Last Gasp: Buc Backups Get Final Shot at Roster Spots

Michael Smith is one of the Bucs fighting for his professional life tonight.

So…tonight’s game versus the Redskins will be used to evaluate bubble players and make decisions re: final cuts. Starting spots are pretty well established, but lower-rung roles at DE, OLB, WR, S, CB, etc. might still be up for grabs. Who do you think will use this last game to make the front office types hesitate and mumble? My guess (and in some cases, hope):

TE Danny Noble
Vying for a spot against Pianalto, who is steady. Noble is a much faster and more athletic option who’d give the team a legit downfield threat if the aged Clark goes down, but he’s a raw athlete who must prove that he can block. From what I’ve seen he has the aggressiveness and want-to, and tonight we’ll see him throw himself at LBs and DEs like a madman.

RB/FB Robert Hughes
Why the Bucs have not let this guy run the ball in the preseason is beyond me. He’s shifty, follows his blocks well and runs behind his pads. IMO he’d be a valuable asset, but on some level I guess I understand why the team is more focused on a speedy tailback over a redundant power guy. Might be too late to seal a spot, but if Hughes gets some carries he’ll prove that he’s worth, at the very least, a practice squad spot…

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Bucs Add Shipley…and What It Means

Shipley is a clear shot across Preston Parker's bow.

The Bucs announced the addition of former Bengals’ slot WR Jordan Shipley today. I have always loved the guy’s game, but here’s the deal: if he had no lingering effects from last year’s knee injury he’d still be a Bengal. I mean, he led all AFC rookies in receiving yards in 2010. Unfortunately for him, the kid who took his spot in Cincy (Andrew Hawkins) is playing lights out, so the Bengals had a viable option. Hawkins is a dynamic little player who gets reps as a RB and WR and is a ST dynamo, whereas Shipley only contributes on ST and as a receiver.

Like I say, I love Shipley’s game, but I’m also realistic. He missed a lot of time with injuries while at Texas, including a previous MCL tear, and he’s almost 27 years old. He was on the Bengals’ PUP list a few short weeks back, and was recently seen walking around with an ice pack on his knee. Is he worth a gamble and possibly a practice squad spot at this stage (in hopes that he’ll be 100% next season)? Yes. But make no mistake: his odds are long…

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Pre-Season Post-Game Notes: Bucs at Dolphins

Roy MIller is proving that the Bucs may have been wise in picking their nose...tackle.

The new-look Bucs took the field in Miami this past Friday, and on the whole they did little to disappoint. Let’s take a position-by-position look at their handiwork:

On Defense…

At DT Roy Miller was timing the snap and getting through gaps very well. Despite the fact that he played pretty well last season, I was starting to lose faith in him as a viable option at NT since he seemed to lack NFL-caliber quickness. Maybe it’s experience, maybe it’s the presence of a healthy young star next to him, maybe it’s some subtle changes to his role, maybe it’s a Dolphin’s line that is trying to find itself, but he finally seemed to be timing the snap and flying into the backfield like he did so often at Texas. If he can maintain that level of play it will be a boon to the Bucs defense. Gerald McCoy played exactly as I assumed he would, knifing through the Dolphin’s line repeatedly and creating havoc. If he stays healthy he’s in for a monster year. He muscled past the Dolphin’s guards and shoved around Jake Long, one of the league’s most physical left tackles. Some people complained about his modest bench press results at the combine, which is a hoot.  It’s sudden play and natural explosiveness that matters, folks, not weight-room heroics. And McCoy has explosiveness out the ying-yang. Wait, that didn’t come out right. Amobi Okoye looked solid in a reserve role, his highlight play being a nicely batted pass. The Bucs acquired him at an ideal time in his career, and he can offer quality reps at both the 3-tech and nose tackle. Nose tackle Gary Gibson, a lunchpail type who (if he lasts) will endear himself to fans, was also dinged up and missed this game.

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Goodbye, Great One

Hall of Famer Selmon was a man among men.

