SR's Fab Five

May 29 - We'll look at who the Bucs are pursuing at the WR and LB spots after June 1. Is LB Hardy Nickerson on the Bucs' wish list and what's the latest on Nate Webster's role? Will the Bucs go after Derrick Alexander, Keenan McCardell or Antonio Freeman? Is QB Joe Hamilton overrated? And what will happen now that Hamilton is injured? Plus, the latest news on DE Simeon Rice, DT Mike Mackenzie and DE Ron Warner. Don't miss this BIG 2,500-word edition with the latest inside Bucs scoop!

SR's Fab Five appears weekly on PewterReport.com
Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
This story is intended to be read only by PewterReport.com Club Insiders only and TheInsiders.com. Sharing of the Club content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.

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

FAB 1. Will the Bucs go after middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson in free agency after June 1? The answer is yes. Although reports have recently surfaced regarding Nickerson's possibly re-signing with the Bucs, PewterReport.com (formerly known as BucMag.com) editor Jim Flynn first discussed the notion way back on April 2 in Flynn's Focus. To read that story, click here:

Nickerson, who left Tampa Bay for a richer, four-year, $17 million contract in Jacksonville in 2000, will be released by the Jaguars after June 1 for salary cap relief. But just because the Bucs want Nickerson doesn't mean that he will necessarily land in Tampa.

Despite his status as a fan favorite, Nickerson has always been about the money -- not winning. He left a Buccaneers team that was six points away from the Super Bowl in the 1999 playoffs to go to an aging Jacksonville team that had already peaked. Although the Bucs have not been the same without him, the Jaguars have floundered over the past two years and have failed to produce a winning record.

Keep in mind that Nickerson also ventured out to the desert to talk to the woeful Arizona Cardinals in the spring of 2000. Signing with Jacksonville is one thing, but even talking to the Cardinals shows that Nickerson has always been about the money. No player who says he's all about winning wants to play in Arizona. Here's a couple of comments from Nickerson after signing with Jacksonville on February 23, 2000:

"Am I sad (about leaving Tampa Bay)? I'm happy," Nickerson said at his initial press conference with the Jaguars. "(Being with Jacksonville) is just awesome. I've really been blessed. The Lord has really been good to me. I'm extremely excited and happy about the way everything has turned out for me. The Jaguars are right at the door of the Super Bowl, and I hope to get there."

Nickerson's re-signing with the Bucs is no slam dunk. Free agency is a two-way street, and with teams like Green Bay and possibly others also interested in his services, Nickerson will probably follow the money. It would be shocking if he turned down more money elsewhere just to sign again with Tampa Bay. The Bucs will make a run at him, but they won't overpay for the 37-year-old linebacker -- just as they didn't in 2000.

If Nickerson turns down more cash elsewhere, then it's a clear sign that he actually wants a ring to end his career. Tampa Bay can be a legitimate Super Bowl contender in the NFC South with Nickerson's presence on defense.

Should Tampa Bay land Nickerson, the Shelton Quarles experiment at middle linebacker would likely be over. Nickerson would definitely be signed as the team's starter, likely moving Quarles back into competition with Al Singleton at the strongside linebacker position. Nate Webster would continue to be the backup at middle linebacker behind Nickerson.

FAB 2. Speaking of Webster, the team might be coming to the conclusion that the former University of Miami star may not be starting material. Webster, who was the Bucs' third-round draft pick in 2000, has failed to win the starting middle linebacker job during his duration in Tampa Bay. Jamie Duncan has been the Bucs' starting "Mike" 'backer since 2000, and this season the team inserted Shelton Quarles, the former starting strongside linebacker, atop the depth chart in the middle of Tampa Bay's linebacking corps ahead of Webster.

At 5-foot-11, 225 pounds, Webster doesn't have the prototypical size to play middle linebacker, even in the Bucs' scheme. Still, despite his lack of size, the team has yet to move him to another position because of his instincts and speed.

But Webster has had problem shedding blocks from larger guards and centers in his limited playing time. Due to his lack of size, offensive linemen can engulf him and neutralize him against the run. But that's not to say that Webster cannot be an effective player. He has logged 85 tackles over his first two pro seasons.

