2011 team previews
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Recent posts by Dan Parr
Many of the questions about the Buccaneers were answered last season. Raheem Morris proved that he belongs as an NFL head coach, despite his relative youth, and became a Coach of the Year candidate. QB Josh Freeman took major strides after struggling in his first season, establishing himself as the franchise quarterback Tampa Bay drafted him to be. And when the team's depth was tested by injuries, inexperienced backups took on the challenge and surprised those who said the Bucs were ready to crumble.
The young Bucs, in the midst of a long-term rebuilding project, grew up in a hurry, winning 10 games after going 3-13 in 2009. They became the first team since the 1970 merger to finish with a winning record after having 10 different rookies start at least one game.
They missed the playoffs, however, and had only one win over an opponent with a record above .500.
While the gap between themselves and the league's top teams isn't as large as it once appeared, Tampa Bay has room for improvement in almost every area.
The defense is where the most glaring needs are — the pass rush and run defense are two areas where better play is a must — but there is little doubt that the team has found its franchise quarterback.
After spending his top two draft picks on defensive linemen in consecutive years, GM Mark Dominik is confident he has built a front four that will engineer a defensive resurgence for the Bucs.
Coordinator Greg Olson has held his position for two seasons, but he has had only one full offseason in that role. After taking over for Jeff Jagodzinski following his abrupt dismissal before the start of the 2009 campaign, Olson had a chance to fully implement his scheme in '10. He runs a variation of the West Coast offense and aims to maintain balance between the pass and the run. However, he doesn't confine QB Josh Freeman to the short drops and horizontal passing game that is associated with a West Coast system. The Bucs will go vertical at times to stretch the field and let Freeman show off his strong arm. Olson has core principles, but he's flexible.
Quarterbacks: There was widespread agreement that Josh Freeman had the tools to become a good quarterback over time, but he sped up the process. Freeman made great improvement in his second season, starting every game. He became more comfortable and confident, and it was obvious that he studied the game and put in a lot of work to limit mistakes and improve his awareness. Freeman has rare size and the ability to scramble to elude the rush. He has a cannon for an arm and gets a good throw off even when he fires from a backpedal when the rush is converging on him. He's smart with the ball and limits mistakes. After throwing 18 interceptions in nine starts as a rookie, he had only six picks in '10. He'll overthrow at times, and his mechanics get sloppy on occasion. Backing up Freeman is the quick-footed and thin-framed Josh Johnson. He can get rid of the ball in a hurry and is confident and elusive on the move. Rudy Carpenter throws a nice ball on short-to-intermediate routes but has yet to play in a regular-season game.
Running backs: As one of several nice finds by the Bucs last season, LeGarrette Blount landed with the team after being cut by the Titans out of camp. He made the most of his opportunity with Tampa Bay, becoming the team's leading rusher. Blount is a big back with good feet for his size. He can wear down defenses, will break tackles and plays with a good lean. His game lacks suddenness, however, and he's not very quick. Blount isn't much of a factor as a receiver (only five catches last season). He's not yet a reliable blocker, and character concerns kept him from being drafted, but Blount has the ability to develop into a more complete back. Wide-framed Earnest Graham functions primarily as a fullback at this point. He's a resilient player and is willing to help out in any way the team asks of him. Graham and Kregg Lumpkin are competing to become the third-down back following the departure of Cadillac Williams. Lumpkin runs hard but lacks quickness and isn't overpowering. Tampa Bay spent a sixth-round pick on RB Allen Bradford, who has good feet for his size. A seventh-round pick in 2010, Erik Lorig is a high-motor developmental project. He started off as a defensive end but has settled in as an H-back/fullback.
Receivers: The Bucs took a chance on WR Mike Williams, who fell to the fourth round of last year's draft. He came with character concerns after being kicked off or quitting his college team but quickly rose to the top of the depth chart, filling a void in the young WR corps. Williams led all rookie receivers in receptions (65), yards (964) and touchdowns (11). He doesn't have top-end speed, but he makes quick cuts and has good leaping ability and body control. Arrelious Benn was picked two rounds earlier than Williams, and it took him a bit longer to get comfortable. The light was starting to turn on late in the season before he tore his ACL in Week 16. He missed the first two preseason games, but the expectation is that he will be ready by Week One. Benn has great after-the-catch ability and will carry defenders who try to tackle him high. He's not a burner, though. Both Williams and Benn have good size. Speedy Micheal Spurlock showed he could be more than just a return specialist and could be involved in the rotation along with the physical, big-framed Dezmon Briscoe, who stood out this preseason. Sammie Stroughter is a hard worker, but he is undersized and has not been durable in his first two seasons. At tight end, the sure-handed Kellen Winslow has led the Bucs in receptions in each of his two seasons with the team. He has undergone several knee surgeries in his career, and the knee bothers him at times, but he's still explosive and will play through the pain. It's likely rookie Luke Stocker will get the call when the Bucs use a two-TE set. He'll complement Winslow, serving as a solid in-line blocker as well as an underneath target.
Offensive linemen: Injuries hit the O-line hard last season, and the Bucs had to do a lot of shuffling, relying on inexperienced backups to fill gaps. The group struggled at times but held up well, given the circumstances. OLT Donald Penn stood out and was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time in his five-year career. Penn has quick feet and is deceptively athletic for his size. A core member of Tampa Bay's front five, ORG Davin Joseph, was re-signed to a seven-year deal this offseason. He's a powerful run blocker and knows how to use his huge hands and long arms to gain leverage in pass protection. A veteran leader up front, C Jeff Faine can be counted on to make the appropriate checks and calls. He's not an elite player, and bigger defensive tackles can give him problems. Two different injuries (quad and torn triceps) limited him to eight games in 2010, and he hasn't been very durable. Ted Larsen made 11 starts at left guard as a rookie and was a pleasant surprise. He relies on agility and quickness more than power. James Lee, who started nine games at right tackle after taking the job from Jeremy Trueblood last season, will likely return to a backup role. Lee is light on his feet. Trueblood, who lost the starting spot while he was out nursing a knee injury, has started 68 games in his five seasons with the Bucs and will return to the first-team offense. Quicker speed rushers can beat Trueblood, but he'll flash a mean streak. Jeremy Zuttah has the versatility to play all three spots on the interior and has made 30 starts in his three seasons.
