(Buccaneers.com is on the scene in Indianapolis to provide coverage of the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine. Exclusive interviews with such key figures as General Manager Mark Dominik, ESPN analyst Chris Mortensen and other draft experts from the NFL Network will be posted over the next three days.)
A high percentage of the early mock drafts in 2012 have paired the Tampa Bay Buccaneers with LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne. That's a function of both Claiborne's terrific skill set and the Buccaneers' apparent uncertainty at the position.
The Buccaneers' two starting cornerbacks for the majority of 2011 were Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib. Barber is a pending free agent who, at age 36, has not yet decided if he wishes to extend his career another season. Talib is potentially facing a legal issue that could impact his availability. While awaiting the resolution of such matters, the Buccaneers are at the NFL Scouting Combine at Indianapolis, getting a closer look at Claiborne and a rich crop of cornerback prospects.
Shortly after arriving at the Combine, new Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano addressed the Barber and Talib situations, which could obviously affect how strongly the team feels about the value of the young defensive backs in Indy this week.
Schiano said that he and General Manager Mark Dominik plan to meet with Barber after the Combine to try to give the veteran defender some clarity as what to expect in the Buccaneers' near future.
"I just need to tell him what my vision is for the football team and hear from him how he sees how he fits in that," said Schiano. "I think it's going to be a great exchange. I'm just going to tell him, 'This is what we're going to try to build here. Where do you see yourself fitting in?' I mean, he knows it's near the end, whether it's a year, two or three. But I think no one knows better than Ronde what's best for all parties involved. So I'm anxious to hear what he has to say."
Schiano will have no trouble conveying to Barber how much he respects what the 16th-year veteran has meant to the franchise, and could still mean.
"He knows what this is about, he's been doing it so long," said Schiano. "And he's a Buc. When I was coaching at Miami, I would drive up to watch the Bucs practice. So it was Monte [Kiffin] and Lovie [Smith] and Rod [Marinelli] and Herm [Edwards]. Well, [Barber] was there. He was there, he was playing corner. Trust me, I think he knows how much I appreciate what has been accomplished here over the years, especially on defense. We visited briefly and it was good. I mean, what a bright guy to visit with. But I think this next time, we'll talk more about the specifics of football and all that."
Schiano has already had a lengthy meeting with Talib, who is still very much in the prime of his career and has what many consider Pro Bowl-level talent. The player and coach didn't really need to talk Xs and Os; rather, they discussed structure and responsibility.
"I had a great meeting with him and we just kind of talked about life for a little bit," said Schiano. "I know there's been some things in the past. But at the end of the day, the legal stuff that's going on right now, hopefully that will get resolved. He tells me it will. Then from there, we're just going to go. Every guy on this football team will know our expectations. There won't be any, 'Well, I thoughts.' I think most of the time, frustration comes out as the result of unfulfilled expectations, my frustration and theirs. So if you make the expectations clear, then discipline really isn't discipline, it's a choice. You knew if you do this, everything is cool, and if you don't, there's going to be consequences. That, to me, is not that complicated. But you have to make sure you're very, very clear on what it is your expectations are."
As for the Buccaneers' intentions in the draft, it's certainly possible that they would be interested in Claiborne or one of his contemporaries even if Barber and Talib were both still in the picture. One thing Schiano made clear in Indianapolis, however, is that the recent hiring of Ron Cooper as the Buccaneers' defensive backs coach should not be considered a clue as to who is at the top of Tampa Bay's list. As the former defensive backs coach at LSU, Cooper obviously has a close relationship with Claiborne (as well as the Arizona Cardinals' Patrick Peterson and a host of other strong defensive backs).
"Somebody said to me, 'That's the only reason we hired him,'" laughed Schiano. "I said, 'Yeah, we would do that. We would jeopardize the entire football team for that.' No. We will have some inside info but Ron is an exceptional secondary coach. Look, I was a secondary coach for 15 years. Jeff Hafley, who is going to work with Ron in the secondary, they know. Being a secondary coach for a head coach who was a secondary coach – not always the most fun. Ron and I talked about it. But he worked for coach Holtz. Lou Holtz. And there's no one tougher to coach the secondary for than Lou Holtz. We laughed about it, but he's an excellent coach, obviously, by the way his guys have performed."
