After a season Bucs fans would like to erase from their minds with bleach and a steel wool sponge, followed by an offseason coaching search that began to resemble the Culverhouse-Parcells fiasco, the one time champs are starting nearly from scratch. Gone are the Head Cheerleader and his staff. Left behind are a 4-12 football team with the league’s worst defense and a ton of question marks. One look at the roster and any knowledgeable football fan will surmise that the Bucs needs to improve at nearly every position on the field before they’ll be a serious contender.
Enter Greg Schiano and a unique coaching staff that is, at the present time, not fully assembled (lacking QB coach). Veteran coaches Butch Davis and Jimmy Raye will serve in what looks like advisory roles to a fairly NFL inexperienced staff. The ability to work as a cohesive unit is of far more importance than what any one individual has done in the past, so while this group’s grade is yet to be given, one can’t feel terribly confident knowing that some of these men were 4th, 5th, or worse choices on the Bucs’ coaching wish list.
Back to that roster. The first name you have to look at is Josh Freeman, the franchise QB who took quite the step backwards last season. I still think he’s the guy, but if some things I was hearing about a lack of off-field focus and commitment are true, then my opinion may change. Also factoring into Freeman’s flop of a season were a franchise lacking direction and a roster devoid of a single playmaker.
Let’s look at Freeman’s weapons. LeGarrette Blount is a big back who doesn’t run like one, can’t catch, and can’t block. Looking at the “depth” behind him can give one heartburn. Mike Williams regressed as well, catching 8 less TDs than he did in his rookie season. Dezmon Briscoe had some moments, but Arrelious Benn is still more question than answer at this point. Preston Parker and Sammie Stroughter are decent in the slot, but the Bucs have to do better here. Are the Bucs really any better with Kellen Winslow on the roster? I know there’s only a very questionable Luke Stocker behind him, but do the Bucs, and more importantly Josh Freeman, really need Kellen Winslow? The two have butted heads more than a few times and still lack the chemistry one would think would have developed by now.
These aren’t bad players, but none of them is a “the guy” type of player. Any competitive football team, especially in this increasingly pass-first league, must have impact players and game changing talent on the offensive side of the ball. I’ve bemoaned the lack of speed, explosiveness, and elusiveness on this roster for over a year, and that was terribly evident throughout the 2011 season.
The offensive line could use three new starters – LG, C, and RT. RG Davin Joseph is the most stable player on the line, and while LT Donald Penn’s focus and performance seems to be tied to the team’s record, he’s far from their biggest problem. I’ve always appreciated Jeff Faine’s leadership, but he’s too expensive and injury-prone. Look for Jeremy Zuttah, a former Schiano player, to assume a larger role this year. In broken record fashion, I’m fine with them replacing Faine with Zuttah. Pick up a quality LG and finally upgrade at RT, and this unit could make strides.
The defensive line has been the beneficiary of a lot of investing, but it’s a source of too many questions in my opinion. Rookie Adrian Clayborn tallied 7.5 sacks and is the only young guy I feel really comfortable with at this point. Da’Quan Bowers apparently made it through the year without further damaging his knee, but he was a non-factor. Michael Bennett was the second most productive end, and he’s a restricted free agent. Retaining him is a must. Inside at tackle, Gerald McCoy has yet to live up to his billing, and Brian Price is seemingly one bad hit from a lengthy/permanent absence. They could also use anchor upgrades over Roy Miller and Frank Okam.
Things aren’t any prettier at linebacker. Mason Foster looked horribly out of place at times last year in the middle, and I still think this is a better defense with him on the outside. Would it be at SLB or WLB? I’d like to put him at SLB and put someone with better instincts on the weak side. What shouldn’t take long to figure out is that the Bucs need to do better than Geno Hayes and Quincy Black on the outside. Hayes has seemingly peaked, and Black severely underperformed after receiving an asinine $29 million contract last offseason.
