NFL Nation: Brian Price

Bucs need to hit on draft picks

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
8:06
AM ET
It’s been well documented that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently have only one player they selected in the 2009 and 2010 drafts on their roster.

That’s defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. But guys like Josh Freeman, Arrelious Benn and Brian Price are long gone from Tampa Bay. The failure of so many draft picks is one of the reasons former coach Greg Schiano and general manager Mark Dominik are gone and why the Bucs have been so active in free agency this year.

“Is it hard to make up and is it a hindrance?’’ coach Lovie Smith said Tuesday. “That’s probably one of the reasons why [general manager] Jason [Licht] and I are both here right now, so that’s just a part of it.’’

Despite all of the movement in free agency, Smith said the team’s plan is to build through the draft.

“Our plan is for us to do better on the draft and make that our foundation,’’ Smith said.

Although they’ve brought in a lot of veterans, the Bucs expect their first-round draft pick (No. 7 overall) to play right away.

“As a general rule, the seventh pick, you want them to play fairly soon,’’ Smith said. “There’s no rebuilding around here. We’re trying to put together a roster to be able to win as quick as we possibly can. The seventh pick normally plays fairly soon.”

Bucs load up defensive backfield

April, 26, 2013
4/26/13
9:59
PM ET
Johnathan BanksSpruce DerdenThorpe award winner Johnathan Banks is the latest addition to the Bucs' defensive backfield.

TAMPA, Fla. -- When your pass defense (almost all by itself) sinks an entire season, there’s only one thing to do. You go overboard to fix it.

That’s the approach the Tampa Bay Buccaneers followed Friday night as they drafted Mississippi State cornerback Johnthan Banks in the second round (43rd overall). That comes a little less than a week after the Bucs pulled off a huge trade to get cornerback Darrelle Revis, not very long after they restructured Eric Wright's contract to keep the cornerback around and only a little more than a month after the they signed free-agent safety Dashon Goldson.

Call it double dipping or triple dipping or whatever you want. The bottom line is, at least on paper, the Bucs have a much better secondary than they did last season. As dramatic as their approach is, it really isn’t that surprising.

General manager Mark Dominik has shown a tendency to lock in on one area and hit it several times over in the past. In 2009, Dominik used draft picks on wide receivers Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. In 2010, the position of choice was defensive tackle with the Bucs taking Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two draft picks.

In 2011, the Bucs used their first two picks on defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. This time around, the Bucs got Goldson and Revis in advance and followed that by doubling down on Banks, the winner of last season’s Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.

“We’ve increased our size, physicality and ball skills,” Dominik said.

The days of relying on the likes of journeyman E.J. Biggers and undrafted free agent Leonard Johnson to go against NFC South receivers like Roddy White, Julio Jones, Steve Smith and Marques Colston are over over.

With Revis, the Bucs might have the best cornerback on the planet, if his surgically repaired knee is fully healthy. In Wright, the Bucs have a reclamation project. He was signed to a big free-agent contract last offseason, but served a four-game suspension last season and wasn’t that great when he did play. But Wright took a massive cut in pay and the Bucs still believe he can be a factor.

In Banks, 6-foot-2 and 185 pounds, the Bucs have added a big physical cornerback. Banks’ draft stock tumbled because he ran a slow time in the 40-yard dash at the combine, but the Bucs don’t think that’s indicative of his real quickness.

“You never felt that because he has such good length and ball skills,’’ Dominik said. “We felt like when you watch the tape, it’s not the same as he ran at the combine.”

Dominik and coach Greg Schiano weren’t ready to say exactly how they plan to use their cornerbacks.

“That all comes as part of the competition,” Schiano said. “You let it play out.”

But it’s not too hard to see how this is going to play out. Revis is automatically a starter. It really doesn’t matter if Banks or Wright is the other starter. When the Bucs go to the nickel package, which will be often, Banks is a natural on the outside and Wright is best suited to move inside and line up on slot receivers.

Speaking of sorting things out, it still remains to be seen what happens with veteran safety/cornerback Ronde Barber. Back at the start of the offseason, it looked like the Bucs needed Barber to return for another season.

But the free safety spot he played last season is now occupied by Goldson. The top three cornerbacks are now set. Will Barber come back as a third safety or a fourth cornerback? Dominik said Friday night the Bucs still would like Barber to return, but it remains unclear what role he would have.

“When Ronde reaches out, we’ll have a conversation and we’ll talk through that,” Dominik said.

The Barber situation will play out. If he returns, he’ll be in some sort of backup role.

The Bucs are set with Revis, Banks and Wright at cornerback. They’re set with Goldson and Mark Barron, last year’s first-round pick, at safety.

Over the past six weeks, the Bucs have gone to great extremes to make sure they no longer have the league’s worst secondary.
Although they don’t currently have a first-round pick after trading it as part of the Darrelle Revis deal, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers still will hold their draft party at Raymond James Stadium on Thursday night.

