NFL Nation: Earnest Graham

The Associated Press and Pro Football Weekly/Professional Football Writers of America have announced their all-NFL first teams for the 2012 season.

I've compiled the results here and compared them against our all-division team.

As expected, Seattle's Richard Sherman earned all-league honors from both the AP and PFW/PFWA despite failing to land on the NFC's Pro Bowl squad. Pro Bowl voting took place before the NFL overturned a four-game suspension against Sherman for alleged use of performance-enhancing drugs.

The NFC West is heavily represented on all-league teams despite no representation for the St. Louis Rams or Arizona Cardinals on these first teams (I did not list the AP second-team honors). The 49ers (six) and Seahawks (four) gave the NFC West 10 of 27 representatives on the AP first team.

I used slightly different position names for some spots on the all-division team. Those are noted parenthetically next to the players' names.

NFC South: Free-agency primer

March, 8, 2012
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AFC Free-Agency Primer: East | West | North | South NFC: East | West | North | South

Free agency begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET

Atlanta Falcons

Key free agents: CB Brent Grimes (franchise), LB Curtis Lofton, DE John Abraham, WR Harry Douglas and C Todd McClure.

Where they stand: The Falcons put the franchise tag on Grimes, but still would like to sign him to a long-term contract. That would improve a salary-cap situation that’s already decent. Keeping Lofton and Douglas, who have been developed by the current coaching staff, is also likely to be a priority. Although Abraham led the team with 9.5 sacks last season, his age and salary expectations work against the possibility of his return. Unless Abraham’s price tag drops significantly, the Falcons seem likely to let him walk. McClure could opt to retire. But if he wants to play, it’s likely the Falcons would welcome him back.

What to expect: After a quick and embarrassing exit from the postseason, owner Arthur Blank made it very clear that simply making the playoffs isn’t good enough. Blank expects to contend for a Super Bowl title. The Falcons went all-in last year when they traded up to draft receiver Julio Jones and paid big money to free-agent defensive end Ray Edwards. Look for them to take a similar approach this year. The Falcons are usually good for at least one major move an offseason and this year we could see two or three. Don’t be surprised if the Falcons go hard after Mario Williams because they need a pass-rusher to replace Abraham. Without a first-round pick, the Falcons also probably will use free agency to fill a big need at left tackle. There aren’t a lot of options, but Marcus McNeill could be a target if he is released, as expected, by the Chargers. The Falcons could even make a play for New Orleans guard Carl Nicks. His presence would make life easier for any left tackle and pulling him away from the Saints also would weaken a division rival.

Carolina Panthers

Key free agents: TE Jeremy Shockey, LB Dan Connor, G Geoff Hangartner, LB/DL Antwan Applewhite and QB Derek Anderson.

Where they stand: The Panthers seem to be uncertain whether Shockey plans to retire or keep playing. If he wants to play, they’d gladly take him back because he’s a nice complement to Greg Olsen. They also are likely to make a strong attempt to keep Hangartner, who did a nice job after Carolina had several guards injured last preseason. It’s similar with Applewhite, who was signed during the season and made some nice contributions. But the Panthers seem prepared to let Connor test free agency because they can’t promise him playing time with Jon Beason returning from injury as the starting middle linebacker. Anderson could return, but it’s likely the Panthers will at least explore the possibility of looking for an upgrade as Cam Newton’s backup.

What to expect: Don’t expect a lot. The Panthers had their big splurge coming out of the lockout last summer and they’re paying the tab for that now. They will have to release players and restructure contracts just to get below the cap before free agency starts. Linebacker Thomas Davis, who is coming off his third torn ACL, is a prime candidate for release or restructure. Although the team clearly wants to improve its defense, don’t look for any major moves in free agency. The team simply doesn’t have the cap room to make any big deals. The team might sign a mid-level free agent or two, but major upgrades will have to come through the draft.

New Orleans Saints

Key free agents: QB Drew Brees (exclusive franchise), G Carl Nicks, WR Marques Colston, CB Tracy Porter and WR Robert Meachem.

Where they stand: The past three years have been the most peaceful and prosperous in franchise history. But the peaceful part already has come to an end this offseason. In addition to getting into trouble with the NFL for a bounty program, the Saints are dealing with contract issues that are beyond challenging. They used the franchise tag on Brees and that’s going to cost them around $15 million. Even if they do reach a long-term agreement with Brees, his cap figure for this year could climb above $15 million. Either way, the Saints are going to have major cap issues. They’ve already restructured the contract of defensive end Will Smith and may do the same with linebacker Jonathan Vilma or perhaps even release him and some veterans. The Saints are going to have so much cap space tied up in Brees that they’ll have a hard time keeping their other free agents. Nicks would seem to be the top priority with Colston close behind. But keeping even one of them would be a victory for the Saints.

What to expect: General manager Mickey Loomis always has been aggressive and daring and he might have to be even more creative than usual because of the cap situation. The Saints simply aren’t the type of team to sit still. They had flaws exposed in a playoff loss to San Francisco and they’re asking new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo to fix their defense. The problem there is a lot of the current personnel doesn’t fit all that well in Spagnuolo’s scheme. Loomis needs to find a way to get at least one more pass-rusher up front and needs to add an athletic linebacker or two. He also may have to fill more needs if the Saints lose as many free agents as most expect. This is a team without a first-round pick in the draft, so Loomis will have to make some big moves when it comes to releasing players or restructuring contracts just to give the Saints a shot at being a little bit active in free agency.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Key free agents: K Connor Barth (franchise), CB Ronde Barber, RB Earnest Graham, LB Geno Hayes, S Sean Jones, DE Michael Bennett (restricted) and RB LeGarrette Blount (exclusive rights).

Where they stand: The Bucs begin coach Greg Schiano’s tenure in a very unique situation. They’ve got a ton of cap room and need improvement in lots of areas. But they’ll deal with what they’ve got between now and the start of free agency. A decision on Barber probably will come very soon. Schiano has indicated he’d like the veteran back, but Barber could choose to retire, which also would create a major need at cornerback. That position also could be an issue later in March when starting cornerback Aqib Talib is scheduled for trial on an assault charge. It’s possible Talib could go to prison or face a suspension from the NFL, but his fate will be an unknown at the start of free agency. Hayes didn’t have a great season last year, but he has upside and the new staff may want to keep him. The Bucs are likely to let Graham walk because of his age. A return by Jones is possible at a reasonable salary, but the Bucs still need to look to upgrade at safety.

