SR's Fab Five

March 18 - This week's SR's Fab Five tells you why RB Michael Pittman is the best option for Tampa Bay -- even over Ricky Watters, breaks down the signing of TE Marco Battaglia and CB Brian Kelly, details the visit of WR Germane Crowell and previews Johnnie Morton's upcoming visit, offers a final thought on Warrick Dunn's jump to Atlanta, and details the one-year tender offers to the Bucs' restricted and exclusive rights free agents. Don't miss this 2,400-word edition!

Here's five things that caught my interest this week:

1. The departure of free agent Warrick Dunn to Atlanta last week makes the Bucs' search for a feature back for Jon Gruden's offense the number one priority. The Bucs are looking for a player who can run between the tackles, break off runs to the outside and catch the ball.

Of a working list that includes Arizona's Michael Pittman, Green Bay's Dorsey Levens, Seattle's Ricky Watters, Miami's Lamar Smith and St. Louis' Robert Holcombe, Pittman, Levens and Watters appear to be the front runners for the Bucs' vacancy. Each of those players has been a feature back in the NFL and is adept at catching the ball. Pittman will visit One Buc Place this week and the Bucs are trying to schedule a visit with Levens. The team is still pondering the possibilities of bringing Watters to Tampa Bay.

Watters, 33, missed most of the 2001 season in Seattle with a broken bone in his shoulder and a broken ankle. He was one of the league's more durable backs prior to last year's injuries with 116 consecutive starts, which ranked second among all backs to the late Walter Payton, who had 170 with the Chicago Bears. Watters rushed for 318 yards and one score on 72 carries last year, and has 10,643 yards rushing in his career, which ranks 13th on the all-time list. He also ranks 11th on the NFL career rushing touchdowns list.

But some within the Tampa Bay organization wonder how much gas he has left in the tank and what the salary cap ramifications would be signing a 33-year old to anything more than a two-year deal. Watters, like Levens, is very familiar with West Coast offenses, having played under Bill Walsh and George Seifert in San Francisco and Mike Holmgren in Seattle. Watters also played under Jon Gruden in Philadelphia when Gruden was the offensive coordinator with the Eagles. The two personalities clashed then, and it is unclear how they would co-exist in Tampa, not to mention a locker room with Watters, Warren Sapp and Keyshawn Johnson. Watters coming to the Bucs is anything but a done deal at this point.

The Bucs would be better suited to take a strong look at Pittman, who may be a younger, slightly less talented version of Watters. Pittman will be coming in for a visit this week, as Buccaneer Magazine first reported on March 14, and Holcombe visited One Buc Place on Monday.

The 26-year old Pittman is an intriguing option for the Buccaneers. At 6-feet, 218 pounds, Pittman is a chiseled, slashing type runner with solid hands, as evidenced by his career-high 73 catches for 579 yards and two TDs during the 2000 season. He also rushed for 719 yards (3.9 avg.) and four scores that season.

Pittman has rushed for 1,945 yards on 518 carries (3.8 avg.) with 11 scores since he was selected in the fourth round of the 1998 NFL Draft by Arizona. He's also caught 131 passes for 1,039 yards (7.9 avg.) and two touchdowns.

His productivity has increased every season, and he even beat out 2000 first-round draft pick Thomas Jones over the past two years to become the Cardinals' starter. Last year, he rushed for a career-high 846 yards (3.5 avg.) with five scores, and caught 42 passes for 264 yards. In a 34-31 overtime win in Week 12 over Gruden's Oakland Raiders, Pittman rushed for 78 yards on 18 carries (4.3 avg.), and had a 42-yard touchdown run. He also hauled in four catches for 17 yards.

Pittman isn't as elusive as Dunn is, but he is fast, and a better inside runner who can break tackles, which was never Dunn's strong suit. He could be another Priest Holmes, who was last year's league-leading rusher after coming to Kansas City from an uneventful career in Baltimore. Combine Pittman with Aaron Stecker, Mike Alstott and a running back from this year's NFL Draft and the Bucs suddenly have an inspiring backfield.

