NFC South: DeKoda Watson

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Cornerback Leonard Johnson, tight end Tim Wright, quarterback Mike Glennon, defensive tackle Akeem Spence and linebacker Lavonte David were the big winners for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFL’s performance-based pool for 2013.

The pool is designed to compensate players who had relatively low salaries compared to their 2013 playing time. Dozens of Bucs received bonuses, but we’ll stick with the top ones here. The bonuses do not count toward the salary cap.

Johnson led the way with a $208,864 bonus. Wright ($200,592), Glennon ($183,209), Spence $181,593) and David ($180,190) rounded out the top five. The rest of the top 10 was made up of safety Keith Tandy ($152,646), cornerback Johnthan Banks ($145,655), linebacker Mason Foster ($133,268), receiver Tiquan Underwood ($127,927) and linebacker Dekoda Watson ($105,647).

Free-agency review: Buccaneers

March, 18, 2014
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Johnson
Most significant signing: The signing of former Cincinnati defensive end Michael Johnson has been the team's biggest move by far. The Bucs came into free agency looking to improve their pass rush and they accomplished that by signing Johnson. He had only 3.5 sacks last year, but had 11.5 in 2012. The hope is that Johnson can give the Bucs double-digit sacks.

Most significant loss: The beauty of this free-agency period is the Bucs didn't really have any significant free agents of their own. They did lose Dekoda Watson (Jacksonville) and Adam Hayward (Washington). Those losses took away some of their depth at linebacker. More significantly, Watson and Hayward were regulars on special teams, and the Bucs have to find players to fill their roles.

Biggest surprise: It was no surprise the Bucs released cornerback Darrelle Revis and his $16 million salary. But it was surprising that the Bucs replaced him with Alterraun Verner at such a reasonable rate (four years, $26.5 million). Verner is not on the same level as Revis, but he should fit very nicely in the Tampa 2 scheme.

What's next? The Bucs have made a lot of moves, but there is still more work to be done. That's what happens when you're coming off a 4-12 season. They need to add some speed at wide receiver and continue to solidify their offensive line.

Looking at playing time: Defense

January, 17, 2014
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TAMPA, Fla. -- We previously showed you the playing time for all of Tampa Bay's offensive players. Now, it's time to do the same for the defense.

The Buccaneers had 1,059 defensive plays. Here's the breakdown of the number of plays each defensive player participated in, followed by my quick take.

DEFENSIVE LINE: Gerald McCoy 962, Adrian Clayborn 933, Akeem Spence 694, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim 602, William Gholston 312, Da'Quan Bowers 206, Gary Gibson 164, Derek Landri 123, Steven Means 77, Trevor Scott 54.

Quick take: Most teams rotate their defensive linemen to keep them fresh. But the Bucs didn't do that with McCoy and Clayborn. The theory behind that was that, even when a bit winded, they were substantially better than their backups. The rookie Gholston got a lot of playing time in the second half of the season.

LINEBACKERS: Lavonte David 1,022, Mason Foster 771, Dekoda Watson 257, Jonathan Casillas 197, Adam Hayward 187, Ka'Lial Glaud 6, Danny Lansanah 4.

Quick take: The Bucs played David as much as they possibly could because he might be the best player on the team. Some of Watson's snaps came at defensive end as the Bucs experimented with him at that position late in the season.

DEFENSIVE BACKS: Darrelle Revis 948, Johnthan Banks 939, Mark Barron 834, Dashon Goldson 807, Leonard Johnson 691, Keith Tandy 441, Ahmad Black 146, Kelcie McCray 101, Michael Adams 86, Danny Gorrer 83.

Quick take: Even though he wasn't 100 percent as he came back from knee surgery, the Bucs still used Revis a lot.

Bucs practice report: Change at guard?

December, 26, 2013
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TAMPA, Fla. – The Buccaneers could have a lineup change at left guard in Sunday’s season finale.

Jamon Meredith had been starting at the position, but he was replaced by Ted Larsen during last week’s loss to St. Louis. That arrangement may continue against New Orleans.

“I wouldn’t say that for sure yet, but [there is a] good chance Ted will be the starter,’’ coach Greg Schiano said.