What to expect: The exact amount will depend on how many of their free agents are brought back, but the Bucs are likely to have somewhere around $50 million in cap space at the start of free agency and that will put them near the top of the league. After barely dipping into free agency last year, the Bucs were able to carry over extra cap room and general manager Mark Dominik has publicly stated the team plans to be more active in free agency. But fans need to keep that in perspective. The Bucs aren’t going to suddenly return to the days when Jon Gruden and Bruce Allen regularly shelled out money for big-name players in their 30s. The Bucs started a youth movement three years ago and there are some parts in place. Now, it’s time for them to supplement those parts. They’ll be active in free agency, but they’ll be focusing on players still in their 20s. They’ll also be focusing on improving the supporting cast of quarterback Josh Freeman, who they believe can become great. Look for them to add a speed receiver, perhaps someone like Mario Manningham or Eddie Royal. The Bucs also want to improve at running back, where Blount is a one-dimensional power runner. They could look for a pass-catching specialist or may opt to look for a complete back who could even replace Blount as the starter. On defense, the Bucs probably will try to upgrade at linebacker. If Barber and/or Talib aren’t back, the Bucs will have to make a move or two at cornerback and probably wouldn’t hesitate to pay big money to someone such as Cortland Finnegan.
The injury Ryan Williams suffered during his second NFL exhibition game was relatively unusual for football players.

"My kneecap was in my thigh," the Arizona Cardinals' running back said during a team-produced video on his rehabilitation. "It was just kind of like, 'What?' "

A torn patella tendon ended Williams' rookie season before it officially began.

The running back expects to return for training camp and the 2012 regular season. Cadillac Williams and Earnest Graham returned from similar injuries, but each situation is different. The Cardinals cannot know how the knee will respond. No one can.

Cadillac Williams returned, only to injure his other knee. Suffering a second injury so quickly complicated comparisons to other running backs returning from a single torn patella.

Ryan Williams is not yet even 22 years old, however.

"He has youth on his side, for sure," ESPN injury expert Stephania Bell said Thursday. "What you worry about is, it takes a lot to get any kind of explosiveness or power back. You're not talking about strength, but quickness."

Williams, a second-round choice from Virginia Tech, impressed the Cardinals with his ability to change directions without losing much speed.

"It is reasonable he could be back when the season starts," Bell said, "but will he really be back? That is going to remain to be seen and like these guys coming off ACL surgeries, it may take a while to see what his max is that he can return to."

The Cardinals need Williams in part because their primary back, Beanie Wells, has struggled with injuries, fighting through knee trouble last season after undergoing surgery.

Four additional injury situations to monitor, one per NFC West team, as the offseason continues:
  • Arizona: Kevin Kolb, quarterback. Concussion problems have sidelined Kolb each of the past two seasons. Symptoms lingered last season. Quarterbacks are going to take hits unexpectedly, sometimes to the head. Can Kolb stay on the field?
  • Seattle: Sidney Rice, receiver. Rice has undergone surgery on each shoulder. One surgery repaired damage suffered during training camp. The other repaired damage incurred during college. The hope is healthier shoulders will allow Rice to improve strength throughout his upper body.
  • San Francisco: Josh Morgan, receiver. The 49ers were relatively healthy last season, but losing Morgan to a broken ankle cost them as the season progressed, particularly late. Morgan is without a contract for 2012. He has been working out at the 49ers' team facility. Getting him back would help the offense.
  • St. Louis: Rodger Saffold, pectoral. The Rams had injuries throughout their roster, especially at cornerback. Saffold's ability to play four positions on the line, including left tackle, makes him more valuable than members of the secondary. Saffold has said he hopes to be ready by April or May, according to Howard Balzer. He suffered a torn pectoral while lifting weights in mid-November.

Buccaneers regular-season wrap-up

January, 4, 2012
1/04/12
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NFC Wrap-ups: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Arrow indicates direction team is trending.

Final Power Ranking: 29
Preseason Power Ranking: 12

[+] EnlargeFreeman
Chuck Cook/US PresswireAfter a breakout year in 2010, Josh Freeman took a step back in 2011.
Biggest surprise: In a season in which almost nothing went right, it at least looked like the Buccaneers got it right with their first-round draft pick. Defensive end Adrian Clayborn was a starter from the beginning and was solid all around. He played the run well and finished with 7.5 sacks. That sack total is more impressive than it sounds when you consider that the Bucs spent most of the season trailing and other teams didn’t have to throw a lot against them. Clayborn and second-round pick Da'Quan Bowers both showed plenty of potential and that bodes well for whoever ends up coaching this team. Clayborn also was able to put together an impressive rookie year despite the fact that defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price both were injured much of the season and there wasn’t a lot of help in the middle. If Clayborn and Bowers continue to develop and McCoy and Price can stay healthy, the Buccaneers have the ingredients for a good defensive line.

Biggest disappointment: The total collapse of this once-promising team was one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever seen. In October, the Bucs beat the Saints. That wasn’t a fluke. The Bucs flat-out were better than the Saints that day. They left the next morning for a game with Chicago in London and they never won again. As the losing streak grew, eventually to 10 games, the games became less competitive even against mediocre teams. Tampa Bay’s youth, a point of pride in 2010, was apparent in 2011. Former coach Raheem Morris was never known as a great disciplinarian or organizer, and the Bucs weren’t even operating like a legitimate NFL team by the end of the season. Quarterback Josh Freeman, running back LeGarrette Blount and receiver Mike Williams all had great years in 2010, but each of them regressed in 2011.

Biggest need: There are many needs for a team that finished 4-12. But if I had to go with just one, I’d say the Bucs need to solidify their backfield situation. Although he’s a good power runner, Blount never could convince the coaching staff that he could catch passes out of the backfield or provide protection for Freeman in the passing game. That made it obvious to defenses that the Bucs were running if Blount was in the game or passing when he wasn’t. Blount also had problems with fumbles, so it’s possible the Bucs could be looking for an all-around feature back to replace him. Even if the new coach wants to keep Blount as the primary runner, the Bucs will have to go out and get a third-down back more dynamic than Earnest Graham or Kregg Lumpkin. It also would help Freeman a lot if the Bucs add a speed receiver because the current crop of receivers struggled to get separation.

Team MVP: There’s not a lot to choose from here, so we’ll go with guard Davin Joseph. Cornerback Ronde Barber and left tackle Donald Penn also got consideration. But I’m going with Joseph because, even in a year when the rest of the league was laughing at the Bucs and fans weren’t voting for them to go to the Pro Bowl, coaches and players from other teams had enough respect for Joseph to put him on the NFC all-star squad. The guy is a pro and one of the few veteran leaders in the locker room.