I remember seeing him take the field at Tampa Stadium, his big orange jersey brilliant under a merciless sun. His college coach, Barry Switzer, said he was the best player he’d ever seen, and claimed he’d never had a bad game. Expectations were high. That was in the mid-to-late 70s, back when life was ageless and verdant, and back when a hint of the Old South still lingered in the crannies of my small Florida town. The Bucs were to be a ready-made punchline for every comic running low on late-night fodder, but the heralded first-round pick proved a soothing balm on that lingering wound. Sitting high up in the Big Sombrero—resigned to wilting heat and losing ways—I watched an orange-clad titan single-handedly defy his team’s blundering profile with superhuman play.

He was a revelation, a wonder. At the snap he morphed into a whirling orange blur, an unstoppable force who obliterated blockers and mauled hapless passers. Opponents would double-team him on practically every play, but all for naught. They ran at him and he stacked their futile bodies like cord-wood, they ran away from him he closed on their tailbacks like a missile. Given the dearth of talent on those early Buccaneer teams he saw more devoted blockers than any player of his era—or possibly any era—with no noticeable effect, save the dejected faces of opposing coordinators. Scores of NFL coaches, players and analysts attest that he was the best ever at his position. I confess brimming levels of bias, but I certainly agree…

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Bucs Pre-season: 10 Players Who Have Impressed

Who has impressed most? It's elementary: Watson.

Each pre-season a mix of college free agents, free agent cast offs from other squads and backups from prior campaigns do battle to earn playing time, or at the very least a roster spot. And as the roster gets more talented, that job gets tougher and tougher. A number of players have jumped out at me on film, some celebrated by fans, some essentially overlooked. These 10 deserve special mention:

1. DB Larry Asante
With so many young DTs up front, safety and linebacker play will be essential over the first half of the season. The Bucs are in good hands with Sean Jones and Cody Grimm at SS and FS, respectively, but a viable option is certainly needed at SS given Jones’ injury history. Enter Larry Asante, a player the Bucs quietly added as a free agent last season, a move I celebrated since I was a big fan of the guy when he came out of Nebraska. He’s a wiry, instinctive player with a wonderful feel for coverage and real wallop as a hitter, and I believe he has All Pro upside. Huh, a backup with All Pro ability? That’s right, I said it. Asante has impressed me as much as any Buc player this preseason, and it will be impossible to keep him out of the starting rotation for long.

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Patriots Dominate Bucs, but McCoy Offers Hope

The Patriots thumped the Bucs, but don't blame this guy.

I spent some time on Bucs online forums today, and the prevailing opinion was that the Bucs played horribly last night versus New England. Gee, ya think? Truth be told, it’s almost impossible to find a silver lining in what was a complete collapse. The offensive line, especially looked putrid, and must do some soul-searching. But, perhaps surprisingly, I’m not especially concerned. It’s pre-season, after all, and in the end the loss is meaningless. It’s the sort of game you don’t take to heart, since deep down you know it is, for the most part, an anomaly. You toss it in the trash and move on.

That said, the thing I found most odd is that Gerald McCoy seemed to be the object of ire among many Bucs fans post-game. In fact, some claimed that he didn’t show up to play, and that he will soon be considered a wasted pick. Curious, I sat down this evening and reviewed the game film again. Here’s my rundown of McCoy’s effort, with “impact plays” highlighted in red:

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The Real McCoy at Under Tackle

He's actually a very sweet guy. Really.

As the 2011 season looms, the Tampa Bay faithful are damn near giddy with anticipation. Among the many reasons for high hopes is the improved status of the defense, and the assumption that defensive line play will be much improved. And it sure as hell better be, since last season’s effort was pitiful. In fact, the fact that the Bucs won 10 games with such an anemic job done up front is nothing short of stunning. Suffice to say that smoke and mirrors ain’t gonna get it done again.

Much has been made of the infusion of young talent at DE, the addition of Mason Foster at MLB, the status of DT Brian Price and FS Cody Grimm’s injuries, etc., but—to my mind, anyway—not nearly enough has been made of the player who stands to make the biggest difference to this defense and arguably the team in 2011: DT Gerald McCoy. What, you say? The first round pick who didn’t make much of an impact in 2010 is your poster boy for a defensive revival? Why yes, yes he is. And here’s why:

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Pre-season Pummeling: Bucs Scalp Chiefs

Bucs showed vast potential in the show-me state.

