- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN Staff Writer
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ESPN.com NFL Power Ranking (pre-camp): 30
TAMPA, Fla. -- New construction in these parts largely has halted due to the economic situation over the past couple of years. So what’s that structure going up on the practice fields right behind One Buccaneer Place?
It’s the new Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There still is a lot of work to be done. But, unlike last year, you can see a foundation. Just look at the quarterback, Josh Freeman. When it comes right down to it, he really is all the Buccaneers are looking at. Yeah, guys like Gerald McCoy, Donald Penn, Barrett Ruud and Aqib Talib might also be viewed as possible cornerstones in the blueprints. But Freeman is the 6-foot-6 beam the Bucs are counting on to support this entire franchise.
Count last year as a redshirt season for Freeman and the Bucs. The team went 3-13 and Freeman really didn’t get to play until the second half of the season. Now, he’s been through an entire offseason. Now, the offense is his. Now, it’s time for Freeman and the Bucs to grow and make some sense out of the youth movement the franchise decided to begin last year.
“The most obvious thing that I hope people are noticing is we are giving Josh Freeman tools around him that he can grow with,’’ general manager Mark Dominik said. “We have Kellen Winslow and the tight end is important whether you have a young quarterback or an experienced one. And we wanted to put in a receiving corps that can grow together so their timing can be consistent. When you look back through NFL history, you see that consistently with the successful teams. You put two or three receivers together with the same quarterback for five, six or seven years and they become a timing machine and that’s what we wanted to do.’’
To that end, the Bucs drafted receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams in the first four rounds. They also traded for receiver Reggie Brown and they still have Sammie Stroughter, who might have been the steal of last year’s draft class.
Yeah, the Bucs also did some work on the defense. They used their top two draft picks on defensive tackles McCoy and Brian Price in an attempt to stop getting abused by running games. Their linebackers aren’t bad and the secondary has some potential. This defense isn’t anything close to the defense of Tampa Bay’s glory days, but it has possibilities.
The offense isn’t anything like in the glory days and that’s the way the Bucs want it. With Freeman, the Bucs believe the offense can be better than it ever has been. The belief is Freeman can be the first true franchise quarterback this team has had since Doug Williams.
The potential is there and the Bucs have put some parts around Freeman. Now it’s time for him to put this franchise on his back.
“Nothing can replace game time,’’ Dominik said. "But I will say, for an offseason, for a young quarterback, I could not have asked for more. He did everything we expected and more. I don’t remember him missing an offseason day and he was a sponge in the meeting rooms. His leadership has come through in that way. He’s got a natural charisma that you see guys want to bond with him and follow him.’’
THREE HOT ISSUES
1. What’s the receiving corps going to look like? That still is being sorted out, but Williams, the fourth-round draft pick, appears to be on his way to a starting job. He’s shown a knack for big plays ever since his arrival and seems to have developed a quick chemistry with Freeman. Benn started a little slower, but has come on of late. But Brown might open the season as the other starter.
Pair Williams and Brown with Winslow and Freeman suddenly might have a better cast of receivers than he did late last year when No. 1 receiver Antonio Bryant was pouting his way out of Tampa Bay. The Bucs have been cautious with Winslow and his knee throughout camp, but the belief is he’ll be ready for the regular season and that will provide Freeman with a go-to guy.
But the Bucs aren’t going to be running the West Coast offense they did with Jon Gruden and they certainly aren’t going to use the ball-control system that Tony Dungy ran. They’ve got a quarterback with big-play ability and they’re going to take their shots down the field. Williams, Brown and Benn all can go downfield and make catches in the possession game. But the real downfield threat might be Stroughter. He had an excellent rookie season, already has a rapport with Freeman and can make a lot of things happen as the slot receiver.
2. How much will the arrival of the two rookie defensive tackles help? McCoy and Price should be an instant upgrade over former starters Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, who got pushed all over the field last year. The Bucs also plan to use Roy Miller in the rotation. That’s a pretty promising trio of young defensive tackles.
But it remains to be seen if this group can be dominant right from the start. The standard for defensive tackles in Tampa Bay is Warren Sapp. He might be ticketed for the Hall of Fame, but the fact is Sapp struggled as a rookie and took time to develop into a force.
