Jeff Risdon. 22nd August, 2010 - 2:12 pm
2009 record: 3-13
Turnover Ratio: -5
Sack Differential: -5
Point Differential: -156
Coming In: WR Reggie Brown, S Sean Jones, LB Jon Alston, G Keydrick Vincent
Going Out: WR Antonio Bryant, DT Chris Hovan, QB Byron Leftwich, S Will Allen, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, G Arron Sears
Key Rookies: DT Gerald McCoy, DT Brian Price, WR Arrelious Benn, WR Mike Williams, P Brent Bowden, CB Myron Lewis
QB: Josh Freeman begins his second season and is the undisputed starter after an uneasy rookie campaign. Optimism is quite high internally, but Freeman was far too easily baited into bad throws and showed little ability to look down the field. His 18 INTs with just 10 TDs are a strong indication that he remains a work in progress. To his credit, he had little to work with at WR and showed clear leadership and command of the offense despite not being a full-time starter until Week 9. The 54.5% accuracy should improve, as rookie QBs with at least 6 starts increase their completion percentage by an average of 4.8 points the next season over the last ten years, and Freeman showed the ability to really rifle the ball when needed. He must quickly develop chemistry--something at which he has worked very diligently--with his brand-new wide receiving corps, but I?m not worried about his ability to handle the pressure of being the franchise QB. The arrow is pointing up here, but how high Freeman can rise is still open to debate. One thing that would help him is less predictable play calling from the sidelines. Offensive Coordinator Greg Olson must improve the predictability of the schemes, which were as easy to anticipate as the drum line in any AC/DC song.
GM Mark Dominik took away any sort of veteran mentor/challenger by dispatching Byron Leftwich, who did not play well and doesn?t fit with the future of the team. Josh Johnson becomes the primary backup after badly squandering the starting job last year, thus opening the door for Freeman. Ball security has been a major problem for Johnson, who just doesn?t look comfortable or confident behind center. Undrafted rookie Jevan Snead and Cowboys castoff Rudy Carpenter will battle to hold the clipboard. Snead was touted as a potential #1 overall pick before a miserable junior season, and he just might be a great diamond in the rough if handled properly.
*Here?s the ?fun? of writing these things: I wrote the above about Snead in early July, and he didn?t make it to the middle of August. I decided to leave it in for posterity.
RB: The amazing saga of Cadillac Williams drives onward. After two devastating knee injuries, both of which many thought were career-ending, Cadillac rolled for over 800 yards and still had his powerful slipperiness. Durability is obviously a major question, and the breakaway speed is all but gone. Still, few backs have Williams? vision or testicular fortitude He?s also a solid receiver and good in pass protection. Williams should be a real asset in a shared backfield.
The big question is, will Derrick Ward prove worthy of sharing time? In his first year with Tampa Bay, that was a resounding ?No way!? Ward danced and darted east-west a whole lot, failing to quickly find the holes and not attacking with authority or confidence when they were there for him. He should benefit from a stronger passing threat, which will keep safeties deeper and give him more room to operate. He must run stronger and more boldly in order to take advantage, or else he?ll go down as one of the bigger free agent busts in recent memory.
Earnest Graham does a yeoman job at fullback. He?s a converted RB who sacrificed glory for the good of the team, and he blocks with the vision and feel of a former feature back, quickly finding the correct target to clear the hole. He deserves the ball more than the 14 carries he bagged in 2009, and if Williams goes down, don?t be surprised if Graham returns to RB. The Bucs still have shifty Clifton Smith, the only back with any real notable speed, but he has little experience (12 carries in two years) and has had trouble staying healthy. One to watch: mighty mite Kareem Huggins.
WR/TE: The top three receivers are all brand new, and it?s a pretty safe bet that two rookies will start. 2nd rounder Arrelious Benn and 4th rounder Mike Williams are both big, physical receivers that have shown great ability...with big questions. Benn showed obvious ability at Illinois, but didn?t always appear to give full effort and never became the playmaker they hoped he?d be. In Benn?s defense the Illini had awful QB play and questionable coaching. He is a bull after the catch and has the size to cause major problems, though he lacks both agility and long speed. When paired with a speedster, Benn could really blossom as an Anquan Boldin-like talent.
