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Rick Stroud, Greg Auman and Matt Baker

Bucs' O.J. Howard ends big day with BP, first pitch for Rays

Bucs tight end O.J. Howard is known for his athleticism at 6-foot-6, 251-pounds. As an outfielder, he took his Autuaga Academy High School baseball team to the state tournament in Alabama as a junior.

On Monday, after a little instruction from Steven Souza, Jr., the left-handed hitting Howard started making good contact in the batting cage before throwing out the first pitch in the Rays-Angels game at Tropicana Field.

There was a time, before enrolling early at Alabama and forgoing his senior seaosn in baseball, when Howard dreamed of a career on the diamond.    

"It could've been, it's cool to be around it again, definitely I loved it when I played it back in high school, and since I got to college I haven't played it, so I'm having withdrawals a little bit,'' Howard said. "It's a fun game. I'd probably play right, rightfield or leftfield.''

Howard's decision to concentrate on football already is paying off. On Monday, the Bucs' first-round pick signed a four-year contract. Terms of the deal were not released but it is projected to be worth more than $11-million with a signing bonus of more than $6.2-million.

"It feels great, that's something that you look forward to doing, and to finally get it out of the way and sign on the dotted line is definitely very exciting and very encouraging,'' Howard said. "So I was excited it happened today.

"Its exciting because sometimes you see a lot of guys who hold out for a while before they get signed, we had good parties on both ends that were very cooperative and that's the reason it happened so fast.''

Howard said he is anxious to begin full squad acitivities in OTA's which begin Tuesday. 

"We got to do a little bit of that last week so now we have OTAs tomorrow and thats very exciting to finally just to finally put everybody on the field together at the same time and work on communiucation,'' Howard said.

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Ryan Fitzpatrick likes Bucs weapons, believes he's a good fit

Ryan Fitzpatrick is happy about all the weapons on Tampa Bay’s offense.

AP photo

Ryan Fitzpatrick is happy about all the weapons on Tampa Bay’s offense.

Ryan Fitzpatrick’s experience playing for six other NFL teams is what made him attractive to the Bucs as a backup to starter Jameis Winston. But if he has to play, the former Jets quarterback is happy about all the weapons on Tampa Bay’s offense.

"I thought it was a great opportunity for me to come to a team that's really on the rise, with a great young quarterback in Jameis, just to come and try to provide some of my experiences," Fitzpatrick told the team’s website Monday. "I just met him for the first time today. He seems like a great kid, though, lots of energy. I'm very excited to work with him and I think he's excited to have me here. We'll get to work pretty soon.

"This is also a place where, if need be, I've got to be ready to step up and play with a pretty explosive offense. So there are a lot of good things about this decision."
Fitzpatrick, 34, started 27 games in the last two seasons for the Jets. But he will be a quick study learning a new offense and won’t require as many reps after 12 NFL seasons.

"I think both sides were excited because there are a lot of good pieces here," Fitzpatrick said. "I just wanted to be a part of it and I'm happy they have me here. …

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Starting at top: O.J. Howard becomes first Bucs rookie to sign

Alabama tight end O.J. Howard has signed a four-year contract with a fifth-year club option with the Bucs.

MONICA HERNDON | Times

Alabama tight end O.J. Howard has signed a four-year contract with a fifth-year club option with the Bucs.

The Bucs have begun the process of signing their rookie draft picks and they started at the top.

Alabama tight end O.J. Howard, the team’s first round pick (19th overall), has signed a four-year contract with a fifth-year club option.

Terms of the deal were not released but it is projected to be worth $11.2-million with about $6.2-million to sign.

Howard is the first member of the Bucs’ rookie class to sign with the Bucs. He was projected to be a top 10 pick in the NFL draft last April. But a run on quarterbacks, running backs and receivers unexpectedly pushed him down to the Bucs. They had not even included Howard in their 30 player visits to the team’s training facility prior to the draft.

At 6-foot-6, 251-pounds with 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash, Howard is a rare talent, equally adept as a dominating blocker and receiver. …

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Bucs' Jameis Winston rising in fantasy football rankings

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston is ranking much higher in fantasy football rankings entering his third NFL season.

LOREN ELLIOTT | TIMES

Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston is ranking much higher in fantasy football rankings entering his third NFL season.

We're still probably three months away from most fantasy football drafts, but it's not too early to appreciate that Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston has taken a major step up in the rankings entering his third NFL season.

Winston is the first quarterback in NFL history to pass for 4,000 yards in each of his first two seasons, and much of the buzzz surrounding him is the upgrades made around him in the offseason -- the Bucs signed veteran receiver DeSean Jackson and drafted Alabama's O.J. Howard in the first round. As a result, Winston is being seen as a top-10 fantasy quarterback.

