The Senior Bowl has become an important evaluation tool for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Players like Carnell Williams, Barrett Ruud, Arron Sears and Tanard Jackson all became Bucs after they played in this game.
So where does the current crop of Senior Bowl players fall into the Bucs' plans? Well, after three days of watching workouts and gleaning information from sources and other writers on the Scout.com network in attendance, a clear formation of what the Bucs were assessing this past week became clear.
In these two articles I'm going to assess the Bucs by position, rank that position's need for drafted players and give you an idea of which Senior Bowl players could be fits at those positions. It's something to keep in mind as the National Scouting Combine approaches. The article focusing on defense and special teams will appear on Monday.
NEED: Low to moderate.
With four quarterbacks on the roster already, you wouldn't think the Bucs would have a need there. And at this point they don't. But that could change fast.
Chris Simms, Luke McCown and Jeff Garcia are all entering the last year of their contracts, though I believe Garcia will get an extension. Simms could very well be traded if he's finally healthy. Bruce Gradkowski, who has two years left on his rookie contract, does not fit into the Bucs' long-term plans anymore, in my opinion.
So, if things fall the wrong way for Tampa Bay, they could be in trouble.
Of the Senior Bowl quarterbacks I watched last week, none of them really just bowled me over. Kentucky's Andre Woodson did some nice things, especially when he was on the run (a trait Jon Gruden likes, don't forget). Delaware's Joe Flacco is 6-foot-6 and has an above-average arm, but he's not very mobile. The same goes for Michigan's Chad Henne, of whom I overheard one scout say, "All arm, no head."
Oddly enough, the best fit might be Hawaii's Colt Brennan. The Bucs had a meeting with him on Wednesday night. He has a quick release, has mobility and excels at the short to intermediate routes that Gruden likes to run. One big debit is the deep ball, however, and that's a problem if you have a weapon like Joey Galloway at wide receiver. Brennan, to my eyes, always seems to have to work harder to get the ball 20-30 yards downfield, unlike Henne or Flacco.
Ultimately, I'd like to see more of these guys on film and in workouts. I'm not sure any of them are good fits for what the Bucs would like to do. If I were Tampa Bay, at least at this moment, I would extend Garcia's and McCown's contracts and deal Simms for a late draft pick or two.
Tampa Bay has two running backs under contract in Earnest Graham and the injured Carnell Williams. The Bucs can protect themselves by re-signing Michael Pittman and Michael Bennett, both of which are free agents (Pittman must choose to opt out of his contract first, but GM Bruce Allen has indicated that he will).
If the Bucs make those re-signings, then the need for a running back in the draft drops considerably.
But there were plenty of interesting prospects this week in Mobile. Many of them, however, fit the "specialist" mode. For instance, I could see Cal's Justin Forsett (5-foot-8, 183), Oklahoma State's Dantrell Savage (5-foot-9, 185) and LSU's Jacob Hester (5-foot-11, 229) all having success in the NFL as change of pace backs. But I doubt any of them can be three-down, 20-carry backs.
Two guys that I believe could fit that mold are Georgia Tech's Tashard Choice (5-foot-11, 207) and Tulane's Matt Forte (6-foot-1, 219). Choice, despite the wiry build, proved to be a tough runner inside the tackles and is a solid pass receiver. Forte is an even tougher customer in traffic and his taller frame give him a better shot at taking on — and blocking — linebackers.
But, even though he sat out most of the week, the most intriguing prospect is East Carolina's Chris Johnson (5-foot-11, 198). He does everything. He can run, he can catch, he can block and he can even return punts and kicks. Durability became an issue after he suffered an injured shoulder during workouts. But his overall statistics at ECU were eye-popping and I saw enough on Monday and Tuesday to believe that he can be a three-down back in the NFL.
I think if the Bucs go this way, drafting a running back, it can't be in the first round. Most of these backs, with the exception of Johnson, are second-round talents and could fall to the Buccaneers, giving them a bargain back with upside.
Fortunately, there were several impressive wide receivers during this week of practices.
I'm going to pick three to focus on, though you could easily pick half-a-dozen.
