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Shutdown Countdown: Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be 2014's surprise

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(Yahoo Sports)

(Yahoo Sports)

Shutdown Corner is previewing all 32 teams as we get ready for the NFL season, counting down the teams one per day in reverse order or our initial 2014 power rankings. No. 1 will be revealed on Aug. 2, the day before the preseason begins with the Hall of Fame Game in Canton.

Too high for the Buccaneers? I get that argument.

This was a 4-12 team a year ago. The Bucs' statistical profile shows they weren't terribly unlucky to have that record either. Maybe they could have been a win or two better with a little more fortune. They lost their first four games decided by a field goal or less. But there's nothing so out of line that the Buccaneers look like the 2012 Panthers, who were a 10- or 11-win team in 7-win clothing. The Buccaneers were legitimately bad last year.

Here's the thing: We're not analyzing the 2013 Buccaneers. I did that power ranking already.

This year's Buccaneers had one of the best offseasons of any team in football. What's left is a depth chart that from top to bottom looks like a playoff team. The Buccaneers have as many blue-chip players, or players with the ability to get to that level, as any team in the NFL. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, defensive end Michael Johnson, linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster, safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson, cornerback Alterraun Verner (please don't sleep on how good this defense is), receivers Vincent Jackson and Mike Evans, running back Doug Martin, guard Carl Nicks ... any of them could make a Pro Bowl this year or in Evans' case the next few years  and nobody would be surprised.

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Lovie Smith (AP)

Lovie Smith (AP)

And we haven't gotten to the biggest upgrade of all, and that's on the sideline.

Greg Schiano pulled off one of the NFL's all-time awful coaching jobs last year. Schiano didn't just push every wrong button, he jammed on the wrong button a dozen times to make sure he got it. It was coaching malpractice for a roster this good to go 4-12, especially since rookie Mike Glennon had a fine turn at quarterback. When the team lost heartbreaking games to the Jets and Saints in the first two games, that was it. They skidded to 0-8 before getting it together a bit to go 4-4 in the second half.

Thankfully the rumors that Bucs ownership might let Schiano save his job weren't true. He was fired, so no more of a professional team having to embarrass itself by blowing up victory formations.

Tampa Bay hired Lovie Smith, who once took a team quarterbacked by Rex Grossman to the Super Bowl. We'll get into the Bucs' quarterback situation in a bit, but first let's point out that going from Schiano to Smith is about like ... well, the Chiefs going from Romeo Crennel to Andy Reid last year. We know how that turned out. Smith had an 81-63 record with the Bears. He's underrated because of a dull sideline demeanor, but he's a good coach. And after suffering through Schiano the past couple years, Smith will probably seem like 1972 Don Shula to the Bucs.

Feel free to think the Buccaneers will be bad again just because they were last season. And maybe they are overrated here; this is anticipating a huge jump. But every time I look at Tampa Bay the only real flaw I see is that they were bad last season, and I'm pretty sure that won't count in the standings this year.

2013 review in less than 25 words: An 0-8 start, then four of five wins before the team gave up on Schiano and lost three straight to finish 4-12.

Is the roster better, worse or about the same?: No question it's better. The Buccaneers got one of five A grades in our free-agency grades, dinged only a little bit because they cut cornerback Darrelle Revis. But that move allowed them to load up elsewhere. Johnson and Verner are two elite defensive players. Center Evan Dietrich-Smith and tackle Anthony Collins are good starters on the offensive line. Defensive tackle Clinton McDonald was a smart addition. Tight end Brandon Myers is coming off a disappointing year with the Giants, but he did have 79 catches two years ago. A good draft that yielded potential help for the offense with Evans, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins and running back Charles Sims in the first three rounds capped a nice offseason.

Best offseason acquisition: I can't go with Verner, only because Revis to Verner is a downgrade. But Johnson was a great addition too. Johnson, a huge edge pass rusher who had 11.5 sacks two years ago with the Bengals, fits in perfectly on a line that has a superstar in McCoy and underrated Adrian Clayborn on the other end. Johnson is just 27, so he should have a few good years left.