In injury news, linebacker Dekoda Watson (groin) did not practice Thursday. Safety Mark Barron (hamstring) was limited. Schiano also said that defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, who was placed on injured reserve Thursday morning, had surgery to clean out his knee.

In other news, Schiano said rookie defensive end William Gholston, whose playing time has been increasing steadily, will get his second career start Sunday.

Looking at Buccaneers' playing time

December, 10, 2013
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TAMPA, Fla. -- It's time for our weekly look at how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers distributed playing time.

In a 27-6 victory against the Buffalo Bills, the Bucs ran 66 offensive plays and were on the field for 67 defensive snaps. Here's a look at the individual playing time from Sunday.

OFFENSE

Donald Penn 66
Jamon Meredith 66
Demar Dotson 66
Mike Glennon 66
Tim Wright 59
Vincent Jackson 57
Jeremy Zuttah 51
Tiquan Underwood 45
Davin Joseph 43
Erik Lorig 42
Bobby Rainey 37
Ted Larsen 36
Brian Leonard 25
Chris Owusu 21
Gabe Carimi 16
Russell Shepard 14
Kyle Adams 11
Skye Dawson 7
Mike Hill 5
Spencer Larsen 2
Eric Page 1

DEFENSE

Dashon Goldson 66
Johnthan Banks 66
Mark Barron 66
Gerald McCoy 66
Darrelle Revis 66
Lavonte David 59
Leonard Johnson 58
Adrian Clayborn 56
Mason Foster 53
Akeem Spence 43
Daniel Te'o-Nesheim 39
William Gholston 23
Keith Tandy 15
Da'Quan Bowers 14
Adam Hayward 12
Steven Means 11
Derek Landri 11
Dekoda Watson 10
Danny Gorrer 1
Ka'Lial Glaud 1
Kelcie McCray 1
DeAndre Levy and Vincent JacksonUSA Today SportsDeAndre Levy and the Lions will need to keep Vincent Jackson in check on Sunday.
Tampa Bay started its season terribly before finding some answers the past two weeks. Detroit started its season strong but is suddenly vulnerable and has some questions.

Only the Lions are in the playoff picture heading into the last six weeks of the season. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers can play spoiler and give a damaging blow to the Lions' playoff hopes.

The Buccaneers will try to do that with a rejuvenated defense that caught the eye of Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford.

“They are an extremely talented defense,” Stafford said. “Probably the most talented defense we've played all year.”

ESPN.com NFL Nation reporters Michael Rothstein (Lions) and Pat Yasinskas (Buccaneers) break down Sunday's matchup.

Rothstein: What has happened over the past couple of weeks to turn this Tampa team around?

Yasinskas: The short answer is that the Bucs suddenly have gotten much better at finishing games, a huge problem early in the season. But it goes much deeper than that. Coach Greg Schiano has a reputation for being stubborn and inflexible. But he's changed in recent weeks. His mood has been lighter on the practice field and when he's met with the media. More importantly, he's adjusted some things on the field. He's stopped stunting so much on the defensive line, and that's created more straight-ahead rushes for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Schiano has used cornerback Darrelle Revis in more man-to-man coverage after playing him in a lot of zone early in the season. The Bucs also have been running the ball much better, and that's a tribute to the offensive line.

Speaking of McCoy, he and Ndamukong Suh came out in the same draft, and early on, it looked like Suh clearly was the better player. But McCoy has been outstanding of late. What kind of a year is Suh having?

Rothstein: Suh's actual statistics are fairly pedestrian and wouldn't really stand out to anyone if they were just watching Detroit from afar. But he has faced a lot of double-teams throughout the season and has been somewhat consistent throughout the year. He played his best in the two games against Chicago -- four quarterback hurries in Week 10, two sacks in Week 4 -- but he and the rest of the Detroit defensive line almost inexplicably struggled to reach Pittsburgh quarterback Ben Roethlisberger this past Sunday.

Detroit has not blitzed much this season, putting a lot of pressure on the front four, starting with Suh.

That'll lead into my next question -- how has Mike Glennon been progressing this season, and how does he move when he is pushed in the pocket a little bit?