According to the team, Revis, Dashon Goldson, Mark Barron, Doug Martin, Lavonte David, Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn will attend. The team also says there will be an “on-field presentation’’ at 7 p.m. Other festivities also are planned.

But I wouldn’t be surprised if the biggest event comes very late in the night. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the Buccaneers trade back into the latter stages of the first round.

One thing we’ve learned about general manager Mark Dominik is he’s a creature of habit. He drafted receivers Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn in the same year and took defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price in the same draft.

Dominik set a precedent for trading into the first round last year. After taking Barron with the seventh overall pick, he traded back into the first round to get Martin.

It could happen again. The Bucs currently have seven picks. If you look at the trade value chart, they could package their second-round pick (No. 43) and third-round pick (No. 73) and get to somewhere in the bottom five or six picks in the first round.

Dominik acknowledged Monday that he at least has thought about scenarios where he would consider getting back into the first round.

One other thing to keep in mind: When Dominik drafted Martin last year, he explained that part of the reason he made the deal was because players that are drafted in the first round can be given five-year deals, while anyone after the first round can’t get anything more than a four-year deal.

That’s important to Dominik.

That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if he makes a trade to get back into the first round.

Buccaneers could be thin at DT

August, 31, 2012
8/31/12
12:10
PM ET
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went to great extremes this offseason to build up their depth at defensive tackle so they don’t face a situation like last season, when they became so desperate they had to bring in Albert Haynesworth.

It doesn’t look like things are working out quite as planned. According to multiple reports, defensive tackle Amobi Okoye has been released by the Bucs and the Chicago Bears already are working to finalize a contract with the veteran. That’s ironic, because Brian Price, who once seemed to factor into Tampa Bay’s interior-line plans, was traded to Chicago this summer.

The Bucs spent decent money ($2 million) to bring in Okoye, a former first-round draft pick by Houston. The thinking was he could at least be a rotational player behind Gerald McCoy and could end up as a starter if McCoy’s injury woes continued. Instead, Okoye was the one with the injury problem. A knee issue forced Okoye to miss a lot of time in training camp and the preseason. The Bucs are off the hook for Okoye's $1.8 million base, but his $200,000 workout bonus still will count against their salary cap.

Roy Miller appears to have earned the starting job next to McCoy. Okoye’s release would leave Gary Gibson and Wallace Gilberry as the apparent top backups at defensive tackle. Gibson played for coach Greg Schiano at Rutgers and has bounced around the NFL. Gilberry also has NFL experience. But, given McCoy’s history of injury problems, I don’t see how the Bucs can feel too great about their depth at defensive tackle. I think there’s a decent chance they could end up with another defensive tackle off the waiver wire.

There also are reports that the Bucs have released defensive tackle Frank Okam and safety Cody Grimm, but the team hasn’t made any official announcements yet.
TAMPA, Fla. -- It is the first day of August. If Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano still is talking about Gerald McCoy on the first day of January, or even February, then we’ll know that the defensive tackle finally has arrived.

It’s only natural to take every big projection for McCoy with some caution. After all, the guy has been expected to be a superstar since the moment the Bucs used the third overall draft pick on him in 2010. It’s just that the sum of what McCoy has done in his first two seasons comes nowhere close to the superstar level.

In 2010, he went through some of the usual rookie struggles and, just as he appeared to be catching on, his season ended with a biceps injury. McCoy also showed plenty of promise last preseason and got off to a solid start. But McCoy tore his biceps again and missed the final 10 games of last season.

Once again, McCoy is showing the skills that made him such a big-time prospect coming out of Oklahoma and that has caught the attention of his new coach.

“I think Gerald has really practiced well,’’ Schiano said. “I think he’s got elite get off. When I say that, I mean, I haven’t been around a lot of guys like that, maybe two or three. We just need to keep working and developing the technique things and I think he’d be further along had he not had the injuries both years. Repetitions are what let you get good at those techniques. [Defensive line] Coach [Randy] Melvin and [defensive front seven] coach Bryan Cox are working hard with him and I think he can be really a special player.’’

The Bucs really need McCoy to be a special player as they go through some transition on their defensive line. They need McCoy and second-year defensive end Adrian Clayborn to be the anchors as they find the other parts. Defensive tackle Brian Price, who was traded to Chicago last week, is gone and the Bucs are looking for Roy Miller or Gary Gibson to take over at nose tackle. Defensive end Da'Quan Bowers will be sidelined for at least half the season as he recovers from a torn Achilles tendon. The Bucs have Michael Bennett as their other first-team defensive end. Bennett, Miller and Gibson have a chance to be nice role players.