The surprising thing about Webster's game is that he has struggled in pass coverage, which was thought to be one of his strongest attributes coming out of the Hurricanes program. He picked off four passes during his junior year at Miami, but Webster has hardly seen any time in the Bucs' nickel defense. Derrick Brooks and either Duncan or Quarles would typically be deployed by coordinator Monte Kiffin on passing downs.

Not helping matters is that Webster has missed most of the first two mini-camps after having post-season surgery on both shoulders. He is missing valuable on-field time in which he could be proving to coaches that perhaps he could be a legitimate candidate to start at middle linebacker.

Instead, Quarles has been taking the majority of snaps and the team obviously has enough doubts at the position that it will likely sign a veteran middle linebacker to shore up the spot. The fact that the Bucs are even considering adding a middle linebacker after June 1 does not reflect well on Webster's chances of winning the starting job this year or anytime soon.

There are some within the organization who feel that Webster's natural position at the NFL level is in fact weakside linebacker. But Brooks will probably occupy that starting spot until he retires, and he's got a lot of miles left in the tank.

Aside from Nickerson, the Bucs are also contemplating the signing of former Minnesota Vikings middle linebacker Ed McDaniel or possibly Jeff Kelly, formerly of the Atlanta Falcons. Although those players are currently available, Tampa Bay will wait until after June 1 to see who else will be available.

McDaniel may be a good fit because of his ties with Kiffin. Kelly is a young, promising middle linebacker who was drafted out of Kansas State in 1999. He didn't hit it big with the Falcons, who now have a glut of linebackers, but he was a pretty good player in college. As a Wildcat alum, I may be a bit biased, but the Bucs have a proven track record of going after K-State players.

Don't look for the Bucs to be interested in Keith Mitchell, who will be released from New Orleans on June 1. Bucs insiders tell us that Nickerson is currently playing at a higher level than Mitchell is.

Former Florida State middle linebacker Brian Allen also appears out of the mix. The team is shying away from him because he was placed on the expansion draft list by St. Louis after only spending a year with the team. The Rams spent a third-round pick on Allen in 2001. The Texans picked him up but then cut him after signing Allen Aldridge. Being cut from two teams after only playing in the league one year is a bad sign. The Bucs don't even want to go down that path.

FAB 3. Aside from addressing the linebacker position, the Bucs will pursue a veteran wide receiver after June 1. Tampa Bay doesn't want to pay a king's ransom for a No. 2 wide receiver, and with only three tantalizing players available at the position, the prices could be driven up by the likes of Minnesota, Atlanta and Kansas City (if they release Derrick Alexander), who also need a solid veteran receiver.

The main reason the team wants another receiver is for insurance in case if Keyshawn Johnson goes down with an injury. Tampa Bay's Pro Bowl pass catcher has only missed one game since becoming a Buccaneer, and that was the meaningless season finale against Philadelphia last year in which head coach Tony Dungy held out several veteran players for precautionary reasons.

But imagine the Bucs' receiving corps without Johnson for a year. Suddenly, Joe Jurevicius is the No. 1 receiver, rookie Marquise Walker is likely the No. 2, followed by either Frank Murphy, E.G. Green or Karl Williams as the No. 3. That's not a championship receiving corps without Johnson.

The addition of Keenan McCardell, Antonio Freeman or Alexander might not make it championship caliber either without Johnson, but at least it's a more dangerous and experienced group with the addition of one more veteran starter. The team would prefer to have either McCardell or Alexander over Freeman. McCardell is a pro's pro who has been a steady, proven receiver. But Alexander gives the Bucs a bigger, rangier target with a career 17-yard per catch average.

Freeman knows the ins and outs of the West Coast offense and has been a Pro Bowl-caliber player before. He also might come the cheapest.

Although Alexander and Freeman have had some clubhouse trouble with their respective teams, new head coach Jon Gruden was famous for signing reclamation projects like Andre Rison when he was with the Oakland Raiders. Expect one of these three players to suit up for Tampa Bay by the next mini-camp, which is in mid-June.

FAB 4. The knee injury suffered by Bucs quarterback Joe Hamilton in NFL Europe is severe enough that he will miss the rest of the NFLEL campaign, and likely the entire 2002 season. If team doctors concur with reports from NFL Europe, that suggest that the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee is partially torn, the Frankfurt Galaxy quarterback will be out at least six months. Thus, his NFL season with the Buccaneers would be over, too.

