Here's five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. I recently asked some members of the Bucs' brass if there was anything that really surprised them about new coach Jon Gruden since his arrival in Tampa almost three months ago. The biggest surprise? His ability to recruit free agents.
Now after watching Gruden lure the likes of Trace Armstrong and Jerry Rice to Oakland after having successful careers in Miami and San Francisco, respectively, it came as no shock that Gruden was a good recruiter in free agency. But the Bucs didn't realize that he was, in fact, a great recruiter.
Tampa Bay had plenty of holes to fill with the free agency departures of running back Warrick Dunn, tight end Dave Moore and receiver Jacquez Green, among others. But the amount -- and quality -- of free agents that Gruden has lured to Florida's Gulf Coast this spring has astounded front office personnel. Keep in mind that the Bucs didn't enter free agency armed with $10 million in spending cash to just buy, buy, buy players.
Tampa Bay had to work within the constraints of a budget this offseason, and asked several players, including tight end Ken Dilger, receiver Joe Jurevicius, quarterback Rob Johnson, left guard Kerry Jenkins and running back Michael Pittman to take a little less than market value for their services to become a Buccaneer. They did -- for Gruden.
Tampa Bay's free agent class of 2002 was heavy on the offensive side, and for good reason. The Bucs offense had never finished higher than 21st in the league rankings under the Tony Dungy regime (1996-2001). Truthfully, the Bucs had a hard time recruiting free agents to play for Tampa's offense in the past. With the exception of players like receiver Alvin Harper and running back Reggie Brooks, almost all of Dungy's offensive skill position players were draft picks during his tenure. The Bucs had to overpay for receiver Bert Emanuel in 1998, but he turned out to be a bust soon upon his arrival.
Dungy did lure quarterback Brad Johnson and offensive linemen Jeff Christy and Randall McDaniel to Tampa, but only from his ties to the Minnesota Vikings. All three played for the Vikes when Dungy was the team's defensive coordinator. Dungy was successful in luring defensive free agents such as linebacker Rufus Porter, safety Charles Mincy and defensive end Simeon Rice, but could not overcome the stigma about his conservative offense to lure elite offensive free agents.
This is no slam on Dungy. His approach ultimately worked and brought the Bucs to respectability, made them a playoff contender and established the foundation upon which Gruden plans to build a championship team. But free agents on the offensive side of the ball once avoided Tampa Bay like the plague, fearing that they would not put up significant numbers and that their career would die in Tampa, just as Harper's and Emanuel's had. But under Gruden, offensive players seem to be lining up to play for the young, charismatic head coach with a proven, prolific offensive system. Tampa Bay just isn't known for defense any more.
FAB 2. Tight end Marco Battaglia is my darkhorse this year. I think his production will surprise fans and go beyond their expectations. The perception is that Battaglia has been a bust in the NFL since being selected in the second round of the 1996 draft by the Cincinnati Bengals. Here's the reality, starting with a little history.
Battaglia had a stand-out career at Rutgers University from 1992-95 and left as the school's all-time receptions leader with 171 catches. His 2,221 career receiving yards ranks second in school history -- only 48 yards away from the top of the charts. Battaglia complied a record seven 100-yard receiving games for the Scarlet Knights, most of them coming against the likes of Big East foes Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College.
His finest hour came against national champion Penn State when he hauled in a record 13 catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns in a 59-34 loss at Giants Stadium in 1995. Battaglia's current Buc teammate, receiver Joe Jurevicius, had three catches for 35 yards for the Nittany Lions in that game.
Another standout game in Battaglia's collegiate career came against the Shaun King-led Tulane Green Wave in 1995. Battaglia had eight catches for 102 yards, and caught two touchdowns from quarterback Ray Lucas in the Scarlet Knights' 45-40 win at Tulane. King was 23-of-47 for 372 yards in defeat with two TD passes, one interception and one touchdown run.
Battaglia was an honorable mention All-American as a junior in 1994, catching 58 passes for 779 yards and four touchdowns. As a senior, he was a unanimous first-team All-American, grabbing 69 passes for 894 yards and 10 touchdowns -- all Rutgers' single-season records.