A year ago, Winston was ranking about 20th among QBs in average draft position -- in a 12-team league, that means he wasn't perceived as being in the top half of the backup options going into 2016. But now, it's much more than a sleeper pick to draft Winston -- SI.com released its early top 100 rankings, and Winston ranked eighth among QBs, though amazingly, still fourth in his own division. If you could have made the case a year ago that the NFC South was the NFL's best division for QBs, it's an easier argument now, with three QBs who have led their teams to Super Bowls and Winston as the fourth. …

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Bucs opt for experience behind Winston, sign Fitzpatrick

Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was a starter the past two seasons for the Jets, has played for six NFL teams in his career.

AP photo

Ryan Fitzpatrick, who was a starter the past two seasons for the Jets, has played for six NFL teams in his career.

No longer content to enter training camp without an experienced backup for Jameis Winston, the Bucs have signed vagabond veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick.

The 34-year-old Fitzpatrick, who was a starter the past two seasons for the Jets, has played for six NFL teams in his career.

All off-season, the Bucs had said they were okay with entering 2017 with two relatively inexperienced quarterbacks behind Winston after Mike Glennon signed as a free agent with the Chicago Bears.

But neither Ryan Griffin, who has been with the Bucs as the No. 3 quarterback the last two seasons, nor Sean Renfree, a free agent who attempted seven passes in two years with the Falcons, have any real game experience. In fact, Griffin has never attempted a regular season pass.

“Mike (Glennon) was the ultimate professional,’’ said Bucs quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian Thursday. “I wasn’t surprised at all people came after him and Chicago got him. He was a great support to Jameis. What we lose is that guy that was in Jameis ear. …

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Bucs say Winston must be more accurate and precise

Jameis Winston's accuracy and precision is a focus for the Bucs this off-season.

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Jameis Winston's accuracy and precision is a focus for the Bucs this off-season.

The last interception Jameis Winston threw in 2016, his 42nd turnover in two seasons, was an example of what the Bucs and their quarterback can no longer do.

Tampa Bay trailed 7-3 to Carolina and faced first and 15 from their own 18-yard line. Four receivers and a tight end were split from the line of scrimmage, including Adam Humphries, who was outside the numbers to Winston’s left.

Panthers cornerback James Bradberry backpedaled and was 15 yards in front of Humphries, who got a late break at the snap of the ball. Humphries ran a 5-yard stop route, but Winston’s pass did not hit him between the numbers as planned. It was wide and bounced off Humphries’ left arm. Bradberry tipped the deflection with his right hand and made the pick, returning it to the Tampa Bay 15.

It was the seventh, first quarter interception by Winston, whose accuracy and precision is a focus for the Bucs this off-season. …

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J.R. Sweezy already building reputation on Bucs' line

J.R. Sweezy missed all of last season recovering from back surgery but is already establishing himself with a physical reputation on the Bucs' offensive line this spring.

LOREN ELLIOTT | TIMES

J.R. Sweezy missed all of last season recovering from back surgery but is already establishing himself with a physical reputation on the Bucs' offensive line this spring.

J.R. Sweezy has yet to have the first practice in pads with the Bucs, but in advance of next week's start of OTAs, he's already building a reputation as bringing some nastiness to Tampa Bay's offensive line.

It started last month, when Ali Marpet said Sweezy has "a little bit of a mean streak" -- he went so far as to call him a "jerk," later settling on "gritty" as the adjective of choice. Offensive line coach George Warhop continued that sentiment Thursday, saying that Sweezy -- who missed all of last season recovering from back surgery -- brings the same toughness that Pro Bowl guard Logan Mankins brought in 2014-15.

"He's got a little bit of Logan to him, which I thought we missed last year," Warhop said of the guard Sweezy was signed to replace. "I don't even know how to describe it, but that beat-the-dog-crap-out-of-you edge. ... He's doing a nice job for us out there. He works his tail off. He brings an edge. I'm excited to see him when we get in pads and it's for real." …

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Bucs defense 'multiple,' but staying in 4-3 base, coach says

Bucs defensive end Noah Spence has lowered his percent body fat but isn't any lighter entering his second NFL season, according to defensive line coach Jay Hayes.

JAMES BORCHUCK | TIMES

Bucs defensive end Noah Spence has lowered his percent body fat but isn't any lighter entering his second NFL season, according to defensive line coach Jay Hayes.

Just to put to rest any speculation that the Bucs could be shifting to a 3-4 defense this fall, defensive line coach Jay Hayes reiterated Thursday that while Tampa Bay will continue to have multiple looks defensively, they'll do it from a 4-3 base.

