The Buccaneers' pro personnel department was very pleased with the talent Wilbert Brown displayed during the NFL Europe season
The NFL Europe League (nee World League) determined its ninth championship on Sunday in the World Bowl, broadcast live from the Amsterdam ArenA on FOX, as Berlin defeated Barcelona, 24-17. It was an exciting contest that reflected the ever-increasing talent base in the NFLEL, but it wasn't particularly informative for Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans.
That's because this year's World Bowl didn't feature a single Buccaneer. The eight players allocated by Tampa Bay are already stateside, as none suited up for either the Dragons or the Thunder. In effect, each got one extra week to prepare for the Bucs' 2001 training camp, which opens on July 29.
But their early returns also meant one less chance for Buccaneer fans to gather their own scouting reports on these less-publicized players. To fill that gap, we've spoken with the Buccaneers Director of Pro Personnel, Mark Dominik, to get a feel for why the team originally signed each of these players and what the NFL Europe experience was supposed to do for them.
(NOTE: WR Chris Daniels was originally allocated to Barcelona but missed the season with a neck injury. Since he didn't perform in Europe, he is not included in the analysis below.)
Dominik's assessments described a wide variety of players, from an undrafted, unsigned college free agent who was seeing his first professional action (DE Matt Sweeney) to a more experienced pro player who had spent the past two seasons on an NFL practice squad (G Wilbert Brown). They shed light on a group whose names may be somewhat unfamiliar to the average Buc fan: Brown, Sweeney, P Andrew Bayes, WR Eddie Hardaway, G Kendell Mack, TE Randy Palmer and CB Terrance Parrish.
For instance, you might be surprised to learn that Brown, who spent the past two seasons on San Diego's practice squad, was a top performer in the Europe circuit. As an offensive lineman, there are no straightforward stats to fall back on, but there is 10 games worth of game video with the Frankfurt Galaxy. Dominik has studied that video extensively and was impressed with Brown's performance.
"In my opinion, he was the best offensive lineman over in Europe," said Dominik. "So that was good. We saw what we wanted to see. He had some penalties that he has to clear up before the preseason, but as long as he stays healthy in camp, he should be right there with Kendell Mack and the other competitors for offensive line spots. But, without practice squad eligibility, he has to make the roster. That makes it a little bit tougher."
A college free agent out of Houston in 1999, Brown actually spent the last part of his rookie season on the Chargers' active roster, appearing in five games. During that time, Dominik, who coordinates the Bucs' scouting of all players already in the NFL, has kept his eye on Brown.
"We've always liked Wilbert," said Dominik. "I've watched him for two years while he was with the Chargers. When he finished his last year on the Chargers' practice squad he wanted a change of scenery and we were quickly ready to be that for him. I've always liked him because he's tough, he's physical, he's a smart player and he fits what we do. He might be a tad bit undersized (6-2), but we wanted to see him play another season because he has spent two years on a practice squad and hasn't really played."
Brown was one of two promising young offensive lineman playing in the NFLEL this spring. Come training camp, he and Kendell Mack, late of the Scottish Claymores, will be in direct competition for a bench spot on the Bucs' interior offensive line. Mack has the advantage of having participated in last year's Buccaneer training camp, where he acquitted himself nicely.
"We liked Kendell a lot going into the final cuts last year," said Dominik. "We had a tough time letting him go, but he had a little injury, so we ended up having to do an injury settlement with him. Because of that, we couldn't bring him back on the practice squad all year, but we've always been interested in Kendell."
Mack was re-signed after the season, however, and was sent to Europe to shake the rust off.
"Because of that injury, he sat out football for a year and we really thought he needed to get a season under his belt," added Dominik. "He's a big guy. He started coming out a little bit at the end of training camp last year, showing improvement in terms of keeping his base, keeping his weight and shoulders back and being able to mirror and pass protect.
"Over there, he played solid. He worked a lot inside, which is where we're going to work him, at guard. His size is really his best attribute, and that shows up over there because it's hard to get around him. It was worth it that he went and played. It was good for him. He battled little injuries here and there, but all in all he's going to compete for one of those final roster spots on the offensive line or the practice squad."
Like Mack, Parrish also made a good first impression during the Bucs' 2000 training camp. This spring, Parrish ended up with the Frankfurt Galaxy, for whom he started eight games and turned in 34 tackles and two passes defensed. Parrish's situation was very similar to Mack's when January rolled around.
"We felt Parrish, who we had in camp last year, just needed some more experience," said Dominik. "He was close to making plays last year. He was always just one step away, so we thought sending him to Europe would be a good way to get more experience against a little bit better competition.
"And he did that. He competed well, he tackled well and he showed good toughness over there. In terms of making more interceptions, the production wasn't there in that aspect, but he played well. We didn't know going into the offseason if we were going to retain Ronde Barber, and we had (Parrish) in camp last year. He was one of our favorite corners that we had to let go, so we thought it would be good to bring him back this year and give him another shot."
Statistically, Rhein Fire WR Eddie Hardaway might have been the most interesting Buccaneer in the NFLEL this spring, tying for eighth in the league with 33 receptions. However, the Fire was eliminated from World Bowl contention on the final weekend of the regular season, though not before Hardaway provided some valuable video evidence for Dominik and the Buc scouts.
"Really, we sent Eddie over there mainly because he played at such a small school and he didn't play last year (in the NFL)," said Dominik. "We thought it would be important for him to get a season under his belt, especially coming out of C.W. Post.
