SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, Pewter Report publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place:
FAB 1. SIMS’ INJURY HAS MANY REPERCUSSIONS IN TAMPA BAY
When word came down that Buccaneers rookie running back Charles Sims’ right ankle would need surgery that would require 12-14 weeks worth of recovery time, it came as a surprise to many. The Buccaneers weren’t specific about the injury, so it could have been a broken ankle or a dislocation.
Regardless, Sims seems like an early candidate for the special injured reserve designation with return privileges that was enacted last year. If the Bucs should choose, Sims could be placed on injured reserve and not be eligible to return until halfway through the season. All NFL teams have one such designation to use if they wish.
Sims had a big game against Jacksonville last week in his NFL debut, catching three passes for 32 yards, including a 27-yarder, and rushing six times for 13 yards (2.2 avg.). Sims also had a nine-yard run and a 13-yard run called back due to penalties, so he could have posted 35 yards on eight carries (4.3 avg.).
The Bucs have been so impressed with his explosive running and receiving ability that he was slated to be the No. 2 running back behind Doug Martin this year. In fact, one source told me that he was seriously contending to take away quite a few catches and carries from Martin due to Sims’ role on third down. He had stayed healthy, the rookie who has drawn comparisons to Matt Forte, might have received about 40 percent of the workload in 2014.
What Sims’ injury does is almost ensure the fact that both Bobby Rainey and Mike James make the 53-man roster. Both reserve running backs have shined at times during training camp.
From a pure quickness and shiftiness standpoint, Rainey might be best Bucs running back in that category – even better than Martin. And when it comes to powerful, downhill running, the 225-pound James has even been better than Martin in that area, too. In fact, James might be the Bucs’ best short yardage and goal line back.
Rainey and James each showed the talent and endurance to become a primary running back if necessary as Rainey had two 100-yard games en route to leading Tampa Bay with 532 yards and five touchdowns on 137 carries (3.9 avg.). James rushed for 295 yards on 60 carries and led the Bucs with a 4.9 average in addition to throwing a touchdown as a rookie in 2013.
Because Rainey and James have the ability to be a lead back in games, there was a chance that both runners could have made the 53-man roster in addition to Martin and Sims prior to the rookie’s injury. In fact, one Bucs source said that if all five running backs – including speedster Jeff Demps – shine during the preseason, Tampa Bay was prepared to keep five running backs.
Sims’ injury takes him out of the mix and opens up another hole at running back on the depth chart. Demps stands an even better chance of making the team as a result, and so does fullback Jorvorskie Lane.
Demps struggled in the preseason opener with just four yards on two carries in the fourth quarter, one catch for eight yards and two kick returns for 20 yards. If Demps can shine in the return game and showcase his speed by making a few plays in the open field during the preseason the Bucs can find room on the 53-man roster for him.
But if Demps fails to make big plays and doesn’t win the kick return job, his roster spot might be taken by Lane, as the 258-pounder has impressed at fullback. Lane has opened eyes as both a lead blocker and an outlet receiver in the flat. With soft hands and surprising agility for such a big man, Lane has proved to be a nightmare to defend in practice down the sidelines as he outweighs linebackers by nearly 30 pounds and cornerbacks by 50-60 pounds. The former Texas A&M feature back is quite a load to bring down one-on-one and may be carving a niche for himself in Jeff Tedford’s offense.
In the case of Sims, the trickle down effect of one injury could have an impact on as many as four players on Tampa Bay’s offense.
FAB 2. RAINEY READY TO STAR IN RETURN GAME
Bobby Rainey’s path to the NFL began as an undrafted free agent despite back-to-back 1,600-yard seasons at Western Kentucky in which he was one of the most productive running backs in college football. Rainey’s 5-foot-8, 212-pound frame and a 40-yard dash time (4.51) that was somewhat pedestrian in the eyes of NFL scouts caused him to go unselected in the 2012 NFL Draft.
He was signed by Baltimore in 2012 and then bounced around to Cleveland in 2013 before Tampa Bay signed Rainey off the streets last October after Doug Martin’s season-ending shoulder injury occurred at Atlanta. Three weeks later, Rainey would score a 31-yard go-ahead touchdown to beat Miami on Monday Night Football after Mike James suffered a season-ending broken ankle in the first quarter.