Coughlin Couldn't Hold Sullivan Back
In constructing Schiano's first coaching staff in Tampa, the Buccaneers sought to interview a wide range of intriguing candidates. As they knew would be part of the process – as is part of the process for any time trying to build a staff – they were occasionally denied permission to speak with coaches under contract with other NFL teams.
Under NFL guidelines, teams have to seek permission to interview coaches on other teams unless they are interviewing for the head coaching position. It is no longer enough to be offering a step up from position coach to coordinator. Teams are under no obligation to grant such permission, and often seek to protect their own assets.
However, when the Buccaneers asked the New York Giants permission to speak with Quarterbacks Coach Mike Sullivan, who had one year remaining on his current contract, permission was granted by Head Coach Tom Coughlin.
During his introductory press conference in Tampa, Sullivan indicated that Coughlin was initially reluctant to let him go, which Sullivan took as a sign of respect. On Friday at the Combine, Coughlin explained his eventual decision and offered a round of praise for his former assistant.
"He's an outstanding football coach," said Coughlin. "He's an outstanding person. He's been with us a very long time. We will miss him, no doubt. The decision was based on the fact that he desperately wanted the opportunity to go forth, so I agreed with him."
Sullivan coached Eli Manning and the Giants' quarterbacks over the last two seasons after spending six very successful years in charge of New York's receivers. Manning has done some of his best work over the past two seasons, and his 2011 campaign was a clear step up from what he accomplished in 2010. Manning threw for a career-high 4,933 yards this past season but perhaps more importantly reduced his interceptions from 25 the year before to 16.
In Tampa, Sullivan inherits another franchise quarterback, Josh Freeman, who is coming off a season marred by too many turnovers. After throwing just six interceptions in a marvelous second-year breakout campaign in 2010, Freeman was picked off 22 times in 2011. Coughlin believes Sullivan will have the same sort of impact on Freeman in 2012 as he did on Manning this past year.
"He has a lot of ability," said Coughlin of Sullivan. "He's very smart, he's very innovative, he's very good with the technology. He'll get out in front of whatever the issues are. He'll do a good job."
Prospects Face Probing Questions
Many NFL teams consider the nightly round of sit-down interviews to be the most beneficial part of the Scouting Combine. These 15-minute sessions are an opportunity for team representatives to gauge the character and attitude of the players in whom they may soon choose to make a heavy investment.
As such, the interview sessions are particularly important for players who have run afoul of the law or otherwise thrown up red flags with off-the-field behavior in their past. Most players in this situation head into their interviews with a two-fold strategy of being honest and demonstrating that they have learned from their mistakes.
Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd is considered one of the top prospects at his position in this year's class. He could even earn a spot in the first round. If he slips into the top of the second round, he would be in the neighborhood of the Buccaneers' #36-overall selection. Obviously, Tampa Bay and another other potential suitors of Floyd are going to want to find out as much as they can about the young player's character and current frame of mind.
Floyd, who had several alcohol-related issues while at Notre Dame, including an arrest for drunken driving a year ago, is seeking to prove that he has grown as a man and become more responsible. He was completely forthcoming while meeting with the assembled media at the Combine on Friday.
"You know the questions they're going to ask," he said of the nightly interview sessions. "I'm comfortable in my position to answer anything. It's just about answering their questions and moving forward. [You need to show] that you've grown from it; that it's behind you; that it's a mistake that happened in the past and that I'm moving forward."
At the behest of Notre Dame Head Coach Brian Kelly, Floyd attended classes regarding alcohol issues along with other students and actually enjoyed the experience. He says he has learned a lot from the whole situation, and that all he can do at this point is try to convince NFL teams that he has indeed grown from it, making such mistakes unlikely to happen again. That's all any player who heads into a potentially uncomfortable interview can hope to do this week.
"All I can do is be honest and tell them exactly what happened and go on from there," said Floyd. "It was immaturity. People have mistakes like this all the time. But it's about moving forward. It's about making sure you don't make the same mistakes again. It's about keeping a positive head and staying on the positive side of things. I just changed the whole environment around me."