Entering Greg Schiano's second season guiding the rebuilding club, improvements are expected on last year's 7-9 record. Though the team is again centered around Josh Freeman at quarterback, Doug Martin in the backfield, and Lavonte David captaining the defense, the offseason did deliver substantial changes.
Those differences include a retooled secondary; healthy offensive line; depth at defensive line and running back; personnel changes at tight end; and new additions among assistant coaches. Given the demands of a win-now NFL, fans rightfully insist only victories permit successful evaluation of these transformations. Nevertheless, the key questions for 2013 have already emerged. Hungry for football, supporters will monitor developing answers throughout the preseason schedule.
With that in mind, here are three things to watch in training camp for the Tampa Bay Bucs:
How Much Has the Secondary Improved?
There was no more disastrous aspect of last year's squad than a woeful pass defense. Despite Greg Schiano's background coaching secondary, the Bucs' leader endured embarrassing performances from the exploited unit. While Tampa Bay possessed the NFL's top run defense, the club surrendered a league-worst 297 yards per game through the air. Quarterbacks like Matt Ryan and Drew Brees owned the Bucs' secondary, and opponents simply abandoned the run to considerable success.
Overhauling the defensive backfield wisely became the offseason's chief priority. Gone from the 2012 team are forgettable names like E.J. Biggers and Brandon McDonald, while prima-donna corners Aqib Talib and Eric Wright were also shipped away. In fact, when Wright's trade to the San Francisco 49ers was voided due to a failed physical, the Bucs simply cut him. Finally, though Ronde Barber enjoyed an exemplary career, his skills declined with age and the veteran retired in May after a final season at safety.
When burdened by football's worst secondary, there's no better cure than adding its best cornerback. The Bucs accomplished that when trading a first-round pick to the New York Jets for Darrelle Revis. The four-time Pro-Bowler is a shutdown corner and forces rethinking the approach to Tampa Bay's defense. Coming off an ACL tear, however, Revis must first prove his health. Though the ultimate goal remains having the 28-year-old ready for opening day, fans would love seeing him move freely during the preseason.
The Bucs' first pick in the draft, Johnthan Banks, is expected to start opposite Revis. The cornerback was selected in the second round and quickly supplanted Wright. Though lacking elite speed, Banks certainly offers potential far beyond 2012's lackluster rotation. Second-year safety Mark Barron played well during his rookie campaign, but his effectiveness tapered by season's end. Now paired with free-agent import Dashon Goldson, the Bucs possess two of the NFL's hardest-hitting safeties. Goldson received a generous 5-year, $41.25 million contract, so stellar play must be demanded of the 2012 All-Pro.
These changes seemingly guarantee progress, but the extent may determine Tampa Bay's ultimate success. If Revis returns to past form, his presence alone assures greater difficulty for quarterbacks. Yet, since the unit was so sub-par, substantial progress requires elevated play from the entire backfield. Much was sacrificed to benefit the secondary, including top picks and substantial money. An equally significant gain must be witnessed in 2013.
Can the Bucs Develop a Pass Rush?
While the secondary must be assigned the lions' share of blame for inability to stop opposing defenses, Tampa Bay's lack of a pass rush additionally hurt. Though quarterbacks attacked the backfield at will, they benefited from additional time consistently given to receivers. With only 27 sacks, the Bucs possessed the NFL's third-worst pass rush last year, and that actually bettered the league-worst 23 sacks in 2011.
The Bucs' defense saw two breakout players in 2012, but neither benefited the pass rush. While Gerald McCoy admirably clogged the run and Lavonte David became a tackling machine, others must emerge as threats to the quarterback. It was hoped that McCoy could assist in this mission, but the tackle has only posted 9 sacks in three seasons. Instead, the club's top pass rusher in 2012 was Michael Bennett, who posted a career-high 9 sacks before departing in free agency.
While that decision can be second-guessed, the club clearly wants 2011's top draft picks to occupy defensive end. Adrian Clayborn and DaQuan Bowers offer potential for pressure, based on noteworthy play in college. Clayborn racked up 7.5 sacks as a rookie, but a knee injury caused the 25-year-old to miss most of last season. Similarly, Bowers' development was hampered by a torn Achilles that kept him off the field for half of 2012. Both ends must stay healthy and improve at reaching the quarterback, if the Bucs can develop the rush missing since the days of Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice.
The club further hopes the drafting of William Gholston and Akeem Spence provides additional assets in the trenches and free-agent linebacker Jonathan Casillas proves a diamond in the rough. However, Tampa Bay's ability to pressure quarterbacks could be most impacted by changes to the secondary. If opponents cannot locate open wideouts, defenders will have more time to elude blocks. Just as the lack of pressure hurt pass defense in 2012, a retooled secondary may allow for more sacks in 2013.
Will Josh Freeman be Tampa Bay's Quarterback Next Year?
Actions speak louder than words and the old adage applied to Josh Freeman throughout the Bucs' otherwise active offseason. While money was found to make Darrelle Revis the league's highest-paid defensive back and to lock up receiver Mike Williams to a 6-year, $40.25 million deal, the fifth-year quarterback remains without a contract for 2014. Despite becoming the first passer in franchise history to toss 4,000 yards a year ago, Freeman is essentially a lame duck as the 25-year-old enters the final year of his rookie contract.
Adding to the drama, the Bucs expended a third-round pick on Mike Glennon, who became the third quarterback selected in the entire draft. With 6-7 stature, a strong arm, and 62 touchdowns during a pair of successful seasons for North Carolina State, Glennon seemingly offers the tools to be a successful quarterback in the NFL. Furthermore, he was drafted at a spot where players are typically given a legitimate opportunity to earn playing time.
Despite the trend of rookie quarterbacks taking the field, don't expect Glennon soon to become the Bucs' starter. The rookie will undoubtedly benefit from time on the sideline and still must compete with Dan Orlovsky for the backup job. Yet, despite Schiano's words of confidence, performance indicates a less than firm grasp on the position. For last year's first 10 games, the Kansas State product appeared to fulfill the potential that made him a first-rounder in 2009. With a 6-4 record and chance at the playoffs, things then sadly fell apart, as 10 interceptions in five games enabled a season-crippling losing streak.
Blessed with many tools, questionable decision-making remains Freeman's greatest concern and unsteady play has only confirmed those fears. In his defense, some maturation occurred in 2012 and Freeman capably meshed with new weapons like Jackson and Martin. Last year was also the quarterback's first in an offense emphasizing down-field passing, which compliments his talents. Though Glennon's presence increases the stakes, Freeman continues to enjoy a golden opportunity to silence critics.
More by Jeff Briscoe from Yahoo! Contributor Network:
Jeff Briscoe is a writer who covers sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. A loyal Tampa Bay Bucs fan, he co-hosts the Florida-based radio show, The Sports Train.
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- Josh Freeman
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- Darrelle Revis