But if the Bucs really are going to have a good defensive line, they need McCoy and Clayborn to be special players. More importantly, they just need McCoy to be able to stay on the field.

Camp Confidential: Bears

July, 30, 2012
7/30/12
10:00
AM ET
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Summer visitors to Olivet Nazarene University are greeted annually by navy blue banners promoting the Chicago Bears' training camp. Bears team logos are plastered all around town. Marquee signs invite the hungry and thirsty to patronize local establishments. And in 2012, there was a notable addition to the welcoming committee.

Overt talk of a Super Bowl run hits you from every angle here. You see it on a championship prediction posted outside an elementary school near campus. You hear it chanted from 12,000 fans attending practice. You notice the Bears' normally mild-mannered place-kicker drawing powerful conclusions.

Emboldened by a newly-fortified offense and a veteran defense that hasn't gotten old yet, the Bears opened training camp with the highest of expectations.

"There's no doubt that this year by far is our best chance to win a Super Bowl," place-kicker Robbie Gould said on the eve of camp Listen. "We have the talent. Yeah, we do have to earn it on the field, but when it comes to putting the pieces together, this is definitely the year that we have the pieces. … I think everyone understands that this is an opportunity, and that we might only get that one chance to make it to the Super Bowl and win it. I think everybody is excited about that."

Indeed, the long-term future of this team is murky, with linebacker Brian Urlacher entering the final year of his contract and five other starters -- including quarterback Jay Cutler, linebacker Lance Briggs, receiver Devin Hester and Gould -- facing a 2013 expiration. But for the short term, the Bears couldn't be more enthused.

"I'm definitely excited about how stacked we are at each position," cornerback Charles Tillman said.

The pieces, as they say, are in place, and nothing I saw in the early days of training camp suggested otherwise.

THREE HOT ISSUES

[+] EnlargeMike Tice
AP Photo/Nam Y. HuhWith several new weapons, Bears offensive coordinator Mike Tice is optimistic that his "Duh offense" won't be a dud.
1. Adding explosion to offense: I lost track of how many different people used a form of the word "explosion" to describe the Bears' hope for their new offense. Offensive coordinator Mike Tice said he wants to be explosive in both the running and passing games and added: "We have too many athletes not to be able to."

The key to explosive plays -- usually defined as runs of 12 or more yards and passes of at least 16 yards -- is getting those athletes into empty space. Tice has a simple approach to doing that, one he began preaching in the spring and continued during the early days of camp. He affectionately calls it the "Duh offense."

In essence, he will give Cutler the responsibility of changing plays at the line of scrimmage based on the "number count" of the defense. If defenses are aligned against the pass, Cutler can call a run. If they are stacked on the line of scrimmage, Cutler will have the ability to switch from run to pass. The approach requires the type of balanced personnel the Bears have, and in the end it produces volume mismatches at the point of attack.

2. Play calling: Tice's experience in developing successful offenses is unquestioned, as is his expertise in matching a scheme with the capacity of an offensive line. But the one thing Tice hasn't done in 30-plus years in the NFL is be a team's primary playcaller over the course of a season, a task he is preparing for in training camp.

Quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates will relay the call to Cutler during games, but the calls will originate with Tice. "It's all about rhythm," Tice said. "It's all about good installation. It's about the right balance and making sure you understand what your opponent is trying to do in certain situations. It'll be fine."

3. Defensive assumptions: Optimism about the Bears has been generated mostly by additions the Bears made to their offense, from receiver Brandon Marshall to running back Michael Bush to Bates. It has been assumed that the Bears' special teams will maintain its annual strength, and also that an aging defense has at least one more top-level season in it.

Urlacher (34) looked like his usual self after rehabilitating a knee injury all offseason. Defensive end Julius Peppers (32), Briggs (31) and Tillman (31) all appeared to be in excellent shape.

"I don't feel like it's my 10th year," Tillman said. "My body doesn't feel like it. My mind doesn't feel like it. I feel good, mind, spiritually."

REASON FOR OPTIMISM

No one is going to confuse Cutler with Alvin Wong, a.k.a "The Happiest Man in the World." But on a relative scale, Cutler arrived at camp and moved through its first few days with the buoyancy of a man who has been placed squarely in position to succeed.

"This is the most comfortable I think I've been going into a camp with the offense," Cutler said, "and what we are doing scheme-wise and the talent around me."

Those who know him best agree.

"He looks a lot more comfortable," said receiver Earl Bennett, Cutler's longtime teammate dating to their Vanderbilt days. "He just looks ready to go. He's excited about the new toys he has on offense and the guys surrounding him, and he's just excited about the season."

Arriving at training camp, Cutler said, "was like Christmas."

