SR's Fab Five

August 4 - SR's Fab Five is back with a 3,000-word installment filled with fresh inside information and analysis! We'll clear up some training camp misconceptions regarding RB Travis Stephens, DE John Stamper, CB Terrell Buckley, LT Lomas Brown and RT Kenyatta Walker; tell you why RT Jerry Wunsch's job is in jeopardy; let you know who the most impressive rookie has been and who has been disappointing; and fill you in on which young LBs are stepping up. Don't miss this long-overdue edition!

SR's Fab Five usually 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.
It's finally time for another edition of my SR's Fab Five on-line column. I usually like to keep personal stuff out of my writings, but since it's been a few weeks since the last installment of this column, I figure I owe my loyal readers an explanation for the long wait.

First, the accounts of my demise were greatly exaggerated. I am not dead, nor did I run off to Cincinnati to become the editor-in-chief of Bengals Report. After a regularly scheduled two-month hiatus from publishing our paper, it took some time to shake off the rust to produce the 44-page Pewter Report Training Camp issue. There were a few tweaks to the layout of Pewter Report, which also fall under my responsibility, that had to be done. The issue took longer than expected to write, quite frankly.

Next came "the big move". My family and I had to basically pack our entire house up in three days to prepare for a move on Friday, July 26 into a bigger house. During that time of running ourselves ragged and packing until dawn, my wife and I and our one-year old daughter all caught colds, which shortly turned into sinus infections. The move wore us out over the weekend, and I couldn't even find my laptop computer until Sunday night.

Just as I was preparing to leave for camp on Sunday night, my daughter's fever shot up to 103.3, which meant the only place I was going was to the after hours urgent care center. After a shot of antibiotics, followed by a follow-up visit with the doctor on Monday and another shot, she was feeling fine. However, my wife and I took a much slower road to recovery.

Then the SR's Fab Five, which at that time was a Fab Two-and-a-Half, and was promised a week ago, was starting to become old news. Basically 1,000 words went down the drain. I simply won't submit anything to you, the Insider subscriber, if it is not the best inside information and analysis.

After missing my first day of training camp since I began covering the Bucs back in 1995, my family began to recover during the earlier part of the week. Then I had to close on my new house on Wednesday, which required me to stay in Tampa and miss the first day of pads in camp. As an avid fan of contact football -- even in practice -- that really tore me up.

I finally made it up to Disney on Thursday and Friday to take in my first practice sessions. I still wasn't ready to deliver an SR's Fab Five because I also wanted to touch base with my contacts, who are players, coaches and personnel people to see if they agreed or disagreed with what I had seen over the two days of practice I witnessed, and to fill me in on what I missed earlier in the week. With one set of eyes, it's difficult to keep track of about 88 players.

At this point, I feel I have gathered more than enough inside analysis and scoop to deliver you a long overdue SR's Fab Five. Thanks go out to Pewter Report assistant editor Jim Flynn, who did a great job filling me in, catching me up, and for basically holding down the fort until my arrival at camp later in the week. I thought Jim's free stories and daily Insider reports were outstanding.

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

FAB 1. It's time to clear up some misconceptions from reports from other media outlets that you might have read regarding the Bucs at training camp. First, rookie Travis Stephens will not be used as a third-down back this year. The term "third-down back" implies that the player will be used primarily on third downs. Smaller, shifty, speedy pass-catchers such as former New York Giants running back Dave Meggett immediately come to mind.

Stephens may be small, shifty and speedy, but he probably has the worst hands of all of the Bucs backs. And that's not just my observation, that comes straight from running backs coach Kirby Wilson.

If anything, Stephens will NOT be used primarily on third downs, when teams are typically forced to throw the ball, but instead on first and second downs. According to Wilson, Michael Pittman has the best hands of all Tampa Bay backs, and will be in the game on most third downs. Look for Stephens to work on catching the ball -- something he rarely did at Tennessee -- all year and become a bigger factor on third downs next year.

The second big misconception is regarding rookie defensive end John Stamper. Stamper has been touted as a mini-camp standout by a certain writer who writes for a local paper and The Sporting News. In this week's issue of The Sporting News, Stamper was said to have "agility and footwork in coverage that makes some scouts believe Stamper eventually play outside linebacker."

First of all, Stamper played rush end at South Carolina and has had very little exposure to pass coverage. And second, at 6-foot-4, 265 pounds he won't be playing linebacker for the Buccaneers, who like their 'backers to be shorter and fast.

One insider told me that John McLaughlin was actually a better defensive end prospect than Stamper is. And we all know that McLaughlin shined on special teams, but did very little as an end.