What about Freeman? In 2010, his first full season as a starter, Freeman looked like the first true franchise quarterback in team history. He kept mistakes to a minimum and seemed to have a knack for pulling off fourth-quarter comebacks. All of that suddenly disappeared this season and Freeman didn’t look like the same quarterback. There’s no doubt he deserves some of the blame. But I think the bigger factor in his regression was his supporting cast. Blount’s deficiencies made the offense predictable, Williams showed he’s not a No. 1 wide receiver and tight end Kellen Winslow had a disappointing year. It also didn’t help that the defense was giving up a ton of points and Freeman almost always was playing from behind. I still believe Freeman is a big-time talent. But it’s going to be up to the new coach and his staff to get Freeman’s career back on a positive track.

Pat Yasinskas' QB Watch

November, 16, 2011
11/16/11
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Josh FreemanCliff Welch/Icon SMIWhile his statistics may not reflect it, Josh Freeman says he's a better quarterback than he was a year ago.
Moments after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got thumped 31-9 by the Houston Texans on Sunday, quarterback Josh Freeman shared this thought with the media.

"I think I'm a better quarterback than I was last year," Freeman said.

OK, are you done laughing yet?

I’ll gladly give you some more time -- and a few statistics. Through nine games, Freeman has thrown 13 interceptions (the second-highest total in the league) and just nine touchdown passes. That comes after Freeman threw 25 touchdown passes and just six interceptions all of last season.

And he’s now a better quarterback than he was last season?

This is where the laughing should stop. There’s been nothing funny about Tampa Bay’s 4-5 start because this was a team that went a surprising 10-6 last season and was supposed to be very much on the rise. Freeman’s claim may sound delusional, but it’s not.

I’ll take the Freeman of this season over the Freeman of last season. Seriously.

He’s a year older and a year wiser than he was in his first full season as a starter last year. The statistics don’t show improvement, and I’m not going to suggest that Freeman has taken a big step forward. But I will say I don’t think he’s regressed. The rest of the Bucs have, though, and that’s the problem. Some of Freeman’s teammates, and maybe even his coaching staff and front office, have done the quarterback an injustice and that’s why the statistics and the team’s record aren’t looking very pretty.

Go ahead and put some blame on Freeman. And it is fair to wonder about that thumb injury that had the New Orleans Saints so excited a few weeks ago. Freeman might not look like the same quarterback he was a year ago, but I think that has a lot more to do with the team around him than anything else.

The Bucs found out they had a franchise quarterback last season. But the mistake they made -- and this goes to the coaching staff and the front office -- was that they also thought they found a big-time No. 1 wide receiver and a true feature running back.

That’s Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount, and I have no problem saying each of them has taken multiple steps back from last season. They were two players who fell in the 2010 draft, Williams to the fourth round and Blount all the way through the draft.

There were reasons for that and they’re playing out now. The coaches and front office might have let the performances of Williams and Blount last year go to their heads. Williams and Blount might have done the same thing.

When the rest of the offensive skill-position players were working out together in Tampa during the lockout, Williams frequently was hanging out at his home in Buffalo. He’s back now and playing more like a No. 3 or 4 receiver and no one else has stepped up. His route running hasn’t been precise and he’s tied for third in the NFL in dropped passes. The Bucs lead the league in dropped passes.

But that’s not the only problem. Blount may be the player most responsible for throwing Freeman and the offense completely off kilter. Blount came in and rushed for 1,000 yards in half a season as the starter last year. He did that with Cadillac Williams helping out as the third-down back.

The Bucs let Cadillac Williams leave in the offseason, largely because they thought Blount was ready to become an every-down back. That hasn’t happened. Blount has crippled the offense because he hasn’t shown the coaches he can be an effective pass-protector. If you're one of the biggest and strongest running backs in the league and you can't figure out how to pass block by the second half of your season, it probably never is going to happen. The Bucs used Earnest Graham in passing situations until he suffered a season-ending injury and now they’re going with Kregg Lumpkin.

That’s made Tampa Bay’s offense incredibly predictable. Defenses basically know that the Bucs will run the ball when Blount’s on the field and throw it when Lumpkin’s in the game. That takes away the play-action game and it has made Freeman look bad.

But the fact is, Freeman’s pretty close to the same guy he was last year. It’s just not showing because the guys around him are nothing close to what they were last year or what the Bucs thought they could be this year.

TRENDING UP


TRENDING DOWN


Final Word: NFC South

November, 4, 2011
11/04/11
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NFC Final Word: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 9 (remember, the Carolina Panthers are on bye):

Classic trap game: The Atlanta Falcons are coming off their bye and they’ve got what seems like a very winnable game against the Indianapolis Colts. Assuming they win, the Falcons will play a very big game the following week, when they host the Saints. So it’s not all that difficult to imagine the Falcons looking beyond the Colts. They should be on a three-game winning streak by the time they play the Saints. But you can’t assume anything in this league. If I’m coach Mike Smith, I’m reminding the Falcons (repeatedly) about what happened to the Saints last week when they went up against the winless St. Louis Rams.

Stay in the pocket: When the Buccaneers defeated the Saints in Week 6 in Tampa, quarterback Josh Freeman had his best game of the season. That happened largely because Freeman got great protection. He was not sacked and was under duress only four times, according to ESPN Stats & Information. That allowed Freeman to stay in the pocket and he was particularly effective, averaging 7.6 yards per attempt and throwing for two touchdowns and no interceptions. While staying in the pocket in all his other games, Freeman has averaged 6.3 yards per attempt with five touchdowns, nine interceptions and seven sacks.

[+] EnlargeLeGarrette Blount
Fernando Medina/US PresswireLeGarrette Blount has lobbied to be an every-down back, but that doesn't mean the Bucs are ready to trust him in pass protection.
Every-down back? With Earnest Graham lost for the season, Tampa Bay running back LeGarrette Blount has said he’s ready to stay on the field for passing downs. That may happen some, but I’m not buying into the theory that the Bucs suddenly have decided they can trust Blount in pass protection on a regular basis. I’m thinking we’ll see a fair amount of Kregg Lumpkin as a third-down back and I wouldn't be surprised if the Bucs use a six-man offensive line at times with offensive tackle Demar Dotson checking in as an eligible receiver.

At home on the road: Since the arrival of Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan in 2008, much has been made about how successful the Falcons have been in the Georgia Dome. Well, going to Indianapolis shouldn’t provide too much of a scare. The Falcons also have been pretty good on the road recently. They’re 6-2 in their last eight road games. Since the start of the 2010 season, they’re 8-4 on the road. Only two teams in the NFL have better road records during that stretch.