After rushing for 45 yards on eight carries (5.6 avg.) against the Dolphins, Rainey broke out for a career-high 163 yards and two touchdowns on 30 carries the next week against Atlanta and also had a touchdown reception near the goal line. Three weeks later against Buffalo, Rainey erupted for a career-long 80-yard touchdown jaunt that keyed a 127-yard rushing performance.
Despite Rainey impressing in his first season in Tampa Bay, the new coaching staff opted to name Martin the starter upon his recovery from shoulder surgery and then proceeded to draft Charles Sims in the third round. After leading the team in rushing in 2013, Rainey would not only have to fight for carries in 2014, he would also have to fight for a roster spot with the addition of Sims.
Sims’ injury has all but assured Rainey’s spot on the Bucs’ 53-man roster because of the need for depth at the running back position, but Rainey wants to prove he can be more than just a reserve running back. He aims to win a starting role as either a punt returner or the team’s kick returner.
“The more you can do the better off you are in this league,” Rainey said. “The more you can do the more likely you are to be on the team. I plan on playing on special teams to help the team out any way I can.”
Rainey is expected to get a significant look as the Bucs’ punt returner against Miami in the second preseason game. He had one opportunity last week at Jacksonville that resulted in a fair catch.
“I did some punt returns at Western Kentucky and also at Baltimore,” Rainey said. “I did kick returns at Cleveland. I have experience at both kick and punt returns and I’m looking forward to the chance to show what I can do.”
In college, Rainey didn’t have much success returning punts, evidenced by a measly 2.9 average. On kickoff returns, Rainey proved to be much better, averaging 24.9 yards on 60 attempts, including returns of 74 and 52 yards for the Hilltoppers.
“I love doing returns,” Rainey said. “Anytime I can have the ball in my hands that’s a good thing. The return game gives you a chance to get some one-on-ones and show what you can do in open space. I’m versatile as a runner and I love the open field.”
There have been some days in the OTAs and mini-camps, in addition to training camp, where Rainey has outshined Martin in practice. Martin needs to squelch the growing criticism of his tendency to dance behind the line of scrimmage rather than accelerating through the holes, otherwise he might lose some carries to Rainey, who is quicker and more explosive through the holes at times.
Rainey also shines in the passing game as an outlet receiver and has been deadly on screen passes in practice. In my opinion, Rainey’s roster spot should have always been secure due to his talent, and it seems like the new coaching staff and scouting staff is coming around to that notion in training camp after watching the third-year runner excel.
“Camp went well for me,” Rainey said. “I got a lot of looks and I’m in the mix. I’m looking forward to the rest of these preseason games. I think it’s gone well from my eyes and from what the coaches are telling me. I just try to get better each and every day and capitalize on what I did last year and do even better this year.”
Rainey rushed for 25 yards on six carries (4.2 avg.) in the preseason opener against Jacksonville and wound up leading the Buccaneers in rushing. It’s been a familiar place for Rainey, who was a surprise star last year, and he’s hoping he can pull the upset and eventually supplant Martin as the team’s leading rusher in 2014.
FAB 3. BARBER STILL MENTORING JOHNSON, BUCS’ NICKEL CORNERBACK
The only real competition Leonard Johnson had for the Bucs’ starting nickel cornerback job was veteran D.J. Moore, who played for Lovie Smith in Chicago. When the oft-injured Moore got banged up in the offseason the Bucs decided not to go down that road and cut him prior to training camp.
The move caught everybody off guard, including Johnson and defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier, who considered Moore to be the front-runner for the nickel cornerback role heading into camp due to his experience. But when Moore was jettisoned, it created a massive opportunity for Johnson to seize a starting spot as the 12th starter on defense in the all-import role of the nickel cornerback.
“It means a lot when a coach says that the nickel is a starter,” Johnson said. “A lot of times the nickel position gets neglected. It’s just a third cornerback in some systems, but not here. It’s a very key position on defense, especially to Coach Smith.”