REASON FOR PESSIMISM

[+] EnlargeJ'Marcus Webb
Scott Boehm/Getty ImagesCan the Bears count on J'Marcus Webb to consistently protect the blind side of QB Jay Cutler?
Left tackle is one of the three or four most important positions on a team, but it is one of the Bears' few legitimate question marks. A competition between J'Marcus Webb and Chris Williams is probably Webb's to lose, but at the very least, it's nerve-wracking to launch a Super Bowl run without an established starter to protect a quarterback's blind side.

Webb and Williams alternated with the first team during the practices I watched, and it's clear that Webb has the physical tools necessary to play the position. Williams, on the other hand, hasn't played the position in two years and might be a fallback if Webb can't eliminate the mental and technique mistakes that plagued him in 2011.

"We'll turn the heat on both of them," Tice said. "We want to see who is going to block our good pass-rushers."

Competition itself isn't a bad thing. But the Bears really need a winner to emerge, rather than being left to select the less damaging option.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • We've discussed the likelihood of Bush serving as the Bears' short-yardage and goal-line back. At 245 pounds, Bush is better suited and has had more career success in that role than starter Matt Forte. But Bush made clear he would rather not be pigeon-holed in that manner. "That's the role I've been stuck with because of my size," he said. "If that's what I've got to do, then that's what I've got to do. … No one likes to be a battering ram. It just happens that way." Regardless, it makes too much sense not to at least give that arrangement a long look.
  • Cutler and Marshall arrived for lunch together on the first day of practice. They broke open a new critical-thinking board game at night, which Marshall referred to as "Q." (Cutler won the first two games.) But Marshall said the pair's much-discussed friendship is "not always fun." He added: "In any relationship, when you take two people from two different places and you put them together, you butt heads. Because sometimes we try to impose our own wills on each other. But sometimes you understand there is no right and wrong. It's just two different people. I think that's when the relationship gets better. With Jay and I, it's always some work."
  • Perhaps their friendship made our expectations unreasonably high, but I was surprised by how many miscommunications Cutler and Marshall had in their first few practices. On Day 1 alone, I counted five passes that either hit the ground or were intercepted because Cutler threw one way and Marshall ran another. But we found out in the third practice how little that mattered. Cutler and Marshall put on a show in full pads, wowing fans and players who can't remember the last time the Bears had a true No. 1 receiver.
  • Tice will undoubtedly use tight ends more in the passing game than predecessor Mike Martz, and the Bears have accumulated an interesting group to deal with. Kellen Davis figures as the starter with Matt Spaeth as the top blocker. But it's certainly worth pointing out that rookie Evan Rodriguez, a fourth-round draft pick from Temple, appeared in much better shape than he was reported to be in this spring and seemed to have a knack for turning upfield quickly after the catch. "This game is about explosion," Rodriguez said. (There's that word again.) Rodriguez added: "Everybody in this league is so fast. You've really got to push to get that five yards, and then after that, it's every inch that matters."
  • Rookie safety Brandon Hardin is getting work on all four special teams, including a role as the personal protector on punts. It's also worth noting that when free safety Chris Conte briefly left practice Saturday night, it was Hardin who stepped in with the first team. "I'm looking forward to helping the team in that special-teams aspect until I get on the field as a safety," Hardin said.
  • Although there is uncertainty at left tackle, the return of 2011 draft choice Gabe Carimi has added a level of stability to the right side. Carimi reported to training camp in excellent condition, having dropped his weight to 308 pounds and lowered his body fat form 26 percent to 19 percent by changing his diet in the offseason. "The goal was to have more muscle mass," he said.
  • The Bears' immediate plans are to use rookie defensive end Shea McClellin as a situational pass- rusher. In that scenario, Israel Idonije would hold a starting spot opposite Peppers. I didn't see any examples of it early in camp, but you wonder if the Bears would be tempted to use Idonije as an inside pass-rusher, with McClellin on the edge, in obvious passing downs. Another candidate to be an inside pass-rusher is newcomer Brian Price.

CampTour'12: Bears Day 2

July, 27, 2012
7/27/12
7:15
PM ET
BOURBONNAIS, Ill. -- Let's roll through some thoughts and observations after watching the Chicago Bears' second training-camp practice:

