Ever since winning the Super Bowl in 2003, then-head coach Jon Gruden has struggled to field quality teams, going one and done in the playoffs twice in six seasons. Releasing him of his coaching obligations this offseason, the franchise quickly promoted Raheem Morris from position coach to head coach. A young, energetic, personable coach, Morris is younger than some of his players. Coaching a relatively young team, Morris has been running a pads-only training camp. He’s called out DE Gaines Adams (calling this year a make or break year), TE Kellen Winslow (his emotional ups and downs) and LT Donald Penn (not being in shape). Philosophically, he’s rather old-school, preferring to beat you up with the run while taking opportunistic shots down-field. Along with a new coach comes new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski and new defensive coordinator Jim Bates, who are installing new schemes or altering those from last year. Jagodzinski, coming off a two-year stint as head coach of Boston College, is aggressive, often splitting out three-, four- and even five-wide and featuring deep passes. Bates is similar to the departed Monte Kiffin, but leans on the blitz even more.
The turnover up top mirrors the turnover of the roster. Veterans LB Derrick Brooks, RB Warrick Dunn, QB Jeff Garcia, WR Joey Galloway, DL Kevin Carter, LB Cato June and WR Ike Hilliard are all no longer with the team. The Buccaneers were particularly active in free agency, trading for TE Kellen Winslow while signing RB Derrick Ward, QB Byron Leftwich and LB Angelo Crowell.
QB: Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich, Josh Freeman, Josh Johnson
RB: Earnest Graham, Derrick Ward, Carnell “Cadillac” Williams
WR: Antonio Bryant, Michael Clayton, Maurice Stovall, Brian Clark, Dexter Jackson, Sammie Stroughter
TE: Kellen Winslow, Kellen Winslow, Kellen Winslow, Jerramy Stevens
PK: Matt Bryant
Quarterback: There’s a saying, “If you have two QBs, then you have none.” So, what if you have three? With Jeff Garcia no longer with the team, Luke McCown is the top tosser. He hasn’t started a regular-season game since 2007, when he started three, but he’s been named the starter for the first preseason game. The fact he “racked up” mediocre stats against below-average defenses doesn’t speak well for his 2009 performance.
After considering offers from a number of teams, Byron Leftwich joined the Bucs. Rumor at the time was that he wanted to join a team he could truly compete for the starting job. One of the more succinct comments I’ve read about Leftwich’s game compared him to a catapult — he can fling it far, but takes time to uncork it. A young offensive line could well give him time. Besides possessing a rocket arm, Leftwich is a great glue guy. Commonly considered Jacksonville’s franchise QB during the early part of his career, he was unceremoniously dumped by the Jaguars a few days before the 2007 season. A forgettable season with Atlanta followed, where he struggled to learn the playbook after he went from the street to the starting lineup in weeks. Last season, rather than behaving childishly when he wasn’t given a starting spot he thought he deserved, like how Daunte Culpepper acted, he signed with Pittsburgh. His performance as he covered for Ben Roethlisberger earned him praise around the league. At Marshall University, he was injured while leading his team down the field for a potential game-winning drive. Unable to walk to the line of scrimmage, his linemen carried him. These stories are reinforced by reports the offense has rallied behind his leadership. While still competing for the starting QB spot, his greater proficiency in turning drives into TDs undoubtedly gives him an advantage.
In the 2009 draft, the Bucs traded up in the first round to get Josh Freeman. A 6′6″ QB with a strong arm, he would a true junior and was projected to need at least a year on the sidelines. GM Mark Dominick has said, “The ultimate goal is to let Josh Freeman sit back and learn. He’s a 21-year-old quarterback who came out as a true junior. You’d like for him to grow and mature into his role and not be forced into it.” Freeman still hasn’t even practiced with the starters and has been outright excluded from full-speed drills. Freeman has one thing in his favor to be starting sooner than later: McCown and Leftwich were both “underwhelming” at OTAs. McCown has struggled with Jagodzinski’s offense, while Leftwich is very unathletic. Finally, recent reports have indicated Freeman may still have a chance at starting, even in Week 1, according to coach Morris.
As an aside, Josh Johnson was drafted by the previous regime to eventually succeed Garcia. He hasn’t had a chance yet to prove he can be successful, or even prove he’s a fourth string QB in the NFL.
Running Back: Earnest Graham is a power back and the incumbent. The team’s leading rusher last year with nearly 1,000 yards rushing and 10 rushing TDs, he ended last season with another injury. Graham was recently listed as the first-team tailback on the Bucs’ first depth chart of the preseason, ahead of Ward. However, Graham has ended the last two seasons on the injured list, so the Bucs threw a lot of cheddar at Derrick Ward. A scatback type runner, he’s a good complement to Graham’s power and can well take advantage of Tampa Bay’s young offensive line. As a Giant, Ward racked up 1,025 yard rushing as part of three-head running game that featured Brandon Jacobs. As the primary back, running behind an equally talented offensive line, some imagine Ward as a fantasy RB2. There has even been talk of playing Graham at FB, so both he and Ward, two of their better players, can share the field.
Carnell Williams has suffered serious injuries two years running. He has come back far quicker from the most recent surgery and talk has cooled of him starting the year on the PUP list. Alternately, others say he may not even make the roster.