Sticking with 'The Burner': Although rookie receiver Julio Jones is expected to return after missing the past two games with a hamstring injury, the Falcons would be wise to remember what they did offensively in winning those two games. They used Michael Turner and the running game as the focal point of the offense. Turner averaged 130.5 yards in those two games and he also can open lots of doors in the passing game. Since Turner’s 2008 arrival in Atlanta, the Falcons are 25-1 in games in which he has more than 21 rushing attempts.

Injury costs Earnest Graham $340,000

October, 31, 2011
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Earnest Graham’s torn Achilles tendon will cost him the rest of this season. It’s also going to cost him a lot more than that.

I just got a look at the contract details for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back/fullback and Graham’s injury is going to cost him $340,308. Graham’s contract has a stipulation that he earns $37,812 for every game that he’s on the 53-man roster.

Graham collected that for the first seven games of the season before suffering the injury in a loss to Chicago in London. Now that he’s on injured reserve, he’s no longer part of the active roster. Graham would have collected $605,000 in total bonus money if he had stayed on the roster all season.

Graham still will collect his $2 million base salary for this season. He also received a $500,000 roster bonus at the start of the season.

This is the final season of Graham’s contract and that makes you wonder about his future with the Buccaneers. Graham’s been a very valuable role player through the years. But he turns 32 in January and that’s quite old for a running back. He’ll also be coming off a major injury. Graham’s not going to command anything close to the $3.5 million per year he averaged under his current contract. The Bucs could bring him back at a lower salary, but I think that’s a long shot.

Graham is one of only a handful of Tampa Bay players that are 30 and over and the team likes to build through the draft. Starting running back LeGarrette Blount is a one-dimensional player, so it’s not hard to imagine the Bucs using an early draft pick on a running back next season. It’s likely they’ll be looking for a younger and healthier version of Graham.

NFC South Stock Watch

October, 18, 2011
10/18/11
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NFC Stock Watch: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

FALLING

1. Cam Newton, quarterback, Panthers. His stock remains very high, but it’s dipping a bit. Newton’s put up fantastic numbers and given the Panthers lots of hope for the future. He’s angry that the Panthers are losing, but he can help change that. Newton threw three interceptions against the Falcons and you’re not going to win many games when you turn the ball over that much. Newton needs to discover the fine line between forcing and not forcing throws. When he does that, the Panthers will start winning some games.

2. Drew Brees, quarterback, Saints. Again, the stock was sitting pretty high, but there’s been a little drop. Brees threw three interceptions in a loss to Tampa Bay and it’s time to start wondering if the career-high 22 interceptions he had last season were something more than a fluke. Brees didn’t throw an interception in the first two games of this season. But he’s been intercepted eight times in the last four games.

3. Darren Sproles, running back, Saints. He had his quietest game since joining the Saints against the Buccaneers. Sproles had just one rushing attempt. He did catch eight passes but they added up to just 46 yards.

RISING

[+] EnlargeMichael Turner
Daniel Shirey/US PresswireMichael Turner re-emerged in a big way against the Panthers, gaining 139 yards and scoring twice.
1. Michael Turner, running back, Falcons. As they try to find their offensive identity, the Falcons went back to basics in Sunday’s win against Carolina. They ran Turner 27 times and he produced 139 yards and two touchdowns. Not every run defense is as soft as Carolina’s, but this was a good reminder that Turner still needs to be the backbone of this offense. If he’s running well, it’s going to open the way for those downfield passes the Falcons so desperately want.

2. Josh Freeman, quarterback, Buccaneers. He seemed out of rhythm early in the season, but everything came together Sunday against New Orleans. Freeman threw for a season-high 303 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Freeman talked before the game about how he needed to tone down his confidence and not try to force passes when the play wasn’t there. He got that part right against the Saints and it resulted in the biggest win of his career.

3. Earnest Graham, running back, Buccaneers. With LeGarrette Blount out with an injury, the Bucs turned to Graham, who has done a little bit of everything throughout his career. He took over as the feature back and carried 17 times for 109 yards. He also caught three passes for 22 yards.

Bucs' win could mark turning point

October, 16, 2011
10/16/11
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Earnest GrahamAP Photo/Brian BlancoBucs RB Earnest Graham finished with 109 yards on 17 carries against New Orleans.

TAMPA, Fla. – It’s too early to say for sure. But there might come a day when historians look back to find the precise time the Tampa Bay Buccaneers turned the corner. Sunday might end up being that day.

A team that hasn’t been to the playoffs since the 2007 season and is only slightly removed from a horrid 3-13 2009 season, did what didn’t seem possible as recently as a week ago. The Bucs pulled off their biggest win since Raheem Morris took over as head coach in 2009.

The defense created four turnovers, Earnest Graham stepped in at tailback and rushed for 109 yards, and Josh Freeman threw for 303 yards and two touchdowns as the Buccaneers defeated the New Orleans Saints 26-20 at Raymond James Stadium.

More importantly, Tampa Bay’s defense stood up to one of the NFL’s most frightening sights. That’s Drew Brees marching the New Orleans offense down the field in the final minutes of a game. That’s been the ruination of many a team and it looked like Brees was about to pull off another comeback win.

The Saints got the ball back with seven minutes and 19 seconds left. Ordinarily, that’s an eternity for Brees, who’s shown he’s capable of putting up two or three touchdowns in that amount of time.

“Nerve wracking,’’ Morris said.

Brees and the Saints started at their own 24-yard line and moved all the way down to Tampa Bay’s 4-yard line. With a fourth-and-2, Brees dropped back and his history prepared us for what should have happened next.

“The biggest challenge in the world is getting Drew Brees out there on fourth down and whatever,’’ Morris said.

What happened next is the play the historians might point to, the play that might end up turning the tide in an NFC South race that the Saints seemed poised to run away with. Brees threw to backup tight end John Gilmore. But linebacker Quincy Black stepped in to intercept the ball in the end zone with 3:16 left and effectively ended the game.

“That’s scary when Drew Brees is coming down the field,’’ Tampa Bay offensive tackle Donald Penn said. “I’m on the sideline and I’m like 'Oh man.' Drew Brees is one of the best quarterbacks in the league, especially with two minutes left. I was worried, but the defense came through.’’

The defense came through all day. That’s significant because Tampa Bay came up with three interceptions and recovered a fumble against one of the league’s top offenses. That’s significant because it came a week after Tampa Bay got thumped 48-3 by San Francisco.

“We left it there in San Francisco,’’ said Graham, who was filling in for the injured LeGarrette Blount.

