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Here are some things that caught my attention this week:
FAB 1. In talking with a plethora of pewter and red clad Buccaneers coaches and scouts at the Senior Bowl, the theme last week was improving the defensive line play. The refrain from anyone associated with Tampa Bay was how Tampa Bay’s defense opened up the 2006 season surrendering a 9:16 touchdown drive to Baltimore and closing the year with Seattle playing keep away for the final 9:33 of the season.
This theme was first trumpeted when both Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen talked about the need for a pass rush and improvement along the defensive line in their season-ending press conferences during the first week of January. Tampa Bay needs defensive line help in the worst way.
How desperate is the Bucs’ plight along the D-line? It’s so bad that Tampa Bay is trying out former Florida State defensive end Andre Wadsworth and former Alabama defensive tackle Kenny Smith next week at One Buccaneer Place. Wadsworth has been out of football for six years after being the Arizona Cardinals’ first-round pick in 1998. Smith was selected by New Orleans in the third round of the 2001 draft and spent time with Oakland in 2005 before missing the 2006 season recovering from injuries. Smith also missed the 2004 season with a torn rotator cuff.
What’s sad is that both players could wind up being signed if they have good workouts. Of course, when the only headliners along the defensive line are aging ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires and try-hard defensive tackle Chris Hovan, Tampa Bay needs all the help it can get.
Ellis Wyms, Jovan Haye, Julian Jenkins, Charles Bennett and Jon Bradley have not shown they can be consistent playmakers or starters. Having a couple of quality backups is fine, but it becomes a problem for a team like the Buccaneers when the number of backup-type players greatly outnumbers the amount of starters.
So the search is on for defensive linemen. The good news for Tampa Bay is that there were plenty of darn good ones to scout up close on the North roster at the Senior Bowl. It’s no secret that the Buccaneers became quite fond of Louisville’s 19-year old under tackle Amobi Okoye, who has a great upside and showed great leadership ability in Mobile, and 6-foot-6, 282-pound defensive end Adam Carriker out of Nebraska.
The problem with both of these players is that while Okoye might become a top 10 pick, he’s not worthy of selecting as the third or fourth overall pick, which is where Tampa Bay will select after a coin flip with Cleveland next month. While Carriker greatly improved his stock with a great week in Mobile, he’s now viewed as a mid- to late first-round pick by scouts and won’t be there in the top of the second round when Tampa Bay is on the clock.
If either Georgia Tech junior wide receiver Calvin Johnson or Wisconsin left tackle Joe Thomas is on the board when Tampa Bay picks in the first round, it’s a safe bet that one of these college stars will be wearing red and pewter in 2007. I discussed the dilemma the Bucs front office faces if both are somehow on the clock when it’s Tampa Bay’s turn in round one in my last SR’s Fab Five.
The buzz from NFL scouts last week at the Senior Bowl had Oakland taking LSU quarterback JaMarcus Russell with the first pick in the draft, followed by Detroit’s selection of Thomas with the second pick. If the Bucs pick third, Johnson is their man, but if Cleveland winds up with the third pick, Johnson could become a Brown or Cleveland could trade down and allow another team the chance to cut in front of Tampa Bay to get the talented junior wide receiver.
While Tampa Bay was disappointed that Thomas opted not to participate in Senior Bowl week, the Buccaneers really benefited from the exposure to a lot of the top defensive players in Mobile – just in case they pick fourth and Thomas and Johnson are gone. While Tampa Bay might entertain the notion of drafting Clemson defensive end Gaines Adams or Ohio State wide receiver Ted Ginn, Jr. with the fourth overall pick, the Bucs would likely be better off trading down to get either Okoye or Carriker.
Let’s face it. Coming off a 4-12 season, Tampa Bay needs a lot of help to get back to playoff contention. Getting a stud defender like the two on the North squad and picking up an extra second-round pick in the process of trading down might not be such a bad idea, either.
FAB 2. One of the more interesting things that PewterReport.com picked up on at the Senior Bowl was that the Bucs’ brass was moving full speed ahead with rebuilding the team in 2007 … and beyond. In conversations I had with several members of Tampa Bay’s hierarchy, I came away with the distinct impression that this front office is not necessarily acting like it is on the hot seat in 2007.