Saving the worst for last, the Bucs secondary is really rough shape. Despite receiving the Schiano seal of approval, Aqib Talib might spend next season in behind bars, and Ronde Barber is nothing more than a nickel at this point. If EJ Biggers accomplished anything last year it’s showing the Bucs that he can’t be counted on outside. Anthony Gaitor had a solid rookie year, but nickel looks to be his ceiling. Elbert Mack was one of the unit’s better players, but in that recurring theme, he’s a nickel and is also a likely-to-leave free agent. A show of hands for how many actually saw Myron Lewis on the field this year. At safety, Tanard Jackson fizzled down the stretch after his return from suspension, and Sean Jones doesn’t look like he has much left to offer. Behind them are a bunch of special teams players.
I’m in “prove it” mode as the Bucs enter free agency this year. They begin the new year with more cap space than any other team in the league, and according to Mark Dominik they saved cap space from last year in order to use it this year. We’ll see. Assuming they do get off their wallet, there’s not a position the field that couldn’t use attention.
With Josh Johnson almost certain to leave and likely to end up in San Francisco, the Bucs need a better backup than Rudy Carpenter.
My choice – Shaun Hill (Detroit)
Hill has the experience and has produced admirably in the past. He’s no threat to Freeman’s job, but they don’t fall off the face of the earth should Freeman go down. A far more likely choice though would be David Carr. The former #1 overall pick is a huge fan of new Bucs OC and former Giants QB coach Mike Sullivan from their time together in New York and just happens to be a free agent this offseason. I’d actually be surprised if the Bucs didn’t try to replace Johnson with Carr.
They don’t need a compliment to Blount. They need someone to turn Blount into a backup. I believe his proper role is that of Mike Alstott’s in the days where he was the late game, wear you out big back. Maybe Sullivan views Blount as his Brandon Jacobs. He won’t find his Ahmad Bradshaw on this roster though.
My choice – Michael Bush (Oakland)
There’s no conceivable way Baltimore lets Ray Rice walk, and Matt Forte isn’t leaving Chicago (yet). Marshawn Lynch sure looked good this year, but he’s been terribly inconsistent throughout his career. I don’t know that we’re that much better with Peyton Hillis, but he’d probably be my second choice in free agency. I have no interest in Cedric Benson, BenJarvus Green Ellis, and Kevin Smith, and we need to do better than Mike Tolbert. I think Bush is the best of a realistic free agent bunch as a guy who fits the ground and pound scheme and can play all three downs, but I’d still probably rather go the draft route than spend a lot of money on a veteran runner.
Williams, Benn, and Briscoe are better suited as #2 and #3 receivers, so Freeman really needs a true #1 target, something every top QB in the league has. Schiano also needs a legit field stretcher if he wants to be an offense led by a strong running game and the ability to work the ball deep. I expect them to sign at least one pass catcher out of what looks to be a decently deep free agent class.
My choices – Dwayne Bowe (Kansas City) and Robert Meachem (New Orleans)
I’ve always been a big Bowe fan. He’s a definite #1 guy and has been one of the league’s more productive receivers despite being on the receiving end of some bad throws from some shoddy passers during his career – Damon Huard, Brodie Croyle, Tyler Thigpen, Quinn Gray, Matt Cassel, and Tyler Palko. In Tampa, Bowe would be paired with the best QB in his career and be asked to do what he’s already proven he is – a #1 receiver. This wouldn’t be Alvin Harper revisited. If not Bowe, then I of course wouldn’t turn down Vincent Jackson. The veteran from San Diego is a better deep threat than Bowe, but I wonder how much more room for growth he’ll have moving from Philip Rivers to Josh Freeman. Again, I’d love to sign Jackson, but given the choice, I easily pick Bowe. Those are the only available true #1 receivers that interest me. (Update while writing – The Chiefs signed Stanford Routt, so it looks like they’ll let Carr walk and likely franchise Bowe. That would be a shame.)
