Bucs' draft plan centers around Freeman in more ways than one


Although the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted defensive tackles with their top two picks -- Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, respectively -- this year's NFL draft was more about last year's first-round pick, quarterback Josh Freeman.

By snagging two massive, powerful defensive tackles, Tampa Bay felt it could help slow down the strong ground attacks of NFC South foes Carolina, New Orleans and Atlanta, which, in turn, could minimize the amount of times Freeman would have to play from behind. Secondly, by generating a pass rush through the interior, the Bucs hope to screen Saints quarterback Drew Brees' passing lanes and flush the Falcons' Matt Ryan out of the pocket -- where he is less comfortable -- to force turnovers that could shorten the length Tampa Bay's offense has to drive.

"Like 31 other teams, we think we addressed some areas of need, and we feel pretty good about what we did and where we can take things," Bucs general manager Mark Dominik said.

As good as Dominik feels about the defensive upgrade, adding big, game-breaking receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams with second- and fourth-round picks, respectively, will make Tampa Bay competitive faster than presumed after last season's 3-13 train wreck.

The 6-foot-1, 219-pound Benn and Williams, who's 6-1, 221, provide Freeman two noticeable targets to team with tight end Kellen Winslow. Benn and Williams are strong run-after-the-catch players who could help Freeman's completion percentage by allowing him to throw shorter routes and letting the receivers do the rest of the work. Benn's style has been compared to Baltimore receiver Anquan Boldin, a powerful runner who often makes catches in tight traffic because of his physicality. Williams can stretch the field more than Benn, but he is similar in the way he fends off would-be tacklers.

Tampa Bay's existing and former crop of receivers was more prone to catch the ball and go down. The Buccaneers wanted significantly more help with the maturation of Freeman, who started nine games last season, completing 158 of 290 passes (54.5 percent) for 1,855 yards, 10 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.

"The hope was to get playmakers for Josh so he could have more of a chance," Dominik said. "[Benn] is one of the strongest runners after contact. His love of the game is so impressive. So is the physicality of how he runs after the catch. He breaks tackles at 10 yards into 17 yards or more."

As excited as the Bucs are about Benn, Williams could be the guy who ends up being the star. Many prognosticators felt Williams had first-round talent, but there were some red flags concerning his character that scared teams off.

Even Tampa Bay for three rounds.

The Bucs' decision to draft Williams followed some exhaustive research into his troubles last season at Syracuse, in which his coach, Doug Maronne, said he quit after a traffic incident led to a run-in between the coach and player. Williams tells a different story.

I spoke to some teams that wouldn't touch Williams because they felt that if he was supposed to be the team's best player, then he would toe the line and lead the right way, even if he made a mistake. Another team completely took him off its board because it felt that incident with this particular team's history of players who failed to meet expectations wasn't worth the risk.

Dominik loved Williams, though.

"There was not a club that did more work on him than we did," Dominik said. "I can't tell you how much I spoke to coach Maronne and a lot of other people who have history with him. He's a really good football player. At the end of the day, yeah, he quit the team. He got a speeding ticket, and that led to another thing and he quit. This guy's not a quitter, though.

"Two times last year quarterbacks threw picks and the only guy who made an effort to make the tackle was Mike Williams. That says a lot about guys and how much they love playing the game."

The picks of Benn and Williams sandwiched the third-round selection of cornerback Myron Lewis, who will open the season at nickel back but eventually take over for Ronde Barber and pair with Aqib Talib. Lewis' ball skills are why he was so attractive and a must-have for coach Raheem Morris. He wants interceptions so Freeman can get the ball in his hands.

Dominik said his top six draft picks will play this season, adding that most of them will play early. And even though he has huge expectations for sixth-round pick Brent Bowden, who likely will start from Day 1, he doesn't want to see him on the field too often. That would signal all the time spent crafting the team for Freeman was a waste.

Bowden is a punter.

Draft casualties

Not long after teams finished signing undrafted free agents, we saw several teams release players or position themselves to cut bait with veterans who became expendable.

» The Jaguars released defensive tackle John Henderson following the selection of first-rounder Tyson Alualu. Henderson could reunite with Falcons coach Mike Smith -- who was Jacksonville's defensive coordinator -- and defensive line coach Ray Hamilton if he'll play for a moderate salary.

» Raiders quarterback JaMarcus Russell is going to be on the street soon if he doesn't take a pay cut. Even then, Oakland might not want him around. Should he be released, it will be interesting to see if he gets a sniff from another team. Early indications are that he could, but no team is going to rush to get him on its roster.

» A player who remains on his team's roster, Redskins defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, looks like he's going to have to deal with playing in a 3-4 front in Washington. From what I was told before and during the draft, there wasn't much conversation about Haynesworth being moved and definitely not from his former team, Tennessee.

As I've mentioned before, Haynesworth shouldn't judge his role as a nose tackle in the Redskins' 3-4 front as a negative until he's seen new defensive coordinator Jim Haslett's plans for him. Teams aren't going to stifle playmakers; only the supposed playmaker will stifle himself.

Titans' backfield in motion

After going undrafted, Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount pulled a play-action fake on the 49ers. After agreeing to join San Francisco, he signed a deal with Tennessee. No squawking over hard-feelings. If San Francisco wanted him badly enough it would have drafted him. Blount's arrival in Nashville came after USC running back Stafon Johnson, also undrafted, signed with the Titans.

We have the makings of a triumph over tragedy scenario falling into place. With OTAs underway, Titans All-Pro running back Chris Johnson is staying away -- on top of staying away from voluntary workouts -- because he reportedly wants a new contract. Johnson's former backup, LenDale White, was traded to Seattle during the draft.

So with two spots open to get reps, Blount and Stafon Johnson have put themselves in position to enter training camp with a legit chance to make the team.

Stafon Johnson is still on his way back from a traumatic injury he sustained when a bar bell fell on his throat while lifting weights last season. Blount is trying to overcome a lengthy suspension that was handed to him after he punched a Boise State player and then tried to get after fans while leaving the field.

As we see in the NFL every year, opportunities arise. Some people take advantage; others fail to capitalize. This situation is one worth following.



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