Battaglia wouldn't find the same level of success in Cincinnati where he and the team's others receivers and tight ends were hampered by the Bengals' never-ending problems at the quarterback position. Battaglia lined up with six different quarterbacks in Cincy over a span of six years -- Jeff Blake, Neil O'Donnell, Akili Smith, Scott Covington, Scott Mitchell and Jon Kitna. Battaglia couldn't beat out the coaches' favorite, veteran Tony McGee, for the starting spot for political reasons, and the fact that the two-tight end was seldom used by the Bengals drastically hurt his production.
Bengals quarterbacks rarely threw to the tight end anyways. McGee's best year while Battaglia was on the squad came in 1996 when he only caught 38 passes for 448 yards and four touchdowns. After six years in Cincy, Battaglia was released, followed by McGee, and the team started over at the position in 2002 with the unproven Sean Brewer and rookie Matt Schoebel. As a Bengal, Battaglia played in 91 games with 11 starts. He caught 71 passes for 660 yards and two touchdowns.
So why will Battaglia be successful in Tampa Bay after failing to make an impact in Cincinnati after an illustrious college career? Three reasons. The first of which is the fact that the Bucs will use a lot of two-tight end sets. I'm not projecting Battaglia will win the starting tight end spot. I believe Ken Dilger will, based on his credentials right now, and his performance in training camp later. Battaglia, who may be quicker than Dilger and has just as good a set of hands, will make it a close race in August, though. Even if Battaglia is the number two tight end, he'll still have the opportunity to catch 20-30 passes out of the two-tight end set.
The second reason is that teams will be keying on Dilger, who is coming off a Pro Bowl season. He's the known threat, while Battaglia has a chance to sneak up on defenses. While teams are keying on Dilger, Battaglia has a great opportunity to burst on the scene this year.
The third reason is that Battaglia will usually be the weakside tight end in the team's two-tight end set. With top receiver Keyshawn Johnson also playing on the weak side, teams will more likely key on Johnson than Battaglia. If Battaglia begins to catch fire by mid-season, that will greatly limit the double-team opportunities for the defense on Johnson because Battaglia has now emerged as a threat. Then Johnson becomes more effective.
Don't get me wrong. Battaglia won't be a Pro Bowl tight end in Tampa. But he will play more like the Rutgers version than the Cincinnati version, thanks to Gruden's tight end-friendly system. And all of those people who moaned when the Bucs replaced fan favorite Dave Moore with Battaglia, who is a better pass-catcher and a better athlete, will then have something to think about.
FAB 3. Sure the media is making a big deal out of the fact that the Bucs now field the largest receiving corps in the NFL thanks to the one-two-three punch of 6-foot-4 Keyshawn Johnson, 6-foot-5 Joe Jurevicius and 6-foot-3 Marquise Walker. Heck, Buccaneer Magazine even dubbed the trio the "Triple Towers" on the cover of its Post-Draft Issue.
The obvious emphasis for having bigger receivers is creating size mismatches in the secondary and jump-ball scenarios in the end zone. But Gruden and Bucs management isn't entirely focused on the passing game when it comes to its big wideouts. Gruden likes having size on the perimeter in the running game, and after seeing the awesome job Johnson has done in the run blocking area since his arrival in 2000, general manager Rich McKay has to agree with Tampa Bay's new head coach.
Smallish Bucs receivers such as Karl Williams and Jacquez Green would try to block cornerbacks to allow Tampa Bay running backs to turn the corner and head upfield for big plays, but just didn't have the might. With the size of cornerbacks growing around the league in an effort to keep up with the new breed of taller receivers, Green and Williams would often be overmatched on the perimeter. Lazy receiver Reidel Anthony rarely tried to block, and lacked the foundation for blocking because that was hardly emphasized at the University of Florida.
The Bucs' running game suffered because of poor blocking by the receivers last year, with Johnson usually being the exception. Tampa Bay's longest run from scrimmage last year was Mike Alstott's 39-yard touchdown ramble against Green Bay. And it was no surprise that it was Johnson who was leading the convoy.