Head coach Raheem Morris has coordinated the defense since November 2009, when he fired Jim Bates and took the reins. His scheme is a modified version of the Tampa-2. Defensive linemen play a one-gap system, and defensive backs play mostly zone, although Morris will mix up the coverage at times. The pressure is supposed to be generated by the front four, but the team has struggled to get a good push from the edges in recent years, and that has made it hard on the secondary.
Defensive linemen: Tampa Bay is hoping this is a healthier year for its top two draft picks in 2010, DTs Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. McCoy eventually settled in as a three-technique after he lined up at multiple spots on the D-line. He was coming on strong before a biceps tear sidelined him for the final three games. McCoy, who had surgery to repair the tear, said he dropped weight after the season. He plays hard consistently and has the potential to be very disruptive but tends to play too upright. Price was shut down after five games. He suffered a severe injury in which his hamstring reportedly detached from his pelvis, and he had apparently been dealing with the hamstring issue since college. When healthy, Price, who is athletic for his size, gets off the snap quickly. He can line up over the nose and has the power and strength to plug the gap. Third-year veteran Roy Miller started every game last season. He's blocky and doesn't show much burst as a pass rusher but will likely begin the season as the starter at nose tackle. The Bucs spent their first two draft picks this year on defensive ends, aiming to spark a dormant pass rush and complete the job they started in '10 with McCoy and Price. DE Adrian Clayborn is expected to be an immediate starter at right end. Clayborn has good size and is powerful. He lacks the traits of an elite pass rusher, and he has Erb's palsy, a birth condition that limits the strength and movement of his right arm. Second-round pick Da'Quan Bowers also had health issues — regarding his surgically repaired knee — which caused him to fall in the draft. He has great size and power and will be in a platoon at left end with Michael Bennett. Al Woods and wide-bodied Frank Okam also could see snaps at tackle. Kyle Moore and Tim Crowder will compete for time at end.
Linebackers: The Buccaneers parted ways with Barrett Ruud, their leading tackler from each of the past four seasons, and they're giving rookie Mason Foster a shot at replacing Ruud at middle linebacker. Foster, a third-round pick, has trouble sorting through traffic but is a reliable tackler and flashes playmaking ability. He's expected to play two downs and come off the field in nickel situations. Tyrone McKenzie, a third-round pick of the Patriots in 2009, is likely to back up Foster. He landed with the Bucs after they claimed him off New England's practice squad. He's tight-hipped and not a thumper, but coaches like his size and leadership skills. Quincy Black was re-signed to start on the strong side. He fits well in the Bucs' fast-flowing defense and has the lateral quickness and agility to get out to the sideline and make a play. WLB Geno Hayes flies to the ball and hits with authority, but he has trouble sorting through traffic and will struggle to shed blocks. The Bucs want to see more consistency from him.
Defensive backs: Injuries and a suspension shook up the Buccaneers' secondary at times in 2010, but CB Ronde Barber was one of the few constants. He continues playing at a high level and has not missed a start since the 1999 season. The 14-year veteran is very solid in run support and is an adept reader of quarterbacks. He can be effective blitzing from the slot. Long and fluid in his hips, Aqib Talib starts at left corner. He was placed on injured reserve in December with a hip injury, but he made six interceptions in 11 games. Talib has great ball skills. His repeated run-ins with the law are a concern, however. E.J. Biggers became the full-time starter opposite Barber after Talib was placed on I.R., but his usual role is as the nickel back. He fared well in both capacities. Biggers has a narrow frame, but he shows good awareness and instincts. CB Myron Lewis, a third-round pick in 2010, has great size and length. He could develop into a starter with another year or two of seasoning. FS Tanard Jackson is serving a suspension for a second violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. The indefinite suspension began after Week Two last season, and he's not eligible for reinstatement until Sept. 22. Cody Grimm, who was placed on I.R. last season after fracturing his left fibula, and Corey Lynch had to fill the void at free safety after Jackson was suspended. Grimm was still slowed by his recovery from the injury at the outset of camp. Sean Jones, the starting strong safety, is aggressive and provides toughness inside the box. Rookies Ahmad Black and Anthony Gaitor have the potential to develop into sub-package staples.
The Bucs turned to a division rival for some help, signing former Falcons P Michael Koenen, whose powerful leg will do the honors on punts and kickoffs. PK Connor Barth is very dependable from inside 40 yards but doesn't have the leg strength to make long-range kicks — he made just 7-of-12 FG attempts from beyond 40 yards in 2010 — or kick off effectively, with only one touchback last season. Micheal Spurlock is the primary returner on kickoffs and punts, although he's much more effective on kickoffs.
Rough patches should be expected, and a tougher schedule will test the team. There's enough young talent here to be very optimistic about the future — having one of the top young QBs in the NFL puts Tampa Bay in rare company. The Bucs need to be taken seriously, but in the tough NFC South, the Falcons and Saints are the front-runners to win the division.
To order the digital edition of Pro Football Weekly's 2011 NFL Preview magazine, visit the PFW Store. The publication contains scouting reports on all 32 teams, rosters, depth charts, positional grades and 2010 week-by-week stats. Also, the magazine includes PFW's exclusive player rankings feature, ranking the top players in the league by position and overall.