2. Some of you may be scratching your heads over the signing of tight end Marco Battaglia and the re-signing of cornerback Brian Kelly. We've got some inside scoop that may help you rest easy, or at least see the team's point of view for the transactions. Let's start with Battaglia.

He had a stellar college career playing for Rutgers and was one of the best pass catching tight ends to come out of the 1996 NFL Draft. Battaglia couldn't crack into the starting lineup behind stalwart Tony McGee, who is a productive fan favorite in Cincinnati like Dave Moore was in Tampa Bay. By the time quarterback Jeff Blake was out of Cincinnati, rookie Akili Smith was in and the passing game -- and Battaglia's career -- headed south in a hurry.

The Bengals' aerial attack is still floundering under Jon Kitna and it is safe to say that Battaglia was underused in Cincy. He went to Washington during midseason and never really got a chance to learn the offense and develop a rhythm with the quarterbacks. Hence his lack of production there.

The Bucs feel that Battaglia's hands and work ethic are on par with Moore's, but that he brings more speed and athleticism to the table. He's also about four years younger. Moore is a better blocker, but Battaglia will give a workmanlike effort. His contract of three years for $3 million isn't that outrageous compared to the deals garnered by Stephen Alexander (San Diego) and Freddie Jones (Arizona), and it's likely backloaded.

Battaglia's signing means the team will end discussions with Ken Dilger and won't travel down the negotiating path with Shannon Sharpe. Battaglia will join Todd Yoder, Mike Roberg and Damien Vaughn in the tight end mix. The team will also likely spend a draft pick on the tight end spot, a position which is deep in this year's draft. He's not a bad fit, just not a big name.

Now let's talk about Kelly. Sure he lacks the ball skills that Donnie Abraham had, and always seems to be an inch away from making plays, but given the few reasonable options in free agency at the cornerback position -- Artrell Hawkins (Cincinnati), DeShea Townsend (Pittsburgh) and Corey Chavous (Arizona) -- he was the best suited corner for the Bucs at the right price. The Bucs already made it clear they couldn't afford Abraham, and weren't in the market for the pricey Duane Starks (Arizona) or Walt Harris (Indianapolis), either.

Now six years for $15 million seems like a lot, but there's a good chance that most of the money is backloaded. We're working to get salary cap numbers and will post them on BucMag.com when we find them. Kelly, who pushed his way into the starting lineup this year for the first time, only received a $2.5 million signing bonus, which means the Bucs won't be locked into him for all six years if he doesn't pan out. And by pan out we me that he doesn't continue to grow and improve as a player.

But the Bucs think that Kelly made some serious strides in 2001 and that he could be poised for a breakout year much like Ronde Barber had this past season. Barber only recorded six interceptions from 1997-2000, but set a franchise record and led the league with 10 picks in 2001. Kelly only has four career interceptions, including one in the playoffs, since he was drafted by Tampa Bay in the second round in 1998. He has only had one interception in the last 34 games, including two postseason contests, and didn't have a pick last year.

Is this a gamble by the Bucs? Absolutely, but remember they have a ballhawk in waiting in second-year player Dwight Smith, who will likely fill the nickel back role this season. Tampa Bay plays a lot of nickel defense, so Smith should get plenty of playing time and experience this year.

The loss of Abraham will sting, but if Smith develops quickly as expected, and Kelly can get his fingers on a few errant passes, the trio of Barber, Kelly and Smith could be a formidable one. A big key is Kelly creating more turnovers himself.

3. As Buccaneer Magazine first reported on March 14, Germane Crowell visited One Buc Place last Friday and had a great visit, according to our insiders. The Bucs are interested in Crowell, but they are trying to sort through the medical reports regarding the speedy, 6-foot-3 receiver. Crowell missed half of the 2000 season after breaking a bone in his foot. Last year, he missed most of the 2001 season after rupturing his patella tendon.

The Bucs are also trying to figure out his market value. With a slew of talented receivers in free agency this year, including Qadry Ismail, who signed with Indianapolis, Donald Hayes, who signed with New England, and Terance Mathis and Jerome Pathon who are still available, the market is slowing setting itself. Crowell could command a salary similar to Ismail's, which is a three-year deal worth $4 million and includes a $1.25 million signing bonus and a nice incentive package. Even though Crowell is younger, bigger and has more athletic ability than Ismail, his recent injuries could rob him of some bargaining power.

