The Buccaneers had the 31st ranked pass defense in the NFL in 2011, allowing 8.2 YPA. In order to fix this problem, they signed cornerback Eric Wright to a big contract last off-season and used the 7th pick in the draft (after a trade down) on Alabama safety Mark Barron. However, that barely improved things, as they ranked 29th in 2012, allowing 7.9 YPA. Wright proved not to be worth his contract on the field and also got himself suspended for 4 games for drug use. Aqib Talib, previously their #1 cornerback, was shipped to New England at the deadline as a pending free agent and an all-around bad apple in his time in Tampa. Barron wasn’t bad, but he reminded fans on several occasions that he was, in fact, just a rookie.
To solve the problem, the Buccaneers threw more money at the problem this off-season, signing the market’s top safety in Dashon Goldson to a record contract and trading a 1st round pick to the Jets for Darrelle Revis, who they signed to essentially a 6-year series of 1-year, 16 million dollar contracts. They restructured Wright’s contract, holding all the leverage after his suspension voided the guaranteed portion, and will bring him back to play opposite Revis.
Barron and Goldson will serve as the safeties and they also added Jonathan Banks in the 2nd round of the draft to be their nickel back, meaning that in 2 off-seasons they’ve effectively overhauled their entire secondary, doing so with high draft picks and big money contracts. Credit them for recognizing the issue and addressing the problem. The Buccaneers have been big spenders in general in the past 2 off-seasons, also signing Vincent Jackson and Carl Nicks to large contracts on the offensive side of the ball. However, unfortunately for them, they play in a loaded division in a loaded conference and they have a quarterback who has a lot of issues.
The 2012 season must have felt like 4 different seasons for Buccaneers fans. They started 1-3, after losing their last 10 to finish 2011, and it looked like more of the same. However, after the bye, they ripped off wins in 5 of 6 games and looked like a potential playoff team. They lost a close one at home to Atlanta and then in Denver, but those were two of the best teams in the league so they still looked like they were in good position. That was until they lost at home to the lowly Eagles, and then got blown out by the Saints and Rams, to push their losing streak at 5. They finished out their season with an impressive win in Atlanta in a game that didn’t really matter.
It’s no surprise they’re this inconsistent when their quarterback is this inconsistent. It wasn’t just last year. They went 3-13 in 2009, 10-6 in 2010, and then 4-12 in 2011 as Josh Freeman posted 10/18, 25/6, and 16/22 touchdown to interception ratios in those 3 seasons respectively. Last year, he started the year with a 5/4 TD/interception ratio in their first 4 games, then had a 16/3 ratio in their next 6, and then a 5/9 ratio on that 5 game losing streak, before having a decent game against Atlanta. In wins, he had a 97.6 QB rating, which is comparable to Tom Brady’s and Ben Roethlisberger’s. In losses, that rating was 71.4, which is comparable to Chad Henne and Mark Sanchez.
Overall, his stats are solid. His career quarterback rating of 79.8 is nothing special, but it’s not terrible either. But, it must be so maddeningly frustrating for Buccaneers fans to have no idea on a game to game basis what they’re going to get when their quarterback takes the field. It seems to have frustrated the organization as well as Head Coach Greg Schiano has publicly put Josh Freeman on notice on several occasions this off-season and they also used a 3rd round pick to select Mike Glennon to not just be Freeman’s backup, but an alternative option should Freeman continue to not impress.
Freeman is in a contract year in 2013, so it’s going to be a huge year for him. In 2014, he could be anything from a well-paid starting quarterback for the Buccaneers to a backup elsewhere. Furthermore, he might not even last the season as the starter. Obviously switching quarterbacks mid-season would essentially be this team waving the white flag, but if they’re sitting there at 3-6 midway through the season they might want to see what the rookie has with Freeman heading into free agency so they can determine whether or not to use a higher pick on a quarterback in a much stronger 2014 quarterback class. A lot of different things could happen for the Buccaneers at the game’s most important position and that’s what makes it so tough to predict their season.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
The Buccaneers have done a good job of building the offensive supporting cast around Freeman. They signed Vincent Jackson to a 5-year 55.5 million dollar contract last off-season that appeared risky at the time. Jackson, who had previously held out 10 games because he wanted to get paid, appeared to just be chasing the money going to Tampa Bay and could have easily just coasted. He was also going into his age 29 season so he was on the downside of his prime and probably wouldn’t get any better.