Instead, the Bucs’ front office is approaching the 2007 offseason confident that it won’t be its last in Tampa Bay – albeit with a sense of urgency. But I was amazed at the lack of a “win at all costs” type of mentality when talking to a lot of Tampa Bay’s decision-makers. The sense I got was that the Bucs were not going to mortgage the future just for a chance at a winning season in 2007.
When talking to the likes of the team’s personnel honchos, they swore up and down that Tampa Bay was going to get the right players at the right price and not overspend. You could tell that the Bucs’ brass was happy to be out of salary cap hell and didn’t want to do anything that could put them right back in there a few years down the road. It is clear that Bruce Allen and Co. have learned their lesson after the 2004 free agent class of Todd Steussie, Derrick Deese and Charlie Garner.
The Buccaneers have had success in recruiting players like linebacker Jamie Winborn, tight end Anthony Becht, cornerback Juran Bolden and others to Tampa Bay by offering less and still landing the player. Although the Bucs will have at least $24 million in cap room come March 2, they will still be using the same budgetary sales pitch with the hope that playing in the state of Florida, which has no state income tax, at Raymond James Stadium for Super Bowl winning coaches in Jon Gruden and Monte Kiffin will again pay off.
The difference this year is that Tampa Bay will have a new, state-of-the-art training facility to go along with millions of dollars to spend. Yes, the Bucs will be spending some serious cash to lure some of the NFL’s top playmakers to Tampa Bay, but the difference is it won’t be overspending to get them. They’ve had years of practice using every sales pitch in the book to overcome their lack of cap room, and they’ll put that to use again in 2007.
After a week in Mobile, I came away impressed with the confidence shown by the Bucs’ front office in their plans for 2007, along with their sense of “if it’s not going to be us in 2008 – let’s not screw it up for the next guy.” There is a clear methodology at work for the Buccaneers’ 2007 offseason. Although their plans weren’t fully revealed to Pewter Report, the Buccaneers will act as responsible stewards of Tampa Bay’s salary cap in 2007 and beyond.
One of the best examples of this was Tampa Bay’s surprising luke warm interest in Philadelphia quarterback Jeff Garica, who will test free agency in 2007. One would think that the Bucs would already be putting out feelers in Garcia’s direction, but that’s not the case. In fact, the Bucs may be shying away from Garcia because he will be 37 this year. As one important member of Tampa Bay’s hierarchy told me in Mobile, “Garcia might not be the best long-term investment for the franchise.”
Yet Garcia is likely the one QB who could come in right away and do the most to save Gruden’s job in 2007. But as the source told me, “He might not be the right answer in 2008,” alluding to the fact that the Bucs would be saddled with a lot of wasted cap money once Garcia gets to be 38 years old and his best playing days are behind him.
Another Bucs staffer told me that the 2007 free agent crop is mediocre. He then posed the question, “What if the 2008 free agent class is much better, but we have wasted a lot of its ’08 salary cap room on this year’s group?” That wouldn’t be good.
Yes, Bucs fans, this front office is thinking about 2008 – not just 2007. Kind of amazing, isn’t it?
FAB 3. In case you didn’t know, the Senior Bowl is not just an assembly of the top senior draft prospects. It is also the biggest annual NFL job fair where out-of-work college and pro coaches and scouts go looking for employment. On hand were ex-Stanford coach Walt Harris, former Miami coach Larry Coker and ex-Tampa Bay defensive backs coach Greg Burns among others.
But the Senior Bowl also marks the real beginning of free agency. You’ll see plenty of agents with general managers and coaches cozying up together to talk about free agents-to-be. You’ll also see the general managers for different teams meeting to discuss trades, such was the case when Bucs general manager Bruce Allen and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones first discussed the Keyshawn Johnson-Joey Galloway swap in Mobile, Ala. in 2004.
PewterReport.com uncovered an interesting little nugget of information at the Senior Bowl regarding free agency. One of the players on Tampa Bay’s target list is New Orleans defensive end Charles Grant, and some of the groundwork may have been laid in Mobile, Ala. last week when Allen was seen having lunch with Bill Johnson, who represents Grant.
