Here's five things that caught my interest this week:
1. Who would the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have drafted had they held on to their 2002 first-round draft pick? The Bucs would have likely tried to moved up from their 21st slot to select Colorado tight end Daniel Graham. Buccaneer Magazine has Graham going to the Seattle Seahawks at the No. 20 slot in our mock draft. While he could still be available at No. 21, there is no guarantee.
Graham was a top performer at the Senior Bowl and played for Seattle head coach Mike Holmgren on the North squad. The Bucs scouting staff paid an awful lot of attention to the 6-foot-3, 248-pounder at the Senior Bowl and the Indianapolis Scouting Combine.
Graham was a three-year starter for the Buffaloes and won the Mackey Award as college football's top tight end in 2001 with 51 catches for 753 yards and 6 scores. One of his bigger games this year came against Kansas State, my alma mater, when Graham dominated the Wildcats in Colorado's win at K-State this year with a couple of long catches, including an amazing, juggling one-handed touchdown catch. I was a Graham fan before that game, but that performance prompted me to write about him in my Buccaneer Blitz column last fall.
If the Bucs somehow obtain a first-round draft pick through a trade, look for them to target Graham, or potentially Miami tight end Jeremy Shockey if Graham's gone, with that selection. The Bucs' brass has had their eye on Graham for some time, even before hiring Coach Jon Gruden. But Gruden's offense will feature the tight end more than any other Bucs offense since the days of Sam Wyche, and Graham would be a perfect fit.
Tampa Bay liked Arizona State tight end Todd Heap, who was drafted by Baltimore last year, and feels that Graham is a much better athlete than Heap is.
One last tight end note, the Bucs were not that interested in signing Pro Bowler Shannon Sharpe, contrary to what several national media members suggested earlier in free agency. The personnel department feels that his skills have deteriorated and his best days are clearly behind him.
2. So what if the Bucs can't do any wheeling and dealing on draft day and are stuck with only one selection in the third round on the first day of the draft? What are the team's greatest needs, and whom will they select? The Buccaneer Magazine Pre-Draft Issue was published on April 8 and here's a sneak preview of the offensive skill players the Bucs are looking at. I'll preview the defensive prospects in next week's column.
This will be an offensive draft for the Buccaneers as Gruden has just begun reconstructing the offense. Armed with eight picks in this year's draft, including three seventh-round compensatory picks, the Bucs could use as many as five of those selections for the offensive side of the ball. Tampa Bay would like to come out of this draft with another receiver, a tight end, a running back and an offensive tackle for depth and to push Jerry Wunsch.
Expect the Bucs' first pick to be either a receiver, running back or a linebacker. With 6-foot-4 Keyshawn Johnson and the recently signed 6-foot-5 Joe Jurevicius, the Bucs have a tall one-two punch, but they still may not have found the ideal No. 2 receiver to line up opposite Johnson. Tampa Bay may not be able to find that player in the third round of the draft, either. Look for the search for a No. 2 receiver to continue into the summer when Jacksonville's Keenan McCardell and Kansas City's Derrick Alexander will become available.
But the Bucs should still be able to draft a talented receiver in the third round. With big receivers like Johnson, Jurevicius and Milton Wynn, Tampa Bay will likely go after a speed merchant capable of stretching defenses. Veteran Keith Poole was supposed to fill that role, but he has been plagued with hamstring problems in his career and tweaked his hamstring again at last weekend's mini-camp, which is not a good sign.
The Bucs like Utah's speedy Cliff Russell, but he's likely to be drafted at the end of the second round or the beginning of the third. Tampa Bay also likes Louisville's Deion Branch, who is coming off back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Alabama's Freddie Milons and Indiana's Antwaan Randle El. All three can return punts, which is a glaring need in Tampa Bay.
Branch is likely a third-round pick, but Milons and Randle El are fourth- or fifth-rounders. Milons didn't have a hugely productive career at Alabama, partly due to presence of running back Shaun Alexander and the fact that Alabama didn't have any great quarterbacks to throw him the ball. Milons is an electric player who can be dangerous as a punt returner, slot receiver and a candidate for reverses. The creative Gruden could even line Milons up at quarterback in goal line situations and run the option. Milons also played a little QB at Alabama and was a high school quarterback.
Randle El shows the ability to play wide receiver and could have a productive career in the NFL, following the paths of other players who have made the successive jump from receiver to quarterback such as Hines Ward and Bert Emanuel. He dazzled the scouts at the Senior Bowl with his ability to quickly pick up the receiver position and return punts. He's also got great character traits along the lines of Warrick Dunn. Randle El is a leader and a team player.
Another receiver candidate is Northern Illinois' Darrell Hill. Hill is a 6-foot-2, 200-pound wideout with 4.45 speed. His receiving skills are just starting to develop, and he's still classified as a raw prospect. Gruden drafted an even bigger project in West Virginia receiver Joey Porter, who mostly played safety for the Mountaineers, in the first round in Oakland, so he wouldn't be afraid to take an unfinished product like Hill in the later rounds.
At running back, the Bucs are looking for a potential feature back to back up Michael Pittman. The team likes Tennessee's Travis Stephens and Villanova's Brian Westbrook, but both are only about 5-foot-8 in size. While they are up around 190-195 pounds, which is 10-15 pounds bigger than Dunn, they might be situational players -- not feature back candidates.
