The National Scouting Combine begins later this week and, like the rest of the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be looking for talent.
But exactly what will the Bucs be looking at for each position? That's what this article is out to find out.
Based on what I saw and heard at the Senior Bowl, plus what has transpired since then, I'll try and give you an idea of who and what the Bucs could be looking at this weekend. Call it a Combine Crib Sheet, if you will.
This is a position I considered a low to moderate need entering the Senior Bowl and I still do. The crop of quarterbacks simply isn't that great. But that doesn't mean Jon Gruden doesn't have his eye on a few people.
I actually sat with him, along with three other writers, at the Senior Bowl for several minutes one morning and found him to be quite interested in two players — Kentucky's Andre Woodson and Delaware's Joe Flacco. Of the pair, Flacco was more impressive. He's a tall QB (6-foot-6) with an above-average delivery. He gets rid of the ball fast and sees the field well. He really helped himself in Mobile. Woodson, on the other hand, did not. His delivery was slow and the speed on his passes, to my untrained eye, was questionable. He certainly had mobility and could throw on the run, things Gruden is looking for. But Woodson's stock took a hit.
|San Diego QB Josh Johnson is developing as an intriguing prospect this offseason. (AP Photo/Jack Smith)|
There are a couple of QBs to watch, especially if the Bucs meet with them in Indy. First is San Diego's Josh Johnson (6-foot-3, 185 pounds). He's been popping up draft boards lately since his head-turning performance in the East-West Shrine Game. The Bucs have shown an interest in Johnson of late, so they're clearly intrigued. The other QB to watch is LSU's Matt Flynn (6-foot-2, 227 pounds). He missed the Senior Bowl due to injury, so this will be his first real bow in front of league scouts. Some of what he does isn't pretty, but he's one tough customer. And I'm partial. I covered him in high school back in Texas.
Michael Bennett is back in the stable, but that doesn't mean the Bucs will stop looking at running backs. I think all it means is that they'll look to address that need outside the first two rounds.
Two players made an impression on me in Mobile and I'm looking forward to seeing them again. First, East Carolina's Chris Johnson is the most versatile back in this draft. He can run, receive, block and return kicks. He could be the potential game-breaking talent the Bucs crave in the return game. But he injured his shoulder in Mobile, hurting his stock and he needs a good combine. If he slips further, though, the Bucs could make him a third-round bargain.
The other was Tulane's Matt Forte, a big back who improved his stock big-time at the Senior Bowl. I talked to him the first day of workouts and he told me in no uncertain terms he knew that was his chance to show he was more than just a running back from a lightly-regarded college. And he did. If he has a solid combine, he probably won't fall to the Bucs in the second round.
There are some other intriguing prospects to watch. We'll get our first look at three interesting juniors this week — West Virginia's Steve Slaton, UCF's Kevin Smith and Rutgers' Ray Rice. I think Smith intrigues a lot of people based on his size (he's 6-foot-1) and the numbers he put up with the Knights last year. Slaton and Rice strike me as change of pace backs and nothing more. Watch the 40 times for Slaton and Rice. A source told me that could be a big key to their draft stock this week, because both are not considered to have breakaway speed.
Finally, Houston's Anthony Alridge will be worth a look. He had a great East-West game and he'll need to shine in positional drills, according to Scout.com's Chris Steuber, to improve his stock. Alridge does give the added benefit of being a kick returner, something the Bucs have to be conscious of this season.
WIDE RECEIVER/TIGHT END
Yeah, this position is important. At the Senior Bowl the Bucs met with Houston's Donnie Avery, Missouri's Martin Rucker (TE), Florida's Andre Caldwell and Cal's Lavelle Hawkins. And those are just the ones we were able to confirm. It wouldn't stun me at all to find out the Bucs talked to every wide receiver at the Senior Bowl. It's that big a need.
Avery, Caldwell and Hawkins all impressed me. Avery caught every pass thrown his way, including those over the middle, which require absorbing contact. Hawkins was a great deep threat despite his size (5-foot-11) and caught some great deep passes. Caldwell shined as a physical threat and possession receiver.
|Michigan WR Mario Manningham has vaulted into a Top 5 position among wide receivers since declaring for the draft. (AP Photo)|
The Combine, inevitably, becomes about the underclassmen, so watch Oklahoma's Malcolm Kelly, Indiana's James Hardy, Cal's DeSean Jackson and Michigan's Mario Manningham, all of which are the Top 4 wide receivers right now, according to Scout.com's Chris Steuber. Jackson's deep routes intrigue me, as does Hardy's stunning height (6-foot-6). Kelly, however, is the most solid of the bunch. Steuber believes at least two of these players will be around at No. 20 for the Bucs, so watch them closely.
Believe it or not, I have a hard time seeing this position as a need this year. The Bucs have invested heavily in their offensive line the past few years and it appears as if it's poised to pay off in 2008. Despite that, the Bucs talked to Vanderbilt's Chris Williams at the Senior Bowl. The hulking tackle is considered a top prospect, but the Bucs can't afford to spend a first-round pick on him and he won't drop into the second round unless he falls flat on his face in Indy this weekend.
That doesn't mean there aren't some intriguing players. You just have to eliminate the top prospects like Michigan's Jake Long and Boise State's Ryan Clady. If the Bucs are looking for linemen, expect them to be selected in the middle rounds and come with the word "project" attached to them.
Here are three guys that, without having seen them play, stick out as that type. First, Kansas' Anthony Collins had a great season for the Jayhawks and is seeking to cash in. He's already quite polished for his position and he's only considered the No. 8 tackle in the draft. That could change this weekend but he bears watching because most of the country only saw him play a few times last season.
Second, there's Notre Dame C John Wallace. He tips the scales at 303 pounds, so he's bigger than current (and potential free agent center) John Wade and can match second-stringer Dan Buenning. The Bucs want a center who is strong at the point of attack, and scouts say Wallace is definitely that. He's also durable and can probably be had in the middle rounds.
Third, watch Connecticut guard Donald Thomas. Scout.com's Chris Steuber said Thomas played well in both all-star games he participated in and that the Combine will open many eyes across the NFL. He's raw, but very mobile, and the Bucs could use that in a backup capacity.
COMING WEDNESDAY: The defensive crib sheet.
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.