Achilles heel: Remember that long, rambling intro where I talked up the Bucs? I'll concede that it could all be undone by Tampa Bay's handling of the quarterback situation. I've railed about how the Bucs are blowing it with Mike Glennon, who had a fine rookie year with 19 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Smith needed a veteran so he got one, gambling that Josh McCown's five good starts with Marc Trestman in Chicago override his 10 mediocre NFL seasons before that. I'm unconvinced. However, even if McCown isn't the 109 passer rating player he was last season (and he's not), there's enough talent around him that he can have a good, solid season. Or maybe Glennon saves the day, though missing all those valuable reps to McCown in the offseason doesn't help his development. With the Buccaneers' elite defense, the offense needs to just be good, not great. Perhaps McCown can be good.

Position in flux: There are a couple battles on the offensive line that bear watching. I'm a little more interested in the cornerback spot opposite Verner because it will get thrown at plenty. Johnthan Banks started as a rookie last year, but he wasn't very good. This is still a good young player who was a Jim Thorpe Award winner in college and was a second-round pick for a reason. Many rookies struggle, and he should rebound. The problem is, I'm not sure if there's a lot behind him if he doesn't. Veteran Mike Jenkins was signed, and he's probably next in line, but he's not an exciting option to start. The team needs Banks to take that sophomore leap forward.

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Doug Martin (AP)

Doug Martin (AP)

Ready to break out: Doug Martin isn't a true breakout, because he was great as a rookie, but I'm surprised so many have forgotten about him (he's also being picked about No. 26 on average in Yahoo Fantasy Football drafts, which is too low if you're looking for value).

The fact that Martin played only six games last year is rarely talked about when discussing the Buccaneers' disappointing season, which underestimates how good Martin can be. He rushed for 1,454 yards as a rookie and caught 49 balls. He can be a top running back if healthy. And wouldn't that be a nice help to a potentially shaky quarterback situation? 

Stat fact: In two seasons, David has 219 solo tackles. He has been compared to Derrick Brooks and Lance Briggs, who both played under Smith (Brooks learned under Smith from 1996-2000 when Smith was Tampa Bay's linebackers coach) and he has the ability to have that type of career. In Smith's defensive scheme, with the incredible talent around him, David can make a run at a defensive player of the year award this season.

Schedule degree of difficulty: The NFC South will be very competitive, but Tampa Bay has just the 19th toughest schedule in the NFL based off last year's records. A three-game stretch from Week 3 to 5, with road games at Atlanta, Pittsburgh and New Orleans, will tell us a lot about the Buccaneers.

Burning question

This team’s best-case scenario for the 2014 season: There's plenty of signs that this is your "came out of nowhere to make the playoffs" team that we see every year, the Panthers or Chiefs of this season. The defense should be top 5 in the NFL. The absolute best-case scenario is if somehow McCown really is that 109 passer rating player we saw last season (remember, given the same supporting cast he completely outplayed Jay Cutler) and the Buccaneers added a fantastic quarterback on the cheap. I think there's a very small chance of that happening, but this is "best case."

And here’s the nightmare scenario: Maybe there's just a loser's mentality in that locker room that creeps back in if a tough schedule to start the season puts them behind. I think Smith will change that culture, but this is still a team that played some really bad football last year. It's still a quarterback/passing league, and if McCown is bad and Glennon can't save the day, or Smith doesn't give him the chance to, this might just be a losing team with a great defense and an offense that can't score.

The crystal ball says: They win the NFC South. I couldn't justify putting a 4-12 team any higher in the preseason power rankings, but this team has the talent to be the best in the division and I am picking them to win it.

Previous previews:
32. Jacksonville Jaguars
31. Oakland Raiders
30. Washington Redskins
29. Cleveland Browns
28. Minnesota Vikings
27. Buffalo Bills
26. Tennessee Titans
25. Houston Texans
24. Dallas Cowboys
23. New York Jets
22. Atlanta Falcons
21. New York Giants
20. Miami Dolphins
19. Kansas City Chiefs
18. Baltimore Ravens
17. Detroit Lions
16. San Diego Chargers
15. Arizona Cardinals
14. St. Louis Rams
13. Carolina Panthers

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Frank Schwab is the editor of Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at shutdowncorner@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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