No coach believes in the importance of the nickel cornerback like Smith does. During his time in Chicago he would personally coach the nickels before creating a position as the nickel backs coach that his son, Mikal Smith, eventually took over with the Bears. Now in Tampa, Mikal Smith coaches the Bucs’ safeties while Larry Marmie, who coached Lovie Smith in college, coaches the nickel corners.
“Coach Marmie is a straight-forward guy,” Johnson said. “He’s real hard and he just wants the best for you. He’s going to uplift you as well. He’s a great guy to be around. He’s coached Lovie Smith. He’s coached a lot of great players like Aeneas Williams. He talks about all those guys and you can definitely learn a lot. I just sit in on the meetings, don’t say much and take everything he says in and then come out on the field and try to apply it.”
Smith has had the chance to be around two of the best nickel cornerbacks of all time in Aeneas Williams when he was a star performer with the St. Louis Rams in the early 2000s, and of course Buccaneers legend Ronde Barber, who played with Johnson during his rookie year and the veteran’s final season in the NFL in 2012. Since then, Barber has taken Johnson under his wing and the two formed a close relationship.
You see, Johnson grew up as a Buccaneers fan in Clearwater, Fla. So not only was it a dream come true for him to play for his hometown team, but to have a tremendous mentor in Barber was more than Johnson could have ever imagined.
“Ronde is a phenomenal guy,” Johnson said. “I can’t say enough good things about him. He’s my favorite Buc of all-time, but he initially turned me down for an autograph during my rookie year, so that’s why he’s working with me now! He feels bad!”
Although the two suited up in red and pewter together for just one season in 2012, they have remained close and still talk often with Johnson constantly picking Barber’s brain, which is full of invaluable football knowledge having played for 16 years in the NFL.
“I’m so grateful to have Ronde on my side, to watch his film and learn from him,” Johnson said. “He’s been out here to see me and the whole team with him working for Fox Sports now. I’m going to talk to him before every game this season to get me leveled down and get me thinking and relaxed. He does TV work for all of our preseason games and I talk to him quite a bit at the hotel the night before. I thank Ronde every day and I call him ‘Unc.’ He’s been like an uncle to me. Just when I think I’m bothering him, he tells me I’m not. He loves talking ball. He can never get enough of that.”
Johnson’s path to the Buccaneers came with the disappointment of going undrafted in 2012 due to a slower than expected time in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine due to a hamstring injury. But the sting of the NFL Draft was quickly diminished when Johnson was able to sign with the team he had rooted for his entire life.
“I grew up in this area watching the Bucs,” Johnson said. “My mom was a Ronde fan before I was, but I quickly became a big fan of his, Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp in the late 1990s. I have a picture of me coming to my first Bucs game when I was six years old hanging up in my locker. I’m so excited to be a Buccaneer. It’s been a journey, but it’s been a blessing, too.”
Johnson’s rookie season was full of highlights after cracking the starting lineup as an outside cornerback in 2012 during the second half of the season. He recorded 41 tackles, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three interceptions, including one he returned 83 yards against San Diego that helped the Bucs win that game and stay in playoff contention.
Last year, Johnson was moved inside to nickel cornerback where he covered slot receivers during the second half of the season. It was quite the learning curve for Johnson, who had played outside all his life, and he experienced some growing pains outside of a crucial pick-six he returned 48 yards for a key touchdown in a narrow road win at Detroit.
Entering the 2014 season with Smith at the helm, installing the Tampa 2 defense that Frazier will be running, Johnson was slated to compete strictly at the nickel cornerback position, which the stoutly built, 5-foot-10, 202-pounder has come to embrace.
“It’s the best of both worlds playing nickel,” Johnson said. “You are trying to cover the quickest, fastest guy in the slot, and then you get to bang around as a linebacker with the tight ends and the linemen. You’ve got to be ready for all of it.”
There is a rich sense of irony in all of this for Johnson. Entering his third year with the Buccaneers, he is now playing the position his idol played in the scheme that made Barber a future Hall of Famer. What better model to study on film than the prototype itself?
“I’m trying to stay in his back pocket and learn from Ronde,” Johnson said. “The more I can do that the better I’ll become. I’ll never be him, but I can be the best Leonard I can be. Hopefully that will become good enough to become a starter and help contribute to winning football games.”
