With training camps just on the horizon, it's time to preview the prospects of each NFL team. We continue with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who finished the 2009 NFL season with a 3-13 record.
The Playbook: At their best, the Buccaneers were always a defense-first team, with the offense required to be just good enough to make things go. As the defense atrophied due to questionable personnel decisions made by the Jon Gruden/Bruce Allen regime, the offense never had the talent to step into the lead role. New head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik started over with a major roster purge and a 2009 draft that brought them new franchise quarterback Josh Freeman(notes).
Problem was, the Bucs didn't know what kind of offense they wanted to run - prospective offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinki was fired just before the season, and he took his zone-blocking system with him. Freeman, an unexpected early starter after other options proved ineffective, needed time to adjust. Jagodzinki was replaced by quarterbacks coach Greg Olson, and the Bucs went forward with a fairly conservative gameplan with a lot of rollouts out of single-back sets.
Freeman (pictured) threw 18 interceptions on 290 passing attempts - his 5.4 interception percentage is the highest since 1993 with at least that many attempts - but with a new system and often playing from behind, Freeman should get a relative pass. Coaches seem thrilled with his offseason regimen. Running back Cadillac Williams made remarkable comebacks from multiple knee surgeries, but the Bucs weren't much better running the ball than they were stopping other teams from doing it. However, the real problem with the team's offense was an ineffective receiver corps; an issue that has hindered this franchise for years.
After signing a radically ill-advised five-year, $24 million contract, Michael Clayton(notes) then blamed his inconsistent 2009 on the movement at the quarterback position. You'd think that a guy with 16 catches for 230 yards and a 33 percent catch rate would keep his mouth shut, but what do we know? Tight end Kellen Winslow(notes) led the team with 77 receptions, and no other Bucs receiver had more than 39 (Antonio Bryant(notes)). This team has no chance of going anywhere in the current NFL until the passing issues are solved.
Impact Players/New Blood: Tampa Bay rounded out a draft high in defensive players with two new receivers - second-rounder Arrelious Benn(notes) from Illinois, and fourth-rounder Mike Williams from Syracuse. Benn is an Anquan Boldin(notes)-style big receiver who Morris tried to recuiut to Kansas State back in the day. Williams missed the 2008 season due to an academic suspension and quite the team halfway through the 2009 season on the heels of another suspension. If Williams can get his head together, he's got a lot of physical potential.
The Playbook: After 15 years of a schematic identity based on a defense named after their own city (the Tampa-2), the Bucs tried going with several more Cover-1 looks in 2009, with tighter cornerback coverage and a deep safety picking up the pieces. It didn't work in the least, as the defense that didn't fit the new plan gave up deep pass after deep pass. Defensive coordinator Jim Bates was relieved of his duties after Week 11, the Tampa-2 came back to Tampa, and things started to improve a bit. There are few vestiges left of the defense that dominated through the Gruden and Dungy eras, but Dominik and Morris will try to bring it back, and they will start with the defensive line.
To that end, Tampa Bay selected two defensive tackles in the first two rounds of the 2010 draft - Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy(notes) (pictured) with the third overall pick, and UCLA fireplug Brian Price(notes) with the 35th pick. The question is, who will play what role? McCoy is a dynamic penetrating tackle, but he gets washed out in double teams. Price is a bit sturdier at the line, but it's still unknown how the Bucs plan to use McCoy and Price to improve a run defense that gave up 4.8 yards per carry, worst in the NFL.
There's a solid linebacker corps with Barrett Ruud(notes), Geno Hayes(notes), and Quincy Black(notes) - Ruud is particularly consistent in his quality play - but in this defensive system, the onus is on the front line to crash through linemen, create gaps, and let the linebackers blast through. In the secondary, cornerback Aqib Talib(notes) and free safety Tanard Jackson(notes) are the only above-average players. Ronde Barber(notes), perhaps the last tie to the great defenses of the past, is still a good slot corner and nothing more. Strong safety Sabby Piscitelli(notes) led the league in broken tackles according to Football Outsiders' metrics, and his pass defense was even worse than his run-stopping abilities. Expect competition at that spot.
Impact Players: Part of the problem with the pass defense was the low sack totals; the Bucs took opposing quarterbacks down just 28 times, one of the lowest totals in the NFL. The delightfully named Stylez G. White(notes) (in our opinion, more NFL players should name themselves after characters in cheesy ‘80s movies) led the team with 6.5 takedowns, but he also amassed 11 hits and 20 hurries. This is usually a precursor to a higher-sack season, which would benefit the defense as a unit. That's where McCoy and Price come in, with their abilities to take offensive linemen away.
New Blood: McCoy and Price are the headliners, but two more defensive draftees could see starting time as well. Third-round safety Myron Lewis(notes) from Vanderbilt has a good combination of size, speed and coverage ability. He's a former cornerback, which will serve him well as NFL teams look to acquire safeties with more well-rounded coverage skills. Seventh-round strong safety Cody Grimm(notes) is a read-and-react defender who has as good a shot at unseating Piscitelli as anyone, if that's the way things go.
2010 Projection: The Bucs aren't as bad off as they were in their 1976 season, when they went winless with Steve Spurrier as their starting quarterback (that's the Ol' Ballcoach getting sacked in the top photo), but things haven't been as low for this franchise since the mid-1980s. Morris and Dominik seem to have a lot on the ball, but there are few NFL teams in the middle of bigger rebuilds. And in a division with the New Orleans Saints, Atlanta Falcons, and Carolina Panthers, Tampa Bay could very well be the runt of the NFC South for the second straight season.