New era in Tampa Bay

Editor's note: These previews were last updated Sept. 2 and don't reflect any moves made by the team after that.

It is quite obvious that a new era in Tampa Bay is under way now that general manager Rich McKay is completely out of the picture. The arrival of former Raiders executive Bruce Allen as the Bucs' new general manager gives head coach Jon Gruden the front-office support he wants to build the team his way. It means that the Bucs will continue to take on a distinctively older look as Gruden digs deep into the veteran free-agent market.

Gone are Bucs icons Warren Sapp and John Lynch, but with Anthony McFarland and Jermaine Phillips ready to step in, the Bucs should not be worse off. For some, the real worry is the loss of leadership, but the addition of scores of veterans to go along with those already in place should minimize such a loss.

But when you win the Super Bowl in your first year as head coach, nothing but an appearance in the title game again will suffice. Gruden knows it, Allen knows it and the players know it.

Quarterbacks: Though he likely won't say anything publicly, no one can fault Brad Johnson for being a little ticked at the team's offseason flirtation with about every quality quarterback available. Johnson may be getting up in age and is not the fleetest of foot, but he has been remarkably consistent and has proven, after taking a relentless beating last year, that you can't question his durability. He may not throw for 26 touchdowns again this season, but he likely won't throw 21 interceptions, either. And with a few new weapons available, he could duplicate his title season. If there is a problem with Johnson, the Bucs don't need to panic. Second-year QB Chris Simms has looked so poised and improved in camp that he seems to have a strenglehold on the No. 2 job. Gruden loves Simms' cannon arm and good footwork and would like to be the person who turns the former third-rounder into an elite player one day. For good measure, the Bucs also like what they have seen in Brian Griese, who seems to have traded in the problems of the past for a fresh start.
Grade: A.

Running backs: One thing the Bucs aren't lacking is depth at the RB spot. But there are some questions. Considering that former Raider Charlie Garner enjoyed his best season with Gruden a few years ago, his addition certainly seems like an upgrade. Garner insists that he's gotten his burst back, but after offseason knee surgery, the 32-year-old understands that he is going to have to prove it. Returning starter Michael Pittman has been very effective catching the ball out of the backfield and is a steady runner. But an NFL suspension will keep him away for the first three games of the season. Mike Alstott, who returns from neck surgery that kept him out most of last year, has looked great in camp and should be back to smashing tacklers in short-yardage situations. And if that isn't enough, the Bucs can turn to returning FB Jameel Cook or newcomers Greg Comella, Brandon Bennett or Jamel White, each of whom has a different skill. Grade: B-plus.

Receivers: At this point, this is the team's Achilles' heel. At presstime, Keenan McCardell, the team's best offensive player last year, was still holding out for a better contract, and a resolution doesn't appear forthcoming. Joe Jurevicius, the other projected starter, had to have back surgery and will miss about the first 4-5 weeks of the season. Get the picture? If Gruden's passing game is to be explosive, the Bucs are going to need consistency and big playmaking from Joey Galloway, who caught 34 balls for Dallas last year; Edell Shephard, who caught four; and rookie Michael Clayton. Help came when they brought former Raider Tim Brown into the mix, but at 38, Brown is going to have to show that Oakland, known for sticking with old players, gave up on him prematurely. TEs Rickey Dudley, Ken Dilger and Dave Moore have looked solid, and second-year player Will Heller has a chance to make the team, especially considering that Gruden likes four tight ends on the roster. Grade: C.

Offensive linemen: Early in the offseason, Allen promised to do something about the line and vowed that Johnson never again would take the beating he took in 2003. So the Bucs went out and signed four new starters: OLT Derrick Deese, OLG Matt O'Dwyer, ORG Matt Stinchcomb and ORT Todd Steussie. All four veterans were expected to be an instant upgrade. Well, entering the preseason opener, Deese was out with bone spurs, O'Dwyer had torn his pectoral muscle lifting weights and Stinchcomb was hobbled. To compound the issue, backup OG Kerry Jenkins had an ankle injury, and Cosey Coleman is recovering from stomach surgery, so the rebuilt line has been put to a test. The good thing for the Bucs is that it meant reserves like Anthony Davis, Kenyatta Walker, Sean Mahan and rookie Jeb Terry got a tremendous amount of work. The Bucs are convinced that they now have depth at the line, though doubters will say they have age. Grade: B.

Defensive linemen: The giant void left by Sapp's departure will take time to fill, but McFarland is best-suited to do so. His quick feet should help him dominate the position many feel is natural to him. If not, the Bucs won't hesitate to play Ellis Wyms at under tackle and move McFarland back to the nose. Team doctors may have detected an irregular heartbeat with DE Simeon Rice, but no one's questioning his heart. Rice has 41½ sacks in three seasons with the Bucs and has been their most consistent player. He's back with something to prove. Incumbent Greg Spires and second-year player Dewayne White are in a battle for the DLE position, and both are likely to see playing time. Internally, the play of Chuck Darby, who started in the Super Bowl, Cleveland Pinkney, Damian Gregory, DeVone Claybrooks and Lamar King, who also plays end, gives the Bucs more depth than at any other position. Grade: A-minus.

Linebackers: When Derrick Brooks went down with a slight knee injury during the second week of camp, the Bucs were facing disaster. But Brooks' injury wasn't serious, and the team's undisputed leader will be on the field on opening day. Brooks' leadership will play a huge role in the Bucs' season, but he will have help from Shelton Quarles, who missed five games last year, and free-agent addition Ian Gold, who looks like he was made for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's scheme. Ryan Nece, last year's starting strong-side linebacker, along with the return of Jeff Gooch and the addition of Keith Burns, give the LB corps upgraded credibility. Gold could be the key. If he plays to his potential, the Bucs' defense will be destructive again. Grade: B-plus.

Defensive backs: So convinced were they that Phillips was ready at safety, the Bucs didn't make an offer to Lynch. Phillips, entering his third season, has looked great and has a strong relationship with FS Dwight Smith. Both are young and relentless. John Howell has returned for his fourth season to lend more experience up the middle. These days, CBs Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly qualify as the elder statesmen. Both are still efficient corners who can make plays on the ball. The addition of veteran Mario Edwards from Dallas will lift the nickel package. Edwards started all 16 games for the Cowboys last year. Grade: B.

Special teams: Martin Gramatica can't afford another disappointing season. To ensure this, he reported to camp in good shape and has kicked very well. The changing of his number, from No. 7 to No. 10, apparently is a sign of a changed man. P Josh Bidwell is happy to be out of Green Bay. The team's worst unit should be improved with the return of playmakers like Gooch, Burns, Nece and speedy returners like Galloway and rookie Mark Jones. The special teams are certain to be better, because they can't possibly be worse. Grade: C-minus.

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