What the Bucs found back home in Tampa Bay (before shipping off to London on Monday morning to play the Chicago Bears next Sunday) was a bigger win than they’ve had in several years. In a 10-6 season last year, the Bucs won a lot of games against mediocre teams. Even the biggest victory earlier this season, against Atlanta, wasn’t all that impressive because the Falcons have been up and down.

But Sunday was different. There’s no debating whether the Saints are a good team. There’s no arguing the Bucs played their most complete game since Morris has been around. Graham took care of the ground game, Freeman had his best game of the season and the defense was the story of the day.

“When our defense plays like that, there’s no one in the NFL that can beat us,’’ Penn said. “No one.’’

That may sound a little grandiose, but Penn just might be right. Tampa Bay’s two best defensive games this season have come against Atlanta and New Orleans. Those are division opponents and Tampa Bay’s defense is what could end up putting the Bucs ahead of the rest of the NFC South.

The victory put the Bucs at 4-2. That’s the same record as the Saints and Tampa Bay and New Orleans are one game ahead of Atlanta in the win column. The Bucs already have wins against the Saints and Falcons and they’re very much a player for the division title.

The Saints and Falcons each have had defensive problems. Tampa Bay’s defense is very young, but it’s showing strong signs it also is becoming very good.

You could make a case that Tampa Bay has the NFC South’s best defense. If that turns out to be the case through the rest of the season, the Bucs just might end up winning a division where Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton can put up points, but none of their teams are doing much on defense.

The prospect of the Bucs winning the division isn’t that big of a stretch.

Last year’s motto from Morris was “The Race to 10.’’ The Bucs ended last season with 10 wins, but just missed out on the playoffs.

That’s why this year’s message is different. The Bucs aren’t shooting just for 10 wins. They’ve made it clear the NFC South title is their goal.

“That’s what we’ve said from the beginning,’’ Morris said.

If they keep playing like this, the Bucs might be standing atop the NFC South at the end.

Final Word: NFC South

October, 14, 2011
10/14/11
1:30
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Five nuggets of knowledge about Week 6:

Road trip ending: It hasn’t drawn a lot of attention, and part of that is because the opponents weren’t marquee teams, but the Saints wrap up a series of three straight road games Sunday at Tampa Bay. They’ve won at Jacksonville and Carolina. If they can do the same against the Bucs, it will be a major accomplishment. Winning on the road is a big deal in the NFL. If the Saints can get this one, they’ll be 3-1 on the road (they lost the opener at Green Bay) and they have a bunch of home games coming up.

[+] EnlargeGerald McCoy
Jason O. Watson/US PresswireBucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who hurt his ankle in Week 5, is expected to miss Sunday's game against New Orleans.
Next man up? Injuries are starting to catch up to Tampa Bay. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (ankle) and running back LeGarrette Blount appear likely to miss Sunday’s game. Tampa Bay is still in the middle of building through a youth movement, and that means this team doesn’t have a lot of depth. Frank Okam and Da'Quan Bowers will rotate in McCoy’s spot, but there will be a drop-off. The drop-off will be even more apparent at running back. Earnest Graham is a competent role player as a third-down back and fullback. But he’ll be asked to take on Blount’s role as the feature back, and Graham no longer has the tools to handle that job. It's hindsight, but there's no doubt the Bucs should have invested the money in the offseason to find a quality backup for Blount.

The corner is in reach. It’s become very obvious the Carolina Panthers are a team on the rise. They’ve lost a series of close games and rookie quarterback Cam Newton has made them very competitive. The Panthers are 1-4, but you can sense they’re close to turning the corner. A win this week would be a major stride, and it’s not out of the question. Atlanta is very talented, but the Falcons are struggling. If Carolina can come out of this with a win, it could be a catalyst for a strong second half of the season.

Must win? The Falcons have been one of the league’s biggest disappointments. But you look at their roster and it’s not hard to imagine them snapping their slump at any time and going on a strong run that could put them in the playoffs. If that’s going to happen, the Falcons need to win this game. They’re 2-3. If they fall to 2-4, they might be in a hole that’s too deep to escape.

Critical stretch. The next few weeks could determine how Tampa Bay fares this season. The Bucs had an ugly 48-3 loss to San Francisco last week. They’re hosting a very tough New Orleans team this week. After that, the Bucs will leave Monday for London to play a “home’’ game against the Bears. They get a bye week after that, but then have to face the Saints in New Orleans. Tampa Bay is 3-2, but the Bucs haven’t played consistently well and haven’t had an impressive victory yet. If the Bucs can just keep their heads above water, and win a game or two in the next three, they’ll be very much in the playoff picture. If they don’t, they might not have a shot at the playoffs.

Bucs would miss Blount's force

October, 12, 2011
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TAMPA, Fla. -- If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers can’t use injured running back LeGarrette Blount in Sunday’s game against the New Orleans Saints, they’ll turn to Earnest Graham.

That’s not a bad option because Graham is a veteran who has played all sorts of roles in the offense since joining the team in 2004. Graham played tailback in the past, but more recently has been used as a fullback and third-down back.

“I know Earnest is going to step up and do great for us,’’ quarterback Josh Freeman said. “He has all kinds of history in the NFL being the featured back and has had some great seasons. I was watching tape in the offseason on Earnest tearing it up just a few years ago. Obviously, LeGarrette’s a big, physical presence that he brings, but at the same time we have to keep it moving.’’

That “big, physical presence’’ Freeman mentioned is significant. Blount, 6-foot-2 and 247 pounds, has it. Graham, 5-9 and 225, doesn’t. Graham’s known as a steady performer, but doesn’t stand out in terms of power or speed.

If Blount can’t go, the thing the Bucs will miss most is his ability to gain yards after first contact. Blount has 77 carries for 328 yards, but 128 of those yards have come after contact. In that category, Blount is No. 5 in the NFL, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He’s averaging 2.3 yards per carry after contact, which ranks No. 15 in the league.
LeGarrette BlountMatt Stamey/US PresswireIt wasn't pretty, but LeGarrette Blount and the Bucs managed to get the win against the Colts.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Before we pick this one apart, and there’s a ton to work with on that end, let’s be clear on one thing: The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won a football game before a prime time audience on Monday night.

They defeated the Indianapolis Colts, 24-17, at Raymond James Stadium, put together their first three-game winning streak since Raheem Morris took over as coach in 2009, sold out a home game for the first time in a long time, and also kept pace with the New Orleans Saints (3-1) atop the NFC South.

Let’s pause with the positives right there, because the way things transpired Monday night left lots of room to wonder if the Bucs really are ready for prime time and if they really can hang with the Saints for the long haul. Let’s turn it over to rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who capsulized his fourth NFL game accurately.