Tampa Bay took a major gamble on Mike Williams. I can find you 5 NFL scouts that will quickly cite Williams as the best WR in the last draft, but I can also find you 15 teams that wouldn?t even consider drafting him. Williams missed a season at Syracuse after getting caught cheating on a test, then quit on his team last year instead of facing discipline for being late for a practice. His coaches and former teammates didn?t exactly have his back, but GM Dominik boldly believes the mercurial Williams will respond to young coach Raheem Morris. If he does, the Bucs scored themselves an absolute steal. There is almost nothing Williams lacks physically, and he has all the attributes of a very successful wideout--good hands, strong routes, great speed, good separation ability. If his head is on straight, the Bucs just might have a great young 1-2 punch. That?s a real iffy if, though.
They hope that Kellen Winslow will help. K2 carries much of the same ?selfish pariah? baggage as Williams, yet has undeniable skill as a receiving tight end. Exiled from Cleveland and not missed at all, Winslow put together a solid comeback season, leading the Bucs in receiving and showing some much-needed maturity. I understand the inclination that K2 can mentor Williams and Benn, and I will never question Winslow?s undeniable talent or passion for the game. But it creates a very volatile mix, especially for a team with a greenhorn QB and novice coaching staff.
It?s hard to ascertain who else on the roster might catch more than 20 balls all season. Reggie Brown comes over from Philadelphia, where he never met expectations. He?s a competent professional that won?t rock the boat and could provide a veteran rudder to the young bucks, but any Eagles fan (or player) will tell you Brown just can?t get open and also make the catch. Michael Clayton has never come close to getting even half the production of his remarkable rookie season, which was 6 long years ago. He sticks on the roster only because he looks fantastic every camp and preseason. He needs to this summer, because the Bucs are looking for a reason to move on. Michael Spurlock is a converted QB best known for being the first Buc to return a kickoff for a touchdown, but he has progressed nicely and should usurp Clayton. However, Spurlock is still looking for his first reception since 2006. Maurice Stovall has struggled getting separation and with the timing of the position. He is the best run blocker of the returning cast, and his size still offers some promise. One to watch during preseason: Sammie Stroughter, a waterbug-type that could seize the slot role with a strong summer.
There is some depth behind Winslow at TE. Jerramy Stevens also carries a lot of personal baggage and wild inconsistency, but when his head is correct on top of a healthy body, he is a legit receiving threat. Not having the pressure of being the #1 helps Stevens. John Gilmore is a very good blocker, which will keep him active on game days even though he probably won?t catch more than 5 balls all year.
OL: This is probably the most skilled positional unit on the team. RG Davin Joseph is an elite talent, a menacing run blocker with quick feet and great brute strength. However, Joseph didn?t adjust smoothly to a more zone-oriented blocking scheme and it sapped his aggressiveness. The coaches have apparently realized the err of their ways and have gone back to a more smashmouth, straightforward blocking scheme, which should get Joseph back into the Pro Bowl. Center Jeff Faine could also sniff the Pro Bowl if he doesn?t alienate too many opponents with his non-stop barrage of foul language and extracurricular ?play?. He?s undersized but that has never stopped him from being one of the most aggressive centers in the league, and he doesn?t lack for strength despite often playing in the 290 range. The run blocking fell off a cliff when he missed time last year.
The tackles are straight from central casting of left and right side tackles, circa 1994. LT Donald Penn is tall, long-armed, and reasonably quick on his feet. He?s almost exclusively a pass protector that relies on steering defenders wide and to his backfield help, which used to be the norm before the demise of the fullback position. Penn is functional as a run blocker but doesn?t intimidate anyone or get to the second level readily. On the right side, Jeremy Trueblood is big, nasty, terrible in pass protection, and a devastatingly effective run blocker. Penalties are a problem, and he is helpless against pass rushers with outside/in moves, but the team loves his snarl and his ability to pancake defenders in the running game. Neither starter is any better than an average talent, but the Bucs have done a nice job of working with what skills they do offer. Trueblood is on shakier status because of the stupid penalties, which landed him in Morris? doghouse, but he has job security based on the fact they don?t have anyone remotely close to his skill level to bring in his place. LG Jeremy Zuttah played tackle at Rutgers, but he functions better in the NFL at guard. He is far superior in pass protection than creating run surge, which really showed when Faine was out. The new blocking scheme might help him, but like the tackles he?ll never be more than a serviceable starter.
The depth is almost painfully thin. Free agent signee Keydrick Vincent was a savvy signing, and he could usurp Zuttah at LG based on his run blocking prowess. That would free Zuttah to move to right tackle should Trueblood?s antics persist, or at least give the top reserve more versatility. Xavier Fulton is the next reserve in line, and he?s a 5th rounder from 2009 that missed all of last year with an injury. James Lee has bounced between guard and tackle, the active roster and practice squad. I actually like both he and Fulton, but they are on the green side of being greenhorns.