The Bucs are also hot on the trail of Crowell's Lions teammate, Johnnie Morton, who will visit One Buccaneer Place on Friday. Morton (6-foot, 190) has been one of the more productive receivers in the NFL over the past couple of seasons and has caught 469 passes for 6499 yards with 35 career touchdowns.

Morton also has 17 career plays of over 40 yards, including 10 over the past three seasons. He recorded his fourth 1,000-yard receiving season last year for lowly Detroit, hauling in 77 catches for 1,154 yards and four scores. The speedy, shifty Morton would make an ideal compliment for Keyshawn Johnson. Both played at the University of Southern California.

Morton will command significantly more than Crowell due to his productivity and durability, and the Bucs will have an interesting decision to make. Take the bigger, riskier and perhaps less expensive Crowell, or take the smaller, proven, polished and more expensive Morton?

And don't be surprised if free agent Michael Westbrook (Washington) enters the mix, too. Westbrook has had his share of injuries and perhaps a few character issues, but has a nice blend of size (6-foot-3, 220) and speed.

With the signings of receivers like Jacquez Green, Reidel Anthony and Chris Doering to go along with Rod Gardner and Kevin Lockett, the Redskins may not have room for another pricey receiver. Rumor has it that the Jacksonville Jaguars will release Keenan McCardell after June 1, which could present another option for Tampa Bay. Stay tuned.

4. I'm not the only one who criticized Atlanta for overpaying former Tampa Bay running back Warrick Dunn to acquire his services. Recent on-line publishings from Peter King (CNNSI.com), Joel Buchsbaum (ProFootballWeekly.com) and Pete Prisco (CBSSportsline.com) also agree with the stance I've taken. Dunn is a situational back, not a feature back who can handle 20 touches per contest over a 16-game schedule.

But I will say this about Falcons' interest in Dunn, who is probably more of a threat as a receiver out of the backfield than as a true tailback, with second-year quarterback Michael Vick taking over next year, Vick is bound to go through his share of growing pains and will need a safety valve to check off to with regularity. That's where Dunn comes in.

Expect Vick to look for his primary receiver first, and then to Dunn if that receiver is covered. It will take the unpolished Vick a couple of seasons to be able to go through all of his reads and progressions. Dunn could wind up with over 80 catches next year, and I expect that he'll lead the team in catches, especially due to the fact that Atlanta doesn't have any major threats at the receiver position right now.

If Coach Dan Reeves is wise, he'll take advantage of his new speedy backfield and will install an option play between Vick and Dunn near the goal line. Also, implementing a halfback throw back pass from Dunn, who was a high school quarterback, to Vick, one of the league's fastest players, would be daring, yet highly effective. Dunn threw several touchdown passes from the halfback pass play at Florida State. It's a shame that Mike Shula, Les Steckel and Clyde Christensen couldn't have been that creative.

5. Just in case you missed it, Buccaneer Magazine has the tender offers for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' restricted and exclusive rights free agents. Free safety Dexter Jackson was tendered a one-year deal at $563,000 with a fourth-round draft pick as compensation if another team signs him to an offer sheet. Jackson, who became the Bucs' starter last season, was drafted in the fourth round of the 1999 Draft.

Jackson's other '99 draftmates are either still under contract -- nose tackle Anthony McFarland's rookie contract expires in 2004 and quarterback Shaun King's rookie contract expires in 2003 -- or have already signed a long-term contract extension, as kicker Martin Gramatica did.

Fullback Charles Kirby, who was not drafted by the Bucs, was not offered a contract. Kirby spent the entire 2001 season on injured reserve with a knee injury and is now an unrestricted free agent.

The Bucs' exclusive rights free agents were all tendered one-year deals: RB Aaron Stecker ($375,000), TE Todd Yoder ($375,000), OT DeMarcus Curry ($375,000) and OT Kendall Mack ($300,000).

Neither Jackson, nor Tampa Bay's exclusive rights free agents have signed their offer sheets yet. That typically occurs later in the spring as mini-camp approaches.

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