Mike Williams will find it tough to hide in 2011.
After a breakout rookie season in which he led all NFL newcomers with 65 catches for 964 yards, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second-year receiver is going to have a target placed on his back by opposing defenses. He caught a team-record 11 touchdown passes last fall, so cornerbacks and safeties are going to zero in on him in the red zone. He won't even be a sleeper in your fantasy leagues anymore.
But the Buccaneers' coaching staff just might find a way to deflect that attention, to make Williams a little harder to pin down from play to play.
While Williams will still be seeing the majority of his action at the X, or split end, position, Tampa Bay coaches will explore ways to line him up elsewhere from time to time. That means he will need to learn a few more segments of the playbook in order to know what the Z (flanker) or Zebra (slot) receivers are required to do.
Head Coach Raheem Morris knows that it can stress the defense to find a dynamic receiver in an unexpected spot along the line. The fear, of course, is that the opposing coordinator has found a way to exploit a mismatch. Morris has seen that effect on occasion when his team has played the Carolina Panthers in recent years.
"I'm trying to put him in different spots in order to give him the ball more," said the coach. "We're going to put him in different spots to make defenses work a little bit harder. Being on the defensive side of the ball, when you're talking about just a guy in our division type like Steve Smith for the last couple years, there was a big red flag that went up when he wasn't at his X position. And you want to be able to create some of those things, some of those problems for other teams with a guy like Mike Williams."
The learning curve shouldn't be a problem for Williams, who devoured his portion of the playbook last offseason, looking like a revelation on the field by May and earning a starting spot by the first day of training camp. Williams is eagerly looking forward to the opportunity, and it's all part of the confident demeanor that he is carrying with him onto the field in his second season.
"He's playing great football right now," said Morris. "He's coming back in, he's running himself into great shape. Being away from these guys a little bit, up in Buffalo, it's a little different heat up there, back where he's from. He's happy to be back. You can't help but see that glow, that smile from the young man. He's developed a nice chemistry, swagger, youth, energy, second-chance mentality, what this team is about and he's making the most of it."
And if Morris and his staff see fit to expand his role and move him around the field, he'll make the most of that, too.
Taking Out More Insurance
Morris is the type of coach who is willing to think outside the box. He tried safety Jermaine Phillips at linebacker in 2009, converted defensive end Erik Lorig to fullback last September and may be toying with long-time cornerback Ronde Barber at safety some these days.
So, Earnest Graham, here's a warning for you: Morris is probably joking, but you might want to be careful if he suddenly pulls out a red practice jersey for you. You see, there's a little hole on the depth chart at middle linebacker – the 'Mike' – right now, and, well…you just never know.
"I've been calling him 'Insurance Graham' since I became the head coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and he is exactly that," said Morris of his security blanket in the backfield. "He fills every role you need. I'm not sure if he can't play linebacker for us, he might be the Mike. You never know. He's just one of those guys."
Actually, the Bucs are pretty confident that somebody from the group of Mason Foster, Tyrone McKenzie and Derrell Smith will slide nicely into that middle linebacker spot, but it certainly wouldn't be unusual for Graham to add another line to his resume in 2011. He's been doing that on seemingly an annual basis since he first made the active roster in 2004, and there doesn't seem to be any limit to what he can do for the team.
Still, middle linebacker is probably stretch. Graham does have a more realistic idea of how his role might evolve once again in 2011.
"Another ideal thing for me to do is to coach these guys up and make them better, complete football players," he said. "That's why I'm here. That's part of my job, to come in and get LeGarrette Blount up to speed, to get Kregg Lumpkin up to speed, Allen Bradford, these young guys. That's part of my job, and then when I'm called on to play…you know an NFL football season. It's up-and-down due to injuries and all those things. It varies, so I always keep an open mind about what I'm doing."
It's an excellent point. With Cadillac Williams currently an unrestricted free agent, the Bucs' running back corps consists of Graham, the eighth-year veteran, one third-year player, two second-year players and four rookies. The third-year player (Lumpkin) and one of the second-year players (Blount) just joined the team last September, after the entire camp and preseason had passed, and the other second-year player is Lorig, the recent convert to offense. Graham has played 91 career NFL games; the other seven combined have played 35.
The Bucs like their players versatile, and nobody can teach the young backs about learning different roles better than Graham. It's a familiar story to Bucs fans, but Graham has run the gauntlet of job descriptions since the Bucs first signed him as an undrafted free agent out of Florida in 2003.
He split his rookie season between the injured list and the practice squad. In 2004, he started out on the practice squad but then earned an October promotion to the active roster and quickly became an important player on special teams. In 2005 and 2006 he picked up a few more carries as a reserve back while solidifying his role in the kick-and-return game. In 2007, injuries to Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman shoved him into the limelight and he suddenly emerged as an NFL-caliber tailback, rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns on 222 carries. Williams re-emerged after injury problems in 2009, taking back the starting role, so Graham went back to being a reserve and then shifted to fullback when injuries struck that position harder. He proved so adept at that job – and gave Bucs quarterbacks a nice target out of the backfield – that he went into 2010 as the team's starting fullback.
That's the case again in 2011, but don't be surprised if he finds more to do. His song never changes, and there is never any doubt that he means it: He will do whatever the team wants, and you'll never hear a complaint. Graham believes it is that attitude that has created such a long career for a guy who came into the league with few expectations on him.
"For quite a while it's been that way for me," he said. "I kind of go in with an understanding that I can fill in in all roles, and that's something that's kept me around. I'm not just saying that – I've been around for eight years now and that's not easy, coming into this league the way I did. Mainly it's because I can do everything, including special teams. I can play all the special teams, halfback, fullback, third-down, goal-line, short-yardage. Within every facet of the game I can contribute, and that's something that's kept me around."
Morris, who was on the Bucs' staff as an assistant in the mid-00s when Graham would routinely blow up in the preseason before going back to his special teams role in the regular season, certainly values his veteran back for that trait.
"He does it all," said Morris. "I never hear him complain. There's never a problem. I've seen him go through a crisis with his family, deal with it, be their force, us be there for him. He was a free agent, walked in here, walked on, led the league in rushing in the preseason. For years he was the killer in the preseason. He took it right to the season, became the star running back, almost ran for 1000, moved to fullback, played special teams. Insurance Graham, great player to be around."
New Tight End Arrives
Jose Cruz found a new home at Syracuse after his original college home, Hofstra, shut down its football program at the end of the 2009 season. Now Cruz has found his first NFL home, thanks in part to a fellow Hofstra product.
On Sunday, the Buccaneers announced their first one-for-one roster move of this year's training camp, signing Cruz as an undrafted free agent and releasing long-snapper Aaron Feld. Cruz, a 6-5, 250-pound tight end who played his final collegiate season at Syracuse, began his playing career at the alma mater of Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris.
Cruz transferred to Syracuse in time to play his senior season last fall, marking his third collegiate stop. He had played his first two seasons at Akron without catching a pass, serving primarily on special teams. In 2009, he caught 15 passes for 149 yards for the Pride, followed by a 13-catch, 78-yard season at Syracuse to cap his college days.
Cruz is the second player off Syracuse's 2010 squad that the Bucs have signed this summer, joining linebacker Derrell Smith. Tampa Bay also drafted former Syracuse wide receiver Mike Williams in the fourth round in 2010.
Feld was one of two rookie long-snappers added in the days leading up to camp, as the Bucs incumbent, Andrew Economos, is recovering from an offseason injury. His release leaves UCLA's Christian Yount as the man handling all the snapping duties at the moment.