With its stories this spring, the team's website might make you believe that Hamilton was setting NFL Europe on fire with his play. But the reality is that Hamilton's statistics have been rather ordinary. He has completed 99 of 193 passes (51.3 percent) for 1,301 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has also rushed 32 times for 137 yards and one score.

Folks, Hamilton is not the second coming of Kurt Warner, or even Brad Johnson or Jon Kitna. All three players translated NFL Europe success into starting jobs in the NFL. If he were a great quarterback he would dominate against lesser opponents in NFL Europe. Only a small percentage of players who are playing in NFL Europe will actually make teams' 53-man rosters come September.

Yes, the Galaxy were off to a 5-1 start before last week's 31-10 drubbing at the hands of Barcelona, but Hamilton doesn't deserve all of the credit for the team's hot start. Frankfurt boasts the league's second-ranked rusher in Curtis Alexander (Buffalo Bills), who has 625 yards rushing and five touchdowns on the year. The Galaxy defense is also fairly good compared with NFL Europe's other teams.

Hamilton used poise and his intangibles to engineer several key drives this spring for the Galaxy. Those attributes -- not his arm, nor his 5-foot-10 size -- are what keeps him around the NFL.

We're not trying to bash Hamilton, just putting his NFL Europe season in proper perspective. If he was an elite quarterback capable of being a starter or even a No. 2 in the NFL, he would have had a much higher completion percentage and a much higher touchdown-to-interception ratio.

Over the past few years, the Bucs front office has grown fond of Hamilton. Whether or not Gruden will have a desire to keep him around, or stick with the current combination of Brad Johnson, Rob Johnson and Shaun King, remains to be seen.

One thing is almost certain, both Rob Johnson and King are in the final years of their respective contracts and one will probably land a big contract and be anointed Tampa Bay's quarterback of the future. The other one will likely search for a starting role elsewhere.

If Gruden and the Bucs want Hamilton to stick around for the 2003 season as the team's third quarterback, the easiest solution would be to place him on injured reserve and then re-sign him to a one-year tender offer next year as a restricted free agent. If Hamilton isn't part of the team's plans, look for him to sign an injury settlement with the Bucs and be released.

As of Wednesday afternoon, the Bucs had decided against brining in a fourth quarterback in. That means that King and both Johnsons will be handling all the snaps.

FAB 5. Here's a couple of random notes to feast on until next week:

Did you know that Hamilton, who has primarily been the team's third-string quarterback, will actually make more money this year than King, who was a starter in 2000 and the backup in 2001? Hamilton is slated to earn $358,000 this season while King's base salary will be $350,000. Both players are still under their rookie contracts which calls for them to play for the rookie minimum. In 1999 when King was drafted, the rookie minimum for the year 2002 was $350,000. When Hamilton was drafted a year later in 2000, the league minimum for the contract year 2002 had been increased to $358,000.

Simeon Rice AWOL? That rumor has been buzzing around the Internet over the past week. Of course Rice was present for the team's two formal mini-camps and has been an active participant in the team's offseason workouts. Bucs officials confirmed his presence at One Buc Place this week and didn't disclose any potential contract problems, as has been reported. Much ado about nothing? Probably so.

Defensive tackle Mike Mackenzie, who is in his second mini-camp with the Bucs trying to make the team, suffered a shoulder injury in workouts. Mackenzie, an undersized player who has the heart and hustle that reminds some of former nose tackle Brad Culpepper, had looked impressive in the team's two mini-camps before sustaining the injury. The team is hopeful that he will be able to compete at the team's next mini-camp in mid-June.

Bucs defensive end Ron Warner has picked up his intensity over in NFL Europe in recent weeks. Warner, who played a major role in Barcelona's 31-10 romp over Frankfurt last week, is tied with four other players for the sack title in NFL Europe. Warner has four sacks, including two last week against the Galaxy. Because some players are reluctant to play in NFL Europe and may view it as a demotion, Bucs officials gave Warner a pep talk and indicated that they wanted to see him lead NFL Europe in sacks. Warner had a positive attitude about the trip overseas, but has really bought into the concept that extra snaps will do nothing but help his chances of making the Bucs if he plays well. Aside from his four sacks, Warner also has 14 tackles and one forced fumble for the Dragons.


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Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com

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