It's been a crazy last few days so sorry for the absence. Collin and Matt have been providing excellent coverage of the Combine so you probably haven't noticed anyway. This is the last non-playoff team of the series, although the Bucs were definitely playoff caliber.
After a few rough seasons, the future of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is as bright as the Florida sun.
The rebuilding process that started about 5 years back has been the most complete and impressive turnaround in the NFL.
Much of the draft success of this past year can be attributed to Mark Dominik, however the process started long before under former GM Bruce Allen. For years Tampa Bay survived on bringing in aging but proven veterans to plug holes as immediate 1-2 year fixes. It worked for a while, but slowly Tampa Bay found itself with a scarcity of young talent.
After a disappointing 2008 season in which the Bucs lost their last 4 games to miss the playoffs, Tampa Bay ushered in a new era and new direction releasing veterans and fan favorites Derrick Brooks, Warrick Dunn, Joey Galloway, Ike Hillard, Jeff Garcia and former Colt Cato June. Even coach Jon Gruden - who had just signed a contract extension the year prior - was let go as coach, replaced by Raheem Morris.
With a first year head coach, Byron Leftwhich at Quarterback, Derrick Ward at running back, and nobody to speak of at receiver, the offense was abysmal and the Bucs sputtered to an 0-7 start. Kansas State rookie Josh Freeman came to the rescue yet a 3-13 finish was Tampa Bay's worst season since their woeful 1991 campaign.
Enter Josh Freeman (for a full year), Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blunt.
What a difference a year can make. After being the laughing stock of the NFC, Tampa Bay roared back into contention with arguably the youngest most exciting trio in the NFL.
With the support and confidence of Raheem Morris, the Bucs shocked the NFL with one of more spectacular turnarounds in NFL memory. Not only did Tampa pull off a seven game turnaround, they did it with a second year quarterback, a rookie running back and a first year wide receiver who nearly propelled the Bucs to the promised land.
Season in Review: 2 of the most impressive rookies on 1 team
Ram's QB Sam Bradford was certainly impressive. He won rookie of the year though he was honored largely because of the difficulty of the position and the demands placed on him as the focus of the offense. Statistically, Mike Williams numbers were equally - if not more - striking. A 4th round from pick from Syracuse, Williams had 65 catches for 964 yards and 11 scores. In fact, Williams' 11 touchdowns are a Bucs' franchise record and only trail Randy Moss' 17 touchdown campaign in terms of rookie WR production in the past 12 years plus.
The crazy part, and if you are a Tampa fan - something that greatly excites you, is that Williams wasn't even the best offensive rookie on the team the second half of the year. That honor belonged to the former Oregon Duck LeGarrette Blount who rushed for 997 yards the last 9 weeks of the season. After accumulating only 30 yards through the first 7 games, Blount made the most of his opportunities to finish with over 1000 yards rushing and 6 touchdowns.
Along with the rookie duo, quarterback Josh Freeman quarterbacked the drastic turnaround. At 5-2 Raheem Morris proclaimed the Bucs to be "the best team in the NFC." At 7-3 the Bucs were looking like it. A 3-3 close however left them on the outside looking in, unable to backup and prove the proclamations of their head coach.
Buccaneer fans must be thrilled with the progress the team made, but this season was a season devoid of any marquee quality wins. That going forward will be the next and hardest step.
Offseason Momentum: Hottest team in the league
The momentum is off the charts. In terms of pure energy surrounding the team, no team is hotter or more ready to rock and roll next season. Raheem Morris is a great coach with superb young talent. To highlight that, Morris was the first coach since the 1970 merger to achieve a winning record with at least 10 regular rookie starters.
A strong young head coach, one of the brightest young quarterbacks, a rookie running back and rookie receiver who just exploded onto the scene and a defense loaded with talent, make Bucs fans giddy.
Can the season start soon enough???? Please? Now? Tomorrow?
The best news for Tampa Bay is that they have the draft to add even further talent.
Too bad they play in the NFC South.
Offseason Anxiety: Tampa Bay plays in the NFC South
Not to put a damper on the Bucs fans excitement, but the one knock on their season was their lack of distinguishing wins. Besides beating a Saints team that was already in the playoffs, the Bucs next best win was against the Seahawks, who can hardly be considered a playoff team. The other Tampa Bay wins came over Carolina twice, Cincinnati, Arizona, San Francisco, Washington, St. Louis and Cleveland. How fortuitous. Talk about feasting on a weak schedule.
To compound the feeling that 10-6 might actually be an inflated record, was that they beat only 1 team with a winning record - the Saints, who as mentioned, were already looking ahead to the playoffs. The Bucs lost both games to division foe Atlanta, lost the game that mattered to the Saints, couldn't beat Baltimore at home and were blown out by Pittsburgh in Raymond James stadium as well.
The one bad loss that they suffered was an overtime heartbreaker vs. Detroit. Unfortunately it probably cost the Buccaneers a playoff spot, but looking back it was clear that the Bucs were not ready yet. They are still pretenders and until they can knock off Atlanta and New Orleans, they'll remain that way. Raheem Morris should know, to be the best you need to beat the best.
Draft Desires: A pass rush!!!!
For the love of God, the Bucs need a pass rush. The d-line occasionally got decent push but never had a premiere end who could take over and end a possession. Without that presence, the Bucs' defense could not get off the field and when you play in hot muggy Florida, that is a problem.
DE J.J Watt from Wisconsin or DE Ryan Kerrigan from Purdue would help solidify the end positions. Adrian Clayborn of Iowa has character issues so other teams may hesitate. Given that the Bucs pulled the trigger on Williams and Blunt, who have so far worked out beautifully, they may be willing to give Clayborn a chance as well.
Other concerns for the Bucs have to be adding depth on the offensive and defensive lines and looking for a backup to Ronde Barber if he ever retires.
Quick note on Ronde. Yes he is soooooo old, but he is also wildly underrated because he has spent his entire career with a small market franchise. The guy is one of the true gridiron warriors and one of the toughest and most durable players in the NFL. He hasn't missed a game since he became a full time starter in the NFL back in 1998 and was a key component of the Bucs championship run nearly a decade ago. Barber has 1062 tackles, 26 sacks, 40 picks and 7 touchdowns. Simply phenomenal. A definite future hall of famer, Ronde is the Peyton Manning of defense: smart, well spoken, universally respected, has played for 1 team his whole career, has a brother who played for the Giants, continually preforms at a high level and has never missed a start.
So yeah, good luck to his replacement. He only has size 212 shoes to fill.
Free agency farewells: A need to retain veterans
Because they are the youngest team in the league, their is a strong desire on the part of Bucs management to bring back key veterans if not for their production and talent, then their leadership and calming presence. A few players though played key roles on the field as well. Losing guys like Barret Ruud, Stylez White (Best name ever!!!!!) and Tim Crowder would hurt an already suspect defense. Ruud is the most critical of the three as he anchors the linebacking corps but all of them were starters. On the offense line Davin Joesph and Jeremy Trueblood (another odd but great name) were big parts of why Josh Freeman flourished and their return is crucial to his continued development.
Threat to the Stampede: High.
They are young and haven't beaten anybody good just yet, but Tampa is talented and raring to go.The Buccaneers were strong against the pass but struggled against the run finishing 28th in the league. I always like match-ups like that because that means that Addai can get going. It doesn't matter how good the pass defense is (unless it's San Diego) because Peyton can throw against anyone ( well except San Diego). Even still, the Bucs are laying the foundation to be the most talented group in the league. Are Williams, Blount, Freeman truly for real? Until they can put together back-to-back seasons and finally beat a good team, the Colts should be fine.