But reading the repeated praise in the local paper and the national publication for a player who will likely not make the Bucs' 53-man squad is a bit baffling. Stamper was hampered in mini-camp by a hamstring pull, and he aggravated that injury during Friday morning's workout and will be out of action for some time, which will further decrease his chances of making the team. Greg Spires and Ellis Wyms have the upper hand on the two backup defensive end spots after the first week of camp.

The third misconception is that all of the veterans that the Bucs signed during the summer will actually make the team. One insider told me at training camp that cornerback Terrell Buckley and newly signed left tackle Lomas Brown haven't shown enough to make the team yet. In all fairness, only one or two of the team's rookie players have show enough to be considered worth keeping on the roster, too.

In other words, it's still early in camp and the Bucs' 53-man roster is far from being finalized. A roster spot for Buckley or Brown is not guaranteed.

Buckley has had his moments where he has performed well on defense and on special teams. But because he is fighting for the fourth cornerback spot -- that's right, the fourth cornerback spot -- behind Ronde Barber, Brian Kelly and Dwight Smith, he will have to be a special teams standout. Right now he's running neck-and-neck with Corey Chamblin, who has had a nice first week of camp and is picking up where he left off after a great summer of mini-camps.

There is a misconception that Buckley will challenge Kelly for a starting cornerback position. Not true.

While "T-Buck" has made a name for himself in the league as a former first-round draft pick with Green Bay and a Super Bowl performer with the New England Patriots last year, he is a 10-year veteran who signed with Tampa Bay for the league minimum and basically wasn't wanted by any other team in the league because he was signed so late in the summer. If Buckley was a starting caliber corner he would have been signed earlier when teams were gobbling up defensive backs like Duane Starks, Jeff Burris, Walt Harris and Donnie Abraham in free agency.

As for Brown, he likely has to win the starting left tackle job to stay on the roster. Because he weighs less than 290 pounds and isn't in the best shape conditioning-wise right now, Brown is a bit of a liability in the running game and will get pushed around. But some fans and media members have already assumed that because he's a veteran that he'll make the roster. Not yet.

The two top tackles in training camp thus far are Roman Oben and Kenyatta Walker. Brown might be the third best tackle, followed by Jerry Wunsch, Pete Pierson and Brian Gruber. The problem Brown faces is that he's strictly a left tackle where Pierson can play either side and the Bucs feel that Oben and Walker can also handle both tackle positions. If Brown could also play right tackle he might have a better chance of sticking when the roster cuts come down.

FAB 2. One last misconception is that because Walker practiced exclusively at right tackle during the first week of mini-camp while allowing Brown and Oben to show what they could do at left tackle, that the Bucs have all but decided to move Walker there permanently. Walker may wind up playing right tackle, but it's not in cement yet.

Remember that the Bucs first put the pads on at training camp on Wednesday, so look for Walker to get some snaps in pads on the left side this week. If that happens as expected, that will blow a recent report about Walker being moved to right tackle out of the water. The coaching staff wants to find the five best offensive linemen and play them. Right now Jeff Christy is the best center and Cosey Coleman and Kerry Jenkins are the best guards. The starting interior is almost set -- barring any upsets.

But the tackle positions are still in a state of flux. Oben and Walker are emerging as the two best tackles, but is Walker a better left tackle or a better right tackle? And the same goes for Oben. Look for Walker to work at left tackle with Brown this week while Oben tries the right side and battles Wunsch.

The coaching staff doesn't really care who plays where as long as the players do their jobs. But the personnel side of the organization is privately fretting about moving Walker to the right side, which he played in college. Walker was viewed by most scouts as a left tackle coming out of college because of his quickness, footwork and natural athleticism. At a little over 300 pounds, he was originally viewed as too light to play right tackle and go against more physical, 285-pound defensive ends down-in and down-out.

The fact that the Bucs gave up their second-round draft pick in the 2001 draft in order to trade up and get Walker is also weighing heavily on the minds of the Bucs' personnel staff. A franchise left tackle is generally considered worth trading up for, especially when the price involves surrendering a second-round pick. But right tackles aren't as rare and teams can typically find good ones in the second round. Washington's Jon Jansen, Jacksonville's Maurice Williams and Tampa Bay's Wunsch were all second-round picks.

If it is deemed that Walker can't beat out Oben or Brown for the left tackle position, then the Bucs' personnel staff must be second-guessed and down-graded for it's draft day trade for Walker two years ago. There are still several weeks worth of training camp to go, including four preseason games, but the fact that Tampa Bay even inked Brown to come in and compete with Walker for the job must be viewed as a sign that the Bucs aren't completely sold on the second-year player from Florida and his ability to play right tackle.