Cal's Lavelle Hawkins (5-foot-11, 186) is wiry and probably needs to add weight, but he a burner down the sideline and he exhibited great hands all week, especially in traffic. He caught two over-the-shoulder bombs with a defender draped on his back. This is exactly the type of guy that can stretch defenses and, once he gains weight, be able to offer something in the intermediate routes.
In the middle of that is Alabama's D.J. Hall (6-foot-2, 189). He caught the eye of at least one scout I was standing in earshot of. He said he was going back home to lobby for that guy. I wouldn't doubt it. Hall is a Torry Holt-type who is physical, quick and catches even the most impossible passes thrown to him. I don't remember him dropping a pass all week.
At the tall end is Texas' Limas Sweed (6-foot-5, 220). Now, Sweed hasn't done much since a wrist injury curtailed his senior season. And he didn't do much during practice this week after Tuesday when he re-aggravated the injury. But if you watch enough film and you've seen enough of his games — and I have — you know he's a receiver with great leaping ability, quickness and physicality. Plus, with his injury problems, Sweed could drop into the third round, making him a great bargain.
The point is there are plenty of good wide receivers in this draft, enough to where the Bucs could bypass taking one in the first round and find two solid prospects later in the draft. And we haven't even seen the juniors yet. We'll get a look at them at the Combine. This will be one of the deeper positions in the draft. It's not top-heavy with superstars, but it has plenty of talent and choice.
Just like the quarterback position, tight end could quickly become a need.
Anthony Becht plans to opt out of his contract and become a free agent. Jerramy Stevens will be a free agent. There's no guarantee the Bucs can re-sign either. That leaves fourth-year tight end Alex Smith, who enters the final year of his contract this year.
So the need could be there before you know it.
Fortunately, there were several big-time tight ends in this game, but I'll focus on two.
First, there's Missouri's Martin Rucker, who fits today's mold of a tight end — tall (6-foot-5), quick and possessing clear athletic ability. He showed great hands all week during practice and he's an adequate blocker. He led NCAA tight end with 84 catches in an offense geared more toward wide receivers. He's a borderline first-round guy, depending on how the draft goes. Problem is, he won't fall out of the second round and he may not make it to the Bucs, if they want to go that way. But I know Gruden likes the guy. You could see the wheels turning as he watched Rucker practice on Tuesday morning.
The other guy is USC's Fred Davis. All he did was win the Mackey Award as the nation's top tight end after catching 66 passes for the Trojans. At 6-foot-4, 250 pounds, he's slightly shorter than Rucker, but a bit bulkier and considered a better blocker. And, like Rucker, he had a great week of workouts.
This position isn't particularly deep. In fact, it almost never is. But Rucker and Davis strike me as the two frontline guys right now, and each is worthy of a second-round pick.
Right now, the entire season-ending starting lineup — along with Luke Petitgout, Dan Buenning and Anthony Davis — are all under contract. C John Wade can opt out and become a free agent, but there is no word yet on his status.
The Bucs enter the offseason with plenty of depth, so taking an offensive lineman high isn't a real priority.
Still, they did take at least one meeting with a tackle considered a top prospect — Vanderbilt's Chris Williams (6-foot-6, 317). To some draft sites Williams is a Top 5 tackle. Others rate him a shade below that.
I watched him work out three times and he's a massive guy with good lateral movement and quickness. He can get beat occasionally by pure speed rushers, but most young tackles suffer from the same malady.
But Williams is not a guy the Bucs are going to take in the first round, at least at this point.
In fact, I would be surprised if the Bucs took an offensive lineman period. After taking plenty the past three years, the Bucs appear to be set with younger players at four of the five positions (and Buenning is considered the center of the future). At some point, the Bucs have to stop adding young pieces and let that group grow up together. That time, to me, has arrived. Now, if a prospect like Williams falls into their lap in the second or third round, he's worth a pick. But unless it's great value, the Bucs should stick to signing a couple of key veterans that can offer depth in case of injury.
COMING MONDAY: The defensive breakdown.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. An award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers Association, he appears frequently on Scot Brantley Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.