  • One of the prettiest plays in 1-on-1 drills came when receiver Earl Bennett hauled in a long pass down the right sideline from quarterback Jay Cutler. Bennett used some crafty veteran contact with his left arm to keep cornerback Kelvin Hayden at bay.
  • After fans cheered Bennett's catch, cornerback Tim Jennings turned to the crowd and said: "Hey, we [cornerbacks] play for you guys, too." Jennings drew a laugh.
  • The Bears' three-receiver set has been pretty consistent: Brandon Marshall, Devin Hester and Bennett usually in the slot. When Hester was shaken up briefly during team drills, rookie Alshon Jeffery replaced him on the outside. So that gives you a clear sense of the depth chart as it stands now. If the Bears keep veterans Devin Thomas and Eric Weems for special-teams purposes, and that is quite possible, it will be difficult for 2011 slot receiver Dane Sanzenbacher to make the team.
  • Special-teams coordinator Dave Toub put out some interesting lineups during kickoff-return drills. Bennett was among those manning a front-line position. Two others were rookies, safety Brandon Hardin and tight end Evan Rodriguez. Historically, it's fair to make assumptions about a young player's chances to make the team based on his standing on special teams. In other words, it's looking good very early for Rodriguez, especially. Hardin was already a lock to make the team.
  • We didn't see new defensive tackle Brian Price on Friday, a day after the Bears acquired him in a trade from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, because his physical was not complete. The Bears indicated that should happen Saturday. According to the collective bargaining agreement, however, Price must ease into training camp with three unpadded practices before he can join the team fully. So it will be a bit of time before Price is up to speed.
  • For those interested in such things, during team drills, it was quarterbacks coach Jeremy Bates who relayed plays via radio to Cutler. Bates stood next to offensive coordinator Mike Tice during the process.
  • In person, running back Michael Bush proved to be a much bigger dude than I thought he was. The Bears list him at 6-foot-1 and 245 pounds, but when you see him in a T-shirt on rather than a jersey, you could easily mistake him for a linebacker or even a small defensive end.
  • The Bears' first full-pads practice is scheduled for Saturday night. I won't miss it.
METAIRIE, La. -- The Saints just announced they’ll move their first training camp practice indoors due to nasty weather in the area.

I’ve got to make my way from the media room to the indoor facility in just a minute. But first, we’ve got a bit of breaking news.

Adam Schefter reports the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have traded defensive tackle Brian Price to Chicago for a late-round draft pick. My first instinct is this is a smart move by the Bucs. Price has been a good player, when healthy.

But Price has a history of injuries. He also has been dealing with a personal tragedy. His sister was killed in a car accident this spring and Price spent a big chunk of the offseason away from the team.

Without Price, the Bucs likely will turn to Amobi Okoye as the starter next to Gerald McCoy. Price might be better off getting a fresh start with the Bears.
TAMPA, Fla. -- After his rookies went through a workout Thursday, Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano said it’s time for his team to be unified.

Schiano’s response came when he was asked a question about reports that defensive tackle Brian Price and rookie safety Mark Barron had an altercation earlier this offseason. Schiano didn’t want to get into details of the incident, but said he doesn’t expect there to be any lingering hard feelings between the two players.

“I hope not,’’ Schiano said. “We all make mistakes. Be men about it and 'let’s go.' Ultimately, everything we do has one goal and that’s to bring that trophy back here. We’ve got to put our own personal preferences and whatever disagreements we have aside to do what’s best for the club.’’

Price and Barron were not among the players participating in Thursday’s workout. Only rookies are allowed to take part until veterans report next week. Barron remains unsigned, but Schiano said he’s optimistic a deal will be reached soon.

Price has missed some previous offseason time while dealing with the death of his sister. But, when Schiano was asked if all veterans are expected to be ready for training camp, the only exception he noted was defensive end Da’Quan Bowers, who suffered a torn Achilles tendon in the offseason.
In its infancy, the NFC South was a division filled with defensive superstars.

In the division's first year of existence (2002), Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch and Simeon Rice led Tampa Bay to a Super Bowl title. The Bucs were so good on defense that they won it all with Brad Johnson, an average quarterback at best.

In 2003, Carolina defensive linemen Julius Peppers and Kris Jenkins emerged as the second coming of Rice and Sapp. With a little help from linebacker Dan Morgan, who was relatively healthy that season, they carried the Panthers all the way to the Super Bowl -- and that came with Jake Delhomme in his first full season as a starting quarterback.

But Sapp, Lynch and Rice eventually left the Bucs. Jenkins was dominant for a bit, but his career flamed out after a couple of knee injuries. The last true defensive superstars disappeared from the NFC South when the Bucs unceremoniously released Brooks after the 2008 season and Peppers signed with the Chicago Bears after the 2009 season. There hasn’t been anything close to a dominant defensive player in the division since. The Saints won their Super Bowl in 2009 with defensive standouts Jonathan Vilma, Will Smith and Darren Sharper having nice seasons, but quarterback Drew Brees was the reason for that title.

Could this be the year the NFC South returns to its roots and a dominant defensive player emerges? Of course, the NFL is a quarterback-driven league and rules favor offense. But there are several prospects in the division who could turn out to be the NFC South’s next defensive superstar. Here's a rundown:

[+] EnlargeSean Weatherspoon
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesWith his athleticism and leadership skills, Sean Weatherspoon has become the focal point of Atlanta's defense.
Sean Weatherspoon, linebacker, Falcons. Based on what the Falcons have said about Weatherspoon this offseason, you would think he already is a Pro Bowl regular. He has had two promising seasons but really hasn’t done anything special, so maybe the Falcons are getting ahead of themselves here.