Yasinskas: Glennon has been a pleasant surprise. He was thrown into the lineup when Josh Freeman was benched, and he struggled at first. But Glennon has steadily improved and has been very good in recent weeks. He had only three incompletions in Sunday's victory over Atlanta. He's shown poise and leadership. Glennon's strength is his big arm, and the Bucs are trying to develop more of a deep passing game. They showed signs that's catching on when Vincent Jackson caught two long passes against the Falcons.

I first saw Glennon when I was covering the filming of "Gruden's QB Camp" this past spring. Watching Glennon's college tape, I thought he didn't have the mobility to succeed in the NFL. As it turns out, I was wrong. Glennon is not a running threat, but he's not a statue, either. He's been extending some plays by scrambling.

Speaking of deep passing games, the matchup I can't wait to see is Calvin Johnson against Revis. I saw the Lions-Steelers game, and it seemed like Johnson disappeared in the second half. What was all that about? Revis and Johnson went head-to-head in a 2010 game, and Johnson caught just one pass for 13 yards. Do you see Revis, with a little bit of help, being help to keep Johnson quiet?

Rothstein: It depends on what Tampa tries to do defensively. When teams have tried covering Johnson with single coverage, he's destroyed opponents. It happened a good amount against Dallas and early against Pittsburgh. It goes to the situation most teams have had to face this season -- do you double-team Johnson and give a lighter box to Reggie Bush and Joique Bell, or do you play single high to focus on Bell and Bush and put Johnson in lighter coverage?

That said, Revis is one of the best corners in the league -- something Stafford acknowledged Tuesday -- and it should be an intriguing matchup Sunday. Johnson likes going against the top corners in the league and has had some success this season in those matchups, notably against Arizona's Patrick Peterson (six catches, 116 yards, two touchdowns) and Dallas' Brandon Carr (14 catches, 329 yards).

One of the other ways teams have had success against Detroit is to pressure Stafford, which hasn't been easy this season. It goes back to that first question with McCoy, but is he the key to any pressure Tampa might get?

Yasinskas: McCoy is the central piece of the defensive line, and everything feeds off him. But he's not alone in the pass rush. End Adrian Clayborn has some pass-rush skills, and the Bucs have started lining up outside linebacker Dekoda Watson as a rush end. But the Bucs also like to use their linebackers as blitzers, and Lavonte David (five sacks) is a very good pass-rusher. But it all goes back to McCoy. The Bucs rely on him to push the quarterback off the spot, and the other players can clean up.

You mentioned Bush. At least from a distance, it seemed like he got himself in the doghouse by fumbling against Pittsburgh. Is Bush in good graces with the coaching staff, or will we see less of him Sunday?

Rothstein: Doghouse? No. But he needs to work on protecting the ball better and hanging on to it, period. He's struggled with drops all season and lost fumbles two of the past three weeks. He's too big a weapon for Detroit to move away from him -- especially at home -- but if he continues on this trend, Bell might steal some of his snaps.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are in their bye week after finishing the first quarter of their season at 0-4. That means it’s time for a report card.

Quarterbacks: Josh Freeman was dismal before getting benched after three games. Replacement Mike Glennon wasn’t any better in his debut. Grade: F

Running backs: Doug Martin is fourth in the league with 342 rushing yards. But he was bottled up by Arizona and future opponents are going to load up against the run until the Bucs develop a passing game. Martin hasn’t caught the ball out of the backfield as well as the Bucs would have liked. Martin also is on pace for 400 carries. Grade: C+

Receivers: Despite the quarterback struggles, Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams have had some bright moments. The problem is the Bucs haven’t gotten anything out of the rest of their receivers. Grade: C-

Tight ends: Injuries to Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree have prevented the Bucs from getting much of anything out of their tight ends. Grade: F

Offensive line: It took a few weeks to get Carl Nicks healthy. This unit hasn’t been bad, but it hasn’t hit its potential. Grade: C

Defensive line: Tackle Gerald McCoy is playing like a Pro Bowler and end Adrian Clayborn has been very good. The only downside is that end Da’Quan Bowers has not developed as expected. Grade: B

Linebackers: This group might be the highlight for the entire team. Mason Foster, Lavonte David and Dekoda Watson all have come up with big plays. But the grade is dragged down a bit due to David’s late hit on Geno Smith, which helped the Bucs lose the opener. Grade: B

Defensive backs: This unit is much improved over last year. The coverage has been decent, but there have been too many costly penalties. Grade: C+

