It's finally here! The crashing of pads, the spirals of passes and the evaluation that goes into making an NFL roster. If there's anything certain, it's that this has been an off-season for the ages for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Coming off a 10-6 campaign, expectations were sky high for the 2011 Buccaneers. After a 4-2 start with victories over New Orleans and Atlanta, fans dared to dream of playoffs.
Then the Bucs went to London and never came back. The ten game collapse, punctuated by the undeniable lack of effort by the players down the stretch led to Tampa Bay dismissing head coach Raheem Morris and his entire coaching staff - right down to the strength and conditioning. Rumor has it the ballboys were put on notice.
It was a first step in the complete overhaul of a franchise that seemed to have such a bright future just one season ago.
Can the Bucs get their rebuild back on track or will Bucs fans be in for more of the same in 2012?
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The Buccaneers begin to remake their image by hiring a new head coach to replace Morris. He had to be something completely different than the previous coach. After all, the NFL has always been reactionary. If one coach's approach fails miserably, you go in the complete opposite direction with the next coach.
Rutgers Head Coach Greg Schiano was the polar opposite of the previous head coach. While Morris hung out wit the players, Schiano believes in a hierarchy. Morris believed you should treat NFL players like men and that they wouldn't have reached this level if they didn't have the fundamentals down. Schiano believes in drilling the fundamentals - being detailed right down to the very minute element.
It was a dramatic culture shock for the Buccaneers and Schiano made no mistake about establishing "The Buccaneer Way". It was the epitome of "my way or the highway", as Kellen Winslow, Jr and Tanard Jackson quickly discovered.
Schiano filled out his staff with a mixture of college, CFL and NFL coaches. Mike Sullivan, the QB coach who guided Eli Manning to some of his best years as a quarterback, was named offensive coordinator and is expected to bring a run first attack reminiscent of the Giants' offenses. Defensively, the Bucs went back to history of the Giants, tabbing former Giants DC Bill Sheridan to be the defensive coordinator. Schiano, of course, has a defensive background and is expected to keep his fingers in the defensive pie.
In addition to the coordinators, the Bucs also added former Browns, Miami Hurricanes and North Carolina Head Coach Butch Davis as a "special consultant to the Head Coach". Davis' job is shrouded in mystery but it's believed that he will by Schiano's eyes on the current roster. He will do the internal scouting to see if there are tendencies that the team is exhibiting or if they're players simply not pulling their weight.
While structure was certainly needed in Tampa Bay, an infusion of talent was also required.
After years of muddling around in the kiddie pool of Free Agency, the Bucs dove head first into the deep end becoming this season's "Free Agency Champions". Tampa Bay added Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson, All-Pro guard Carl Nicks and CB Eric Wright to big money free agent contracts. After the frenzy of free agency died down, they picked up veteran Pro Bowl TE Dallas Clark to replace Winslow and former first round draft pick Amobi Okoye to bolster the depth at DT.
In the draft, the Bucs continued to add talent, drafting Alabama SS Mark Barron and Running Back Doug Martin in the first round, then added Lavonte David in the 2nd round to upgrade the linebacking core.
Each youngster is expected to contribute heavily in 2012.
Josh Freeman returns and from appearances, looks to be prepared to put his dismal 2011 season behind him. With Josh Johnson leaving in free agency, the Bucs brought in veteran Dan Orlovsky to man the backup role.
The 2012 season will go as far as Freeman can take it. If he can regain his 2010 form, where he was a Pro Bowl alternate, the Bucs hopes to have a quick rebound from the disastrous season.
If he continues to struggle, the whispers in fandom about his ability to be the team's franchise quarterback will begin to get much louder.
LeGarrette Blount remains but he's no longer the Bucs' sole weapon in the backfield. Tampa Bay added Boise State running back Doug Martin in the first round - a dual threat weapon in the mold of a former Schiano running back named Ray Rice.
Late in the draft, the Bucs' running back corps got an infusion of speed with the addition of the lightning fast Michael Smith.
Moises Madu also remains in the mix and don't discount the former practice squad player's chances. Madu showed some promise late in the season and has flashed during OTA's.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
No one can argue that Mike Williams struggled at being "the man". Now he won't have to worry about it as the man will be Pro Bowl WR Vincent Jackson, who comes over from the San Diego Chargers to provide Josh Freeman with a top flight weapon. Jackson's impact will be felt throughout the lineup.