Georgia Southern's Adrian Peterson, Oregon's Maurice Morris and Iowa's Ladell Betts are all over 200 pounds and have been productive feature backs in college. These backs are slated to go in the third or fourth round, and all have good hands. Tampa Bay is real high on Peterson, and sees Morris as a nice backup plan.
At tight end, the Bucs really like Oregon's Justin Peelle, Marshall's Gregg Kellett, Michigan State's Chris Baker and Louisiana State's Robert Royal -- all should be selected from the fifth to seventh rounds. With Marco Battaglia and Todd Yoder being primarily receiving tight ends, a solid blocker like Kellett or Royal would be a great fit.
Kellett is a big-time weight lifter, and like Patrick Hape, can line up at tight end, H-back and even fullback. He's not as big as Hape was, but he's not as clumsy in the passing game as Hape was, either. Kellett is not a household name, but he was an All-MAC performer at Marshall.
For more in-depth Bucs draft analysis, get your copy of the big, 40-page Buccaneer Magazine Pre-Draft Issue by calling 1-800-881-BUCS(2827) or stopping by the Authentic Team Merchandise-Buccaneer Heaven store in Tampa at 14823 N. Florida Avenue. There is also plenty of coverage on the latest additions to the Buccaneers as well as a report from mini-camp.
3. The Bucs are still contemplating signing Minnesota's Pro Bowl punter Mitch Berger. Even though Tampa Bay likes punter Tim Morgan, the team feels he is a year away from being ready after his so-so showing at last weekend's mini-camp. Berger's rehab from knee surgery is going well and he should be ready for training camp this summer.
When healthy, his leg is also strong enough to also handle kickoffs. The Bucs ran into a problem against New Orleans last year when kicker Martin Gramatica suffered a leg injury and the team was forced to press safety John Lynch into kickoff duty twice in the second half of Tampa Bay's 48-21 blowout win.
But aside from the fact that the St. Louis Rams are actively pursuing Berger, the deciding factor for the Bucs when it comes to signing or not signing Berger could be his personality. Tampa Bay has made a long-term commitment to Gramatica and wants to pair him with a punter whom he feels comfortable with.
The relationship between a kicker and a punter is vital to the success of a club's special teams unit. While the offense and defense practice for hours a day and attend meetings, the kicker and punter are often left alone to work out by themselves on the field and in the weight room. Berger is known to be quite a talker and the Bucs' personnel staff is a bit wary that his gregariousness might cause him to wear out his welcome with Gramatica and others in the locker room. Tampa Bay is still weighing Berger's pros and cons.
Former Bucs punter Mark Royals was a great friend and influence to Gramatica, and his veteran experience holding for placements and working with dozens of kickers around the league throughout his years in the NFL served Tampa Bay's young kicker well. Gramatica wants Royals back, and the Bucs are said to have some interest in re-signing him as it gets closer to training camp if he hasn't signed with another team. But right now the Bucs are weighing all of their options, and those include Berger.
4. One of the more impressive coaches at last weekend's mini-camp was wide receivers coach Richard Mann. The receivers received plenty of attention from Jon Gruden and Mann as one of the Bucs' biggest offseason goals is to try to find a No. 2 wideout to play opposite Keyshawn Johnson. Mann exudes confidence and experience, and young receivers such as Frank Murphy and Milton Wynn are singing his praises.
Both Murphy and Wynn say that they liked last year's receivers coach, Charlie Williams, as a person, but that he just didn't have the experience to really develop them. Murphy and Wynn have been impressed with Mann's teaching of the fundamentals and the new drills they are doing to work on their release off the line, and a "dragging toe" drill that simulates catching the ball near the sidelines or the end zone and stresses keeping both feet in bounds at the time the catch is made.
Mann was Johnson's receivers coach in New York when he entered the league in 1996, so they already have a solid relationship. Mann has been coaching for 33 years, including 21 in the NFL, so he brings a wealth of experience to Tampa Bay.
We'll have more on Mann during the offseason in reports in Buccaneer Magazine and on BucMag.com. Just know for now that Mann is the real deal and will turn the weakest position on the Buccaneers into a strength in no time.
5. Speaking of receivers, the one receiver that really caught my eye at mini-camp was Darryl Daniel, who was on the practice squad last year. He was formerly on Carolina's practice squad after coming out of Syracuse a few years back.
Daniel has impressive hands, route-running ability and release off the line. He doesn't have to "gear down" when he comes in and out of his cuts like Milton Wynn, Eddie Hardaway and Drew O'Connor do. Daniel is a smooth, fluid receiver who glides across the field.
Before you start thinking that Daniel is the Bucs' No. 2 receiver or will even make the team based on my flowery praise, I'll remind you that this was only one mini-camp, and a non-contact one at that. Still, Daniel looks like a slightly bigger, slightly faster version of Karl Williams, who did a lot of the little things extremely well. Daniel has got a fighting chance to make the team as the Bucs' No. 4, No. 5 or No. 6 receiver, depending on how many pass catchers the team will keep.
Daniel, Keyshawn Johnson, Frank Murphy, E.G. Green and Keith Poole all had their bright moments during the mini-camp. I just didn't come away as impressed with newcomers Eddie Hardaway, Jonathan Pittman and Drew O'Connor. But training camp is still four more months away, and the season is still six months away. A lot can -- and will -- happen by then.
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