So finally we round out the NFC South, by looking at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Tampa did ok with last years lot and with free agency, so I was expecting (perhaps unfairly) big things from Tampa this year. I think they lived up to the reputation.
It all begins in round one with Adrian Clayborn. I love this kid, I really do. I think it was a great pick, especially at 20th overall. Great value. Clayborn is a seriously talented Defensive End who could finally help the Buccaneers get the pass rush that they need to start taking advantage of what is an increasingly talented young team.
Probably Clayborn's greatest attribute is that of block destruction. I wouldn't go so far as to say he's unblockable, but he does have a real talent for using his hands to get unstuck. In particular he is very adept at fending off cut blocks while keeping his eyes up and in the backfield.
If I had one knock on Clayborn it's that his speed isn't great, but I think he makes up for that with his other skills, like his awareness against the run. If he finds himself on the backside he does a great job of sticking to the hip of the last blocker and making sure he plays his proper run contain assignment. Now there are a lot of pros who struggle with that, so I always find it impressive in a rookie.
It's a core skill for defensive ends and it gives you an insight into his maturity. See, my experience has been that players don't do the fundamental things unless you ram them home. If you want a DE to play backside contain, you have to relentlessly tell him and show him. If he does it, it means he actually listens. All too often it's too tempting for a young player in that position to crash down the line and go chasing for the highlight reel play.
Seeing him playing his run responsibility pitch perfect is impressive. When you couple that with the way he plays the run as it comes towards him, keeping his shoulders square to the line and tracking the running back across the field while fending off blocks, it tells me that Clayborn already has a very solid base of skills to work from and will listen to his coaches to learn everything he can.
When you consider all that, it makes Clayborn a tantalising prospect. My hope is that the Buccaneers will put Gerald McCoy on one side as a DE - a position he had some success with last season - then insert Clayborn opposite him. With those two coming off the edges and causing havoc, that could push the Buccaneers defense to a level it hasn't reached since the days of Warren Sapp.
Of course there's still the chance that the Buccaneers will want to keep McCoy at defensive tackle and that's made more likely by their second round pick; Da'Quan Bowers.
Bowers, a defensive end from Clemson, fell into the Buccaneers lap at number 51 overall. It was something of a miracle that he made it this far down, but then that's what knee surgeries in the off season can do to a kids draft stock. The risk with knee surgery is that you never know how it's going to pan out. It might get better and the player returns to normal, as we saw with Wes Welker in 2010. Or it can go decidedly down hill and the player never fully recovers their speed and agility.
The Buccaneers have taken a gamble, but a calculated one.
Bowers is a mixed bag if I'm honest. He plays pretty smart and seems to have a good grasp of everything going on around him. He sniffs out reverses well and has the speed and determination to pursue plays from the backside.
But generally speaking if you can get your hands on him then Bowers gets locked up. And that is quite an issue for a defensive end. If you can't beat the blocks, how are you supposed to get to the QB? My overall impression then of Bowers was that he often seemed to luck out.
If you don't block him on the blitz then he has the speed to get through, but you're kind of relying on the generosity of other people for that which isn't exactly a recipe for success. This problem is compounded by the fact that the Buccaneers are a 4-3 team who aren't going to be regularly calling on linebackers to bring pressure, confusing or tying up the blockers.
Left to face an offensive tackle one on one, I'm not sure if Bowers has the technical ability to make things happen for himself. I just see him getting wadded up on the outside and not really being able to be of much use. And I'm not even talking sacks. I can't even see Bowers bringing much in the way of QB pressure.
Onwards and upwards then, into round 3 and the 84th pick overall, linebacker Mason Foster. Not a lot to say here really. Foster is a pretty good tackler, but his pass coverage is a definite weak point. That's problematic not just because he's a linebacker in a 4-3, but because the Buc's play a fair amount of "Tampa 2" coverage, which means their linebackers are needed to drop back and fill zones over the middle. That might expose Foster I feel.
Round four saw the Buccaneers take tight end Luke Stocker. An understudy to Kellen Winslow II it would seem. Stocker isn't very quick, but he is strong and has good balance, both of which aid good run blocking. He has good hands which is always a plus, and even though he's not all that fast his strength allows him to fight for extra yards. Not a bad pick in the fourth round.
In round five the Buccaneers went with Florida safety Ahmad Black. Black is a good tackler, who reads the plays really well. His range is pretty good and he breaks on the ball well, playing it well in the air. The Buccaneers made progress at the safety spot in 2010, but the addition of Black gives them that extra boost.
In round six it was running back Allen Bradford from Southern California. Bradford is very much in the same mold as LaGarrette Blount. He's big and strong, but also has a surprising turn of speed in the open field. His agility is also pretty impressive. That's a bonus because it makes him a legitimate second back to Blount, where he'll bring many of the same skills which should help his coaches blend him into their scheme without having to make special dispensations on his account.
In round seven the Buccaneers had two picks, courtesy of a compensatory selection. The first of these they used was on Florida international cornerback Anthony Gaitor. Now I warn you that I'm a confirmed fan now of Anthony Gaitor, so expect this to be glowing to the extreme.
Gaitor had a fast 40 time at his pro day, but I'm always a little wary of 40's in general and especially at pro days. On the field, Gaitor can sometimes look a little sluggish in pads, but don't let that fool you. Gaitors play and route recognition are absolutely superb. He's a great tackler and he plays the ball really well in the air.
Now I had a suspicion he would fall this low and I also mentioned in my cornerbacks post that I feel Gaitors late round evaluation is a huge mistake that shows everything that is wrong with scouting. For my money, I think Gaitor dropped because of where he played (at Florida International). If he was playing for a bigger college, he would have been much higher ranked.
The film is there. You can clearly see that Gaitor is a quality corner. He displays all of the skills that you would expect and also has safety potential in there. He easily looked better on game day than guys like Amukamara and Peterson. His intelligence and vision are plainly superior, yet he ends up in the seventh round.
I don't get it?
Lastly was Daniel Hardy, the tight end from Idaho. I first came across Hardy while looking at Nathan Enderle. Hardy has good hands and great route running technique. Speed is good, if not exceptional. In particular, Hardy seems to thrive in the rough and tumble world of catching over the middle. I really like Hardy. Is he an elite guy at the next level, like a Vernon Davis? I'm not sure. But I can see him on the same level as guys like Hernandez and Gronkowski in New England.
So that's it, the entire Buc's draft class done. Personally I think they had a pretty good draft. Clayborn to start was a great pick. Then came Bowers. I might not be a big fan of him, but the Buccaneers obviously are and importantly they got great value out of him because he was a projected first rounder who dropped to them in the second.
Mason Foster is another question mark for me, but other than that it's all good. The two tight ends they acquired have a lot of promise I feel. They got another good young back to share the workload with Blount and I think they really hit a home run with their selections of Black and Gaitor.
I like what the Buccaneers have done here for their defense. They've improved the defensive line and the secondary all in one go. Perhaps they didn't need two tight ends, but I can live with it because of the development potential there and because it's more weapons for Josh Freeman. An extra wide receiver would have been a nice addition, but the Buc's should do well regardless.
2011 is starting to shape up nicely for the Buc's. They'll be looking to reap the fruit of last years impressive rookie class, mixed with this one. On the basis of what I've seen, I think we'll all have to keep an eye on Tampa Bay this year.