Special teams: Kicker Rian Lindell has missed two field-goal attempts at very inopportune times. Grade: D+

Coaching: The Freeman situation has been handled as poorly as possible. The offensive game plans and play calling have been highly questionable. And there have been persistent rumblings that some players aren’t buying into coach Greg Schiano’s ways. Grade: F

Upon Further Review: Buccaneers Week 1

September, 9, 2013
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A review of four hot issues from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 18-17 loss to the New York Jets on Sunday.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Brad Penner/USA TODAY SportsThe Jets sacked Josh Freeman three times in the Bucs' loss on Sunday.
Freeman's future: We’re not yet to the point at which the Bucs have a full-fledged quarterback controversy, but let’s be totally honest: Josh Freeman did not look good Sunday. When he didn’t look good in the preseason, it was easy to shrug off, but this was the real deal, and it’s time to start getting concerned. Freeman completed 15 of 31 passes for 210 yards with a touchdown and an interception in a game in which the offense never got into anything close to a rhythm. Undoubtedly, some fans will already be calling for rookie Mike Glennon. I still think Freeman is Tampa Bay’s best option to win, but my opinion on that could change with a few more performances like this one.

Sophomore slump? After a stellar rookie season, running back Doug Martin had a dud of a game. Martin averaged only 2.7 yards per carry. He gained 65 yards on 24 carries. But don’t go cutting Martin from your fantasy team just yet. Keep in mind the Bucs were without guard Carl Nicks and fullback Erik Lorig, who are two of Martin’s most important blockers.

The overaggressive defense: Lavonte David's late hit on rookie quarterback Geno Smith set up the game-winning field goal for the Jets. Safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson were also flagged for 15-yard penalties that turned out to be very costly. You want a defense to be aggressive, but you also want it to be smart. The Bucs have to be smarter on defense.

The bright spot: There was at least one for the Bucs. That was a pass rush that produced five sacks. Two came from linebacker Mason Foster, and David and linebacker Dekoda Watson each produced one sack. Daniel Te’o-Nesheim was the only defensive lineman to record a sack. The fact the Bucs came up with five sacks was encouraging, but they’ll need more pressure out of their front four if they’re going to have a chance against New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees next week.

Looking at Buccaneers' cap situation

September, 5, 2013
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Wednesday was a key day for salary-cap purposes. Each team’s cap commitment switched from the top 51 players to all players that count against the cap, including dead money.

With that in mind, let’s check out the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' cap situation.

They now are $10.2 million under this year’s cap. They might have to tap into that room if they have some injuries, but I wouldn’t expect any major signings.

The Bucs will do one of two things with the cap space they have remaining for this year. They’ll either carry it over to next season, a maneuver they’ve used in the past. Or they’ll eat up cap space for this year by restructuring the contracts of cornerback Darrelle Revis and safety Dashon Goldson to lower their cap figures for next season. The Bucs made a similar move last year when they restructured Vincent Jackson's and Carl Nicks' contracts of at the end of the season.

Either way, the Bucs are likely to free up somewhere close to $10 million for next year’s cap. As it stands right now, the Bucs have $114.5 million committed to 40 players toward the 2014 cap, which is likely to be around $123 million.

That means the Bucs will have plenty of flexibility if they decide to lock up quarterback Josh Freeman for the long term. The good news is the Bucs don’t have a lot of other key players headed toward free agency.

Of the projected starters for this season, linebacker Dekoda Watson and fullback Erik Lorig are the only players besides Freeman that can become free agents in 2014.

Surveying the Buccaneers' roster

September, 1, 2013
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After making their cuts Saturday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a roster that looks a lot like what I projected Friday.

I hit on 51 of 53 roster spots. Defensive tackle Gary Gibson and offensive lineman Cody Wallace were the two guys I had making the team who didn’t make the final cut. I didn’t have tight end Tim Wright and safety Keith Tandy making the roster, but they did.

Let’s take a brief overview of the composition of Tampa Bay’s roster:

QB (3): Josh Freeman, Mike Glennon and Dan Orlovsky

Comment: The question is whether Glennon or Orlovsky will be the No. 2 quarterback. My thinking is the Bucs wouldn’t have held onto Orlovsky if he’s going to be No. 3.