To really make this a threatening group of receivers, the Bucs need that element of deep speed. Free agency presents several options. Like David Carr, Mario Manningham is Giant heading for free agency, and given the Bucs’ need for speed, it doesn’t take long to connect those dots. Pierre Garcon will likely sign for more than his inconsistency has proven him to be worth. The guy who stands out to me as the most attractive option is Robert Meachem. In Tampa, I wouldn’t him to be or do anything that he hasn’t been asked to do before. I’d just give him more opportunities to do what he does well – get deep. Another guy I’d like to see the Bucs go after s Harry Douglas from Atlanta. I hate to keep giving our division rivals recognition for their talent, but it is what it is. Douglas might price his way out of Atlanta and would give the Bucs some of that speed, quickness, and elusiveness that’s been missing offensively.
Again, there’s not much behind Winslow, but do you really lose the risk-reward battle by ridding yourself of him? They’ll need to add at least one player here this offseason, and I’d hate to spend another draft pick on one. Since 2009, the Bucs have spent 5 draft picks to the TE position (the two Winslow picks, Stocker and the 4th rounder this year they gave to Philly in order to deal up and get him, and Daniel Hardy). Nearly 2 draft picks per year allocated to the TE position. That’s damn ridiculous. Sill, it looks like they’ll have to go that route again because there’s not much in free agency.
My choice – Fred Davis (Washington)
He’s a risky pick up given his past league suspensions, but his talent is undeniable. When Fred Davis is on the field, he gives the defense something different to consider – a bigger guy with some agility. He’s a mismatch you have to scheme against and is someone I see really benefitting Freeman. Given the TE situation across the league, Washington would be foolish not to franchise Davis. If they don’t, the Bucs should pounce quickly. Jermichael Finley just re-upped with the Packers, so any slim chance of him ending up in Tampa is gone. John Carlson is a proven pass catcher, but he’s coming off a significant shoulder injury that shelved him for all of ’11. Martellus Bennett is still more potential than production after four years in the league, but if he finally got it together, he’d be a dangerous weapon. Joel Dreessen would be my second choice in free agency. He’s produced well in the passing game playing behind and in place of Owen Daniels. Visanthe Shiancoe would be a 4th or worse choice, but seeing as how we’ve already been there a time or two this offseason, Shiancoe may very well end up a Buc.
After handing Davin Joseph a 7 year $53 million contract last offseason, I have a hard time seeing them committing big time dollars to a lineman this offseason. While I’d still like to see them move on from Faine, I’m not counting on them looking for a replacement in free agency. Again, the Bucs could do better than Jeremy Trueblood at RT, but they’ve yet to make much of an effort to find that upgrade. How do you commit 5 picks in 3 years to TE but not find an improvement at RT???
My choices – Evan Mathis (G, Philadelphia) and Anthony Collins (T, Cincinnati)
Given the commitment to Joseph, I can’t see the Bucs bidding on Carl Nicks or Ben Grubbs, the guards likely to earn the largest deals for free agent linemen this offseason. Mathis proved to be a real force in the run game for Philly and would be an easy upgrade over Larsen at LG. Collins is still pretty young at 26 and would be an improvement over Trueblood at RT. I liked him coming out of Kansas and think he’s a guy with valuable swing tackle versatility.
I can’t see any serious money being spent in this area after the dollars and picks committed to Clayborn, McCoy, Price, and Bowers. Again, securing Bennett would be my first move in this area. Assuming these guys stay healthy, maybe they find some depth in free agency.
My choices – Mario Williams (DE, Houston) and Corey Redding (DE/DT, Baltimore)
If the Bucs want to spend some money, they could find a few worse players to give it to than Mario Williams. Rarely nowadays do you see one of the game’s premier talents hit free agency, but that looks like what’s going to happen with Williams. My commitment to Da’Quan Bowers wouldn’t preclude me from pursuing Williams, but with a team with as many holes as Tampa Bay has, I’m not holding my breath on them entering the Williams sweepstakes. I don’t see many attractive free agent tackles, but either Cory Redding or Red Bryant would be big wins for the run defense. Redding has experience in both a 4-3 and 3-4 and has been a big time contributor during his career.