FAB 3. One of the reasons why Oben was signed and why Walker is getting some reps on the right side of the line is that the team has not been happy with the play of right tackle Jerry Wunsch. Wunsch has been relegated to second-team duty since the Bucs put on the pads on Wednesday.

Offensive line coach Bill Muir likes mobile, agile linemen, and those are two qualities that Wunsch doesn't possess. Wunsch's liability has always been in the passing game, and with an increased emphasis on protecting the passer in Jon Gruden's offense, he isn't a good fit for the new system.

Wunsch is a mauling right tackle who has used his 6-foot-6, 330-pound frame well in the running game in years past. But Muir and Gruden prefer more active and mobile linemen who weigh closer to 300 pounds. And while Wunsch can be physical at times, he doesn't play with a nasty, mean streak that the lead, strongside blocker at the point of attack must play with.

Walker wasn't a good fit at right tackle in Chris Foerster's offensive line scheme, but because the responsibilities and ideal size requirements have changed under Muir's watch, he is getting consideration on the right side. The fact that Walker is a much better pass protector might spell doom for Wunsch either this year or next.

Wunsch is in his second year of a five-year contract and is scheduled to hit the Bucs' 2002 cap for $1.79 million. Most of that money -- $1.05 million -- is base salary, and if he were to be released this year, he would still hit the team for over $700,000 towards this year's cap. And the Bucs' 2003 cap would be hit close to $1.32 million, which would be the final three years of his prorated signing bonus. Of course that would nicely offset the $1.5 million base salary and $1 million roster bonus Wunsch is due next year.

Whether it's this year or next, things don't look good for Wunsch's chances of remaining in Tampa Bay ... unless he does a 180 in training camp and starts putting together some consistent, dominant practices.

FAB 4. The honors for top rookie in training camp thus far must be shared between Stephens and safety Jermaine Phillips. Stephens has looked great running the ball in practice, and has been up-and-down in the passing game. But its his quick burst through the hole and his acceleration in the open field that have caught the eyes of Bucs coaches and personnel men.

Phillips has looked exceptional on defense at times and had an outstanding practice in pads on Friday morning. He is taking full advantage of the extra playing time afforded to him by the absence of John Howell, who missed the first week of camp attending to private family matters. Phillips is an athletic player with good range and hard-hitting ability, and should see some playing time this year on defense.

But the one curious thing about Phillips is that he looked lost on special teams during Friday afternoon's one-hour special teams practice. He was clearly thinking too much and was getting man-handled by former Georgia teammate, rookie cornerback Tim Wansley, during kick coverage drills. For Phillips to make the team and dress on Sundays he must learn that he will be forced to play on special teams and excel on that unit. There is no reason why he shouldn't be the force on special teams that he appears to be on defense.

FAB 5. A group of four receivers have appeared to separate themselves from the pack during the first week of training camp practice. Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell, Joe Jurevicius and Frank Murphy have all had a great first week. One name that is noticeably absent from that group is rookie Marquise Walker, who had been less than stellar in the last two mini-camps and has continued that trend in training camp.

Walker has displayed good hands at times, but his route running and knowledge of the offense have been below what is required. Gruden and receivers coach Richard Mann have been on his case on more than one occasion for not knowing his assignment or running the wrong route.

Walker probably won't get cut because he was productive in college and not all rookies are ready to play right away, but the idea that Walker, who was a late third-round draft pick, could get cut isn't far fetched. The St. Louis Rams cut wide receiver Milton Wynn, their fourth-round pick, last year after a lackluster preseason and training camp.

Still, the fact that he was the first draft pick of the Jon Gruden era will likely lead the team to keep him around until next year. Right now Walker is lumped together with a secondary group of receivers which includes Wynn, E.G. Green and Karl Williams.

After the group of holdover linebackers from last year-- Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles, Al Singleton and Nate Webster -- a second group of 'backers is emerging.

Ryan Nece, who is the son of Hall of Fame safety Ronnie Lott, has been looking impressive as Singleton's backup on the strong side. Jack Golden has proved that he can handle the middle linebacker assignments as well as perhaps playing some strongside linebacker. Joe Todd is also coming on and has likely moved ahead of Chris Jones for the right to backup Derrick Brooks on the weak side.

The Bucs will definitely keep six or possibly seven linebackers depending on how the special teams units play out. That means there will only be two -- maybe three -- roster spots up for grabs. Nece is leading the way and is closing in on a roster spot.

Tampa Bay's young linebackers have shown so much improvement since the mini-camps that the team has ruled out adding veteran free agent linebacker Ed McDaniel for the time being.


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Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com

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