Of course, Johnson also represents Bucs safety Jermaine Phillips, who is coming off a disappointing season and is a candidate to restructure his contract this year. And Johnson is also the agent of Senior Bowl South squad participant “Tank” Tyler, a first-day defensive tackle from North Carolina State, so the lunch might not have been about Grant at all.
But given the fact that Allen is in Mobile for about five lunches and five dinners during Senior Bowl week, he’s going to make those meals count. The fact that Tampa Bay is desperate for help along the defensive line and needs to improve its pass rush is all the more reason to think that the Allen-Johnson meeting was more about Grant than anything else.
The 6-foot-3, 290-pound Georgia product has recorded 36 sacks in his five-year NFL career, including six last year for the Saints to go along with 64 tackles, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. After notching seven sacks, four forced fumbles and recovering one fumble for a 34-yard touchdown as a rookie, Grant recorded 10 sacks and a career-high 10.5 sacks in 2003 and 2004, respectively, while notching a total of seven forced fumbles in those two seasons.
Grant’s play dipped in 2005 when he notched just 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery to accompany his 62 tackles, but he rebounded nicely in 2006 while helping to lead the Saints to their first NFC South title and their first appearance in the NFC Championship Game. Aside from his production and his blend of size, power and quickness, Grant has also been a model of good health, not missing any of his 80 starts over his five-year NFL career.
While New Orleans would like to have Grant back, the emergence of 2004 first-round pick Will Smith, who recorded a team-high 10.5 sacks from his right defensive end spot, could make him expendable. Nothing would delight Tampa Bay more than to steal an opponent from an NFC South rival in free agency. While Cincinnati’s Justin Smith may be more sought after once free agency begins, expect Tampa Bay to be in the hunt for Grant, too.
As you may know, the Bucs’ target list doesn’t just include one player in free agency, it includes several just in case a player opts to sign with another team for more money or other reasons. Just as Tampa Bay is interested in the prospects of trading for Houston’s David Carr, acquiring Jake Plummer or signing Jeff Garcia, to bolster its quarterback position, the Buccaneers have more than one premium target at defensive end in free agency.
FAB 4. The thing that should stand out about Tampa Bay’s interest in free agent defensive ends Charles Grant and Justin Smith is that both players bring size to the table. Grant is 6-foot-3, 290 pounds, while Smith is an inch taller at 6-foot-4 and weighs 275 pounds.
By contrast, the Buccaneers’ current starting defensive ends, Greg Spires and Simeon Rice are listed at 6-foot-1, 265 pounds and 6-foot-5, 268 pounds, respectively. I believe Spires is 265, but Rice typically weighs in the 255-pound range during the season. Rice is a lot thinner than he is listed on the roster.
If Grant were to replace Spires at left end, it would represent an increase of two inches and 25 pounds. If Smith were to replace Rice, the Bucs would lose an inch in height, but likely gain about 20 pounds of size.
Don’t be surprised if the Buccaneers add some size to their defense in 2007. While Tampa Bay was closely eyeing Louisville’s Amobi Okoye, a 6-foot-2, 287-pound prototype under tackle at the Senior Bowl, they were also scrutinizing Nebraska’s 6-foot-6, 282-pound defensive end, Adam Carriker. One could even say that Carriker, who doesn’t fit the prototype defensive end mold in the Tampa 2, was even scouted more closely than Okoye.
I remember talking to Tampa Bay’s resident Nebraska standout, middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, about Carriker earlier in the year, trying to get his opinion on his Cornhusker brethren. Ruud said that Carriker was a stud and would be a great fit in a 3-4 defense as an end, but not necessarily a good fit in the Tampa 2. Until now.
The buzz at the Senior Bowl was that Tampa Bay really needed to add some bigger bodies to its defense, and Carriker is definitely on the Bucs’ wish list. What made Tampa Bay coaches giddy at the Senior Bowl was when they moved the humungous Carriker inside to the under tackle position and he handled the transition with ease.
