Here's five things that caught my interest this week:
1. The Buccaneer Magazine staff had an exclusive half-hour conversation with new Bucs head coach Jon Gruden last Thursday at One Buccaneer Place. It was our first one-on-one with Gruden since his arrival in Tampa Bay over a month ago, and I must say that I came away very impressed. Gruden is one intense individual who will never settle for anything but the best when it comes to his football team.
He's a passionate coach who loves talking about football, and we even saw "Chucky" come out when he was talking about how impulsive he is when it comes to acquiring talented players in free agency. When talking about free agent prospects, Gruden's nose crinkled, his eye brows arched up, his face became menacing and he abruptly shouted, "I want that guy, and that guy, and that guy!", pointing around the room at the imaginary free agent players he was thinking of during our discussion. His demeanor went from zero to 60, and "Chucky" was unleashed before Leo Haggerty, Jim Flynn and yours truly knew it.
He wasn't angry, just intense. Let's just say I wouldn't want to be yelled at by Gruden, who can be more intimidating than his 5-foot-9 frame might typically dictate.
But Gruden quickly regained his composure and credited general manager Rich McKay for being experienced enough and patient enough to rein him, and his "sign 'em all" tendencies, in during free agency. Gruden was polite, funny and very informative during our time together. We'll have the question-and-answer session transcribed for use in the Pre-Draft Issue of Buccaneer Magazine, which is shaping up to be a 36-pager full of free agent news, mini-camp coverage and draft previews.
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2. Another observation from our exclusive interview with Gruden, aside from his intensity, was his extreme guilt over the Bucs trading away four draft picks, including their first two this year, to acquire him from the Oakland Raiders.
"I'm real sensitive about that," Gruden said. "I feel terrible about not having those picks, and at the same time, the New England Patriots won a Super Bowl last year, and somebody has to tell me who their first-and second round pick was. They did a great job using the other vehicles in pro football to build a championship team. They brought in numerous free agent players. It's funny, some of these guys we really like are first-round picks and second-round picks, but two or three years later, they're available. All of the sudden, nobody likes them. Some of these guys just need an opportunity. It's easier said than done, but you have to find the right guys that like football and that are willing to come in and work, and that have skill. We're going to find those guys."
The Bucs believe they have found some of those hard-working types, and that's why the team has been on a free agent binge lately. Tight end Marco Battaglia, left guard Kerry Jenkins, running back Michael Pittman and defensive end Greg Spires are some of those players who epitomize what Gruden is looking for. But a guy who fits that description is already on the roster, although he may not be for long.
The team is again shopping fullback Mike Alstott around the league and is attempting to restructure his contract in an effort to trade him. Alstott wants to stay in Tampa, but needs to put on one heck of a performance at the Bucs' first mini-camp, which is April 5-7, to change Gruden's mind. Gruden knows that Alstott is a good ballplayer, but the fullback in Gruden's offense is primarily a blocking back, which is not Alstott's strength. The Bucs' new head coach prefers fleet of foot running backs, which is why he's hesitant to make Alstott, who is more of a plodder, the feature back.
Whether he's traded or released, it seems the Bucs are unwilling to pay more than $1 million at the fullback position, and that's bad news for Alstott, who is scheduled to have a cap value of $4.66 million this season, including a $2 million signing bonus. A few years ago, the Bucs thought nothing of paying middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson around $4 million per year. But after refusing to match Jacksonville's offer, they let the aging Nickerson leave via free agency.
Jamie Duncan filled in at middle linebacker for $500,000 in 2000, and $1 million last season. The Bucs let him go chase the big money in St. Louis this offseason, knowing that cheaper alternatives were already on the roster in Nate Webster ($481,333) and Shelton Quarles ($1 million). The Bucs just don't pay big money at that position anymore. They also have never shelled out big money for guards, free safeties or strongside linebackers, or tight ends such Jackie Harris, either. Now it looks like the Bucs are unwilling to pay fullbacks a king's ransom, too.
Which brings us back to Gruden's guilt about losing two draft picks this year and the Bucs' efforts to re-claim them. The Bucs rely on their draft picks to step up and play in the second or third year of their rookie contracts so they can essentially be cheap labor. Warrick Dunn was the starting tailback since his rookie season in 1997 and played six years on his rookie contract, which never paid him more than $2 million per season. That's a steal for the Bucs.
The Bucs have hit and missed on their first-round picks, but they have typically hit home runs on their second-round picks over the last five or six years. That's why they'd love to get a second-round pick for Alstott.
3. One of the things our staff came away with from meeting with Gruden is his desire to have fast playmakers at all of the offensive skill positions, including quarterback. The Buc Mag staff asked Gruden three questions pertaining to the Tampa Bay quarterbacks and Brad Johnson's name didn't come up once. Honest.
