Dave Moore's re-signing helps solidify the Bucs' tight end position
Like the offensive line, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' tight end position has drawn a lot of attention this offseason. Two factors caused this sometimes overlooked position to be front in center: Dave Moore's unsigned status and new offensive coordinator Les Steckel's history of tight end use.
Of course, that first issue was resolved on Monday, March 20, when Moore, an unrestricted free agent who was free to sign with any team, chose to return to the Buccaneers with a new, three-year contract. Noting that tight ends Frank Wycheck and Jackie Harris combined for 95 receptions in Steckel's Tennessee Titans offense last year, many have predicted a sharp rise in Moore's catch total in 2000.
In any event, most observers expect somebody or several somebodies to provide production from the tight end slot in 2000, making the position an interesting one on draft weekend this April. As usual, Buccaneers.com will not speculate on the team's actual draft strategies or interests, but it can be useful to survey what the club currently has at each position.
We will start with some numbers that we have applied to each position (contract situations as of 3/26):
Starting spots/Returning starters currently under contract: 1/1
Total players under contract: 4
Unrestricted/Restricted free agents: 1/1
Relevant 1999 NFL rankings: Tampa Bay ranked 30th in passing offense, 24th in sacks allowed per pass play and 15th in rushing yards per game
1999 Pro Bowlers/AP All Pros: 0/0
First-round draft picks spent on the position in team history: 0
Overall draft picks spent on the position in the last five years: 1
The Bucs' four tight ends under contract, as seen above, could be misleading because it does not include two of the three TEs Tampa Bay carried last season. Second-stringer Patrick Hape, an outstanding blocker, is a restricted free agent who has not yet been re-signed. Third-stringer John Davis, most notable as a passcatcher, is an unrestricted free agent. Both Hape and Davis have been on the team's roster for the past three seasons as the Bucs have undergone little turnover at that spot in recent years.
The other three players currently joining Moore under contract are recent signees Lovett Purnell, Henry Lusk and Jason Freeman. Purnell served as Ben Coates' primary backup in New England for several seasons before being traded to Baltimore prior to 1999 and is the most experienced of the three. Freeman, a college free agent last summer out of Oklahoma, had a fine training camp for the Buccaneers and was re-signed at season's end to give it another shot this year.
Moore is the Bucs' true veteran at the spot, however. In fact, with Tony Mayberry not expected to re-sign and Paul Gruber's return still up in the air, Moore could head into the 2000 season as the team's longest-tenured player. Though he was drafted by Miami in 1992, he ended up with the Bucs as a free agent in November of that year and has held onto a roster spot ever since. That was sometimes difficult for Moore at first, when his versatility and long-snapping ability kept him just on the right side of the bubble for several years. However, he has shown marked improvement virtually every season and has become entrenched as the starter over the last two seasons.
Moore's reception totals have held steady in the 20s for the past four seasons, but he has also shown a significant scoring touch. He was the team leader with five scoring receptions last year and has had at least three TDs for four consecutive seasons. In fact, Moore has scored on approximately one out of every seven receptions in his career, the best rate in team history among players with at least 40 catches. That's an indication of his value inside the 20, a trait that could make him even more important to Steckel, who places an emphasis on red zone efficiency.
Will Moore find himself in a battle for playing time with a 2000 draftee? Again, the Buccaneers' personnel department will reveal nothing of their draft plans. However, Tampa Bay has never spent either a first or second-round draft pick on a tight end, although they have used a third-round pick on the position on three occasions (Jerry Bell, Tyji Armstrong and Harold Bishop).
That is not to say the Bucs' have a slim history at the tight end position. TE Jimmie Giles, an early '80s star, was a four-time Pro Bowler and is fourth on the team's all-time receptions list. TE Ron Hall solidified the position for a decade after Giles and is sixth on that same list. Harris, before heading to Tennessee, turned in a 62-catch season in 1995. Moore, with 115 career catches, is also threatening the Bucs' top 10 list, but has current teammates Warrick Dunn, Mike Alstott and Reidel Anthony just ahead of him in that chase.
In fact, no team turned to that position in the first round last year. Tight ends Reginald Kelly and Jim Kleinsasser went 42nd and 44th overall to lead off their position, chosen by Atlanta and Minnesota, respectively, in the second round. No tight ends were taken in the opening round in '98, either, but a pair of teams spent first-round picks on the position in '97, with Kansas City taking Tony Gonzalez and Dallas following with David LaFleur. Gonzalez, the 13th pick overall, blossomed in 1999 into perhaps the top tight end in the league, leading all players at that position with 76 receptions and 11 touchdowns.
Whether the Buccaneers figure into it or not, there are a few draft-eligible players who have drawn early-round speculation. Among the names often indicated are Miami's Bubba Franks and West Virginia's Anthony Becht, with Franks commonly mentioned as a first-round prospect.
So will the Bucs use an early pick on a tight end? As seen above, Tampa Bay has drafted just one TE in the last five drafts combined, and that was a fifth-round pick in 1997. That player, however, was Patrick Hape, who carved out an important niche as one of the team's best blockers over the past three years. He has been instrumental in the continued strength of the team's running game.
Hape is a good example of the value General Manager Rich McKay and his personnel department have uncovered throughout all levels of the draft over the past five years. That's an ability that bodes well for the Buccaneers this April, whether or not the team chooses to focus on the tight end position.