Johnson likely won’t have the legendary career that Barber had, but who knows? Barber played in just two games as a rookie in 1997. Johnson played in all 16. Barber didn’t get his third pick until his third season in the NFL. Johnson had three in his rookie year. Barber didn’t record his first pick-six until his fourth season. Johnson already has two in two seasons.
Even during the Bucs’ preseason TV broadcast, Barber hasn’t been shy about rooting for Johnson. While that makes Johnson feel good to have a living legend on his side, it actually adds some more pressure to the high stakes game of the NFL.
“Anytime I make a play, Ronde is always for it,” Johnson said. “Knowing that Ronde is a fan of mine is great, but it’s also kind of tough. You don’t want to let him down. I’m out here all the time thinking, ‘What would Ronde do? How would he be practicing? I had the opportunity to play with him, so I know that he took advantage of every opportunity. He ran to the ball. He hustled. I’ve got to do that, too.”
Johnson has had a tremendous camp with the Buccaneers. During the final Sunday practice, he read Mike Glennon’s eyes and stepped in front of Jeff Demps to pick off a pass in the red zone and return it 85 yards for a touchdown.
“We were in Cover 2 and the QB was looking away so I slid to the side he was looking to and when he came back to the check down I just jumped in front of Demps and ran it all the way back,” Johnson said.
After a tough transition to cornerback last year in Greg Schiano’s defense, Johnson’s confidence is beginning to soar after an entire offseason of studying the Tampa 2 defensive scheme.
“This is my third go around and I’m trying to put my all into it,” Johnson said. “This is a totally different defense and a totally different role as the nickel. I did get some experience playing inside last year towards the back half of the season, but the scheme was totally different. This is almost like my first year playing nickel cornerback and I’m trying to soak up as much knowledge as possible and hopefully come out and have a big year.”
FAB 4. ENGLISH IS THE LATEST DE TO GET A LOOK IN TAMPA BAY
Buccaneers head coach Lovie Smith loves defensive ends. He’s admitted that the team will probably keep several ends (likely five) on the 53-man roster because edge rushers are so important in the Tampa 2 defense.
But the fact that Tampa Bay currently has 12 players listed at defensive end on its training camp roster seems a bit excessive. Yet that number is really 11 because Da’Quan Bowers seems to have found a home as an interior rusher backing up two-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy at the three-technique defensive tackle. Veteran Ronald Talley has also been getting looks inside at tackle due to Bowers’ groin injury this week.
With Steven Means also sidelined with a groin injury, the Bucs have opted to bring in several defensive ends for a look in the second preseason game. Over the past two weeks, the Bucs have signed James Ruffin, who got a look in camp two years ago, in addition to Ryne Giddins, T.J. Fatinikun and Larry English, a former first-round pick of the San Diego Chargers six years ago.
The reason why the Bucs have signed so many ends is because that is one of the few positions where a player can quickly learn his assignments and step out onto the field in the Tampa 2 scheme and make an impact with only a week’s worth of practice. The Bucs are trying to find some impact pass rushers to back up the likes of Michael Johnson, Adrian Clayborn and Will Gholston.
English, the team’s latest addition, is an interesting player to watch in the preseason game against the Dolphins. English was one of the players that I really liked in the 2009 NFL Draft, and I advocated for the Bucs to seriously considering both he and Georgia Tech defensive end Michael Johnson, who wound up in Tampa Bay this offseason, in the first round. Instead, the Bucs took quarterback Josh Freeman, who is currently out of the NFL.
English might have the same fate as Freeman unless he resurrects his NFL career in Tampa Bay. As an undersized right end at Northern Illinois, English recorded 30 sacks and one forced fumble, including 11 sacks as a sophomore and 10 as a junior.
After notching eight more sacks as a senior, English was drafted in the first round by San Diego with the 16th overall pick in 2009. Because the Chargers run a 3-4 defense, English was converted to outside linebacker.
As a rookie, English notched 36 tackles, two sacks, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. But injuries and ineffectiveness over the next four seasons limited him to just 55 tackles, nine more sacks and one more fumble recovery. After playing in just nine games last year and notching 18 tackles and 2.5 sacks, San Diego declined to re-sign him.