“Things were very ugly,’’ said Clayborn, who was credited with a sack, two quarterback hurries and a tackle for a loss. “We battled through it. It was sloppy. But it’s about whoever comes out with a win and we did.’’

With time, the ugliness Clayborn talked about might fade. If the Bucs keep winning, this one will look a lot better in the standings come playoff time.

“We’ve got a goal,’’ said second-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who finished with a team-high six tackles, one sack, three tackles for losses and two quarterback hurries. “We want to win our division.’’

That’s a great goal, but the Bucs aren’t going to win against the Saints -- and maybe not even against the Atlanta Falcons or the Carolina Panthers -- if they continue to play the way they did most of the night against the Colts. Let the record show that Indianapolis was not quarterbacked by Peyton Manning. Or even Kerry Collins.

They started Curtis Painter at quarterback. They were forced to play third-stringer Mike Tepper, signed off the practice squad a few days ago, at left tackle in the second half after injuries took their toll. The Colts also lost defensive tackle Eric Foster to an ankle injury that looked even more gruesome than most of the ugliness on the field.

Despite all that, the Colts (0-4) outplayed the Bucs much of the night. The Colts jumped out to a 10-0 lead and led 17-10 midway through the third quarter when Painter hit Pierre Garcon with a 59-yard touchdown pass. Tampa Bay’s tackling ability looked like that of a youth-league team on that play.

The Buccaneers were penalized 14 times for 106 yards. For the longest time the highlight of their offense seemed to be a short dump play to running back/fullback Earnest Graham. They ran that play a number of times and amassed 27 yards on three completions, although there were several passes to Graham that were called back because of penalties.

Speaking of penalties, there was a strange one in the final seconds of the first half. With the Colts leading 10-7, the Bucs tried to get a quick field goal as the clock ran down. Kicker Connor Barth actually got on the field and put the ball through the uprights.

But the field goal didn’t count because the Bucs were penalized for having 12 men on the field as they tried to get the offense off the field and the field-goal unit on it. That call led to a rather strange halftime scene. Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik, normally a pretty calm guy, came into the press box to talk to replay officials.

Without ever truly losing his temper or fully raising his voice, Dominik questioned the call. He argued that receiver Dezmon Briscoe was jumping off the field before the ball was snapped.

“It was as clear as day,’’ Dominik said loud enough to be overheard by a large portion of the media contingent. He also suggested the Colts had 12 men on the field as well. He later came back at the start of the third quarter and had a quieter and more diplomatic conversation with the officials.

But all the murkiness didn’t really clear up until running back LeGarrette Blount broke free on a 35-yard run for a touchdown up the middle with 3 minutes, 15 seconds left in the game. That’s when Tampa Bay scored the final points and took the lead for the first time.

[+] EnlargeJosh Freeman
Marc Serota/Getty ImagesDespite sharing a lead with the Saints in the NFC South, it's unclear whether Tampa Bay is for real.
“It wasn’t pretty at all times, but that’s kind of us,’’ said quarterback Josh Freeman, who completed 25 of 39 passes for 287 yards and a touchdown. “Whatever the adversity, we continue to play through the fourth quarter and persevere.’’

That’s been the story of Tampa Bay’s three victories and even their opening loss to Detroit. The Bucs start slowly, but they hang around and, more often than not, they’ve found a way to win it at the end.

That formula works against struggling teams like the Colts. But here’s the thing to keep in mind: Although the nation got to see the Bucs on Monday night, we still really don’t know what they’re all about.

We’re going to find out very soon. The Bucs travel to San Francisco on Sunday to play a 49ers team that’s started better than a lot of people expected. They then get to fly back across the country for a home game with the Saints, who are every bit as good as people expected. After that, the Bucs fly out of the country to take on the Chicago Bears in a “home game’’ in London on Oct. 23.

After that, they get a bye week before facing the Saints again -- in New Orleans.

Between now and then, we’ll find out what we didn’t find out Monday night. We’ll discover if the Bucs are any good.

This is the NFL’s youngest team and there have been some positive signs. McCoy, Clayborn and a very young defensive line continue to show promise. Second-year receiver Preston Parker is becoming a playmaker. Blount can wear down a defense and Freeman usually seems to have a steady hand when it matters most.

“A win is a win,’’ center Jeff Faine said. “As long as we keep stacking them up, we’re headed in a positive direction.’’

Faine’s absolutely right. But the wins aren’t going to be so easy to stack up in the coming weeks unless the Bucs take lots more steps in a positive direction. The wins aren’t going to come unless the Bucs do a lot of cleaning up quickly.

Unheralded Bucs have a lot to love

October, 1, 2011
10/01/11
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Josh FreemanKim Klement/US PresswireJosh Freeman had reason to celebrate against Atlanta, but when will Bucs fans wholly celebrate him?
TAMPA, Fla. -- If you scoured the stands of Raymond James Stadium on any game day over the past few seasons, you would have seen more replica jerseys for guys like Derrick Brooks, Mike Alstott, John Lynch and Warren Sapp than any of the current Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

If you looked in those same stands, you also would have seen a lot of empty seats. The past 10 regular-season home games (all eight last year and the first two this season) have not been sellouts.

Is this a fan base living in the past?

It’s not quite that simple. In fact, things are on the cusp of changing. When the Buccaneers host the Indianapolis Colts on "Monday Night Football," the game will be sold out. So an entire nation will have a chance to view the Buccaneers, who have been in the NFL’s version of the witness-protection program even in their own backyard.

The past 10 home games haven’t been shown on local television, and even fans who go to the games haven’t really had a chance to get to know the NFL’s youngest team (25.17 years was the average age of the opening-day roster) like they knew Brooks, Alstott, Lynch and Sapp.

“It’s a team I want our town to fall back in love with,’’ Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik said.

The Bucs went 10-6 last season and are off to a 2-1 start this year, but the speed-dating process really could kick in with the national stage. Once fans really get a look at the Bucs, they could fall in love. Some fans don’t know it yet, but there’s a lot to like about the Bucs.

Let’s take a look:

[+] EnlargeTampa Bay's Raheem Morris
Fernando Medina/US PRESSWIRE"It's an opportunity to show everybody what they've been missing," coach Raheem Morris said of Tampa Bay's game on "Monday Night Football."
The understated franchise quarterback. Other than cornerback Ronde Barber, the lone holdover from the Jon Gruden/Tony Dungy era, Josh Freeman is the most-well-known Buccaneer. That’s simply because he’s the quarterback, but fans haven’t totally embraced him. They should, because he’s the first true franchise quarterback this team has had at least since Doug Williams, and you could debate whether Williams was around long enough to be considered a franchise quarterback.

