Copyright 2003 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
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Here's five things that caught my interest this week:
FAB 1. It's going to be tough for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to re-sign free safety Dexter Jackson, who was the MVP of Super Bowl XXXVII and is an unrestricted free agent. Jackson's agent, Peter Shaffer, is known as a "shopper" and will be proactive in making phone calls to all of the other 31 teams in the league to get the best price for his client. The Bucs can take the opposite approach and promise Jackson the best fit in terms of scheme and the best chance of going back to the Super Bowl to go along with a modest contract.
Don't forget that the Bucs are the masters at evaluating a player's worth and not overpaying for one of their own free agents. They let cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly dangle themselves out in free agency in 2001 and 2002, respectively, and both came back to Tampa Bay for somewhat rich, yet reasonable salaries. Expect the Bucs to do the same with Jackson and some of the team's other free agents.
One team official I spoke with told me that Jackson was not the team's top priority in free agency, leaving that distinction to either linebacker Shelton Quarles or left tackle Roman Oben. The reason? It's a real down year for linebackers in free agency and in the draft. While there will be some interesting left tackle prospects in the draft, Jon Gruden doesn't like to start rookies and the Bucs witnessed Kenyatta Walker's growing pains firsthand at the left tackle spot in 2001. Teams will want to hang on to their left tackles, so expect players such as Walter Jones (Seattle), Luke Petitigout (NY Giants) and Flozell Adams (Dallas) to re-sign with their teams or get slapped with franchise or transition tags.
But let's get back to Jackson. The two most replaceable positions on the Bucs defense are the strongside linebacker and the free safety. Turnover has been high at those two positions since 1995 with Thomas Everett (1995), Melvin Johnson (1996), Charles Mincy (1997-99), and Damien Robinson (1999-2000) manning the free safety spot, and Lonnie Marts (1995-96), Rufus Porter (1997), Jeff Gooch (1998), Shelton Quarles (1999-2001) and Al Singleton starting at strongside linebacker. The Bucs can get by if they lose Jackson in free agency because the team is high on Jermaine Phillips, a rookie from last year who had a great preseason, and they could also move John Howell from strong safety back to free safety if necessary.
Should Jackson depart via free agency, Phillips would get the first crack at the starting job, but Tampa Bay would draft another safety to develop and challenge for the job in addition to picking a veteran safety in free agency. Some names to keep in mind are Chis Hayes (NY Jets), Tebucky Jones (New England) and former Buc Eric Vance (Indianapolis). All three are good special teams performers, which will be a requirement for any safety who plays for the Buccaneers.
FAB 2. Tampa Bay doesn't expect to re-sign all of their top unrestricted free agents and are thankful to only have a handful after a Super Bowl run. Other teams always love to raid the Super Bowl champs, and the Bucs are incredibly vulnerable with all of the ties to Tampa Bay spread throughout the league. With three starters on defense -- Dexter Jackson, Shelton Quarles and Al Singleton -- all free agents in 2003, look for Tony Dungy's Indianapolis Colts, Jerry Angelo's Chicago Bears, Lovie Smith's St. Louis Rams and Herm Edward's New York Jets to all take a close look at those three, not to mention quarterback Shaun King.
With more teams moving away from 4-3 two-gap schemes that utilize big tackles, such as Oakland and Baltimore in their heydays back in 2000, and moving towards the Bucs' 4-3 one-gap, Cover 2 scheme, as Indianapolis, St. Louis, Chicago, the NY Jets and the Dallas Cowboys have done in the past two years, Jackson, Quarles and even the unheralded Singleton will get plenty of interest in free agency.
I've talked about the contingency plan if the Bucs lose Jackson this spring, but what about losing Quarles or Singleton? Thankfully, the Bucs have Nate Webster, who will only be a restricted free agent in 2003, waiting in the wings at middle linebacker, and really like strongside linebacker Ryan Nece, who was an undrafted free agent last year.
Webster was really hurt by missing most of the mini-camp action last season due to offseason surgeries on both of his shoulders. He really needs to work on his drops into coverage in the Bucs Cover 2 schemes and play smart and avoid the stupid personal foul penalties he always seems to get. Should Quarles leave Tampa Bay, Webster would be the starter and the Bucs would draft a middle linebacker for depth and competition.
The strongside linebacker job would be initially handed to Nece until reinforcements were sought in free agency and the draft. Reserves Justin Smith and Jack Golden would also be in the mix. Cornell Brown (Baltimore) and Mike Peterson (Indianapolis) have the speed to play for Tampa Bay, but Peterson will likely be too expensive to sign away from the Colts. Another option would be taking a look at Atlanta's restricted free agent linebacker Mark Simoneau. Signing Simoneau would require the Bucs surrendering a low draft pick.