However, Jackson somehow turned in the best season of his career, catching 72 passes for 1384 yards and 8 touchdowns. He turned out to be a perfect fit for Josh Freeman, a natural deep ball thrower, and his presence reinvigorated Mike Williams, who no longer had to deal with opponent’s #1 cornerbacks. Williams himself also deserves credit for getting himself back into shape after a miserable 2nd season in the league in 2011. All of this led to the 2010 4th round pick totaling 63 catches for 996 yards and 9 touchdowns opposite Jackson. Williams was 4 yards away from giving the Buccaneers two 1000 yard receivers, something only Denver (Thomas/Decker), New Orleans (Colston/Moore), Atlanta (White/Jones), and Dallas (Bryant/Witten) could also say.
However, it was an incredibly top heavy receiving corps. Their 3rd leading receiver was actually the running back Doug Martin, who had 472 receiving yards. Tight end Dallas Clark, who is still unsigned of this writing, had 435. 3rd receiver Tiquan Underwood had 425. And no one else had more than 165. In an effort to fix this, they brought in Kevin Ogletree from Dallas to push Underwood for the 3rd receiver job, which should help a little bit.
However, they still have nothing at the tight end spot. The aged Clark is gone, which isn’t a huge loss, but now Luke Stocker will have to take on more receiving duties, in addition to just being a sound blocker. The 2011 4th round pick has just 28 catches in 2 seasons and doesn’t possess natural receiving ability. This probably will just be a spot they won’t get a lot of production from and finding a tight end to complement Stocker will then be a big focus of their 2014 off-season. If they hadn’t traded for Revis, they reportedly would have drafted tight end Tyler Eifert with the 13th pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
I mentioned running back Doug Martin in the receiving group; he’s also a big part of their offensive supporting cast and not just for his strong work in the passing game. While he did catch 49 passes as a rookie, the most impressive thing he did, by far, is rush for 1454 yards and 11 touchdowns on 319 carries, emerging as a true, complete feature back from the word go.
As is the case with all running backs, his ability to replicate that in 2013 is dependent on whether or not he stays healthy. He does have a history of injuries from his days at Boise State, but he was still an incredible find with the 31st pick of the 2012 NFL Draft, after the Buccaneers traded back into the first to grab him, jumping ahead of the Giants, who were ready to take him one spot later. He should once again give them one of the better running games in the NFL and he has already emerged as one of the best running backs in the NFL. The one minor concern is that his backup is 6th round rookie Mike James. They may add a veteran if they don’t like what they see from him in Camp.
I mentioned the large contract the Buccaneers gave guard Carl Nicks last off-season in the opening; he signed a 5-year 47.5 million dollar contract that was, on a per season basis, the richest contract ever signed by a guard, but he isn’t their only highly paid guard. In the off-season after the 2011 season, the Buccaneers gave a 7-year 52.5 million dollar extension to guard Davin Joseph. However, both guards missed significant time with injury last season, with Joseph missing the entire season and Nicks going down for the season after 7 games.
Both will return this season. Nicks’ presence will be huge. He was on his way to another fantastic season before getting hurt in 2012 and he was a top-4 guard on ProFootballFocus in every season from 2009-2011. He’ll certainly be an upgrade over Ted Larsen, who took over at center when Nicks’ injury forced Jeremy Zuttah back from center to left guard.
Joseph, meanwhile, is an overpaid and overrated player. In 2011, when he graded out slightly below average, that was actually his best season grade wise of the past 4 seasons. In 2008, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 57th ranked guard out of 74 eligible. In 2009, he graded out 75th out of 84 eligible and in 2010, before he got that ridiculous extension, he was dead last among eligible guards. Going into his age 30 season coming off a major injury probably won’t help matters. He’ll probably be better than the Ted Larsen/Jamon Meredith train wreck that split time at right guard in his absence in 2012, but he won’t be a significant improvement or anything.
In between Joseph and Nicks, Zuttah will start at center. A guard throughout his pro career, Zuttah was shifted to center to make room for Carl Nicks by Greg Schiano, who was actually Zuttah’s college coach at Rutgers. He made 7 starts at center before having to move back to left guard and he was pretty much as he has always been, an average starter at both positions. I don’t expect anything different from him this year in what should be his first full season at center.
