complement Williams, and Moats would be a nice backup behind Cadillac. The 5-foot-8, 210-pound Moats has rushed for 347 yards on 77 carries (4.5 avg.) and three touchdowns in his two-year NFL career.
• Memo to Bruce Allen and Jon Gruden, we know you run some of the most physical OTAs in the NFL – even though there is supposed to be no contact allowed during organized team activities. How do we know this? First, your starting quarterback, Chris Simms, blabbed it to the media and it got picked up by ProFootballTalk.com, a site that has been a watch dog of sorts for OTA violations regarding player contact: “I'm not supposed to get hit, but I guess they wanted to test the spleen, or wanted to test the space where it used to be.” Simms said. "So far, it's holding up good." If that wasn’t enough, new linebackers coach Gus Bradley had this to say about defensive end Patrick Chukwurah: “Just the little bit of [Chukwurah] I’ve seen, it’s the speed factor. He’s 255 pounds. When I’m running up to the piles, he seems to be one of the first ones there.” Piles?! There shouldn’t be any piles in OTAs. There shouldn’t be any players on the ground, but undoubtedly there are. The physical nature of the OTAs is the obvious reason why these practices are closed to the media each offseason. My advice to the Bucs – either lighten up on the contact in the OTAs (which won’t happen), or tell your players and coaches to not give the impression to the media that there is contact in no-pads practices. If not, the Bucs could be disciplined by the NFL and could face the wrath of the NFLPA.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org