Experts' Picks (Consensus: third)
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 This team has more talent than many people realize. I can easily see a 9-7 record and maybe even something better if the Bucs catch some breaks. But playing in a division with the Falcons and Saints means that nothing will be easy.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 The defense will be better with Darrelle Revis bringing Revis Island to Tampa, but Josh Freeman could be leaving the Bucs' island if he doesn't do well in the final year of his contract.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 The make-or-break season is here for free-agent-to-be quarterback Josh Freeman.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 3 The Bucs had moments last season when they looked like an up-and-coming team. The maturation of QB Josh Freeman and the potential of a revamped secondary will be key to their hopes.|
|DIVISION FINISH: 4 Josh Freeman is on the clock.|
Five things you need to know about the Buccaneers:
1. It's all on Freeman: The Bucs have a strong offensive line, a good running back (Doug Martin) and solid receivers (Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams). That means there no longer are any valid excuses if quarterback Josh Freeman doesn't get the job done. Freeman is in a contract year that will determine if he is the Bucs' long-term answer. The talent is there, but Freeman needs to play with more consistency.
2. No sophomore slump: Martin rushed for more than 1,400 yards as a rookie, and that came with guard Davin Joseph missing the entire season with an injury and guard Carl Nicks missing half the season. If the offensive line can stay healthy, I see Martin's numbers improving.
3. The pass rush has to come through: By design, the Bucs have gone out on a limb when it comes to their pass rush. They willingly let last year's sack leader, Michael Bennett, walk away as a free agent. That's because the Bucs have such high expectations for Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. But there still are questions about both of those players. Clayborn missed most of last year with an injury after turning in a strong rookie season. Bowers has been nothing more than a part-time player so far. The Bucs need Bowers and Clayborn to come through in a big way.
4. Fixing a problem: Tampa Bay's defense ranked last in the league in passing yards allowed last season. That's why the Bucs completely overhauled their secondary. They made a huge trade to get cornerback Darrelle Revis. They paid big money to safety Dashon Goldson in free agency. They used their second-round draft pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks. That's a significant upgrade in talent, and the Bucs should be much better against the pass this year.
5. Filling the void: Tight end Luke Stocker had 16 catches for the Bucs last year, and Tom Crabtree had eight receptions for the Packers. Those numbers are far from spectacular. But the Bucs let veteran Dallas Clark leave as a free agent because they think their young tight ends can be more productive.
-- Pat Yasinskas, ESPN.com
Inside The Numbers
The Buccaneers' defense saw 627 pass attempts last year, second only to the Redskins' (636). When those pass attempts were directed toward wide receivers, the Buccaneers struggled.
The Bucs allowed 9.2 yards per attempt to wide receivers last year, tied with the Saints for the second-worst rate in the league. In addition, the defense gave up an NFL-high 17 plays of 30 or more yards outside the painted numbers, 15 of which were thrown to wide receivers. Only the Giants allowed as many 30-plus-yard plays to wide receivers last season.
Darrelle Revis could help add some stability to the Buccaneers' secondary.
In Revis' last two seasons with the Jets, opposing quarterbacks had a minus-11 TD-Int differential when targeting wide receivers with him on the field. When Revis was off the field, quarterbacks posted a plus-7 differential.
• The Bucs' defense held rushers to an NFL-best 3.5 yards per rush last season. The Bucs contacted rushers in the backfield 113 times last year, 19 more times than the next-closest team.
• Josh Freeman was off target on 24.3 percent of his attempts last year, worst among qualified quarterbacks. Freeman completed 54.8 percent of his passes last season, his lowest percentage since his rookie year.
-- ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN The Magazine: Non-QB MVP
RB Doug Martin (14.0 AV in 2012)
Martin's big-play ability helped make up for QB Josh Freeman's struggles. Martin's five runs of 40-plus yards (tied for second in the NFL) helped the Bucs jump from 30th in rushing in 2011 to 15th.
-- Pro Football Reference