"I don't know who (is) speculating that," Hayes said. "We have the potential to do a lot of multiple things. Smitty (DC Mike Smith) has always had multiple packages. Is there a chance we could have a look that looks like a 3-4? Potentially, sure. For us to wholesale change and be a 3-4, I don't see that happening. We're always going to be a multiple front."

The Bucs had occasional looks last year that deviated from the standard four down linemen and three linebackers -- or two linebackers and five defensive backs in their nickel defense. Hayes said the goal is to take advantage of the athleticism at outside pass rusher while keeping offenses guessing as to where pressure will be coming from. …

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Monken: DeSean Jackson took the money and better be great

DeSean Jackson signed a three-year, $33.5-million contract as a Redskins' free agent in March with $20-million guaranteed.

ANDRES LEIVA | Times

DeSean Jackson signed a three-year, $33.5-million contract as a Redskins' free agent in March with $20-million guaranteed.

If you think the Bucs will pressure DeSean Jackson to live up to his contract, well, you’re right on the money.

At least that’s the message from offensive coordinator/receivers coach Todd Monken to the 30-year-old Jackson, who signed a three-year, $33.5-million contract as a Redskins' free agent in March with $20-million guaranteed.

The Bucs have a pretty good group of receivers with Mike Evans, Adam Humphries and Chris Godwin, a third-round pick from Penn State. But by far, the biggest addition this off-season was Jackson, whose speed should draw some defensive heat off of Evans and help stretch the field for quarterback Jameis Winston.

But Monken has informed Jackson he has to be a ‘great player,’ in 2017, because that’s how the Bucs are paying him. Jackson had 56 catches for 1,005 yards (17.9 avg.) last season, but has had only four touchdowns in each of the last two years. …

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O-line coach in full support of Bucs tackles Smith, Dotson

Bucs tackle Donovan Smith took part in the annual "Turkey Time for the O-Line" event before Thanksgiving last year, providing meals to 1,000-plus families.

LOREN ELLIOTT | TIMES

Bucs tackle Donovan Smith took part in the annual "Turkey Time for the O-Line" event before Thanksgiving last year, providing meals to 1,000-plus families.

As much speculation as there was in mock drafts that the Bucs might use their first-round pick on an offensive tackle, Bucs offensive line coach George Warhop was unwavering in his support for left tackle Donovan Smith and right tackle Demar Dotson.

"I saw that. I'm like 'Really?'" Warhop said Thursday as assistant coaches talked with reporters during offseason conditioning. "Unless they know something I don't."

Smith, a second-round pick in 2015, hasn't missed a snap in two years, and Warhop said he wasn't consistent enough in the first half of last season but continues to play at a high level, with room still for growth to the top of his position. …

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Teen who burglarized Gerald McCoy's house gets 5 years in prison

Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy expressed forgiveness last fall for the teenager who burglarized his home and injured McCoy's father.

LOREN ELLIOTT | TIMES

Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy expressed forgiveness last fall for the teenager who burglarized his home and injured McCoy's father.

The teenager who was charged with the armed burglary of Gerald McCoy's home, injuring the Bucs' player's father hours before a game in November, has been sentenced to five years in prison in a plea agreement related to six other felony charges against him.

Justin Frazier, 18, of Wesley Chapel entered into a "best interest" plea agreement May 3, with credit for 180 days already served in jail, according to court records. He was facing a combined nine felony charges from six incidents, though the largest came in the burglary that fractured the wrist of McCoy's father Nov. 3.

Frazier faced counts of armed burglary, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and grand theft from that incident, as well as misdemeanor charges of battery and trespass. He also faced separate charges of grand theft, robbery and dealing in stolen property related to four other incidents between July and November last year. Officially, Frazier entered a guilty plea on one felony count of robbery by sudden snatching, with one concurrent sentence for all the charges against him. He agreed to pay $1,200 to another victim and $665 in court costs in addition to the prison sentence. …

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DE Jacquies Smith signs contract with Bucs for 2017

Bucs defensive end Jacquies Smith had 13.5 sacks in 2014-15 and should return healthy this fall after missing nearly all of 2016 with a knee injury.

DIRK SHADD | TIMES

Bucs defensive end Jacquies Smith had 13.5 sacks in 2014-15 and should return healthy this fall after missing nearly all of 2016 with a knee injury.

It's largely a formality, but defensive end Jacquies Smith, who had 13.5 sacks for the Bucs in 2014-15 but tore his ACL in last year's season opener, has signed his restricted free agent tender and is under contract with Tampa Bay for 2017.