Don’t think a tall, rangy player like Carriker could play under tackle in Tampa Bay’s scheme? Keith Millard, a 6-foot-5, 262-pound defensive tackle, recorded 18 sacks in 1989 en route to earning NFL Defensive Player of the Year honors. Millard’s 18 sacks still stands as an NFL record for defensive tackles. Carriker has some physical similarities to Milliard.
As one Bucs source told PewterReport.com at the Senior Bowl, going up against bigger, more physical defensive linemen in practice might actually help Tampa Bay’s offensive line, which struggles annually with the big, physical defensive lines that reside in Carolina and New Orleans. The Bucs offense has trouble winning the line of scrimmage battle on an annual basis against these two NFC South foes.
When Tampa Bay looks to upgrade its talent on the defensive side of the ball this offseason, expect the Bucs to try to upgrade their size, too. Tampa Bay’s middle linebackers have typically weighed less than 240 pounds dating back to the Hardy Nickerson days. But Chicago’s Brian Urlacher, a 6-foot-4, 258-pound Pro Bowler, is proof that a middle linebacker in a Tampa 2 defense can be successful. The Bears’ weakside linebacker, Lance Briggs, is about 10 pounds heavier than his counterpart, Derrick Brooks, in Tampa Bay, too.
The Bucs will need to do some tweaking and incorporate some “outside of the box thinking” to help its defense evolve and regain its past glory. There could be some “big” changes in store for Monte Kiffin’s crew.
FAB 5. Here are some things to hold you over until next time:
• Speaking of size, the Buccaneers were looking hard at Virginia Tech safety Aaron Rouse at the Senior Bowl. The 6-foot-4, 218-pound Rouse has an imposing frame and had a solid week of practice in Mobile, Ala. under the watch of Buccaneers defensive backs coach Raheem Morris. With his 33.5-inch arms and long, rangy physique, Rouse looked like Juran Bolden minus the dreadlocks. He could be a guy targeted by the Buccaneers in the late second or early part of the third round.
• One of the players who really impressed me (and the Tampa Bay folks I spoke with) was Boston College offensive lineman Josh Beekman. Beekman looks bigger than his 6-foot-2, 315-pound frame due to his massive lower body that features think legs and calves. Beekman was an immovable object in Mobile, Ala. and got extensive work for Jon Gruden’s North squad in the actual Senior Bowl game. Because he saw action at left guard, right guard and center, Beekman probably played more than any other offensive lineman during the Senior Bowl game, which was won by the North, 27-0. Boston College produces quality NFL linemen (Marc Columbo, Chris Snee, Dan Koppen, Damien Woody, Tampa Bay’s own Jeremy Trueblood, etc.) and the fact that Beekman can also play center is very appealing to the Bucs. Beekman, who started the Senior Bowl at left guard, does a great job of pulling and blew up Ole Miss middle linebacker Patrick Willis on Tony Hunt’s touchdown run.
• While Josh Beekman had a good week in Mobile at guard and center, the North squad’s starting center, West Virginia’s Dan Mozes, really struggled. Mozes did a ton of shotgun snapping in college and had trouble all week with a conventional snap where the quarterback is under center. Fumbled snaps occurred in every practice, and even occurred in the game. The reason was because the shotgun and spread offenses are so prevalent in college football today and there just aren’t many quarterbacks and centers that engage in conventional snaps, which is still the staple in the NFL. Ohio State’s Troy Smith, Michigan State’s Drew Stanton, Pittsburgh’s Tyler Palko, Florida’s Chris Leak and Houston’s Kevin Kolb all played out of the shotgun quite a bit in college. Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said that college football has gone so radical with the shotgun and spread offenses that he was teaching some linemen how to pull for the first time … ever. Gruden said that he put in five of the most basic NFL plays and that this year’s crop of Senior Bowl participants struggled to learn those plays because the college game has become so different from the pro game.
• One more quick note about the term “evolution” and the shotgun. Evolution doesn’t just apply to the defensive side of the ball in Tampa Bay. Head coach Jon Gruden still has plans on moving forward with the shotgun in the 2007 season and will install it in some form or fashion this spring. Look for Tampa Bay’s offensive approach to evolve in 2007, too.
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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: email@example.com