Here’s another position that projects more than a few attractive options in free agency. Again, I think finding a true force at MLB has to be the #1 priority in this area, and depending on which outside spot Schiano wants to place Foster, the other will need attention. I’ll be shocked if the Bucs don’t pick up a veteran (huge huge need) in this fairly loaded MLB market.
My choices – Stephen Tulloch (Detroit) and Erin Henderson (MIN)
Both Tulloch and Henderson would be huge huge gains for the run defense. When Tulloch joined the Lions this year, he was arguably the most important player on their defense. He’d be quite the productive veteran presence behind a healthy, young defensive front. Henderson comes with great instincts and a proven track record; two things the Bucs are sorely lacking at WLB. Adding proven forces at MLB and WLB would allow Foster to better cut his teeth at SLB.
Fallback options at MLB include two division rival thefts in Curtis Lofton and Dan Connor and David Hawthorne from Seattle. Connor comes with a bit of intrigue, as I think he’d be a nice improvement in the middle at a cheaper price than some of the other alternatives.
The crop of free agent corners might be the deepest position of the offseason, and that’s a good thing considering the Bucs’ lack of talent there. Safety isn’t as plentiful, but that’s doesn’t erase Tampa Bay’s need. The Bucs could go any number of directions with this unit. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had as many as 4 new starters next year, but they’ll need at least 2.
My choices – Courtland Finnegan (CB, Tennessee) and Tyvon Branch (SS, Oakland)
Really, there are a few names that could top the corner list, but I went with Finnegan over Brandon Carr who just might be the most economical of the headliners. Line Finnegan up opposite Talib, and we’re a heck of a lot better than last year. Should Talib end up behind bars or on the waiver wire, I think Finnegan might be better suited to handle the load of primary corner better considering he’s been doing that for so long in Tennessee. Carr on the other hand has had a nice opposing boundary bookend in KC in Brandon Flowers. Finnegan is three years older than Carr for what that’s worth and may come with more “personality” than the Bucs are looking for at the moment. Brent Grimes would be a great addition for the Bucs and a huge loss for the Falcons, but he might land the biggest deal of this bunch. I mention Carlos Rogers because of his availability, but I prefer a younger and cheaper alternative. Considering Talib’s situation specifically, I think the Bucs need to be players for one of these top veteran corners and land someone who can really lock down opposing #1 threats.
Given their history, I can’t see the Bucs spending much on a free agent safety, but this is a wish list thing. Branch doesn’t offer a ton in pass defense, but he’s one of the league’s stronger run supporters from the position.
My current free agent wish list –
Dwayne Bowe (WR, Kansas City) / Vincent Jackson (WR, San Diego)
Courtland Finnegan (CB, Tennessee) / Brandon Carr (CB, Kansas City)
Stephen Tulloch (MLB, Detroit) / Dan Connor (MLB, Carolina)
Fred Davis (TE, Washington) / Joel Dreessen (TE, Houston)
Erin Henderson (WLB, Minnesota)
Evan Mathis (G, Philadelphia)
Robert Meachem (WR, New Orleans) / Harry Douglas (WR, Atlanta)
Terrell Thomas (CB, NY Giants) / Richard Marshall (CB, Arizona)
Shaun Hill (QB, Detroit) / David Carr (QB, NY Giants)
Tyvon Branch (SS, Oakland)
If the Bucs can land a few of those guys, that should narrow the focus of the #5 overall pick. There are lot of opinions as to which way the Bucs should go – ranging from the old school, build from the trenches logic that would point towards taking a tackle; getting a corner to slow the bleeding defensively; and drafting an offensive weapon to aid in Freeman’s development.