Not only does he fulfill the nouveau sports cliche of "blowing the top of the defense", Jackson allows everyone else to be slotted properly. Williams can go to his more comfortable role at number two. Preston Parker and Regus Benn can battle for the third spot while the loser would likely take the fourth spot.
Sammie Stroughter and Dezmon Briscoe will duke it out for the fifth wideout spot. Briscoe did not endear himself to Schiano during OTAs by missing time due to...personal issues.
At tight end, the Bucs added former Pro Bowl TE Dallas Clark. Injuries have robbed Clark of some of the talent that saw him and QB Peyton Manning terrorize opposing defenses - but he should still be serviceable and be the mentor for young Bucs TE Luke Stocker that Winslow never was.
By far the strongest unit on the football team boasting three players who have played in the Pro Bowl, the Bucs have one of the most dynamic offensive lines in the league. The addition of former Saint All-Pro Carl Nicks should pave the way for the Bucs new dedication to the ground attack. Jeremy Zuttah slides to center to replace the aging Jeff Faine, giving the Bucs a little more flexibility at the position. Former Pro Bowler Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood return at the tackles while Pro Bowler Davin Joseph mans the other guard position.
Add the architect of Wisconsin's dominating offensive line, Bob Bostad, as the coach of this group and if they can stay healthy, there's no reason not to believe this unit can become the most dominating in the NFL.
While offensively, there are many good vibes for the Buccaneers, it all ends when you turn attention to the defensive side of the ball. The Bucs defensive line has already suffered a major injury, losing DaQuan Bowers during off-season workouts to an Achilles injury.
It's the story for the Bucs d-line - as so many times we've seen this unit fail to reach their potential due to the injury bug.
Its a big season for both Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. Neither have lived up to their high draft billing due to multiple injuries. Price also has been dealing with the loss of his sister, a devastating blow that has led to bouts of depression and anger (some of which was reportedly taken out on Bucs first round pick Mark Barron).
Perhaps the weakest unit of the football team, the much maligned linebacking core was due an upgrade. Enter Lavonte David, the 2nd round draft pick from Nebraska. David is a little undersized for the outside linebacker position, but his speed, technique and football instincts were solid enough for the Bucs to take a chance on him.
Tampa Bay needs technique after their LB core led the league in missed tackles. Quincy Black remains at the other OLB position while Mason Foster will enter his second year at MLB. Reviews were mixed on Foster, who led the Bucs in tackles but was lost a lot of 2011. Some put the collapse of the Bucs defense on the rookie MLB's shoulders for not getting his team in the right formation.
This will be Foster's first opportunity at a full off-season and training camp. With a year of experience under his belt, the Bucs hope that he will become the player they expected when they selected him in the third round of the 2011 draft.
Many questioned the big money given to free agent cornerback Eric Wright when the Bucs signed him this off-season. It looked like a major bust when Wright struggled with an undisclosed personal illness that appeared to be severe and then was arrested for drunk driving (charges were dropped).
Wright's first impressions haven't been great, but the Bucs are counting on him to bolster the CB group that severely underperformed in 2011. With Veteran Pro Bowler Ronde Barber making a move to Free Safety, Wright is expected to challenge for his number two corner spot. Aquib Talib will be the number one. Talib escaped his own legal issues when charges stemming from a weapons charge in 2011 were dropped. While discipline could still come down from the league office on both Talib and Wright - neither are expected to be suspended.
EJ Biggers returns after a very disappointing season to man the 3rd corner slot. 2010 3rd round pick Myron Lewis may be in a battle for his NFL career with youngsters Keith Tandy, Leonard Johnson and Anthony Gaitor.
At Safety, Barber does come over to provide some leadership in the backfield. Hard hitting SS and 2012 First Round pick Mark Barron is expected to immediately improve the Bucs run defense and make receivers fear the Bucs secondary once again.
While there will be your normal training camp legs, no one will be replacing the highly invested specialists of punter Michael Koenen and kicker Connor Barth. Both were bright spots in an otherwise dismal 2011 season and Barth was rewarded for his tremendous season of making 26 of 28 field goals with a long of 55 with a big money contract.
Training Camp Battles
Starting Running Back - The reviews have come in on LeGarrette Blount's first two seasons and they aren't pretty. While Blount certainly has had is moments, his ability to hold on to the football, learn to pass protect and catch the ball out of the backfield remain in question. So is his work ethic, which has certainly been questioned in recent weeks.