Freeman’s physically gifted and already has shown a knack for leading fourth-quarter comebacks. He comes across as a bit shy and soft-spoken in group interviews. But when Freeman, 23, was leading players-only workouts during the lockout, you could easily spot rare leadership skills and more personality than he displays in public.

In the Atlanta game, Freeman stepped outside himself a bit, flapping his wings in what could be interpreted as an imitation of the Falcons’ “Dirty Bird’’ celebration.

“It was good to see him come out of his shell a little bit,’’ running back/fullback Earnest Graham said.

The gregarious head coach. Public displays of emotion aren’t lacking when it comes to Raheem Morris. The guy can talk, sometimes a little more than he should. With the possible exception of Rex Ryan, Morris might have the most entertaining news conferences of any NFL coach. But following Gruden -- who will be in the “Monday Night Football’’ broadcast booth -- and Dungy is not an easy task.

Gruden won a Super Bowl, and Dungy changed the direction of the franchise. Fans still aren’t quite sure what to make of Morris, who remains the league’s youngest head coach at 35. Morris has more public charm than Dungy and Gruden did as coaches. He just needs to keep winning.

The completely unknown portion of "the triplets." When the Bucs started winning last season, that’s the nickname (borrowed from when the Dallas Cowboys had Troy Aikman, Michael Irvin and Emmitt Smith) that was given to Freeman, receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount. Williams and Blount were rookies last year, and both made good first impressions on the field. Williams instantly became Tampa Bay’s No. 1 receiver, and by midseason, Blount had replaced Cadillac Williams as the feature back. Still, there’s been a little apprehension from fans about both of them, and that goes back to their college days.

Blount is most famous for punching an opponent at the end of a game, and Williams was labeled as a "quitter" for leaving the Syracuse football team in his last year of college. But if you get to know them, you’ll see that labels can be deceiving. Williams is the anti-diva wide receiver. He comes across as quiet and humble.

Blount’s a punishing runner on the field, but is gentle off it. When he made his pre-draft visit to One Buccaneer Place, Blount ate his lunch and then went into the kitchen to thank every member of the staff. After last week’s victory in Atlanta, Blount sat in the locker room an hour after the game and told a staff member, "I don’t want to go home."

The big investments on the defensive line. In the past two years, the Bucs have used four draft picks in the first two rounds on defensive linemen. They brought in defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price last year and defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers this year. We’re only starting to see what they can do. Price and McCoy both got hurt as rookies. They’re starting this year, along with Clayborn, and there’s a lot to like.

Price is quiet on the surface, but there’s a depth to him. He’s coming off a rare surgery in which doctors inserted screws into his pelvis, and he's showing signs he can really play. McCoy’s had a gregarious personality from the start, but we’re still waiting to see big results. Clayborn’s outgoing like McCoy and already has made some plays. If this unit can continue growing, the Bucs could have a very good defensive line for a long time.

The new “quarterback’’ of the defense. A lot of fans were upset in the offseason when the Bucs let middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, another holdover from the Gruden days, walk via free agency. They should start getting over that, because third-round draft pick Mason Foster is showing signs he can make more big plays than Ruud ever did. The Bucs were a little hesitant to put too much on Foster right away and started the season by letting outside linebacker Quincy Black wear the radio helmet and call the defensive plays.

By his third career start, Foster had taken on those roles. It might not have been a coincidence that the Bucs went out and had their best defensive performance since the days when Monte Kiffin was running the defense for Gruden.

The Bucs once were beloved by their fans. There’s no reason they can’t be that way again. The parts are in place. The world just needs a chance to get to see and know them.

“It’s an opportunity to show everybody what they’ve been missing,’’ Morris said.

That chance comes Monday night.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers cutdown analysis

September, 3, 2011
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Check here for a complete list of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' roster moves.

Surprise move: Perhaps the biggest surprise came Friday when the Buccaneers released middle linebacker Tyrone McKenzie. He came to training camp with an apparent shot to win the starting job after the Bucs let Barrett Ruud walk in free agency. McKenzie had helped organize players-only workouts during the lockout and ran the defense during that time.

But the fact the Bucs released him shows they’re more than content to go with rookie Mason Foster as their middle linebacker. He’ll start off as a two-down player, and outside linebacker Quincy Black, who will be an every-down player, will wear the radio helmet and call the defensive signals at least at the start of the season. But it looks like the Bucs have total confidence in Foster. Adam Hayward, who can play outside or inside and on special teams, probably will be Foster’s backup.

A few other pleasant surprises who made the roster were cornerback D.J. Johnson, defensive end George Johnson and safety Devin Holland.

No-brainers: Like a lot of other teams, the Bucs decided to go with just two quarterbacks, waiving Rudy Carpenter. They may try to bring Carpenter back to the practice squad. But the fact they’re willing to expose him to waivers tells you all you really need to know about how the Bucs view Carpenter. He’s a smart guy who knows the system, but he has no upside because he lacks arm strength. If the Bucs truly thought Carpenter could become a No. 2 quarterback, they would have kept him around because backup Josh Johnson can become a free agent next year. Johnson probably will move on because he knows there’s no chance of starting as long as Josh Freeman is around.

What's next: General manager Mark Dominik isn’t likely to be plucking the waiver wire as much as he did last season. But he’ll keep his eyes open, and you could see a move or two. Don’t be surprised if the Bucs bring in a running back, particularly one who fits the profile of a third-down back. Veteran Earnest Graham can fill that role, if needed, but the Bucs also like to use him at fullback.
TAMPA, Fla. -- Sit down with Mark Dominik even for just a few minutes and you’ll quickly hear his theory on why the term “youth movement’’ shouldn’t come with negative connotations.

“Don’t confuse youth with immaturity,’’ the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers said. “There’s a big difference between those two things. I’m sure we’ve all met 23-year-olds that act like they’re 28 and we’ve met people that are 28 but act like they’re 23. I feel like we’re a mature, young football team, which is important.’’

Yes, the Bucs, who were the NFL’s youngest team last season, are going to be young again. They have only three players 30 or older and they’re counting on big things from a lot of rookies and second-year players.

But this is a team that won 10 games last season with a lot of young players in key roles, and all of them should be a year better. That experience only encouraged the Bucs to continue with their youth movement and steer clear of making any dramatic moves in free agency. Instead of worrying about regressing, like a lot of fans and media are predicting, the Bucs fully expect to take another step forward.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are,’’ quarterback Josh Freeman said. “It matters how well you’re playing and if you have the ability to step up in big situations.’’