RB (5): Doug Martin, Erik Lorig, Brian Leonard, Mike James and Peyton Hillis

Comment: Leonard, James and Hillis all looked good in the preseason. They all can be used to help keep Martin fresh.

WR (5): Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Kevin Ogletree, Tiquan Underwood and Eric Page

Comment: The first four were pretty much set in stone. Page made the roster mostly because he’s going to be the return man.

TE (4): Luke Stocker, Tom Crabtree, Nate Byham and Tim Wright

Comment: Presumably, the Bucs kept Wright around because they expect Crabtree to miss some time with an ankle injury.

OL (8): Donald Penn, Carl Nicks, Jeremy Zuttah, Davin Joseph, Demar Dotson, Gabe Carimi, Ted Larsen and Jamon Meredith

Comment: By carrying only three backups, the Bucs appear to be optimistic that Nicks won’t miss too much time due to a staph infection.

DL (9): Adrian Clayborn, Da'Quan Bowers, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, Trevor Scott, William Gholston, Steven Means, Gerald McCoy, Akeem Spence and Derek Landri

Comment: McCoy, Spence and Landri are the only true defensive tackles. The Bucs must be planning to use at least one of their ends on the inside at times.

LB (6): Lavonte David, Mason Foster, Jonathan Casillas, Dekoda Watson, Najee Goode and Adam Hayward

Comment: The starters have a chance to be one of the league’s best units, and the backups aren’t bad either.

DB (10): Darrelle Revis, Johnthan Banks, Leonard Johnson, Danny Gorrer, Rashaan Melvin, Michael Adams, Dashon Goldson, Mark Barron, Ahmad Black and Keith Tandy

Comment: This should be the most improved area on the team.

Specialists (3): Rian Lindell, Andrew Economos and Michael Koenen.

Comment: Lindell is the third projected kicker the Bucs have had. Connor Barth and Lawrence Tynes both are out with injuries.

Projecting the Buccaneers roster

August, 30, 2013
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Roster cuts don’t have to be made until 6 p.m. Saturday. But let’s have a little fun in the meantime.

Let’s take a look at my best guess as to how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 53-man roster will shape up:

Quarterbacks (3): Josh Freeman, Mike Glennon and Dan Orlovsky

Analysis: A rough outing by Glennon in the preseason finale might have convinced the Bucs it’s best to keep Orlovsky around.

Running backs and fullbacks (5): Doug Martin, Brian Leonard, Mike James, Peyton Hillis and Erik Lorig

Analysis: Hillis is very much on the bubble. The fact he doesn't play special teams could hurt him. But he also could stick around because he has the size to be a backup for Lorig at fullback and could be a valuable short-yardage rusher.

Tight ends (3): Luke Stocker, Tom Crabtree and Nate Byham

Analysis: The Bucs may have to keep Danny Noble if Crabtree’s ankle injury is going to keep him out for an extended period.

Wide receivers (5): Vincent Jackson, Mike Williams, Kevin Ogletree, Tiquan Underwood and Eric Page

Analysis: Page has emerged as the return man and that should earn him the final roster spot.

Offensive line (9): Davin Joseph, Carl Nicks, Donald Penn, Demar Dotson, Jeremy Zuttah, Gabe Carimi, Ted Larsen, Jamon Meredith and Cody Wallace

Analysis: The Bucs could carry an extra lineman if it looks like Nicks will be out for an extended period.

Defensive line (10): Gerald McCoy, Akeem Spence, Adrian Clayborn, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, Da’Quan Bowers, Gary Gibson, Trevor Scott, William Gholston, Steven Means and Derek Landri

Analysis: The last few spots are very competitive and the Bucs could look to bring in a defensive tackle from the waiver wire.

Linebackers (6): Lavonte David, Mason Foster, Dekoda Watson, Jonathan Casillas, Adam Hayward and Najee Goode

This position is pretty clear-cut unless the Bucs bring in someone off waivers.

Defensive backs (9): Darrelle Revis, Johnthan Banks, Dashon Goldson, Mark Barron, Leonard Johnson, Danny Gorrer, Michael Adams, Rashaan Melvin and Ahmad Black.

Analysis: Melvin is very much on the bubble.