The Bucs think McCoy should be fine from the start. Price got off to a great start in camp, but an injury has forced him to miss some time and that may set him back a bit. The Bucs are going to ask a lot of McCoy, Price and Miller. They want them to clog things up against the run and free up Ruud to make plays. They also need a strong interior pass rush because there’s no real force on the outside. Ready or not, McCoy and Price will have the opportunity to shine right from the start.
3. Is this team headed in the right direction with coach Raheem Morris? The Bucs were in a state of chaos through much of last year. Morris fired coordinators Jeff Jagodzinski and Jim Bates early, changed defensive schemes early in the year and ran a quarterback competition that’s only real purpose was to make sure Freeman didn’t get on the field too soon. The results weren’t pretty.
But Morris’ second offseason has been one of peace and quiet and it only takes a few brief glances out at the practice field to see that the Bucs are much more organized than last year. Morris knows he made mistakes last season and he’s learned from that.
He’s running the defense now and believes he put Freeman in good hands with offensive coordinator Greg Olson and quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. The Bucs still may need another offseason to get the talent level to where they really want it, but there are some parts in place and Morris needs to start showing some progress.
Aqib Talib, cornerback. The physical talent always has been there with Talib. But his first two seasons were rocky because of off-field issues and a feeling that he wasn’t always focused on football. However, the coaching staff is quietly buzzing because a new side of Talib has emerged throughout the offseason and carried over into camp. He’s more focused and more mature. The Bucs are keeping their fingers crossed on this one, but there is a belief that Talib can become a Pro Bowler very quickly if he stays on his current path.
Stylez G. White, defensive end. The Bucs know White never has been a very good practice player. But they thought he might come in with some inspiration this camp because he has a chance to be the top pass-rusher on team that doesn’t have any proven star in that area. That hasn’t happened. White’s been very ordinary in practice and doesn’t seem interested in being a leader for a young defensive line. Is that enough to cost him a starting job? Probably not because the Bucs really don’t have much behind him. They’re hoping White steps things up when the regular season arrives, but they’re a little worried that might not happen.
The Bucs signed running back Derrick Ward to a big contract last year, but that move hasn’t worked out at all. Cadillac Williams has a firm grip on the No. 1 spot on the depth chart and is a favorite with the coaching staff. Ward is not. He’s been unimpressive throughout his time with the Buccaneers and could not hold onto the ball in the first preseason game. Kareem Huggins has outperformed Ward in camp and probably will earn a roster spot. That’s something that’s no longer a guarantee for Ward. But Huggins is undersized and the Bucs may have to hold onto Ward as insurance because Williams has a long history of injuries.
If you’re looking for the strongest unit Tampa Bay has, look at the linebackers. Geno Hayes and Quincy Black have had fantastic camps. Ruud already was pretty good and should be helped by the arrival of the young defensive tackles.
The competition for the job at nickelback is ongoing. Elbert Mack held that role last year, but the Bucs would like to find an upgrade. E.J. Biggers has shown some flashes and could unseat Mack. Rookie Myron Lewis is the guy the Bucs really hoped would claim that spot. But he’s been sidelined with an injury and the lack of practice time might prevent him from getting immediate playing time.
Michael Clayton and Sims are two veterans on the bubble when it comes to roster spots. Sims has gone from being a starter to fighting for the fourth spot at defensive tackle. He might hang on just to give the team some experience in the interior and he’s not going to cost the Bucs a fortune because he’s scheduled to make $1.2 million. Clayton clearly isn’t going to be a starter. He’s got $3 million in guaranteed salary this year, so the Bucs may keep him and hope to get something out of their investment. But it won’t be much more than a fourth or fifth receiver and special-teams player.
With all of the buzz about Huggins, Clifton Smith has been somewhat forgotten. But don’t rule out the possibility of Smith getting some time in the backfield, mainly as a situational player. Smith has the ability to make things happen in the open field and the Bucs may use him as a receiver out of the backfield. Smith is coming back from concussion problems last season and he should solidify the return game. Smith made the Pro Bowl as a return man as a rookie in the 2008 season.
Look for Keydrick Vincent to claim a starting guard spot from Jeremy Zuttah. Vincent started in Carolina last year and is a solid run blocker. Put him with center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph and the Bucs can be very good in the interior of the line. Zuttah might be best suited to serving as the top backup at both guard spots and center.