Smith, 27, is expected to be healthy for the start of the season and part of an upgraded Bucs defensive line in what will be a contract year for him. The Bucs took a gamble by giving Smith the lowest RFA tender at $1.8-million, and while the 49ers brought him in for a visit, they made no offer and the Bucs got him back for another season.

Smith is one of several defensive ends returning healthy from major injuries that limited them in 2016 -- he played a single snap on special teams before his knee injury, George Johnson missed the entire season with a hip injury, and Will Gholston (elbow) and Noah Spence (shoulder) were both limited by injuries as well.

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Most targeted Vernon Hargreaves must be more aggressive

Vernon Hargreaves allowed 1,069 yards passing, becoming the only player to top 1,000 yards allowed in 2016.

LOREN ELLIOTT | Times

Vernon Hargreaves allowed 1,069 yards passing, becoming the only player to top 1,000 yards allowed in 2016.

It may say more about the respect teams have for Brent Grimes, but Vernon Hargreaves was targeted more than any defensive back in the NFL as a rookie last season.

Opposing quarterbacks looked his way 113 times and completed 80 of those passes, a stunning 70.7 percent of their attempts.

With that many targets, Hargreaves allowed 1,069 yards passing, becoming the only player to top 1,000 yards allowed in 2016.

Grimes was a factor, to be sure. But Hargreaves’ lack of aggressiveness and unfamiliarity with the defense were also big factors.

“I thought Vernon did a very nice job last year,’’ defensive coordinator Mike Smtih said. “He was targeted a lot. When you have Brent Grimes on one side – it’s not talking about his talent, it’s talking about Brent’s talent.

“I think that he needs to have a better understanding and awareness of situations. I think at the corner position you’ve got to realize where you are on the field, what the down and distance is. I think he understands that.’’ …

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Purdue DE Evan Panfil turns tryout into contract with Bucs

Former Purdue defensive end Evan Panfil was the only tryout player to earn a free-agent contract from Bucs rookie minicamp.

EVAN PANFIL -- TWITTER

Former Purdue defensive end Evan Panfil was the only tryout player to earn a free-agent contract from Bucs rookie minicamp.

In past years, the Bucs have taken three or four tryout players from rookie minicamp and rewarded them with free-agent contracts, but this year's class netted only one such prize, and former Purdue defensive end Evan Panfil is thankful to have that small chance at making the team's final roster this fall.

"I was just really grateful for the opportunity even to try out -- I'm really excited," said Panfil, who led the Boilermakers with 12 tackles for loss and five sacks last season. "My time in Tampa was awesome, from the coaches I met and some of the other players, the facility, the whole thing was a first-class experience. I couldn't be more pleased."

Panfil, who is 6-foot-4 and 280 pounds, comes to the Bucs much the same way Auburn's DaVonte Lambert and Ole Miss' Channing Ward did last year in making the roster as undrafted rookies. Both were ends who had enough size and strength to slide inside as defensive tackles in the Bucs' nickel defense, and Panfil played both outside and inside while at Purdue. He had other tryout offers for the second weekend of NFL rookie minicamps but got a call back from the Bucs with the contract offer he'd hoped for. …

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Back home in Florida, Jonathan Moxey hopes to stick with Bucs

Bucs rookie cornerback Jonathan Moxey was a three-year starter at Boise State, and now is one of three former Broncos in Tampa Bay's current rookie class.

BOISE STATE SPORTS INFORMATION

Bucs rookie cornerback Jonathan Moxey was a three-year starter at Boise State, and now is one of three former Broncos in Tampa Bay's current rookie class.

Boise State cornerback Jonathan Moxey is trying to make the Bucs' roster this fall as an undrafted rookie, and one of the reasons he chose to sign with the Bucs was a close look at their cornerbacks, and specifically, their height.

"They don't shy away from smaller corners -- they have 5-9, 5-10, 5-11 corners on their roster," said Moxey, himself listed at 5-10 and 188 pounds. "They won't discriminate based on height."

Indeed, the Bucs' starting cornerbacks are both 5-10 in Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves, with backup Ryan Smith the tallest of the 10 on roster at 6-0. Head coach Dirk Koetter mentioned corner as a position where an undrafted rookie might be able to make the roster, with Moxey and West Virginia's Maurice Fleming in the mix.

"I feel like I can fit into it -- there's a lot of stuff I have to learn as a corner," Moxey said. "It's the splits and alignments, the numbers and the hashes, distances from the sidelines are different than they were in college, little things like that that I have to get used to. I feel like working with Coach (Jon) Hoke and Coach (Brett) Maxie, I know they can get me there and I just have to continue to listen to their coaching." …

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