Specialists (3): Michael Koenen, Andrew Economos and Rian Lindell.

Analysis: Kicker Lawrence Tynes still is recovering from a staph infection and could end up on injured reserve.

Buccaneers to audition kickers

August, 20, 2013
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TAMPA, Fla. -- Buccaneers coach Greg Schiano touched on a variety of subjects after Tuesday’s practice. Let’s take a run through the highlights:

Kicking it. Schiano said the Bucs will bring in several veteran kickers for auditions. Lawrence Tynes has been slow to recover from a toe injury. That’s left Derek Dimke as the only kicker in camp. If Tynes can’t get healthy, the Bucs could end up going with a kicker who is not presently on the roster.

Track or football? The Bucs made a trade for return man Jeff Demps, knowing that his short-term future was in track and field. It sounds like Schiano is getting a little impatient that Demps has yet to join the team.

“Supposedly he’s coming,’’ Schiano said. “I don’t know. I don’t worry about guys that aren’t here. Guys that aren’t here, they can’t help us win right now. He’s not helping us get better right now. He’s running track somewhere. When he gets here, if he can help us win, he’ll be a part of it. If he gets here and he can’t help us win, he can go back and run track. We’re here to win games and that’s what we’re going to do.’’

Cluster at tight end. Schiano said the competition at tight end has been a little clouded because Luke Stocker has been bothered by an injury.

“It’s hard to tell because Stocker hasn’t practiced very much,’’ Schiano said. “It seems like every time he gets going, something happens. It’s not his fault. It’s bad luck or whatever you want to call it. That has hurt the position. [Tom] Crabtree has worked his tail off. Nate Byham has worked his tail off. It’s just going to have to sort itself out. One of the key guys that we were counting on hasn’t done much.’’

Room for two. Schiano said the competition for strongside linebacker is very close between Dekoda Watson and Jonathan Casillas.

“They’ve taken turns going with the [first team],’’ Schiano said. “They’re driving each other. If we play two of them, that’s fine with me, too. They’re both key special-teams contributors. Jonathan does a little more in our sub package. I think there are going to be plenty of plays to go around for those guys, but they’re two key guys in our entire picture.’’

Checking in on position battles

August, 15, 2013
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As we approach the midway point of the preseason, let’s do a status check on some of the top position competitions from around the division.

Left tackle in New Orleans. Coach Sean Payton said Wednesday that Charles Brown has pulled away from the competition. That could be a sign that Brown finally is playing up to his potential. It also could be a sign that Jason Smith and Terron Armstead aren’t very good. Either way, it looks like Brown will be protecting the blind side of Drew Brees. But that might not be a bad thing. Keep in mind, Jermon Bushrod wasn’t a stud when he first took over the position. New Orleans’ offensive line is built around guards Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs and they have a way of making everyone else on the line look good.

Strongside linebacker in Tampa Bay. Dekoda Watson has been given the first crack at the job and he hasn’t disappointed. Newcomer Jonathan Casillas also has performed well, but Watson remains in the lead at this position. Barring a dramatic change as the preseason winds down, Watson will be the starter and Casillas will be a backup and special teams player.

Right tackle in Atlanta. The Falcons still are trying to figure out what to do after losing Mike Johnson to a season-ending injury. The team is hoping second-year pro Lamar Holmes can claim the position, but he needs to use the rest of the preseason to show he’s ready. Undrafted rookie Ryan Schraeder has been a pleasant surprise. But the Falcons still could look to bring in a veteran from elsewhere if Holmes doesn’t distinguish himself.

Cornerbacks in Carolina. Veterans Drayton Florence and Captain Munnerlyn got most of the first-team work in training camp. But second-year pro Josh Norman helped his case a lot by intercepting two passes in the preseason opener. The Panthers would like for Norman to continue to emerge so they can start him and move Munnerlyn to nickel back, where he’s suited to match up with slot receivers.
TAMPA, Fla. -- There’s a perception out there that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can’t wait to let quarterback Josh Freeman walk away after this season.

Trace it to coach Greg Schiano’s hesitance to firmly endorse Freeman at the end of last season or chalk it up to the quarterback’s lack of consistency or look at the fact that the Bucs are letting Freeman go into the last year of his contract without an extension. But nothing could be further from the truth.