Freeman epitomizes what Dominik was talking about. The quarterback is 23, but spend a few minutes with him or think about how he led his teammates through workouts during the lockout and you’d swear he was 28. Or 38.

“It’s about the type of player we’re looking for,’’ Dominik said. “Certainly, the skill level has a lot to do with it. But it’s also very much about the type of player we’re looking for in terms of their demeanor. Plus, I have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff as far as getting guys prepared.’’

The Bucs hit it big when they drafted Freeman, and pickups such as receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount have made quick impacts. That’s part of the reason why they plan to plug rookie Adrian Clayborn in as an immediate starter at defensive end and why they’re willing to put rookie Mason Foster at the all-important middle linebacker position.

“When we talked to Adrian Clayborn and Mason Foster in the draft process, we felt that sense of someone who was wise beyond his years,’’ Dominik said. “It gives you confidence to be able to see a young man who takes his game and his craft seriously and puts time into it and it’s important to him. That's the kind of thing that's important to us. We have a young team that we like very much and we look forward to it growing older together.''

THREE HOT TOPICS

[+] EnlargeGerald McCoy
Brett Davis/US PresswireThe Buccaneers have invested several high draft picks in their defensive line, including the No. 3 overall pick in 2010 on defensive tackle Gerald McCoy.
1. Where will the pass rush come from? The Bucs were among the worst in the league at pressuring quarterbacks last season. That’s why they drafted Clayborn in the first round and fellow defensive end Da'Quan Bowers in the second in April. A year ago, the Bucs used their top two draft picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price.

There’s a lot invested in those young defensive linemen and the Bucs expect immediate results. Sure, they wouldn’t mind getting some sacks from blitzes by their linebackers or defensive backs, but it’s not like the Bucs have some other pass-rushing defensive end hidden up their sleeves.

Throughout camp, Clayborn’s looked even better than the Bucs thought he was when they drafted him. Bowers, coming off knee surgery in January, hasn’t been quite at Clayborn’s level. But he has looked better than the Bucs expected him to be at this point. At worst, Clayborn will start right away and Bowers will be used as a situational rusher. At best, Bowers might get on the field more than that and show every team that let him slide to the second round that his knee is fine.

2. Can Blount be a complete running back? That’s the hope and the plan, but Blount is a work in progress. We learned quickly last season that he can run between the tackles. He didn’t take the starting job from Cadillac Williams until midseason, but he still managed to rush for 1,007 yards.

Williams thrived as a third-down back last season, but he left via free agency, creating a void. When Blount was on the field last season, it was pretty obvious the Bucs were going to hand the ball to him. He only caught five passes and the team was hesitant to rely on Blount to pick up on blitzes on pass plays.

Earnest Graham and Kregg Lumpkin can do some of those things, but the Bucs have been working hard to make Blount a more balanced player. The coaching staff said he’s now up to speed on pass blocking and he has worked a lot on catching the ball out of the backfield in camp. If Blount can do everything this season, Tampa Bay’s offensive intentions no longer will be telegraphed.

3. Was Freeman’s first full season as a starter misleading? Not at all. He threw for 25 touchdowns with only six interceptions and pretty much carried an offense that had to do a lot of shuffling through a series of injuries.

Freeman took over as leader of the team last season, and he only reinforced that with the way he kept the Bucs together during the lockout. Those workouts only increased his chemistry with Williams, Arrelious Benn, Sammie Stroughter and tight end Kellen Winslow. Freeman is capable of throwing for 30-plus TDs and passing for more than 4,000 yards.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

[+] EnlargeDezmon Briscoe
Kim Klement/US PresswireTampa Bay is counting on a big contribution from receiver Dezmon Briscoe this season.
The Bucs had a pretty strong feeling about receiver Dezmon Briscoe when they made the unconventional move of signing him to the practice squad, but paying him like he was a member of the regular roster at the start of last season. Briscoe later earned his way onto the regular roster and has made the Bucs look like geniuses throughout camp and in the first preseason game. The team believes Benn is coming along well after suffering a torn ACL late last season. But the Bucs don’t want to rush Benn. That's why Briscoe could end up starting at the “Z’’ position opposite Williams early in the season. The long-range promise of Briscoe is off the charts because he can play all three receiver spots.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT

It’s not so much that the Bucs have been disappointed with what they’ve seen from McCoy and Price when they’ve been on the field. The problem is the two second-year defensive tackles simply haven’t been on the field a lot. The hopes are still high for these two, but Price is coming off a rare surgery on his pelvis and is being brought along slowly. McCoy, who had his rookie season end with a triceps injury just when he was starting to blossom, has missed some of camp with a shoulder injury. Roy Miller is a consistent player and the Bucs don’t mind starting him. But they need McCoy and Price to be on the field and making big plays.

OBSERVATION DECK

  • The arrival of Clayborn and Bowers also helps the offensive line. In the old days, left tackle Donald Penn rarely had to break a sweat in practice because he worked against Stylez G. White.
  • There’s concern on the outside about depth in the secondary. A lot of that concern stems from the uncertain situations of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Tanard Jackson. Talib could face suspension by the league for an offseason incident in which he was charged with aggravated assault, and Jackson is out until at least late September as he finishes a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. The Bucs have no idea what’s going to happen with Talib. If Jackson returns to them, they view it as a bonus. But the team isn’t nearly as concerned with the depth situation as fans are. Coaches are comfortable with Sean Jones and Cody Grimm as starting safeties and think they’ve found quality backups in Larry Asante and Corey Lynch. At cornerback, the Bucs believe E.J. Biggers could step into a starting role if anything happens to Talib, and there’s hope that second-year pro Myron Lewis could succeed as a nickel back.
  • The Bucs like what they’ve seen from Lumpkin during camp and think he might be a reliable backup for Blount. But Graham is a nice fall-back option. He’s been playing fullback, but played tailback earlier in his career. With Erik Lorig getting time at fullback last season, the Bucs have flexibility to move Graham around.
  • Although Foster is expected to start in the middle, the Bucs aren’t going to overload the rookie. At least in the short term, outside linebacker Quincy Black will wear the radio helmet and call the defensive plays. Part of that is because Black will be on the field all the time, and Foster will come out when the Bucs go to the nickel package.
  • Attention, fantasy football players: Consider drafting Winslow. He was good last season, despite missing a lot of practice time with an achy knee. Winslow said the knee feels better than it has in years. He spent most of the offseason working out with Freeman in Tampa and their chemistry should be even better than last season.

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