|ESPN.com: NFC South||[Print without images]|
|Larry French/Getty Images|
|Veteran defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson, left, looks to have nailed down a starting job with the Bucs and could be poised for a breakout year in Jim Bates' defense.|
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- In our NFC South chats and mailbags the last few months, we've talked a lot about guys who could be "breakout" players this season. Names such as Robert Meachem, Dwayne Jarrett, Michael Clayton and Harry Douglas commonly have been floated out there as possibilities.
That's what happens when you talk about wide receivers like Meachem, Jarrett and Clayton, who haven't quite played up to their draft status, and guys like Douglas, who teased us with flashes of promise as a rookie.
But let's go away from receivers for a minute. Let's go below the radar and look for a guy who really has a chance to seemingly come out of nowhere and do big things.
How about Tampa Bay defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson?
If you haven't heard of him, you will. I'll go out on a limb and predict Wilkerson will be the one NFC South player who truly breaks out this season. And I'm not saying Meachem, Jarrett, Clayton and Douglas won't have good seasons. I think all four have a chance to step up.
Here's why I think Wilkerson is ready to do more than any of us expect. You might not know it yet, but this guy's already a starter. Yes, he's got precisely six starts in a six-year NFL career. But the fact is, the Bucs have designated Wilkerson as their starting defensive left end.
|David Drapkin/Getty Images|
|In a part-time role last season, Jimmy Wilkerson collected 5.0 sacks.|
Wilkerson's gone through the entire offseason program and minicamps and gotten just about every rep with the first team.
"It's up to me now to keep that starting job," Wilkerson said. "Someone is going to have to outwork me and outperform me to get that starting job away from me."
That's probably not going to happen. When you've gone this far into an offseason without drafting a rookie or signing a free agent to take this spot, you've shown you're committed to the guy who's there.
Tampa Bay's new coaching staff has done precisely that with Wilkerson. In fact, he's probably viewed a lot more favorably right now than he's been at any point in his career -- which isn't necessarily saying a whole lot, but Wilkerson takes that as a compliment.
"It would be very gratifying if I could go out there and be the full-time starter," Wilkerson said. "I could take a step back and say I defied all the odds of people saying, 'You'll never make it in the NFL' and 'You're too slow and you're too small.' If you just stay consistent and give it your all every day out on the field, the coaches are going to see that and say, 'There's a guy we can count on out there on the field as a starter.'"
That's pretty much what coach Raheem Morris and his staff have said with their actions this offseason. As part of their youth movement, they let veteran Kevin Carter walk. Yeah, Stylez (formerly Greg) White still is around. But Wilkerson was getting all the first-team work before White's recent bicycling accident, which didn't score him many points with the coaching staff.
So why has Wilkerson been such a hit with Morris and new defensive coordinator Jim Bates? Let's let Wilkerson tell it in his own words and, then, we'll expound a bit.
"The thing I learned in six seasons is to keep your mouth shut and keep going out there every day and doing your best,'' Wilkerson said. "If you do that, at the end of the day, things are going to end up working out for you.''
The start of this season could be the proverbial "end of the day" for Wilkerson. After five very unremarkable seasons with the Kansas City Chiefs (Wilkerson came into the league as a sixth-round draft choice out of Oklahoma), he signed as a free agent with the Buccaneers last year. One of the driving forces behind that move was general manager Mark Dominik, who then was the personnel director for Tampa Bay. Dominik's basic selling point to former coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen was that Wilkerson was a guy who had untapped potential and, at worst, would be a dependable backup.
Wilkerson showed signs of being more than that last season in Monte Kiffin's defense. He was used as a backup at defensiv
e end and defensive tackle. He only started one game, but his playing time kept increasing as the season went on. In a part-time role, one in which he often wasn't set up to rush the passer, he produced five sacks and played the run very well.
Put Wilkerson in Bates' defense for a year, let him focus solely at left end and see what you get.
"With Coach Bates, we're more of a rush mentality than a run mentality now," Wilkerson said. "It's rush first."
Give Wilkerson a full year like that and I'll go ahead and project him with double-digit sacks. That definitely would qualify as a breakout year.
Maybe I'm right and maybe I'm wrong. Keep a copy of this and let me know in December.