LOOKING OUTSIDE OF FLORIDA The Tampa Bay Buccaneers raided the Southeastern Conference of its players in this year's NFL Draft, but Florida Gators were not any of the players taken by the Pewter Pirates.
What's so significant about that? Well, it was the first time since 1989 that Tampa Bay did not select at least one college player from the state of Florida.
Half of Tampa Bay's eight draft picks this year came from the Southeastern Conference. Tampa Bay drafted running back Travis Stephens out of the University of Tennessee in the third round on Sunday. The Bucs landed two Georgia Bulldogs when they selected safety Jermaine Phillips in the fifth round and cornerback Tim Wansley in the seventh round. And Tampa Bay's sixth round pick, defensive John Stamper, is a South Carolina alum.
So, what does Tampa Bay's coaching staff like about SEC players?
"The SEC is a very good measuring stick in terms of evaluating players," said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. "Travis Stephens is another SEC player as is as is Stamper from South Carolina. They've been lining up against Florida with multiple receivers, LSU has a pro-style passing game. So, you get a chance to really get a good, clean evaluation of these players. We just like the SEC, just like every other scout I know. It's big-time football. Not to diminish any of the other conferences, but those guys stood out in our opinions."
Speaking of Phillips, we have some interesting insight on which safety position he will groom at in Tampa Bay's defensive scheme. While Phillips played the strong safety position during his senior year at Georgia, the Bucs plan on having him compete at the free safety position. Starting FS Dexter Jackson is entering the last year of his contract, and there's no guarantee the Bucs will re-sign him after the 2002 season concludes. Tampa Bay drafted FS John Howell last season, and while he's expected to compete with Jackson for the starting job, he's still a young and unproven player.
"Jermaine Phillips is a big safety-man at the University of Georgia," said Gruden. "He's a guy who went to the school as a receiver. He really caught our eye at the Senior Bowl with his workouts. Very intriguing prospect and he'll start his career at the free safety position here in Tampa but we're excited to add another very good prospect to our team."
TRADING PLACES? Yes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers parted ways with a No. 1 and No. 2 draft pick this year in exchange for head coach Jon Gruden, but this marked the first time in the (general manager) Rich McKay era that Tampa Bay didn't trade for a pick or player.
McKay has been known for wheeling and dealing around and/or during the draft, but without those two draft picks, Tampa Bay could not do much in terms of moving players or draft picks this year.
STILL LOOKING FOR LINEBACKERS Tampa Bay addressed a lot of positions in this year's draft, but they didn't address the linebacker position. Why?
"Yes, we are targeting that position (linebacker)," said Gruden. "It wasn't a particularly strong year in terms of the linebacking position. Things go in cycles and we're going to add some interesting prospects I do believe here. We're in the process of getting that done. Free agency is not done yet. We do feel good about the starting linebackers we have here. The Quarles move to middle linebacker is going well. We really like Al Singleton. I'm told Derrick Brooks is a pretty good football player. We're going to keep him around."
Look for Tampa Bay to sign a couple of undrafted free agent linebackers within the next 24 hours. A couple of possibilities are University of Texas middle linebacker D.D. Lewis and Louisiana State middle linebacker Trev Faulk.
"We're not done there (addressing the linebacker position)," said Gruden. "We're going to add some players and part of the addition will come in free agency later on this (evening)."
WHERE DOES STEPHENS FIT IN? Tampa Bay has targeted bigger and more physical players on offense since Grumman's arrival, but the Bucs got away from that profile when they drafted Tennessee running back Travis Stephens in the fourth round on Sunday.
Stephens' 5-foot-8, 194-pound frame reminds some of former Tampa Bay running back Warrick Dunn. But Gruden and Co. drafted Stephens as a change-of-pace back and he reminds them of Oakland RB Charlie Garner. After all, he does not fit the profile of Tampa Bay running backs Mike Alstott (6-1, 248) and Michael Pittman (6-0, 218), who are both much bigger backs. Despite Stephens' smaller size, Gruden feels he'll fit into his offense nicely.
"This (Stephens) is a very intelligent football player," said Gruden. "He's a physical back for a man of his size. He's got real good stop-and-start quickness. He's a different kind of runner that we have in our house right now and we're happy to have him. This guy runs with power and he runs with style in terms of making people miss."
HINT, HINT? Who says seventh round draft picks are insignificant? When Tampa Bay drafted Stanford center Zack Quaccia (6-4, 309), the Bucs might have been doing more than adding depth to their offensive line. If Quaccia can come along quickly and earn a spot on the practice squad for a year, Tampa Bay could opt to part ways with veteran center Jeff Christy in 2003.
Christy (6-3, 285), who is under contract with the Bucs for three more seasons, does not have the ideal size that Tampa Bay's offensive line is taking. The Bucs are putting together a bigger and more physical offensive line, and while Quaccia fits this mold, Christy does not. Christy has, however, been named to three Pro Bowls (1998-2000).
The player that really plays into this equation the most is center/guard Todd Washington. He re-signed with the Bucs on March 15. Washington's four-year deal worth $6 million would certainly suggest Tampa Bay is counting on Washington (6-3, 324) to compete for the starting position this season and next. If Washington can pick up Gruden's offense quickly and Quaccia can progress enough to make the Bucs feel comfortable with him as a back-up next season, Tampa Bay could possibly consider releasing or trading Christy next season.
The Buccaneers will spend the next 24-48 hours signing undrafted free agents. Tampa Bay will hold its second mini-camp this weekend (April 26-28), where tight end Ken Dilger, wide receiver Joe Jurevicius and all of the team's draft selections will make their debut as Pewter Pirates.
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