“I have a lot of confidence in Josh," general manager Mark Dominik said. “I know Coach has a lot of confidence. That position is the position in the National Football League. Win or lose, regardless of if you get too much blame or not enough kudos when you do win and people take it for granted, the more time you have to evaluate that player at that position, the more of a chance you have to be correct. I think Josh is looking at it with a confidence and saying he believes in himself and there were some parts of last year he wasn’t happy with, but there were good parts last year. We’ve talked to Josh and his agent, and we feel like we’re at a good spot. Everybody feels comfortable with where we’re at."

Even though they used a third-round draft pick on Mike Glennon, the Bucs desperately want Freeman to succeed. If he plays well, that probably means the team will be in the playoffs for the first time since the 2007 season. That would give Dominik and Schiano job security.

It also would give Freeman job security, because the Bucs probably would turn around and reward him with a big contract before free agency starts. That would fit the team’s plan of building from within. (If things go as expected, 18 of Tampa Bay’s 22 starters this year will have come through the draft, off the practice squad or through free agency.)

But it will all come down to Freeman’s performance. He needs to avoid slumps like the three-game stretch late last season when he threw 10 interceptions. He needs to play the way he did when the Bucs got off to a 6-4 start.

“He knows it," Dominik said. “We know it. But I think the thing that’s kind of been lost is some of the great things he did last year. Some of the big games where he played really well and showed he can do it. I think what he’s doing in camp right now is playing really smart with the football. You can’t underestimate the second year in a system. Continuity is so important. If you keep it together, that gives you a chance to have more success."

If Freeman plays well the Bucs will wrap him up, and they’ll have continuity at quarterback. If consistency continues to be an issue, the Bucs will have to start from scratch next year and Freeman will be playing for another team.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeDashon Goldson
Mike Carlson/AP PhotoVeteran Dashon Goldson, who was signed as a free agent this offseason, should provide some depth at safety for the Bucs.
1. Secondary matters. The Bucs poured a ton of resources into their secondary in the offseason. They traded for cornerback Darrelle Revis, signed safety Dashon Goldson as a free agent and used a second-round draft pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks. Those are the types of things you have to do when you’re coming off a season in which your pass defense ranked last in the league.

That should be enough to bring about some dramatic changes. All indications are that Revis is healthy and, if he is, he’s the best cornerback in the league. Banks could start immediately and, if he doesn’t, will be the third cornerback. Goldson’s arrival at free safety means strong safety Mark Barron, last year’s top draft pick, should be able to concentrate on playing more in the box -- where he’s at his best.

The Bucs believe in building from within. But they went outside to patch up the team’s biggest weakness.

2. The pass rush. This goes hand in hand with the secondary. If the defensive backfield really is going to shine, it’s going to need some help from the pass rush.

The Bucs let defensive end Michael Bennett, last year’s leading sacker, walk away in free agency. But that was a calculated move. The Bucs believed Bennett already had hit his full upside. But the team thinks third-year pros Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn are ready to blossom to heights that Bennett never approached.

That’s a leap of faith, because Clayborn is coming off a knee injury and Bowers wasn’t a full-time player in his first two seasons. However, if the Bucs are right about Bowers and Clayborn, the pass defense is going to rank a lot better than No. 32 in the league.

3. The tight ends have to come through. The Bucs have done a nice job of surrounding Freeman with plenty of talent at running back, receiver and offensive line. But at tight end, the cupboard looks close to bare. The team didn’t re-sign last year’s starter, Dallas Clark. Luke Stocker, who seemed to have the inside track to the starting job, has missed a lot of camp with a calf injury.

But the Bucs are quietly optimistic about Tom Crabtree, whom they brought in from Green Bay. The Bucs aren’t going to throw to their tight ends as much as Atlanta and New Orleans do, but they need Stocker or Crabtree to be a threat in the passing game to take some coverage away from the wide receivers.

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

[+] EnlargeDoug Martin
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsThe Bucs have done well stockpiling young talent such as running back Doug Martin.
The team has a surprising amount of individual talent. Revis, Goldson, guard Carl Nicks, guard Davin Joseph, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, running back Doug Martin and receiver Vincent Jackson have been to the Pro Bowl. Plus, the Bucs have plenty of other young talent -- guys like Freeman, Barron, linebackers Lavonte David and Mason Foster, and receiver Mike Williams.