Gruden raved about Rob Johnson, who I think will be his starter when the season rolls around, and also talked glowingly about Shaun King. I'm not sure Brad Johnson is tradeable due to the salary cap hit the Bucs would take with four years left on his five-year deal, but if Gruden doesn't come away impressed with Tampa Bay's starting quarterback last year, he could be a June 1 cap casualty. That's not coming from Gruden's mouth, that's just my guess.
Rob Johnson is Gruden's guy. The other three quarterbacks are guys he inherited. Joe Hamilton is just an afterthought. He was smart to head off to NFL Europe so he can audition for the league's other 31 teams. But Rob Johnson brings mobility and scrambling ability to Tampa Bay. Granted he took an awful lot of sacks due to his indecisiveness and big hits behind a porous offensive line, but Gruden likes the fact that Johnson, if he plays smarter, can get yardage with his arm or his feet.
"He didn't get a huge signing bonus," Gruden said of Rob Johnson. "He came here because he wanted be in this type of system. The guy is a (61) percent career passer. He's 6-foot-4, he's got mobility, he's got a quick, strong, accurate arm, and we're going to start grinding on him on (March 25) and try to put him in a situation where he can spread his wings and take off."
The need for speed also translated into several other Buccaneers transactions during free agency. Battaglia is a faster, more athletic tight end than Dave Moore was.
"We need the tight end to be a force as a pass receiver in certain situations," Gruden said. "We need yards after the catch. We need a guy that can jump on a cushion and get on top of people."
Pittman brings speed and tackle-breaking ability to the offense. The Bucs view him as a Priest Holmes-type back who flourished in Kansas City last year and led the league in rushing with 1,555 yards after having only one overly productive season out of three with Baltimore. If you recall last week's SR's Fab Five, I campaigned hard for Pittman, so I'm glad they got him.
Tampa Bay also signed running back Byron Hanspard to bring more speed to the backfield and also to the special teams unit where he can be a threat on kickoffs. That's also why the Bucs are trying real hard to land running back/punt returner David Allen, but the Vikings are putting up a big fight to try to land him. More on Allen below.
Tampa Bay is interested in wide receiver Johnnie Morton because he is a bit of a speed merchant, even at age 30. Morton has contributed 17 plays over 40 yards in his Lions career, including 10 plays of over 40 yards within the past three seasons. The Bucs' longest play last year was a 47-yard catch-and-run by Keyshawn Johnson against the Chicago Bears, and unfortunately, he fumbled at the end of that play.
Expect the Bucs to draft some speedy running backs, receivers and tight ends, too. More on the draft next week. And they will be bringing in some league minimum-type receivers this week for workouts, too. We're working on getting their names.
4. As I just mentioned, the Bucs are trying to sign Allen, who has kick return potential, but his 4.46 speed could really be used on returning punts. He ran that sensational time at the Kansas State pro day workout on March 11 even though he was a senior two years ago for the Wildcats.
I've seen Allen play a lot at K-State and he would be a fine addition. There's not much homerism in my opinion on him, either. There are plenty of K-Staters who stink and don't deserve to be on pro teams, but this guy could be a very effective punt returner and play a little third down back in a pinch.
Minnesota is offering twice the signing bonus as Tampa Bay and is offering more incentives. While Tampa Bay is pitching the state of Florida's lack of income tax as well as the probability of receiving playoff bonus money, which he likely wouldn't get in Minnesota this season.
Tampa Bay is also pitching the fact that two of his former K-State teammates, kicker Martin Gramatica and receiver Frank Murphy, are Buccaneers, and that the team has been very Wildcat friendly over the years by drafting Darnell McDonald in 1999 and signing running back Eric Hickson as a free agent that spring.
5. Unlike the last couple of seasons, the Bucs aren't paying extraordinary amounts to their free agents. There haven't been any signings that rank up there with Keyshawn Johnson, Brad Johnson or Jeff Christy. Johnnie Morton may wind up getting a rather large contract, but for the most part the Bucs are looking for mid-priced free agents like Battaglia, Jenkins and Pittman, and are bottom feeding for players like Hanspard and Allen.
That bottom feeding will likely continue well into the summer as Gruden re-shapes the Bucs roster. The second wave of free agency, which will occur after roster cuts after June 1, could very well free up a couple of potential Buccaneers who will be just lucky to sign on with Tampa Bay for a contract that hovers around the league minimum.
"We might not be done until June 20th or June 30th. We're not going to jump all over the first nibble we get," Gruden said. "We're going to do a good job of researching, and Rich McKay is extraordinary there in terms of making calculated decisions."
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