When I’m determining who to take at #5, I first have to take a look at what the Bucs do and don’t have going for them. What stands out more than anything to me is the nonexistence of a single impact player. Speed and big play ability is missing on offense, and there isn’t a dominant presence on defense. Looking at the talent hoping to be chosen early in the draft, here are the impact players as I see them:
Andrew Luck (QB, Stanford)
Robert Griffin III (QB, Baylor)
Matt Kalil (T, USC)
Trent Richardson (RB, Alabama)
Morris Claiborne (CB, LSU)
Justin Blackmon (WR, Oklahoma State)
Kendall Wright (WR, Baylor)
Quinton Coples (DE, UNC)
Courtney Upshaw (DE/OLB, Alabama)
Melvin Ingram (DE/OLB, South Carolina)
From that list, I’m guessing only 4 of them are on Tampa’s radar – Kalil, Richardson, Claiborne, and Blackmon. Working in the Bucs’ favor is the certainty that both Luck and RGIII will be drafted in the top 4 meaning at least two of the previously mentioned players will be there at #5. But which ones? Let’s look at who’s picking ahead of Tampa.
1) Indianapolis – They’re definitely taking a QB, and all indications so far are that it’s going to be Andrew Luck.
2) St. Louis – Sam Bradford again needs a #1 receiver with Brandon Lloyd likely to sign elsewhere. Tackle is a shaky situation with Rodger Saffold coming off a pectoral injury and former #2 overall pick Jason Smith flopping on the other side. They’re banged up lack talent in the secondary. I’ll be amazed if they actually pick at #2 overall, as whoever covets RGIII the most will likely be trading up with St. Louis to take him here. Consider Justin Blackmon, Matt Kalil, and Morris Claiborne targets.
3) Minnesota – The Vikings have needs similar to St. Louis with a strong lean to LT. Charlie Johnson must be replaced at LT, so it would make little to no sense for the Vikings to pass on Kalil here. I wouldn’t rule out Claiborne, but I’d consider Blackmon a longshot.
4) Cleveland – With Joe Thomas at LT, cross off Kalil should Minnesota not take him. In year’s past you might have been able to rule out them taking Claiborne given their commitment to Joe Haden, but the new rookie slotted salaries make that more of a possibility now. They need a #1 receiver, and given their treatment of Peyton Hillis, a starting running back as well. Biggest of all though is their need for a franchise QB. Colt McCoy isn’t going to be that guy, so if they have a chance to move up and get whoever Indy doesn’t take, they should do so. Having two first round picks is pretty good ammo for a move up to land RGIII.
So what’s going to happen?
I’m feeling pretty confident that Luck, RGIII, and Kalil are the first three picks in order, with either Cleveland or Washington being the team most likely swapping spots with St. Louis. So barring the Browns dealing down, either they or the Rams will pick at #4 with Blackmon, Richardson, and Claiborne still on the board.
With the Bucs luck of having superstars ripped from their grasps just before they pick (’10 – Ndamukong Suh, ’07 – Calvin Johnson and Joe Thomas), one can’t help but get a bit nervous when projecting that #4 overall pick. Do the Rams like Blackmon enough to make him Bradford’s #1 guy? Is Claiborne the answer to their secondary ails? If the Browns miss out on RGIII, would they turn to Richardson to replace Hillis? Could Blackmon be their best receiver since Kevin Johnson?
For some perspective on the Bucs pick, here are the top CB, WR, and RB taken in each of the last 5 drafts:
Last 5 top 5 WR
AJ Green (#4, 2011)
Demaryius Thomas (#22, 2010)
Darrius Heyward-Bey (#7, 2009)
Donnie Avery (#33, 2008)
Calvin Johnson (#2, 2007)
Last 5 top 5 RB
Mark Ingram (#28, 2011)
CJ Spiller (#9, 2010)
Knowshon Moreno (#12, 2009)
Darren McFadden (#4, 2008)
Adrian Peterson (#7, 2007)
Last 5 top 5 CB
Patrick Peterson (#5, 2011)
Joe Haden (#7, 2010)
Malcolm Jenkins (#14, 2009)
Leodis McKelvin (#11, 2008)
Darrelle Revis (#14, 2007)
Is Blackmon going to be as good as or better than AJ Green, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and/or Calvin Johnson? A pretty obvious Blackmon comparison would be Terrell Owens; big strong receiver with the ability to take over games.
