Friday, February 17, 2012

NFL Offseason Preview -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Welcome back, old Buccaneers!
Though the Super Bowl is over and games don’t begin until next fall, the NFL season never truly ends. In many ways, the “game” that goes on in between the games is just as important, if not more so, than what happens on the field. Here, in the offseason, is where the course of all 32 NFL franchises is determined. To highlight the importance of this period, and to take a peek at what each team is facing, I’ll be embarking on an ambitious series in which I briefly preview each team’s offseason. We’ll examine the major questions each team faces, what type of cap room they have, who they should be targeting in the draft, etc. My goal is to complete this prior to the start of free agency (March 13)…..which will likely not happen. Oh well.

We continue the previews with a team whose fan base is too apathetic to get angry over a 10 game losing streak, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. In case you missed them, here are links to each of our past previews:

Indianapolis Colts             St. Louis Rams                   Minnesota Vikings
Cleveland Browns                           

*Cap figures are taken from South Florida Sun-Sentinel.  Estimated cap is $124 million.*

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2011 Record:  4-12
PPG For:  17.9 (27th)
PPG Against:  30.9 (2nd)
2012 Cap Number:  $98,899,458
Draft Position:  #5 Overall Pick

If the Rams decline from 2010 to 2011 was steep, then what word should I use to describe Tampa Bay’s decline? Does the English language even contain a word strong enough to convey just how far the Bucs fell? I doubt it. Everything that went right in 2010; the emergence of young stars, the ability to come back late in games, an effective “bend but don’t break” defense; it all went wrong, practically overnight. The hope is that a change in coaches will spark a big rebound season from Josh Freeman and company, but there are clearly far bigger issues than just a struggling quarterback. A young team hitting a slump is one thing, but the way this team rolled over and died, even after a 4-2 start, has to be deeply, deeply concerning to all six Bucs fans. Was Raheem Morris the problem? Will Greg Schiano be able to light the fire that Morris was seemingly unable to do? I’m not so sure. Don’t get me wrong, Morris was bad. He wasn’t qualified to be a head coach to begin with, and it’s no surprise that he ran such a loose (pirate) ship. But for a group of players to quit on that level…well, that speaks to more than bad coaching.

The Good: 

Tough to find much good on this squad after what happened in 2011. Still, it’s impossible to discount the young talent on the roster. Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, and LeGarrette Blount have all shown an ability to perform well in the NFL. As troubling as their 2011 season was, it would be surprising if they didn’t bounce back in some way.  

The Bad:

Defense. Defense. Defense. Defense. Yes, that’s how bad Tampa Bay’s defense was. Actually, if I was really committed to this exercise, I’d type out “Defense” 30.9 times…one for each point per game they gave up. Seriously, how can a team go from allowing 19.9 PPG one year to 30.9 PPG the next? It’s not like Barrett Ruud is worth 11 PPG! Perhaps the most distressing aspect of this is the woeful underperformance of the defensive line, a unit they’ve invested in heavily during the last few offseasons. Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, Da’Quan Bowers, and Adrian Clayborn were all high round selections in the last two drafts, but the production simply hasn’t matched their lofty status. Tampa Bay finished dead last in sacks (23) and run defense (156.1 YPG), and second to last in rushing Y/A (5.0). Not going to win much that way!

Key Free Agents:  CB Ronde Barber, DE Michael Bennett, RB Earnest Graham, LB Geno Hayes, S Sean Jones, G Jeremy Zuttah

3 Key Questions:

#1 – Does Josh Freeman have an evil twin brother?

How much did Freeman regress in 2011?


That stellar 1.3% INT Ratio was good for 9th best in history, and his 95.9 QB Rating was sixth in the league – even higher than Peyton Manning! So to see his TD’s plummet, despite throwing nearly 100 more passes, and to see his INT’s balloon…well, it was shocking. So the question is, which is the real Josh Freeman? Is he the efficient end of game killer that he appeared to be in 2010, or is the inept turnover machine that he was this past season? As is usually the case, the answer likely lies somewhere in between. To be fair, the shaky defense and the struggles of both his line and his receivers certainly did not help things. But while pinning the entire season on him isn’t just, giving him a pass isn’t either. Entering year four of his career, it could be make-or-break time for Freeman.

#2 – Is Mike Williams the next Michael Clayton?