Weatherspoon is a very athletic outside linebacker. His potential and leadership skills were partially why Atlanta was willing to part with Curtis Lofton, even though that probably means a dropoff at middle linebacker. New coordinator Mike Nolan apparently wants to build his defense around Weatherspoon. That might not be a bad idea. The great Tampa Bay defenses were built around Brooks, not the guy in the middle. Of course, that concept only works if Weatherspoon turns out to be the next Brooks.

Luke Kuechly, linebacker, Panthers. Carolina didn’t have a desperate need at linebacker with Jon Beason and Thomas Davis returning from injuries and James Anderson already in place. There were more obvious needs elsewhere. But the Panthers locked in on Kuechly with the No. 9 overall pick in this year’s draft.

The Panthers have yet to declare if Kuechly or Beason will open the season in the middle. But it’s clear the Panthers have huge plans for Kuechly. Coach Ron Rivera comes from a defensive background and he needed to reload his defense. He drafted Kuechly to build a defense around him.

Don’t underestimate the influence of general manager Marty Hurney on this pick. Hurney was around during the Morgan days, and he’s one of many people in Carolina’s building who believe Morgan would be headed for the Pro Football Hall of Fame if he had been able to stay healthy. In Kuechly, the Panthers envision a healthy and young Morgan.

Mark Barron, safety, Buccaneers. Rivera didn’t get to use his first draft pick on a defensive player because the Panthers had to take quarterback Cam Newton with the No. 1 overall pick in 2011. But Greg Schiano already had Josh Freeman at QB when he took over in Tampa Bay, allowing Schiano to focus on defense. He selected Barron with the No. 7 pick.

Conventional wisdom says that might be a little high to draft a safety. But with passing games dominating, maybe conventional wisdom must change. We don’t know exactly what Schiano’s defense will look like, but investing so much in Barron is a pretty strong clue that safety will be a very important position.

Malcolm Jenkins, safety, Saints. Scouts and coaches have predicted greatness from Jenkins since he came into the league. Entering his fourth season, he did not have an interception last season. But Jenkins has physical talent and a great work ethic, and I think this season he will put everything together. In former coordinator Gregg Williams’ system, Jenkins often had to blitz or cover for other defensive backs who blitzed. In Steve Spagnuolo’s defense, Jenkins will be allowed to simply play center field, which is what he does best.

Adrian Clayborn, defensive end, Buccaneers. In a rookie year in which everything around him went wrong, Clayborn put together a nice season in 2011. He had 7.5 sacks and forced three fumbles. If he was able to do that amid chaos, he should be able to do much more in Schiano’s new world. Of course, it would help if Gerald McCoy and Brian Price could stay healthy and provide some help at defensive tackle.

Charles Johnson, defensive end, Panthers. He just turned 26 and, of all the players on this list, he has done the most so far. Johnson had 20.5 sacks the past two seasons for a team that often played from behind. Carolina has a good offense now, and the addition of Kuechly and the return of injured players should help the defense. If Johnson's sack total reaches the high double digits, he could become what Peppers once was -- a dominant NFC South defensive player.

Buccaneers' hidden treasure: DL

June, 27, 2012
6/27/12
12:00
PM ET
AFC hidden treasures: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

Examining a position group that could exceed its preseason expectations:

The Bucs have invested a lot of premium draft picks in their defensive line in recent years, but they haven’t really collected any dividends. This could be the year that changes.

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the third overall draft pick in 2010, has been slowed by injuries his first two seasons. But he did show some promise when healthy. The new coaching staff believes McCoy can be a dominant player and cornerstone of this defense. But the obvious key is he needs to stay healthy. If he does, he ideally will line up next to fellow third-year pro Brian Price, who also has dealt with some injury issues. But the Bucs went out and got Amobi Okoye and Gary Gibson in the offseason and the hope is to use them in a rotation that can help keep McCoy and Price fresh.

If McCoy and Price finally can blossom, that should provide a tremendous boost for second-year defensive end Adrian Clayborn. He recorded 7.5 sacks as a rookie without much around him. The Bucs believe Clayborn can hit double digits in sacks. The line suffered a big blow when Da’Quan Bowers tore his Achilles tendon in the offseason. At best, Bowers could return around midseason. At worst, he’ll miss the entire season. But this still has a chance to be a decent defensive line because Michael Bennett can start opposite Clayborn.
AFC Scenarios: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Yes, the start of training camps is two months away, but it’s never too early to consider the coming season. A look at the best-case and worst-case scenarios for the Buccaneers in 2012.