After each pre-season game I’ll provide my take on the Bucs’ performance at each position. Here’s my take on last Friday night’s dust-up versus the Chiefs:

QB
Josh Freeman, despite dubious reports that he was struggling with accuracy and timing in camp, looked sharp. He ran for a TD and made several nice throws in a limited outing. Make no mistake: he is already among the league’s elite. Josh Johnson’s potent blend of accuracy and athleticism were on display, and he dazzled with a few nice runs. What Johnson must digest, however, is that he has the mechanics and arm to be a starter and pocket passer, but that tucking and running is a surefire way to a short career given his thin frame. Rudy Carpenter looked shaky on occasion, but overall he is a cerebral, crafty backup with an underrated arm.

RB
LeGarrette Blount idled through a few lumbering runs, saving his A-game for when it matters. Interestingly, the Bucs worked in a pass to Blount play to the flat to give opposing teams something to sweat over in film study. The team gave former Georgia star Kregg Lumpkin quite a few touches, and he showed the toughness, quickness and one-cut style I remember from his college days. His pass blocking is excellent and he has dependable hands. He shows some promise as a change-up back, but isn’t a very elusive runner. Earnest Graham was used sparingly but was his usual fantastic self, pass blocking well and logging a first down on a catch and nice run. I hope Graham is used both at fullback and tailback in equal measure since he creates mismatches at both spots. In fact, I’d prefer Graham as the change-up back over Lumpkin. What we’ll likely see is a healthy dose of both backs. As for the college free agents, Armando Allen showed the best burst and made good use of his blockers. He’s the type of capable, versatile player who will be tough to cut.

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CB Anthony Gaitor: Tiny Tough Guy

Just realized that I forgot to profile 7th round pick Anthony Gaitor of Florida International University. Scrappy’s arse is going senile. I could make the excuse that a 5-9, 175 lb. player is easy to overlook, but that’d be wrong in more ways than one.

Like I keep saying, size ain't everything.

Need
Going into the 2011 draft CB was clearly a need, with Aqib Talib’s criminal activity and Ronde Barber’s advanced age Exhibits 1 and 2. Simply put: the Bucs needed (and arguably still need) depth and talent at the CB spots.

Tools
Gaitor is not small by NFL standards—he’s flipping tiny. His height/weight numbers would eliminate most any other player from consideration. But he’s not just any other player. Though his alma mater is anything but a football power, he faced some big-time competition over his career and acquitted himself very well. Gaitor overcomes his limited size with explosive play. He is very quick, has very fluid hips and relatively good makeup speed, tracks the ball well in flight and has a knack for knocking passes to bigger wideouts down as they try to secure the football. His best asset, however, is his fearless play versus the run. He excels at playing close to the line of scrimmage, knocking receivers off of their routes early, slipping blocks and getting to ball carriers behind the line. He packs a great punch for such a small player. I’ve seen him compared to Ronde Barber on some sites, which is wishful thinking. But I do admit that he seems to have Barber’s rare sense of snap timing and thud as a tackler. Regardless, he brings the physical play that is a prerequisite to CB play in this scheme, and his cover skills—as long as he’s not isolated outside—are impressive.

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Josh Freeman’s QBR rating

Freeman already ranks among the league's elite.

I just watched a segment on ESPN describing their “QBR”, a nerdy new system that does a more comprehensive, insightful job of assessing a quarterback’s overall game. Part of ESPN’s “Year of the QB” initiative, the new rating system goes beyond pass-related plays and takes into account things like 3rd down performance, sacks taken, throwing passes away  instead of taking a sack, etc. This type of nerdy system is not new, but seems to be the most thorough ever undertaken. The upshot for Bucs fans? Using the QBR Bucs QB Josh Freeman ranked 8th among all NFL QBs in 2010—only his second season as a pro—besting guys like Ben Roethlisberger and Phillip Rivers. See a video of the ranking here. Former Buc coach John Gruden, commenting on the QBR, said he thinks Freeman “can make more plays on his own” than any QB in the game, and said he expects to see #5 atop the list soon. Heady nerdy stuff.

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