Since the end of the Jon Gruden era in Tampa Bay, the Buccaneers have made it a priority to inject youth into the team. It started with promoting 32 year-old Raheem Morris to head coach in 2009. In all three of his seasons at the helm Tampa Bay had the youngest team in the NFL. In fact, during the surprise 10 win season in 2010 he was the first coach since the merger to start 10 rookies and still have a winning record.
Gone are the stables of a proud organization that rose from the woeful creamsicle early days to 2002 Super Bowl glory.
Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Cato June and Mike Alstott among countless others are gone to be replaced by youngsters such as: Josh Freeman, Mike Williams, Adrian Clayborn, LeGarrette Blount, Mark Barron and Mason Foster. This team has loads of potential as evidenced by a great 2010, but they cracked under the pressure of expectation a season ago.
A 4-2 start was quickly washed away with 10 straight losses that stunted any momentum this team had. This prompted a usually financially stingy front office to open up the checkbook and bring in some proven talent. Cue Pro Bowlers Vincent Jackson, Dallas Clark, Carl Nicks and proven NFL starter Eric Wright. Clark, 33, is a proven winner and will be a nice safety option for Freeman. Jackson, 29, comes in to take pressure off of Williams and Arrelious Benn. Nicks, 27, is possibly the best guard in the NFL and he will look to anchor an already talented line. Wright, 27, was brought in to shore up the worst pass defense in the league a season ago.
However, for all these moves a lot of Tampa Bay’s success will hinge on the play of fourth year quarterback Josh Freeman. Still only 24, Freeman must find his form from 2010 where he threw 25 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions which was good for the 9th best ratio in NFL history. Mike Williams followed a sensational 2010 rookie season with quite the sophomore slump. However, with Jackson coming in as the No. 1 guy look for Williams to play a lot looser and make some big plays for this team. The same can be said for Benn who has yet to live up to his own hype. Rookie RB Doug Martin will look to push Blount for playing time, and he should provide a different look out of the back field with his pass catching abilities. Speaking of Blount, he dropped weight this off-season and looks to have the same hunger from his 1,000 yard rookie campaign.
The defense has a long way to go to match the great Tampa defenses of years past. The defensive line saw a good rookie season from DE Adrian Clayborn who recorded 7.5 sacks and forced 3 fumbles. If defensive tackle Gerald McCoy can stay healthy he has proven to be a valuable asset to the team. He has missed significant time in his first two seasons due to injury. The Bucs need a healthy McCoy for the defense to improve.
MLB Mason Foster, a third round pick in 2011, started every game in the middle of the defense and recorded a solid 84 tackles. However, his play also left a lot to be desired and he will be expected to take the next step this season. Rookie OLB Lavonte David from Nebraska has looked good during pre-season and will push guys like Quincy Black for playing time.
The secondary sees one of the vets, Ronde Barber moved to safety alongside No. 7 pick in this year’s draft Mark Barron. Barron has all the physical tools and he has settled in nicely during the pre-season. Wright has one CB spot locked up and the other is still up in the air.
This team is still one of the youngest teams in the league but now with almost no expectations and having some proven talent who know how to win things are looking up. Nonetheless, wherever this team goes from today, you can bet that it will be somewhere the youngsters want to go.