Dream scenario (10-6): This will only happen if coach Greg Schiano makes the transition from college to the NFL more like Jim Harbaugh than Nick Saban or Bobby Petrino. Harbaugh isn’t the norm in this category, but it’s possible Schiano could follow in his tracks. The cupboard isn’t bare, it just needs organizing. The Bucs have assembled a lot of young talent in recent drafts -- Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Adrian Clayborn, Mark Barron, Doug Martin and Lavonte David -- and Schiano showed he can build during his time at Rutgers.

The key to it all is Freeman. Is he the quarterback who threw 25 touchdowns and six interceptions in a 10-6 season in 2010 or the guy that threw 22 interceptions and looked awfully anxious last season? Schiano and his staff firmly believe the 2010 version was the real Freeman and they’ve done everything possible to upgrade his supporting cast. They brought in Vincent Jackson to be the No. 1 receiver and guard Carl Nicks to bolster an offensive line that has a chance to be very good. They also drafted Martin and plan to use him as an every-down running back.

If Freeman is for real, he should bounce back strong from last year’s debacle. Lots of coaches and scouts around the league still believe in Freeman, but we’ll soon find out if he still believes in himself or if last year forever shattered his confidence. But, even if Freeman improves, the Bucs must be a lot better on defense than they were last season when they allowed more points (494) than any team in franchise history.

Nightmare scenario (4-12): As demonstrated by the likes of Saban and Petrino, NFL players don’t always respond well to hard-charging college coaches. There’s no doubt this team needs some order after the Wild West days of Raheem Morris, but Schiano must get his players to buy into the new order in their worlds or he could be in for trouble. Although ownership showed a willingness to spend in free agency and the Bucs have had some early draft picks in recent years, this job is far from paradise.

Few, if any, of those early draft picks have shown that they are the real deal. Maybe all they need is better coaching, but maybe the Bucs just haven’t drafted very well. If Freeman struggles again, the Bucs suddenly have a quarterback quandary on their hands. If they struggle on offense, there’s no way they can win games in the NFC South. You don’t win a lot of games with defense in the modern NFL and, at least on paper, Tampa Bay’s offense is much more talented than its defense.

If Freeman doesn’t take a step forward and the defense doesn’t show improvement, it will become last season all over again. This is not a franchise that can handle a lot more misery. Attendance has been lacking in recent years and the Bucs aren’t going to fill up their stadium until they escape obscurity and win consistently.

Pressure point: Buccaneers

May, 17, 2012
5/17/12
12:00
PM ET
NFC pressure points: West | North | South | East
AFC pressure points: West | North | South | East

Examining who faces the most challenging season for the Buccaneers and why.

Back in 2010, the Buccaneers decided to invest heavily in the middle of their defensive line. They used a first-round draft pick on Gerald McCoy and a second-round choice on Brian Price. The thinking was the duo would make Tampa Bay solid in the middle for years to come. But things haven’t worked out exactly as planned.

McCoy and Price each have shown a few flashes, but injuries have prevented them from being anything close to dominant. A new coaching staff is taking over and there still is hope that McCoy and Price can prosper. But this coaching staff isn’t as deeply wed to players it didn’t play a role in drafting. The pressure is especially on McCoy, who was drafted with the No. 3 overall choice and forever will be compared to Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh, who was selected just before him. To date, McCoy has four career sacks and has missed 13 games with injuries.

The Bucs are hoping this is the year McCoy and Price finally stay healthy, but new coach Greg Schiano has brought in alternatives in case the injury problems continue. The Bucs have added free-agent defensive tackles Amobi Okoye, a former first-round pick by Houston, and Gary Gibson, who played for Schiano at Rutgers and has bounced around the league. McCoy and Price will get every benefit of the doubt, but they have to be able to stay on the field to make an impact.

Schiano: McCoy can be dominant

April, 3, 2012
4/03/12
11:30
AM ET
When he came to Tampa Bay in 2010 as the third overall pick in the draft, Gerald McCoy was supposed to be an instant star.

It hasn’t quite worked out that way. In two seasons, the defensive tackle has four sacks and has appeared in just 19 games.

[+] EnlargeGerald McCoy
Cliff Welch/Icon SMIHow important is Gerald McCoy to the Bucs? They went 0-10 without him last season.
But it sure sounds like new Tampa Bay coach Greg Schiano views McCoy as one of his core players.

“He plays defensive tackle the way I like,’’ Schiano said at the NFL owners meetings last week. “He’s a penetrating guy who can change direction. We’ve got to keep him healthy because I think he can be a dominant force in this league.’’

I think Schiano’s right. I’m not sure McCoy will become Ndamukong Suh, an All-Pro who was taken No. 2 by Detroit in that same draft. But I think McCoy can be a force. There have been brief flashes that indicate he can make good things happen in the middle of the defensive line, but there just haven’t been a lot of those flashes.

