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As Bucs eye a developmental quarterback in NFL draft, one player stands out

Florida International quarterback James Morgan could be a late-round steal for the Bucs.
The Bucs appear to be high on Florida International quarterback James Morgan, but will he still be available in the later rounds?
The Bucs appear to be high on Florida International quarterback James Morgan, but will he still be available in the later rounds? [ MARIO HOUBEN | ZUMAPRESS.com ]
Published Apr. 20, 2020
Updated Apr. 22, 2020

TAMPA — The quarterback class in this year’s NFL draft has the potential to be a memorable one.

The Bucs don’t need a quarterback right now. They signed a savvy veteran by the name of Tom Brady, who will be under center for at least the next two seasons. But this is still a big draft for the Bucs in terms of quarterback.

They surely have other draft priorities — offensive tackles, running back and receiver, among them — but as the draft progresses, the Bucs will look to take a quarterback they can groom under Brady to perhaps become his successor.

That probably won’t be until the third or fourth round at the earliest, but there is one player on their radar they really like. And interestingly enough, he bears some resemblance to a former late-round pick who became the best quarterback of all-time. One who will call Raymond James Stadium home this fall.

Related: Bucs open to drafting their quarterback of the future, but it has to be the right fit

Florida International’s James Morgan has played his entire career with a chip on his shoulder. He didn’t get any big-school offers coming out of high school in Green Bay, Wisc., where he grew up in the shadows of Lambeau Field and idolized Packers Hall of Famer Brett Favre. In high school, he wore Aaron Rodgers’ No. 12. He went to a mid-major school at Bowling Green, but transferred after three seasons following a coaching change.

He landed at FIU, a program that plays in the shadows of Florida’s college football heavyweights, and flourished in the Panthers’ pro-style offense.

“A lot of the stars in the league, they weren’t five-star recruits, they weren’t necessarily the most athletic on their team, but they were the ones who worked so hard at it and had a chip on their shoulder and it drives them to be successful and to work their way to the NFL,” Morgan said. “And that’s how I feel, too. I think I have a lot of athletic talent, but that I have something to prove a little bit. Throughout my career, that’s kind of been my MO. And that’s what I’m going to take to the NFL and use that to drive me to be successful.”

Related: NFL draft: Eleven speedy receivers the Bucs should consider on Day 2 or 3

Morgan might not be a household name, but NFL draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. calls him “very intriguing." Morgan has size (6-foot-4, 230 pounds). He has a strong arm and he’s confident in it. He has good anticipation and can put the ball where he needs it. He is smart — he holds a pre-law degree from Bowling Green and was one credit shy of a master’s in public administration — and has a strong football acumen. His throwing and footwork mechanics could use some work, but he owns all the intangibles to become a good player.

James Morgan of Florida International looked impressive in the East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field in January.
James Morgan of Florida International looked impressive in the East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field in January. [ CHRIS O'MEARA | AP ]
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“He can make the throws, he moves well in the pocket,” Kiper said. “Very competitive, very smart, has great football IQ. Great kid, works hard, loves to study the game, very passionate about the game of football. I like the way James Morgan plays. I think he’s a kid you could get on Day 3.”

Morgan’s stock has gradually trended upward throughout the pre-draft process. He played well in the East-West Shrine Game in January at Tropicana Field, leading the East to touchdown drives on his first two series.

He earned an invitation to the combine, where he built on that momentum. It’s there where Morgan showed NFL team doctors that he was healthy — he played through injuries his senior year at FIU, so his numbers weren’t as good as his first year with the Panthers. Since then, Morgan met with other teams via videoconferencing, where he has spent time breaking down plays for teams on the whiteboard. He said he has met in some fashion with every NFL team and loved every minute of it.

Related: Below-average Bucs must build around Tom Brady in NFL draft. Here’s how.

“Growing up, the pre-draft process was always something that really excited me,” Morgan said. “Watching clips of whatever, whether it was (Jon) Gruden’s quarterback camp or the combine, it was something that really excited me and to be a part of it, I really enjoyed it. I think my whole thing is whatever opportunity I have to make the most of it.”

Morgan met with Bucs quarterbacks coach Clyde Christensen and spoke with other Bucs coaches at the East-West Shrine Game. He spent most of the offseason training in Tampa, working with former Bucs receiver Yo Murphy on combine preparation and former Tampa Bay Storm quarterback John Kaleo on quarterback training.

He also had the help of best friend and Bucs wide receiver Scotty Miller, who helped Morgan prepare for interviews. Miller went through the draft process last season. The two were freshman roommates at Bowling Green.

As for the possibility of learning from Brady, Morgan said that would be an “awesome experience.”

“It would be an absolute blessing to learn under someone whom I consider the greatest of all time,” Morgan said. “To be a young quarterback, it would be so amazing to be able to do that. I would definitely be very fortunate to be going there.”

LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Herbert could all be drafted within the first six picks. Utah State’s Jordan Love might be taken later in the first round. The next crop of quarterbacks — Washington’s Jacob Eason, Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts — should start to come off the board on Day 2.

Related: FIU quarterback James Morgan shines among all-stars in East-West Shrine Game

Kiper said he believes Morgan could get taken in the sixth round. The Bucs have two picks in the fourth round, so that might be where they begin to think about drafting him. But there are whispers he could go as high as the Round 3. Interestingly enough, the Patriots might be the Bucs’ top competition.

No matter where he goes, Morgan is determined to be another late-draft success story.

“That’s probably my big message to scouts,” Morgan said. “Pick me and you’re not going to regret the decision because I’m a leader, I’m a competitor, I’ve been a part of two different programs, three different coaching staffs, three different offenses. I know how to go into a locker room as a newcomer, and I’m very excited to put all of my work ethic and all of my hard work into helping an organization win games in whatever capacity that may be. So if somebody drafts me, they’re not going to regret it, that’s for sure.”

He already sounds like Brady.

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.