Under offensive coordinator Les Steckel, the run blocking by the receiving corps was emphasized in training camp and in mini-camp back in 2000. But when he was replaced by Clyde Christensen last year, run blocking wasn't emphasized nearly as much, and it showed on the field.
New receivers coach Richard Mann has spent some time in mini-camp working on run blocking, but is expected to hone in on it during training camp when the team dons pads and is allowed to have contact. Gruden and Mann expect Johnson to be joined by Jurevicius, Walker and others in creating more convoys to the end zone this year.
FAB 4. After reflecting on the Bucs' punting situation this offseason, I've come to one conclusion -- it's been a stupid situation. The team knew what it had in punter Mark Royals, who was capable of having a better year than he had last season if not for a badly sprained knee in the preseason. Still, Royals came through with some clutch kicks last season, and set a team single-season record with 26 punts downed inside opponents' 20-yard line.
This placement punting lowered his season averages to 40.7 (gross) and 34.2 (net), but Royals has never been a "stats" guy. He's always had a team-first approach and would kick a 29-yard punt if it helped the team. Royals, like new veteran punter Tom Tupa, is entering his 14th season in the league. When players get that old, there is no telling when their skills will fall off the deep end. Is this the year for Royals? Is this the year for Tupa?
Sure, Tampa Bay has other punters in camp, including David Leaverton, Mike Abrams and Tim Morgan, whom the team likes in terms of potential, but it's always wise to go with a veteran, especially for a team that has Super Bowl aspirations. That's why letting Royals go to Miami was so puzzling. As the team's steady holder, Royals already had the rapport with kicker Martin Gramatica, and was a well-liked player in the locker room. He was voted as the team's player representative who reported to the NFL Players' Association during his stay in Tampa.
The reason he's a Dolphin instead of Buc right now is because of how he was treated by Tampa Bay's front office. Royals, who was a free agent this spring, didn't have any wild contract demands up his sleeve, he just wanted to know where he would be playing this season. The Bucs told him to wait, and said they would consider signing him later in free agency. But hey, there are no guarantees. What if the Bucs opted to sign another punter as training camp drew closer? That is the team's prerogative, after all. Free agency is a two-way street. Royals would be left scrambling for a team as August draws near, after punters such as Matt Turk, Mitch Berger and Tupa claimed other starting jobs.
Much like his predecessor, Tommy Barnhardt, did in the spring of 1999, Royals didn't feel wanted by the Bucs. And those damn Dolphins kept calling him every day. They wanted him.
I can't blame Royals for going to Miami, just as I couldn't blame the trusty Barnhardt for leaving for New Orleans a few years back under the same circumstance. There is something to be said about having job security. Let's just hope that Tupa can be as an effective replacement for Royals as Royals was for Barnhardt.
FAB 5. Tampa Bay Pro Bowl defensive tackle Warren Sapp was seen shopping at the Authentic Team Merchandise-Buccaneer Heaven store in Tampa this week. In street clothes he looked fantastic, weighing close to or perhaps even under 300 pounds. He's lean and in shape. Sapp has spent the spring vigorously rehabbing a shoulder which had a torn rotator cuff all of last year.
Sapp never used the injury as an excuse and didn't even mention it last year to the media. If his shoulder ever showed up on the weekly injury report, it was listed as a shoulder sprain, which didn't come close to describing the amount of pain he must have played through. At times Sapp likely played with the use of one arm, which had a direct effect on his sack total, which dipped from 16.5 in 2000 to only six last season.
If you are looking for a comeback player of the year, look no further than No. 99. He needs to back off the sack record talk this year, but he could come close to his franchise-record 16.5 sacks from two years ago, especially with opponents being forced to pay attention to Simeon Rice after his 13-sack season, including two QB takedowns in the playoffs.
Sapp has been quiet this offseason, hardly talking to the media. He's let his actions do his talking. He's in shape, he's ultra-intense on the sidelines during mini-camp practices, and he, like every defensive player, loves what new head coach Jon Gruden has done with the Bucs' offense. Expect a big year from the Sapp daddy.
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