McCoy got off to a slow start as a rookie and, just when it looked like he was starting to catch on, he suffered an injury that shut him down for the final three games of the 2010 season. Last season, McCoy appeared in only six games before he was placed on the injured-reserve list.

Think about that for a second. The Bucs were 4-2 after six games. They never won another game after McCoy went down. I’m not saying McCoy’s injury was the sole reason for Tampa Bay’s collapse, but there’s no doubt it was a factor.

This is a big year for McCoy. He’s starting to get hit with the dreaded “injury-prone’’ label. But McCoy is a talent. If he can stay healthy, that would help the Bucs tremendously. Same for fellow defensive tackle Brian Price, who came in the same draft class as McCoy and has dealt with injuries of his own. Tampa Bay has invested a lot in its defensive line in recent drafts and we’re waiting to see the return on those investments.

If McCoy and Price stay healthy, they can form a nice interior rotation with Roy Miller. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was one of the few bright spots last season. He could be even better in his second season and the same goes for Da’Quan Bowers, a second-round pick last year. The Bucs also like defensive end Michael Bennett.

The ingredients are there for Tampa Bay to put together a very nice defensive line. The Bucs just need to keep McCoy and their other young defensive linemen healthy and on the field.

Buccaneers' plan hasn't changed

March, 14, 2012
3/14/12
3:53
PM ET
TAMPA, Fla. -- Here’s the final price tag on Tampa Bay’s free-agent shopping spree: $141,055,554.

That’s the total value of the contracts the Buccaneers gave to receiver Vincent Jackson, cornerback Eric Wright and guard Carl Nicks, and $67 million of that is guaranteed.

It’s tempting to say it’s a new day in Tampa Bay, but that slogan was used once (back when the Glazer family bought the team in the mid-1990s) and it doesn’t accurately portray what’s happened in the last 24 hours.

Yeah, the Bucs have spent way more than they did in salary to the entire team last season, but they really aren’t steering clear of the plan they’ve talked about since general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris came to power in 2009. Morris is gone now and has been replaced by Greg Schiano, but the Bucs are still insisting they have been -- and will continue to be -- a team that builds primarily through the college draft.

This was not a sudden surge off course.

[+] EnlargeCarl Nicks
Jeff Hanisch/US PresswireCarl Nicks, a veteran who has multiple Pro Bowls to his credit, is one of the big names Tampa Bay secured in free agency.
“It was the perfect time,’’ Schiano said. It was the perfect storm. Everybody is new.’’

What the Bucs needed was a quick shot of energy into their building plan. That tends to happen when you go 4-12 and have only sold out two home games in the last two seasons. But that’s really not the main reason the Bucs are spending money this year after not spending a lot last year.

“We’ve stayed the course,’’ Dominik said. “When we talk about this football team and how it’s built, part of the reason we’re here today was we’ve built a nucleus of young players and we’re in a position now for those young players now to grow with some veterans from other organizations that can really help this team continue to grow as an entire unit.

“It’s not every day that Vincent Jackson, Eric Wright and Carl Nicks are going to hit the free-agent market. It’s a unique year. That’s kind of the way we projected back in 2010. A lot of people talked about why weren’t we more active in free agency last year. The way that the timing was, the CBA, the uncertainty and the lockout ... this felt like the time to add the players to this football team that could grow with us not only during the season, but in the offseason and become a team together.’’

It may be hard to picture after watching the Bucs lose 10 straight games to end last season, but Dominik is serious (and perhaps right) when he talks about Tampa Bay’s young nucleus. Get defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price healthy and back on the field. Give defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers their first full NFL offseason and get quarterback Josh Freeman back on the track he was on in 2010.

Then, throw in Nicks, Jackson and Wright and it’s not that difficult to picture a bright future for the Buccaneers. We’re not talking about the kind of 30-something free agents that were common in the days of former coach Jon Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen. We’re talking about three free agents still in their prime, with Jackson the oldest at 29. All three were wanted back by their former teams, which faced some salary-cap challenges. The Bucs, who entered free agency with almost $43 million in cap space, didn’t have the same constraints and they capitalized.

They got the best receiver in free agency, perhaps the best guard in the NFL and a very solid cornerback.

“I’m a big believer in quality,’’ Dominik said.

But the shopping trip isn’t going to continue. Dominik said the Bucs will continue to monitor free agency and implied there could be some minor moves here and there, but the team’s focus now moves onto the NFL draft at the end of April.

The Bucs have the No. 5 overall pick and are likely to get a quality player there.

Take that guy and all the other young talent on the roster. Throw in Jackson, Wright and Nicks and maybe the Bucs have figured out the formula for something they’ve been lacking for nearly a decade --sustained success by a team that’s grown up together.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

NFL SCOREBOARD

Thursday, 11/27
Sunday, 11/30
Monday, 12/1
WEEKLY LEADERS