English doesn’t have the hips and agility to cover tight ends and running backs, and isn’t an ideal fit as an outside linebacker in the NFL. Yet, at 6-foot-2, 255 pounds, he is too small to play defensive ends in many NFL schemes other than the Tampa 2, which favors quickness and speed over size and girth.
English has a fierce bull rush and a decent outside rush, and he has his collegiate experience to lean on as he transitions back to putting his hand in the dirt as a defensive end. It will be interesting to see if he can outshine the latest defensive ends the team has brought in, in addition to some players that have spent the entire training camp with Tampa Bay, such as Talley, Chaz Sutton and Scott Solomon.
Due to the Smith’s love of defensive ends, English has quite the uphill battle with nearly a dozen ends on the current roster. He needs to make a quick first impression against the Dolphins in order to stick around.
FAB 5. Here are a couple of things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5:
• Tampa Bay’s offensive line is anxious to make up for a more than lackluster showing in its first preseason games where holes for running backs were scare and protection for starting quarterback Josh McCown was almost non-existent. As bad as the guard play was, the performance by the offensive tackles was shaky, too. Right tackle Demar Dotson was flagged for holding, and left tackle Anthony Collins, who is considered to be a very good athlete, surrendered two sacks in the first quarter.
“At the two tackle positions you see two guys that are pretty athletic,” Dotson said. “I think the coaches want two tackles that can get out in space and move. I think that’s what we’ve got and that’s what they want. I’m not a 335-pound lean-on-you kind of guy. I like operating in space and I can move. It’s a blessing for me.”
The Bucs’ offensive line is built for speed and athleticism, but is it a physical unit? Does it have the toughness necessary to open holes and hold up in pass protection, or is it too finesse? We’ll find out more in Tampa Bay’s second preseason game.
• Bucs wide receiver Tommy Streeter made a nice first impression in his initial preseason game in Tampa Bay. Streeter, who has starred in practice, didn’t get many opportunities in the preseason opener at Jacksonville, but caught a 6-yard touchdown in the third quarter.
The Bucs like Streeter’s 6-foot-5, 215-pound frame and the fact that he has 4.39 speed. Despite being one of the biggest receivers, Streeter believes he’s one of the fastest on the team.
“It’s tough to say who is the fastest,” Streeter said. “I don’t know. We all talk about it and joke about it. The coaches say Skye Dawson is – he was a 10.2 guy in high school. Who knows where he’s at now? Solomon Patton is fast and so is Robert Herron. The coaches say the little guys are burning up the grass, but we had to say, ‘Hold on, Coach. Don’t underestimate us big guys.’ I think it would be interesting to find out who is the fastest. I wouldn’t mind doing a charity race with these guys – as long as Jeff Demps wasn’t in there with us.”
Streeter, who ran track in high school, almost raced against Demps.
“Here’s a funny story from high school,” Streeter said. “We were running the Florida relays and I was running the last leg on the 4 x 100 and we were checking in. Jeff Demps was running the last leg on his 4 x 100. They said Miami Northwestern High School, so I check in. Then they said Southlake High School, which is where Jeff went. I was like, ‘Oh man! I’ve got to race against Jeff Demps, who was a legend in high school track at the time.’ Then the guy said, ‘Correction. Southlake is in the next heat.’ I thanked God! I wasn’t trying to get run down by Jeff Demps. He’s a different level fast. If you blink, who knows where he’ll be. I’ve watched him on film and I’ve seen two helmets. It’s like some warped stuff. It’s crazy.”
• Although he likely won’t come close to notching the 28 career sacks that his idol, Ronde Barber had in Tampa Bay, Leonard Johnson will get the chance to record his first NFL sack as a nickel cornerback in the Tampa 2 defense. The position – made famous by Barber – is often assigned to blitz from the slot. The 5-foot-10, 202-pound Johnson is a good tackler and a hard hitter, and is relishing the opportunity to hunt quarterbacks and not just pick them off.
“The nickel cornerback in this defense blitzes a lot, so I’m real excited about that,” Johnson said. “I’m definitely looking forward to getting some sacks this year.”
Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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