Is Richardson going to be as good as or better than CJ Spiller, Darren McFadden, and/or Adrian Peterson? A Richardson comparison that I really like is Earl Campbell; similar size and style. Richardson projects a solid three down back in the NFL. I think he’s the draft’s best back since LeSean McCoy in ‘09 and that he’s going to be a special player.
Is Claiborne going to be as good as or better than Patrick Peterson or Joe Haden? I think Claiborne is quicker and covers more ground than Peterson, and this is coming from a big Peterson fan. Claiborne is a really fluid in his movements and is a top notch playmaker with speed that projects as a legit shutdown corner.
Who Would I Take?
I’ve always had two players in mind – Morris Claiborne and Trent Richardson. Claiborne began as my clear cut #1 choice, but I began to lean more towards Richardson of late. Blackmon is a fall back to a fall back plan in my mind.
Why spend a top 5 pick on a pass defender when we don’t have anyone on offense capable of being the identity of the unit? I may not believe there’s a starting caliber RB on the team, but the Bucs could soon be without a starting caliber CB in a league where you often play 3 or more of them at a time. As good as Talib can be at times, he’s not an elite cover man. Elite cover men dictate how you approach a game offensively, and I believe Claiborne will come closer to reaching that rung on the ladder than Talib has to date. The fact that the Bucs recently hired his secondary coach, Ron Cooper, certainly can’t hurt his chances of becoming a Pewter Pirate.
Why spend a top 5 pick on the dying RB position; one where productive players can be found throughout the draft? I believe that having Richardson in the backfield best allows Blount to play that Jacobs role. Unless the Bucs are going to pay Michael Bush, I don’t see another player that improves us as much and compliments existing personnel as well as Richardson would. They can add players, but if the pieces don’t fit together, the Bucs still won’t be able to run an optimal offense. Again, I realize the top 5 is pretty high for a RB with the way the league is trending, but Richardson’s a complete player. Ideally I’d deal down a bit and take him lower than #5, but that’s easier said than done.
Schiano recently endorsed Talib, so if the Bucs grab a high priced free agent corner, maybe Claiborne slides down their draft list a few spots. I’ll count that chicken when it hatches, so...With all that said, here’s my current order of preference –
1a) Morris Claiborne
1b) Trent Richardson
3) Matt Kalil
4) Justin Blackmon
Looking at the first three rounds, I want the Bucs to focus their selections on RB, CB, WR, and LB. Here are two scenarios I’m considering –
R1 – Morris Claiborne (CB, LSU)
R2 – Doug Martin (RB, Boise State) / Stephen Hill (WR, Georgia Tech)
R3 – Sean Spence (WLB, Miami) / Travis Lewis (WLB, Oklahoma)
R1 – Trent Richardson (RB, Alabama)
R2 – Stephon Gilmore (CB, South Carolina) / Zebrie Sanders (T, FSU)
R3 – TY Hilton (WR, FIU) / Tommy Streeter (WR, Miami)
In scenario #1, after getting Claiborne to go with hopefully a quality free agent acquisition, the corner position should be in much better shape. I then would focus on adding the best RB or WR with my next pick. We need big play talent, and Martin brings that in addition to primary ball carrier ability. Hill’s stock is soaring, and I’m buying. He’s got a huge athletic build, and when you combine that with his get-gone speed, you’re getting into NFL playmaker territory. Then if I can come back and get Sean Spence to fill my WLB need in round 3, I’m pretty happy about the first half of the draft. Spence has the instincts the Bucs are lacking at WLB, but he needs to be locked in the weight room for a while.
Offseason Wrap Up
So going by scenario #1 above combined with an aggressive approach to free agency, the Bucs could really strengthen their roster.
WR – Vincent Jackson and Harry Douglas
CB – Courtland Finnegan and Morris Claiborne
RB – Doug Martin
MLB – Dan Connor
WLB – Sean Spence
LG – Evan Mathis
QB – David Carr
TE – Joel Dreessen
T – Anthony Collins
Call me cynical, but recent history tells me not to expect much from the team’s purse holders this offseason. I’m not looking for them to spend every penny of available cap space, but if the Bucs want fans to care about this team, they need to start doing so first.