Ron Warner (right), who worked out for the Bucs on Tuesday, is definitely on his way in; who else comes and goes in free agency is still undetermined
Once more before it was frozen for the year, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dipped into the Canadian Football League pool.
The North will thaw over the coming months, but the CFL won't warm to any more NFL visits. Under an agreement between the two leagues, the period in which NFL teams could audition and sign CFL players under contract ended when March began.
At the deadline, the Buccaneers signed defensive lineman Ron Warner to a one-year contract. Warner, who tried out at One Buccaneer Place last Tuesday (February 27) along with fellow CFL DL Albert Reese, became the second veteran of that league to ink with the Bucs this offseason. Former Toronto Argonauts defensive back Antonious Bonner joined the team on February 19.
Warner played one season with the Winnipeg Blue Bombers after first taking a crack at the NFL in 1998-99 seasons. He was taken by the New Orleans Saints in the seventh round in '98, falling well below his original draft hopes due to an untimely knee injury suffered in the all-star East-West Shrine Game.
The injury prompted the Saints to place Warner on the Physically Unable to Perform list to begin his rookie season, but he recovered and was activated in early November. The Saints kept Warner on the weekly deactivations list until the season finale, when he played but did not make a tackle.
Warner was waived by New Orleans the following season in early September and wound up on the Redskins' practice squad for most of the 1999 campaign. He also had a brief audition on the Bears' practice squad near the end of December.
In Search of a Spark
Last summer, Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy publicly placed added emphasis on the team's kickoff return position. The preseason accent on the return game was less a product of the Bucs' franchise history-long failure to return a kickoff for a touchdown and more a desire to get more consistently positive field position.
The emphasis did succeed in identifying one specific player – Aaron Stecker for the position of kickoff return man in the early going, helping the World League standout secure a position on the 53-man roster. What it did not do, in the long run, was adequately improve the return game.
Tampa Bay did upgrade its return average on kickoffs from a dismal 20.3 yards per runback in 1999 to 22.8 last season, ranking ninth in the league in that category, but was the fourth-worst team in terms of where its drives began after kickoffs.
That may prompt the Buccaneers to take an even more aggressive approach to the situation in 2001. At least that was popular speculation in the days before free agency got under way on Friday.
"I keep reading that, so it must be (true)," said General Manager Rich McKay in jest.
Actually, when he stopped to field the question head on, McKay admitted that the Bucs might indeed keep an eye on the kickoff returners who hit the open market.
"The answer to that is … yes, I think we would entertain the idea of trying to upgrade the kickoff return," pausing mid-sentence to frame his response. "Now, I think that we're realists and can see that they're aren't too many guys in this league that make football teams and are designated kickoff returners. There just aren't very many because it's very, very hard.
"You'd better be very, very good at it, because if you're not very, very good at it, the team is going to say, 'Hold it, I'm not dressing this player and I'm dressing you? I don't think so.' It becomes a tougher choice. But it is an area that we've talked about and it is an area that we'll look at."
As usual, the Buccaneers would prefer to find a player that could make a difference in the return game while also helping the team at another position. However, that particular combination can be very difficult to find.
Of the top 10 kickoff return men in the NFC in 2000, not one ran for more than 187 yards (Philly's Brian Mitchell) or caught more than 17 passes (Arizona's MarTay Jenkins). In the AFC, there was one noticeable exception to this trend, as Tennessee's Derrick Mason led the conference in kickoff return average and also snared 63 receptions for 895 yards. However, the rest of the AFC's top 10 were of the same ilk as the NFC's leaders.
A New Start?
McKay made it clear on Friday that it would be very difficult for the Buccaneers to retain all four of the starters that became unrestricted free agents on that day. Obviously, the team would like to welcome back CB Ronde Barber, G Frank Middleton, S Damien Robinson and T Jerry Wunsch, but is resigned to the fact that the economic structure may not allow it.
If that is the case, the team will feature a few new faces among its starting 22 in 2001. Two potential candidates for the starting lineup are second-year player Cosey Coleman, who could step in at right guard if needed, and fourth-year man Brian Kelly, who has starting experience at both cornerback positions.
If Middleton departs, the expected plan is for Coleman to move into the starting lineup with right guard Randall McDaniel. The 6-4, 332-pound Tennessee product did see limited action along the front line as a rookie last fall, but it came primarily in McDaniel's place on the left side while McDaniel was filling a periodic cameo at fullback.
Coleman got into only one of the last eight games on offense, but the Bucs obviously got a long look at the massive rookie in practice during the fall. The result was confidence on the part of the coaching staff that Coleman could assume a starting position in 2001 without weakening the offensive line.
"Yes, we feel pretty good about Cosey," said McKay. "We felt very good about him when we drafted him last year. We felt very fortunate to get him drafted where we got him drafted. We certainly felt – and, again, everybody sees it differently – that he would be gone by then. I think (Offensive Line Coach) Chris (Foerster) was very pleased that the year that Cosey had from the standpoint of development. This system does require that guys like that, that you pick in the second round, step up and play."
The Bucs had their eye on the Volunteer standout heading into last April's draft but, after trading both of its first-round picks to the Jets for WR Keyshawn Johnson, the team did not expect to get a crack at Coleman. When he unexpectedly slipped into the middle of the second round, Tampa Bay traded a fourth-round pick to Carolina in order to move up in the round and nab their original target.
Kelly was also a second-round pick of the Buccaneers two springs earlier. Tampa Bay plucked Kelly from USC one year after drafting Virginia's Ronde Barber in the third round, only to see Barber have a breakthrough season in 1998. Since, as Barber has continued to emerge as a big-play member of the Bucs' defense, Kelly has settled in as the primary nickel back and a spot starter whenever Barber or Donnie Abraham succumbed to injuries.
All in all, those roles have led to significant playing time for Kelly, who has nine career starts and three-year totals of 116 tackles, three interceptions and 35 passes defensed. Now, he could step up to an even more prominent role if Barber also finds a new NFL home this fall. Abraham is entrenched at left cornerback but Kelly would be the obvious choice to join him on the right side.
"Well Brian has played right corner," said McKay. "Brian's a guy that has played a lot for us. It will be difficult to replace what Ronde brought to the table for us, but as far as being able to play, yes, we're comfortable with Brian."