FAB 3. Free agent quarterback Shaun King will get some play in free agency from Carolina and possibly Washington, but a real dark horse could be Chicago. Bears general manager Jerry Angelo has a real fondness for King, whom he helped evaluate for the Bucs prior to the 1999 NFL Draft. With Chris Chandler expected to be out in the Windy City, only fragile starter Jim Miller remains as a top quarterback, and that might be a stretch. The Bears would be a good fit for King and might have the most salary cap room to afford him. But King would have to be leery about going to Chicago where the team is expected to use their fourth overall pick on a quarterback such as Marshall's Byron Leftwich.
King's chances of returning to the Bucs are 50-50 at best. In fact, the Bucs have more interest in King than he has in them. He desperately wants to start, and with Brad Johnson having such a strong season in 2002, that opportunity won't come anytime soon.
Expect the Bucs to use a late-round draft choice on a quarterback to shore up the position if King leaves. The front office is split on Rob Johnson's return. Some don't mind Johnson and can overlook his penchant for getting sacked if the team has a strong running game and a strong defense. But there are those members of the Bucs' brass who don't see Johnson as anything but a third-string quarterback -- at best.
Expect Jon Gruden to look at all of the quarterbacks in free agency. One passer who might be an intriguing fit is Pittsburgh's Kordell Stewart, who has the mobility and arm strength Gruden likes. Although he has a career completion percentage of 56.5 percent, Stewart has shown an increased completion percentage over the last two seasons, hitting 60.2 percent in 2001 and 65.7 percent last year in eight games, which included five starts. Completing a high percentage of passes is the name of the game in Gruden's version of the West Coast offense.
With the Steelers committed to Tommy Maddox and Kordell Stewart carrying a high cap value, Stewart is expected to be a salary cap casualty this offseason. The biggest problem with bringing Stewart to Tampa Bay might be outspoken Warren Sapp. Sapp can be a bit of a locker room bully, and has called out Stewart for crying on the sidelines of Tampa Bay's 16-3 win over Pittsburgh at Raymond James Stadium in 1998. Sapp also allegedly confronted Stewart about the rumors of his alleged homosexuality on the field, and that could become a locker room issue. Sapp has taken similar personal potshots at other players around the league, such as New York Giants quarterback Kerry Collins, whom he called a drunk after he was arrested for a DUI with the Carolina Panthers.
If Sapp could tone down his commentary about Stewart, it might make an intriguing fit.
FAB 4. It was great to see Tampa Bay quarterback Brad Johnson and middle linebacker Shelton Quarles represent the Bucs in the Super Bowl. I have been lobbying for both players this year and felt that quarterbacks Donovan McNabb and Michael Vick didn't deserve to go ahead of Johnson. Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking had an okay year, but I think Quarles is a better player and had a better year. He deserved to go ahead of Brooking.
It was also nice to see defensive end Simeon Rice get voted in this year. His only other appearance came in 1999 when former Bucs coach Tony Dungy picked him as the NFC's "need player." But it was sad to see Rice re-aggravate a shoulder injury which kept him from performing in the game. I was getting ready to rip Rice's lack of effort in the Pro Bowl until learning of the injured shoulder. For most of Rice's snaps, he simply stood up after the snap of the ball and didn't even engage Baltimore left tackle Jonathan Ogden. Rice obvious informed Ogden of his injured shoulder and didn't want to risk injuring it any further at the Pro Bowl.
FAB 5. Here's some quick hits to hold you over until next week:
- I think Warren Sapp will lose the title of best defensive tackle in the NFL in the next year or two. Age is starting to catch up with him as he has had to deal with offseason shoulder and knee injuries over the past two years, and he hasn't been an overly dominating pass rusher since the 2000 season. So who will be the next great defensive tackle? Carolina's Kris Jenkins. He reminds me of a younger Sapp. This guy is going to get better and better and be a force in the league. He'll get competition from Pittsburgh nose tackle Casey Hampton, who is a playmaker, as the Bucs witnessed on Monday night when he had a sack and two forced fumbles inside the Steelers' 10-yard line.
- In time, I think second-year cornerback Dwight Smith will be as good as Donnie Abraham. Abraham leads the Bucs franchise with 31 career interceptions, but Smith notched five in his first season playing on defense in 2002, then added three more in the postseason, including two in Super Bowl XXXVII.
- Don't be surprised if Tampa Bay takes a look at a couple of University of Cincinnati players in the upcoming draft. Cornerback Blue Adams was a former pupil of Bearcats defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin, who is now the secondary coach of the Bucs, and figures to be a late-round selection. Another player whom Tomlin is familiar with is rush linebacker Antwan Peak. Peak has the speed to play linebacker for the Bucs and might even be able to bulk up to be a pass rushing defensive end.
Copyright 2003 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
This story is intended to be read only by PewterReport.com Insiders only and TheInsiders.com. Sharing of the content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.