Tampa Bay has been rebuilding ever since coach Jon Gruden was fired following the 2008 season. There’s no such thing as a finished product, because you’re always looking to upgrade your roster. But the Bucs no longer are in rebuilding mode.

They have enough talent to get to the playoffs.

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

Schiano still is somewhat new to the NFL and to his players. His hard-edged approach drew all sorts of attention last year, and he has said he’s relaxing things a bit now that he has changed the culture of the locker room.

But this team isn’t completely past the culture shock that came with Schiano. That’s why it’s critical for the Bucs to get off to a fast start. If they do, the players will fully embrace Schiano’s ways.

If the Bucs start poorly, players won’t buy into Schiano and things could fall apart in a hurry.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The Bucs are ecstatic with what they’ve seen from McCoy this offseason. He earned a Pro Bowl trip last year, and that seems to have taken his motivation to another level. He worked out harder than ever and came to camp about 10 pounds lighter than last season. He’s emerging as a leader of the defense, and the Bucs think he can become one of the league’s most dominant interior linemen.
  • When the Bucs brought in Gabe Carimi, some fans thought he might end up starting ahead of Demar Dotson at right tackle. That’s not going to happen. Carimi is being looked at as an insurance policy behind Dotson and Penn at left tackle. Dotson is having one of the best camps of any Tampa Bay player, and the Bucs believe he’s only starting to scratch the surface of his potential.
  • Martin had a phenomenal rookie season, but I’m expecting him to be even better this year. Martin rushed for 1,454 yards with Joseph missing the entire season and Nicks missing half of it. With the two guards back, Martin should be an even better runner. Martin also caught 49 passes as a rookie, and I can see that number going up because the Bucs have been throwing to him a lot in camp.
  • The Bucs brought in veteran Peyton Hillis as insurance behind Martin. But Hillis, who hasn’t done much the past two seasons, isn’t a lock to make the roster. Veteran Brian Leonard looked good in the preseason opener, and the Bucs believe sixth-round draft pick Mike James has the potential to be an all-around back.
  • Strongside linebacker was expected to be one of the more competitive spots in camp. But veteran Dekoda Watson has taken the mystery out of that battle. He started off ahead of free-agent pickup Jonathan Casillas and has widened the gap with a strong performance in camp.
  • Kevin Ogletree appears to have the lead over Tiquan Underwood and Chris Owusu in the competition for the third receiver spot. But Underwood and Owusu have had strong showings that could earn them some playing time. Without a lot of certainty at tight end, the Bucs could resort to some four-receiver sets.
  • The addition of veteran Spencer Larsen made me wonder if fullback Erik Lorig's job was in jeopardy. But that’s not the case. Lorig is safe as the starter. The Bucs were very impressed with Larsen’s workout and view him as a quality backup and special-teams player.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Friday marked a rite of summer at One Buccaneer Place. For the first time this season, we have a depth chart.

It’s officially unofficial, but it’s a starting point. Unlike the regular season, this depth chart is a guesstimate by the media relations staff and isn’t coming straight from the coaching staff.

There are no major surprises, but there are a few things worth noting.

Let’s start with the quarterbacks, because they always draw the most interest. As you would expect, Josh Freeman is listed as the starter. But rookie Mike Glennon is ahead of veteran Dan Orlovsky. I think that’s clearly a sign of things to come.

The rest of Tampa Bay’s rookies are being brought along slowly, at least according to the depth chart. Cornerback Johnthan Banks is listed on the second team, behind Leonard Johnson. Defensive tackle Akeem Spence is listed second behind Gary Gibson. In both cases, I think that’s just a courtesy to the veterans. I think Spence and Banks have very real chances to be starters on opening day.

Other positions of interest include strongside linebacker, where Dekoda Watson is listed ahead of Jonathan Casillas; right tackle, where Demar Dotson is ahead of Gabe Carimi; and tight end, where Luke Stocker, who has been sidelined by injury, is listed ahead of Tom Crabtree.

In other news from Friday's practice, coach Greg Schiano said Banks and receiver Mike Williams have strained hamstrings. Schiano said Williams could return as early as Saturday, but Banks likely will miss a few days.

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