Wide Receiver: Antonio Bryant is without a doubt the team’s most-talented wideout. A reclamation project of the previous regime, Bryant turned in a career year last season: 1,248 yards, 7 TDs. It appears his head has caught up with his always-evident talent. Unfortunately, he’s suffered a torn meniscus during training camp and will be out 3-4 weeks. He’ll reportedly have his knee procedure “shortly.”
Behind him, the Bucs have little at WR. The next best is likely Michael Clayton, who the team gave a 5-year, $24 million extension earlier this year. Aside from his impressive rookie season (1,193 yards receiving), Clayton has done nothing of note. His excellent blocking helps keep him on the field. With Clayton battling hamstring woes and Bryant out, Stovall and Clark have been getting first-team reps. Stovall in recent years has managed to combine constant, low-level hype with repeated injuries. Entering his fifth year, and third with the Buccaneers, Clark has yet to start a game in the NFL.
Acknowledging their issues of quality depth at WR, Tampa Bay last year drafted Dexter Jackson from Appalacian State. A quick, elusive open-field runner similar to the departed Joey Galloway in his prime, he struggled last year both at WR and as a returner. The Buccaneers consequently drafted Sammie Stroughter in the ‘09 draft. His scouting report sounds like a copy of Jackson’s, down to the small school.
Tight End: The Bucs’ wideout spot is a great place to search for a sleeper. Given the issues their WRs have had, though, TE Kellen Winslow is their second-best receiving option. Acquired from Cleveland after a public spate over staph infection and ultimately loyalty, Winslow is repeatedly stressed in reports as a featured weapon for Jagodzinski’s vertical offense. Recent reports have confirmed they will shift him into the slot and out wide. While he likely will be targeted heavily, the lack of other pass-catching options could help defenses focus on him. Jerramy Stevens, a far-inferior receiving TE, is also occasionally reported as potentially benefiting from the team’s offensive scheme and lack of quality personnel at WR.
Team Defense/IDP: Then-defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin moved on to the greener pastures of college. Eventually, Jim Bates assumed the role. Bates will run a similar scheme to last year’s 4-3, but he’s much more inclined to blitz and will often bring pressure with the linebackers.
With a slew of veterans no longer with the team, the change in post-snap scheme isn’t the only change the defense is facing. With Derrick Brooks gone, LB Barrett Ruud will assume the leadership role. He’ll work with ends Adams and White to amp up the pressure. A 2007 rookie who’s sacks dropped to 6.5 last year, Adams has been called the linchpin to the defense’s revitalized, aggressive scheme. Given this shift in focus, the opportunity is there for more playing time for White, as he was second on the team in sacks as a part-time player.
Adams’ performance partly fell off as teams ran right through the defensive line. Pursuing a lucrative contract as an upcoming free agent, DT Jovan Haye recklessly rushed into the offensive backfield last year, exposing an aging LB corp to strikes up the center of the line. Hovan and DT Ryan Sims, replacing the departed Haye, will work within the scheme to shore up the middle of the line. Neither is a real playmaker, but both are more steady and will free up others. With LBs Brooks and June gone, the Bucs will attempt to compensate by shifting Jermaine Phillips, last year’s in-the-box safety, to weak-side ‘backer. FA signee Angelo Crowell and backup Geno Hayes are in a battle for the strongside job. Crowell comes off an injury/surgery double-whammy that knocked him out all last season. Should the Phillips transition or Crowell signing not work, Geno Hayes, Quincy Back and Adam Hayward could be moved in. Expect a fluid situation at LB. Depending on which position he ends up at, and what your league’s website lists him as, Phillips could be like Marques Colston in his rookie year — a mis-categorized player who potentially provides a competitive advantage.
Much attention has been paid to the defensive line of scrimmage, but shifting one of their better DBs permanently into the box and aging from a DB stalwart exposes a weakened secondary. Tanard Jackson is a mainstay at safety, a hard worker who can diagnose plays quickly and rack up the interceptions despite lacking ideal speed. Recent drafting success has netted Phillips, Jackson, Aqib Talib and Sabby Piscitelli. Shifting Phillips into the box forces them to make Piscitelli a starter. Whether he will be one halfway through the season, never mind in Week 16, is an open question. At corner, Talib and Barber are a good tandem. Talib is young and savvy. Barber, a 12-year Buc, has lost much of his speed and reaction time. The two things likely keeping Barber in the starting lineup is the lack of depth behind him and the fact that his former position coach is now his head coach. Morris has called the new defensive scheme an opportunity for Barber.
A focus on the defensive line eases concerns about the lack of sacks and teams racking up yardage up the middle. But, Barber’s age, Piscitelli’s questions and Tampa Bay’s lack of depth among the defensive backs potentially exposes the Tampa Bay team defense to strong passing attacks; on the schedule is New Orleans and Atlanta twice, Philly, New England and Green Bay.
A young, strong offensive line, with talented complementary RBs, gives the team a solid base to pound the rock and keep a vulnerable defense on the sideline. A vertical passing game can (theoretically) take advantage of defensive focus on the line. However, even if their best two pass-catchers, both current or recent headcases, perform to expectations, the lack of quality alternatives and turmoil at QB will severely limit the passing game’s potency. A top-five draft pick in 2010 is not out of the question.
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