Rookie free agent Chris Daniels has size and toughness, not to mention long-snapping ability
If NFL player traits were commodities, then the Tampa Bay Buccaneers of recent vintage would be heavy traders in speed. Both offensively and defensively, the Bucs are built around speed and quickness, and built well. With linebackers that can roam from sideline to sideline, backs that can get around the corner, defensive linemen that burst upfield and receivers that can stretch defenses, Tampa Bay emerged in 1999 as a prime Super Bowl contender.
To get so bullish on speed, however, the Bucs have had to sacrifice a bit on another valuable commodity: size. WR Jacquez Green, for instance, turned into a legitimate deep threat in his second season last year and led all Buc wide receivers with 56 receptions and a 14.1-yard per-catch average. He stands 5-9. RB Warrick Dunn emerged as one of the most effective pass-catching running backs in the league, snaring a team-high 64 passes. He's 5-8.
Neither of these players, nor Karl Williams (5-10), Reidel Anthony (5-11) or for that matter LB Derrick Brooks (6-0) or DT Anthony McFarland (6-0) on defense, have suffered in the league due to their average or below-average height. In fact, all are key players in the Bucs' resurgence. However, taken as a whole, they make the Bucs one of the shorter teams in the league, and that has been most evident in the receiving corps.
The Bucs could easily be made envious in this category by such obvious examples from their own division as Minnesota's Cris Carter (6-3) and Randy Moss (6-4), Detroit's Germane Crowell (6-3) and Herman Moore (6-4), Chicago's Marcus Robinson (6-3) and Green Bay's Bill Schroeder (6-3). All of the above were among the NFC's top 15 receivers in 1999 except Moore, whose season was plagued by injuries. If so, Tampa Bay has taken extraordinary measures to ease their envy.
"The reason for that," said Buccaneers Wide Receivers Coach Charlie Williams, "is that we've got those fast guys that can run down the field already. We need those big guys for when we're running that football. We're going to run the ball, and we want those big receivers able to go toe-to-toe with the safety or the corner and get the job done."
Of course, those big receivers must do more than just block or they would be ignored as a receiving threat. "Not only can those guys go inside and block, but they can go inside and catch the ball," said Williams. "I'm talking about mixing it around with the linebackers. And, when you get down close to the goal line – and it doesn't necessarily have to be the goal line – when you get down there close, and you throw the ball up, the big guys with their reach can go over the top of the DB and win that battle."
Most obvious in the Bucs' quest for size is, of course, the 6-4 Keyshawn Johnson, late of the New York Jets. At the risk of being presumptuous, Johnson is a pretty good lock to make the team, an addition that completely overhauls the Buc receiving corps in and of itself. Johnson, who has averaged 76 receptions per year in four NFL seasons, is the prototypical size/speed combination, a physical player who goes deep or goes over the middle with equal glee and success.
But the list doesn't end with Johnson. Other intriguing big-target options in camp this year will be second-year man Darnell McDonald, first-year player Drew O'Connor and rookie free agent Chris Daniels. There are reasons to be excited about each.
"We're fired up about the guys that we have," said Williams. "We have some great competition at all positions and it's going to be interesting."
Of the three, McDonald is the only one to play in a regular-season NFL game, as he saw action in eight games for the Bucs last year as a fifth wideout. McDonald was extremely productive on the college level at Kansas State, where he snared 75 passes and scored nine touchdowns as a senior, and he was more than just a decoy in his limited action last year. McDonald caught nine passes for 96 yards and a touchdown for Tampa Bay, including his first NFL score at New Orleans (11/7) in a 31-16 Buc win. He was a crucial figure in that game, catching three passes for 47 yards, and he also turned in a fine 15-yard catch at Chicago (1/2/00) on third-and-14, setting up a Buc field goal.
At least twice during the Bucs' just-completed first week of summer workouts, McDonald used his height to his advantage to catch balls that appeared destined to be incomplete or intercepted. "Darnell is a nice-sized receiver with excellent hands," said Williams. "He's improving in his route-running. He's learning a new offense for the second time in two years, and he's having a good offseason right now."
This spring, Buccaneer head Coach Tony Dungy has sent praise in O'Connor's direction, seemingly setting him up as a sleeper candidate in the upcoming training camp. While both Johnson and McDonald enjoyed highly-publicized collegiate careers, O'Connor came to the Bucs as an unknown from the remote (in an NFL sense) location of the University of Maine. At Maine, O'Connor had numbers similar to McDonald's when both were seniors in 1998: 72 receptions for 1,027 yards and 16 touchdowns.
Area scout Joe DiMarzo located O'Connor, and the Bucs liked what they saw on type, a big, strong, physical receiver who was willing to work. In 1999's training camp, O'Connor used his raw skills well enough to make it to the final cut, then spent most of the year on the team's practice squad and was immediately re-signed after the season.
"Drew is the 'people's choice'," said Williams. "I say that because a lot of people like him, and I do, too. He's improving. He played at Maine, so he didn't see the kind of talent in the secondary that he's seeing now. So it's taking him some time to get adjusted to this. And now he's learning a new offense for the second time in two years also, so it's going to be interesting to see how it shapes up. But right now, he's doing a good job in his learning process."
As the newcomer of the three, Daniels is the current intriguing prospect, particularly after a senior year at Purdue when he caught an astounding 109 passes from Heisman hopeful Drew Brees. That was a Big Ten record and the eighth-best total in NCAA history and it sent him into the 2000 draft with such buzzwords as tall, physical, tough, smart and productive. Though he was not drafted, the Bucs were more than happy to bring him to Tampa, having had pretty good success with another offensive Boilermaker standout (does Mike Alstott ring a bell?).
Daniels was very active in the Bucs' first week of camp and showed good hands. He also has long-snapping ability; if that talent is of NFL-quality, it could give him an edge in what should prove to be an extremely heated battle for receiver roster spots in training camp.
"Chris Daniels is the last piece of the puzzle in terms of big guys," said Williams. "Chris had an exceptional senior year at Purdue, where he caught a lot of football. These guys, the new guys, are behind, so it's going to take them some time, but Chris Daniels shows me some things. He's big and he can play physical and go inside just like the rest of those guys."
Height, of course, is just a number unless it translates into production on the field. The Buccaneer brain trust has rebuilt the team into a contender by focusing on production over the raw numbers of a scouting sheet. Still, it is easy to see the value of having a variety of weapons, and a receiver or several receivers with height advantages would certainly be a new weapon for Tampa Bay. The Bucs are heading into their 2000 training camp with several options in that category; it's just a matter of sizing them up.