Doug Martin has shown in OTA's why the Bucs drafted him, but you can only see so much in shorts.
Third Wide Receiver - Who will be on the field when the Bucs go Three Wide? It's an interesting question. While Regus Benn's speed and big play ability seem to demand his presence on the field, he's been inconsistent - at times disappearing in the Bucs' offense. Meanwhile Preston Parker has become the Bucs' Mister Reliable, making several big catches to sustain drives last season.
Benn's 2010 2nd round status could give him the edge - but remember this - Schiano didn't draft him. He has no loyalty to Benn, so if Regus can't become the player the Bucs hoped they were getting he may find himself not only battling for number three - but a role on the roster.
Nickel Corner - Like so many Buccaneers, EJ Biggers had a sub par 2011 season. With Ronde moving to safety (although he may slide to corner in certain situations), Biggers has the opportunity to expand his role with the team as the nickel corner. It won't be easy, though. Young players Myron Lewis, Leonard Johnson, Keith Tandy and Anthony Gaitor - Biggers will have his work cut out for him.
Diamonds in the Rough (Unknown Guys to look out for in Training Camp)
Moises Madu, Running Back - We mentioned Madu in our positional review. He's been turning a lot of heads during OTAs and bears watching. While his stats last season won't blow anyone away, he did have some nice moves and displayed some vision while showing a capability of being a third down back.
Michael Smith, Running Back - While Madu has been impressive, so has 7th round draft pick Michael Smith. Smith has what no one the other backs on the roster possesses - blazing speed. While Martin and Madu both have wheels, Smith is a threat in the open field. Get him in space and you'll see scorch marks on the field. Smith is about 20 lbs lighter than similarly heighted 5'9" Doug Martin, so he can't take the pounding as an every down back - but he can certainly add something to the running attack and return game.
Tiquan Underwood, Wide Receiver - Former Rutgers star Tiquan Underwood has made more waves in the NFL for his hair than his play but he gives the Bucs receiving core something that perhaps only Vincent Jackson and Regus Benn can provide - speed. His familiarity with the Schiano way could be an asset and allow him to steal a spot otherwise earmarked for one of the incumbent receivers.
Leonard Johnson, Cornerback - The rookie QB from Iowa State has surprised many during OTA's with his skill. A Clearwater native, Johnson showed his ability to Greg Schiano first hand at the Pinstripe Bowl when he shutdown Rutgers All-American Wide Receiver Mohamed Sanu (who was drafted by the Bengals in the third round). If Johnson can have a good camp, he may play himself onto the 53 and perhaps even a bigger role on defense.
The NFL Schedule makers gave the Bucs a tough slate to open up the Greg Schiano era. Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers will be the home opener at Raymond James Stadium. The Bucs will then take back-to-back trips in the NFC East at powers Dallas and the Super Bowl Champion New York Giants. The Bucs will wrap up September with a home date against RG III and the Redskins before getting their bye week in week 5.
The Bucs bounce out of the bye with home games against Kansas City and Saints, hit the road to Minnesota (for Monday Night Football) and Oakland then alternate home and away games for the rest of the season (Home against San Diego, at Carolina, home against Atlanta, at Denver, home against Philadelphia, at New Orleans).
Tampa Bay wraps up their home schedule against the Rams before rounding off the regular season in Atlanta for the second consecutive season.
While the defense may ultimately be the Buccaneers downfall in 2012, the new focus on discipline and accountability should finally maximize the talent on the roster. Tampa Bay certainly has the makings of an explosive offense if the defense can get it enough swings at the plate.
The focus on the running game will be an added benefit for quarterback Josh Freeman and will work hand-in-hand at protecting Tampa Bay's suspect defense. If Freeman can return to his 2010 form, the Bucs have a good shot at turning around quickly.
Needless to say, with the additional weapons on both sides of the ball and the new leadership instilled by the coaching staff - the Buccaneers will be significantly better in 2012.
How much remains to be seen but this is a team that won 10 games in 2010 without the talent that this roster has.
It's not hard to see a dramatic turn around - and we've certainly seen many worst-to-first type stories in this crazy division that is the NFC South.
With the Saints reeling from Bountygate and the Panthers equally suspect on defense (not to mention the inevitable return to Earth for Cam Newton), Tampa Bay and Atlanta have a unique opportunity to seize a solid footing in the NFC South.
Early Prediction: 9-7, 2nd in the NFC South