"We did see Eddie on Cincinnati's preseason film but we didn't have a lot of information on him because he went to C.W. Post. He's kind of a small-school guy that the Bengals looked at. They were very deep at receiver, and during the preseason we watch teams that are deep at certain positions to see if somebody has to slip through. We thought Eddie did slip through."
In the meantime, the Buccaneers signed a small battalion of college free agent wideouts, most of them well-scouted large-school players. While those players practiced with Tampa Bay during spring mini-camps, Hardaway worked up his own scouting report with the Fire, and did so in fine fashion.
"He ended up leading the Rhein Fire in receptions, so he was productive over there," noted Dominik. "He runs solid routes, has some good speed and is willing to block. He plays with pain and plays with toughness. He should be a good complement to the college free agents we signed, who are competing for those last one or two (wide receiver) spots also."
Palmer, who joined Mack on the Claymores' roster, was the only other Buccaneer to compile any offensive statistics in the NFLEL this spring (13 receptions for 111 yards), but that wasn't necessarily the point of his trip overseas.
"We signed Randy Palmer because we wanted a blocking tight end and that's what his forte was and what gives him a chance to make it on this team," Dominik explained. "We had James Whalen last year, a running and catching tight end, but really for our offense we're interested in guys that can block and position, hold the line and hold the point. We thought Randy could do that, but we thought he could use a year of experience. We also wanted him to practice long-snapping, and that was another good reason to send him over."
Palmer's long-snapping is not likely to earn him a permanent spot with the Bucs, but he did display the ruggedness on the line the Bucs were hoping for this spring. That could give him a boost on a Tampa Bay roster that really boasts only one experienced tight end.
"In terms of blocking, he did a good job of that," said Dominik. "That's good for us, as it will give us a look at another guy that can do that in camp. He'll be competing with the guys that are down the line to fight for that second and third spot. Really, besides Dave Moore, we're not established at that position."
On the other hand, the Bucs are well established at punter, where veteran Mark Royals has put together two consecutive strong seasons and shows no sign of slowing down. Nevertheless, the Bucs had a punter on the field in Europe because they are intrigued by his two-pronged talent.
"Andrew Bayes is a punter/kickoff guy," said Dominik of the Galaxy's punter this spring. "We had him ranked as one of our top punters out of the prior year's draft (in 2000). We thought he was one of the best guys that did not get drafted, so we watched him with the Detroit Lions all through last year's preseason. They were going into a situation with (John) Jett and (Jason) Hanson where they weren't going to make a move. Again, you watch the rosters to get a feel for who's not going to make it, and we knew he wouldn't."
The Bucs didn't sign Bayes last summer when the Lions let him go, but they did give him a quick workout at the University of Tampa and liked what they saw.
"We brought him in last year during training camp and had him punt for us early on, and he punted the ball well," said Dominik. "So we kept up a relationship with him all through the season to make sure we could sign-and-send him (to the NFLEL). He also has the ability to kickoff and we felt that would help Martin (Gramatica) during training camp. It would take some pressure off his leg for kickoff (drills) and also help Mark Royals, taking some pressure off his leg."
Like Royals, Gramatica, coming off his first Pro Bowl season and the two highest-scoring campaigns in team history, is in little danger of losing his roster spot this August. That does not make training camp a futile exercise for a young punter/kicker, however.
"It's a tough uphill battle for him to make the roster, obviously, and he knows that," said Dominik. "It's more about an opportunity for him to get on film and show what he can do."
The same could be said of Sweeney this spring, as the former Miami Hurricane ended up in Amsterdam, where he recorded four sacks, two passes defensed, a forced fumble and one touchdown on a fumble return.
Though he was on the Bucs' draft board last fall, Sweeney not only failed to get selected by any team but was also not signed as a college free agent in the months that followed. Sweeney's jump into the pro ranks was delayed a bit by some injury problems his senior year at Miami.
"We liked Matt Sweeney coming out of college," Dominik revealed. "He had some injuries his senior year, so we had him as a college free agent/late draft pick type of guy last year, a defensive tackle we liked. We brought him in before the draft and interviewed him, which shows our interest in him. His medical questions were a concern, and that's why he didn't get drafted or signed as a college free agent. But we kept up with his agent about how we was doing."
By the end of the 2000 season, the Bucs were prepared to sign Sweeney, a native of New Jersey, though they had to fight off advances from another league.
"We had to convince him not to go to the XFL," said Dominik. "He had two or three opportunities to go into that league. We felt like NFL Europe would be a good start for him and he would come back and have a roster to be on for training camp.
"He competes hard. He's a tough, hard-nosed worker and a solid athlete. But his best thing is that he gives you 100 percent effort and you can trust him to make the right decisions on the football field. He's a good tackler and he actually flashes some big-play ability. It wasn't huge production, but sometimes he would flash out and you'd say, 'Boy, this guy's got some ability.' And he makes it because he plays with heart. He's that typical, blue-collar Jersey kid that really plays hard. That's what we want in camp. It's a tough unit to crack here at his position."
With the Bucs' enviable roster depth, that statement seems true for almost any spot on the team. There are, however, roster surprises each summer, as training camp allows lesser-known players to shine. Whether any of this year's NFLEL-allocated players follow in RB Aaron Stecker's footsteps to earn a spot on the active roster remains to be seen. At the very least, these seven Buccaneers have used the NFL Europe League to give Buccaneer decision-makers a preview of what they're capable of accomplishing.