You remember Michael Clayton, don’t you? No, not the droning borefest that George Clooney starred in! The former Tampa Bay receiver that looked like a world beater in his rookie season, only to fall off the face of the earth. The Bucs invested the 15th pick of the ’04 draft on Clayton, and his 80 catch 1193 yard performance in Year 1 earned him all kinds of hype as “the next great WR.” Certainly, the Bucs thought they had nailed a gem. Clayton would follow up his stellar rookie campaign with a whopping 32 catches. Sounds eerily familiar, eh Bucs fans? While Mike Williams certainly didn’t fall off the map in Year 2 like Clayton did (Williams still had 65 catches for 771 yards), his sharp decline in production is concerning. He averaged nearly 3 full yards per catch less, posted zero 100 yard games, and found the end zone 8 fewer times. By the last four games of the season, Williams was all but invisible. Some of the decline obviously goes on Freeman…then again, maybe it works the other way around. Either way, the Bucs need Williams to take steps forward, not back, if they’re to get this thing back on track.

#3 – How do they get production from the defensive line?  

As I mentioned before, the Bucs have invested heavily in this group. Gerald McCoy was the #3 pick in 2010, Brian Price was their second rounder in 2010, Adrian Clayborn was the #20 pick last year, and Da’Quan Bowers was their second rounder last year. That’s an awful lot of high picks for 23 sacks and 5.0 YPC! Another year of development will, theoretically, help them out, but it’s fair to wonder whether some (or all) of these picks were wasted. McCoy, in particular, is a troubling case. His stock was so incredibly high on draft day that some people questioned whether he should be taken over Ndamukong Suh. Yet here we are, two years later, and McCoy is unable to stay on the field (13 missed games) and is otherwise unproductive when on it. Perhaps the coaching change will do this group some good. Schiano is known as a no-nonsense tough guy, and the swift kick in the butt is likely what they need. No matter how it’s accomplished, the front four must, MUST, be better.

Draft Thoughts: 

Seems to me that, given their position in the draft, Tampa Bay is the ugly girl with no prom date. While the three teams above them stand to profit from the Robert Griffin feeding frenzy, or else land franchise players at major need positions, the Bucs could wind up in that awkward position where value and need simply are not a match. If the Browns and Vikings swap picks, and Morris Claiborne is selected at #4, then there is some real question as to where the Bucs turn. Trent Richardson is probably the BPA, but the overwhelming need for defensive talent, along with the fact that they already have a pretty good RB, makes his selection an iffy one at best. Quinton Coples is easily the best defensive line prospect, but would Tampa Bay really want to invest yet another high pick on a defensive lineman after using first and second round selections in back-to-back years on them? That just seems unlikely.

Now, to be clear, if Morris Claiborne is available, he has to be the pick. No question. The Aqib Talib situation is dicey, and the pass defense is bad. If you’re giving up over 30 PPG, there’s no way you can pass up on a pure cover corner like Claiborne. However, if he’s gone, they’re going to have to choose between A.) find a trade partner to get enough value for the pick, B.) take Richardson and split carries between he and Blount, C.) take Coples and cut losses with Bowers, or D.) reach for a guy who fits a need. I hate the idea of taking Richardson when you already have a good RB, so let’s rule that out. Taking Coples isn’t a bad option, but I think the upside of Bowers is good enough to not give up on him after just one year. Trading back a few spots would be ideal, but finding a trade partner would be tough. In my opinion, Courtney Upshaw and Luke Kuechly  should be the two main guys on Tampa’s radar. They badly need some playmakers at LB, and both are extremely high ceiling players at their respective positions. To get them, Tampa Bay would need to drop back no further than #13 or #14…and even that is probably too far. Cincinnati at #17 is the first match for Richardson, so there doesn’t appear to be a fit there. However, both Carolina at #8 and Miami at #9 could be interested in Coples, so that seems the route to pursue. If Tampa Bay can get some assets to drop back to one of those slots, while still adding Upshaw or Kuechly, then they will have done good work.  

Summary Thoughts:

It seems unlikely that Tampa Bay will repeat their dismal 2011 performance. The Freeman/Blount/Williams trio has too much talent to stay unproductive, and the same can be said for the defensive line. Still, it would be a mistake for management to rest easy on that thought. The Bucs have a potential opportunity in the draft if things fall right, and they a ton of money to play with in free agency. That’s not to say they should pull an “Eagles” and try to sign anybody and everybody with a recognizable name, but it would be a shame to not give Greg Schiano and the young core a fighting chance in the division. And speaking of the division, that very well could be the most difficult thing for them to overcome. New Orleans and Atlanta should be as strong as ever, and Carolina is an emerging force. No matter what moves they make, I don’t expect them to emerge from this group as a playoff team. And really, that’s OK. The 2012 season will not be marked only by wins and losses, but by Josh Freeman’s progress, the development of young players, and the overall toughness/competitiveness of the team. If they can make strides in those areas, 6-8 wins is not out of the question. After what happened last year, Bucs fans would have to call that a success.

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