DL: This unit has been a problem area, one that they aggressively addressed in the last two drafts. Three of the four starters come from those drafts: left end Kyle Moore (4th round of ?09), left tackle Gerald McCoy (1st round of ?10), and the winner of a camp battle at NT between Roy Miller (2nd round of ?09) and Brian Price (2nd round of ?10).
McCoy is the big fish in the bay. The 3rd overall pick from Oklahoma, he was legitimately a candidate to go #1 overall based on his uncanny knack for getting into the backfield and wreaking havoc. He is a quicker version of former Sooner Tommie Harris, who was one of the best DTs in the game before his knees gave way. Harris thrived as the 3-technique in the Tampa-2 scheme, and the Bucs are banking on McCoy doing just the same. I do have some concerns about his ability to hold the line against the run, and he does have some all-or-nothingness to his game, but unless McCoy completely busts he?ll be a significant upgrade.
Fellow rookie Brian Price will have a direct impact on McCoy?s fate. The UCLA product will split the 1-technique nose tackle role with Roy Miller, but Price has the higher ceiling of the duo. He has amazing quickness for a man of his girth (he?s 6?1? in cleats and 305 pounds), and does a fantastic job of keeping blockers off him. It will be a big change from going against middling Pac-10 linemen to NFL veterans, but I love his activeness inside. With another quick penetrating 2-gapper like McCoy next to him, Price has the potential to put up very high numbers for a rookie DT, along the lines of 4 sacks and 45 tackles. He has his question marks as well, chief among them being conditioning, something that dogged him at UCLA and during the draft process.
Miller was decent as a rookie after a slow start, notably improving after Morris switched back to the simpler Tampa-2 scheme. Like Price he?s short and squat but also quick. He figures to be the best run stopper of the young interior trio. It?s asking a lot to turn over such an integral part of the defense to three greenhorns, but this bodes well beyond 2010 as they take their early lumps and learn on the fly. One veteran, beefy Ryan Sims, remains to mentor and add physicality inside. The run defense will likely continue to rank in the bottom 10 even with the upgrades at tackle.
The pass rush hasn?t been great from the outside either. Stylez White was solid at getting pressure on the right side, but he finished just 6.5 sacks out of nearly 35 QB hurries. He?s got deceptive quickness and uses his hands well, but lacks the closing burst of elite rushers. The Bucs are hopeful that Kyle Moore will answer the bell on the left side, where the departed Jimmy Wilkerson was decent but not spectacular. Moore is built for the job but tends to play too upright, a problem that is coachable. Wilkerson was quite good anchoring against the run, a quality that made him very unique last year, so Moore must bring his trench warfare gear all the time. Tim Crowder has flashed decent pass rush moves in his young career but tends to run very hot and cold. He fits best as the 3rd DE to rotate in on either side. As long as the rookies provide a decent inside rush, the ends here are good enough to get the job done without much fanfare. But if that interior rush is vacant once again, this is not a strong enough rotation to scare most teams.
LB: Barrett Ruud is the best middle linebacker you?ve never heard about, unless you are a Bucs die-hard. He?s not very big and isn?t a bone-rattling hitter, but Ruud exudes football IQ. He has great range and instincts, racking up 150 tackles last year. Because the line did so little, most of those tackles took place well down the field. Of those 150 tackles, just three were within 2 yards of the line of scrimmage. That?s indicative of a lack of aggressiveness in order to not get caught out of position, which I believe is a function of not trusting his LB mates and the safeties behind him. He is similar to Jonathan Vilma, who has been excellent when surrounded by decent talent but too reactive and not dynamic enough when the team needed him to do more.
Geno Hayes and Quincy Black return as the starting OLBs. Hayes was the only defender that played better before the switch back to the Tampa 2 than afterwards, though he wasn?t bad afterwards. He is the most likely to make a big play or force a turnover, but he?s also the least reliable of the trio. Hayes has very good speed but can?t stop his momentum easily, allowing runners with strong cutback moves to find far too much real estate at his expense. He is a rising talent that will continue to improve, and he?s the best coverage LB on the team. Black is the weak link, relatively speaking--he?s an adequate starter in this system. He?s small for a strong side LB and doesn?t have great lateral agility, which makes it very hard for him to escape blockers. He also doesn?t drop deep enough in the zone coverage, a problem that was exacerbated by iffy safety play behind him. 7th round rookie Dekoda Watson has pushed him in camp this summer and could take over the role if he continues to demonstrate more physical play and better coverage instincts. Jon Alston is small even amongst this badly undersized group, and he will be the primary backup behind Hayes. Special teamers Adam Hayward and Niko Koutouvides fill out the unit. It?s a group heavily reliant on speed and on the DL doing all the pass rushing successfully.
DB: The starting CBs are probably the Bucs? top asset. Venerable veteran Ronde Barber continues to excel despite playing years longer than his twin brother. He?s consistently been one of the best run support corners for over a decade, and he knows all the ins and outs of playing the cover 2 zone. Physical without being thuggish and blessed with great instincts, Barber can still handle the role, though the team threw him a bone by moving him into the slot in the nickel package. On the other side, Aqib Talib has tremendous physical ability that usually translates very well to the field. Talib will get caught up in personal battles and doesn?t always read the routes well, but his closing speed and timing with his hands are exceptional. One opposing receiver told me Talib was the best young CB he?s seen in terms of body positioning and the subtleties of using his hands and hips. He needs to improve his tackling, but he has taken over the lead CB role from Barber.
After the top two, the bottom falls out quickly. Elbert Mack was the nickel back last year, playing outside Barber, and he was very tentative and ineffective. That prompted the 3rd round selection of Myron Lewis, who has very good size and lots of experience playing in the SEC at Vanderbilt. In college he was one of those guys that never stood out but did everything pretty well, and I expect that will persist in the NFL. E.J. Biggers has had a nice offseason and could figure into the mix after an injury wiped out his rookie season. No other CBs currently on the roster inspire any sort of confidence.
The safeties don?t exactly inspire confidence either. Tanard Jackson made some highlights with his 5 INTs (including 2 TD returns) but he also struggled with over-the-top help and missed way too many tackles. He did play better down the stretch when the team went back to playing more vanilla Tampa-2 zone, so he does have the potential to bounce back and have a better season. Having a more reliable compadre would certainly help Jackson, who often appears as if he?s trying to do too much. Sabby Piscitelli has been largely awful as the strong safety, leading the league in missed tackles a year ago...and run support is his stronger suit. He?s perhaps the worst coverage safety in the league, depending on if C.C. Brown holds a job. Piscitelli should lose his job to newcomer Sean Jones, who is more reliable against the run but almost equally gaffe-prone in coverage. This is his third team in three years for a reason. Rookie thumper Cody Grimm is next in line, with special teamer Corey Lynch only seeing the field defensively out of desperation.
For seemingly the first time in franchise history, the return units were a major strength for Tampa Bay. All the key players there (Clifton Smith, Sammy Stroughter, Micheal Spurlock) are back and should continue to provide lots of dynamic return options. The problem last year was the specialists themselves. Connor Barth finished the year on an uptick, and his strong leg is an asset on kickoffs. Accuracy on midrange FGs has plagued his young career, and that?s not likely to change. Punting was a disaster, so the team spent a 6th round pick on Brent Bowden from Virginia Tech and handed him the job outright. He had a booming leg as a Hokie, a school noted for producing quality punters, but how that translates here is still an unknown commodity.
3 Keys to the season
1. The maturation of Josh Freeman. Even this skeptical observer has been impressed by how Freeman has handled his business so far, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Handling an immature receiving corps and playing behind a line that underperformed a year ago are challenges, as is the burden of increased expectations after playing well as a rookie with nothing to lose.
2. Shoring up the run defense. The linebackers are good enough as long as the big boys up front handle the blockers, which didn?t happen last year. The young tackles must play to their lofty draft statuses and do so both right away and all the time; the safety play must improve as well. That?s a lot of moving parts that need to mesh together and a whole lot of unproven players that must do that meshing.
3. Understanding the big picture. The rebuild is still in its early stages, and 2010 is all about growing pains and taking lumps now. When Freeman, McCoy, Price, Williams, Benn and Talib have all matured in the next 2-3 years, all the gaffes and learning experiences will pay off. That requires strong leadership, both in the locker room and from the young coaching staff. Fortunately for Tampa Bay, fan expectations haven?t been this low since the 70s.
This team has improved significantly from the beginning of last season. They have considerably more hope at QB and on the critical defensive line, but it?s all very young. Chalk this up as a growth year while the young talent gets its collective feet wet and adjusts to the NFL game together. The schedule isn?t overbearing, and they caught some breaks by opening at home against the Browns and drawing the Steelers sans Big Ben in Week 3. They should be competitive enough to hang in and keep more games closer than a year ago, but they are still at least a year away from escaping the NFC South cellar. Tampa Bay finishes 5-11 but is poised to make a big leap forward in 2011.