Starting at left tackle will once again be Donald Penn. Penn made news this off-season for reportedly failing to meet most of the weight clauses in his contract and angering management. It was a plausible report. He’s had issues with his weight before. However, Penn and management both refuted the report, Penn doing so angrily, and his on the field performance in 2012 certainly didn’t suggest he was out of shape. It’s likely that was a false report. He’s graded out 16th and 24th respectively in 2011 and 2012 on ProFootballFocus and is an above average left tackle. He’s also never graded out negatively in 5 seasons. He’s a better run blocker than pass protector, but he’s good in both aspects and only committed 5 penalties last season. He also hasn’t missed a game in over 5 seasons. Though he’s heading into his age 30 season, he should be dependable once again.
Bookending Penn at right tackle will be either DeMar Dotson or Gabe Carimi. Dotson should get the nod as he was above average in his first season as a starter, only struggling with penalties (10), while Carimi has been largely a bust since going in the first round in 2011, with the exception of a few starts at right guard late last season. There’s a reason the Bears let him go for pretty much nothing. He’ll be better served as a reserve guard in case something happens to Nicks or Joseph again.
Defensively, the big acquisition was Darrelle Revis. One of the very powerful things he does is he can lock down one side of the field and allow the players around him to blitz more often. He also forces coverage sacks. That’s good news because the defensive line has plenty of questions, particularly about their ability to get to the quarterback. That’s because the Buccaneers lost their top pass rusher Michael Bennett this off-season.
Bennett is incredibly versatile and well rounded, lining up at two positions and grading out well above average both against the run and as a pass rusher. In 2011, he graded out as ProFootballFocus’ 7th rated 4-3 defensive end in a more limited role, excelling against the run at 6-4 274, but also accumulating 4 sacks, 6 hits, and 28 hurries on 338 pass rush snaps.
In 2012, he led the defensive line in snaps, grading out 7th among 4-3 defensive ends again. Along with Cameron Wake and Greg Hardy, he was one of three 4-3 defensive ends to grade out in the top-10 as a run stopper and pass rusher and he accumulated 9 sacks, 14 hits, and 48 hurries on 600 pass rush snaps. His versatility was incredibly valuable because it allowed him to move to defensive tackle on passing downs and essentially get 3 defensive ends on the field at one time. He’ll be missed, especially for a team that managed just 27 sacks last season.
Fortunately, the Buccaneers will get Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers back. Clayborn, their 1st round pick in 2011, had a decent rookie year, contributing big time as a pass rusher with 8 sacks, 10 hits, and 32 hurries on 434 pass rush snaps, an 11.5% rate, but his terrible play against the run cancelled all that out and earned him an overall average grade. In 2012, he played poorly in the first 3 games of the season and before he could get things turned around his tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. He’s got talent and he’s going into a crucial 3rd year, but he might not have all of his explosiveness back.
Bowers, meanwhile, got hurt in the off-season and returned after 6 games on the Physically Unable to Perform list, but was unable to play more than limited snaps, playing just 292 on the season and grading out just above average. In 2011, as a 2nd round rookie from the same draft class as Clayborn, he graded out slightly below average on 505 snaps. He’ll be healthier in 2013 though. There’s definitely some upside here, but they’re also definitely unproven. They also lack depth, which could be a big concern considering they’re coming off serious injuries and have histories of injuries. The 3rd defensive end is Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who stopped the run alright, but managed just 4 sacks, 4 hits, and 18 hurries on 432 pass rush snaps last season, a pitiful 6.0% rate. It’s an area of concern for sure.
Their most dependable pass rusher is probably going to be defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who had 5 sacks, 12 hits, and 37 hurries on 635 pass rush snaps, a 8.5% pass rush rate, very impressive considering his inside position. He was ProFootballFocus’ 4th ranked pass rushing defensive tackle last season and could lead this team in sacks. He’s also well rounded and joined Geno Atkins and Kyle Williams as the only two defensive tackles to rank in the top-5 in pass rushing and run stopping among defensive tackles on ProFootballFocus and he only committed 3 penalties as well. Overall, he graded out as their #2 defensive tackle. The 2010 3rd overall pick always had talent and flashed whenever he had a chance in his first 2 years in the league, but injuries kept him off the field often. Last year’s performance was probably not a fluke, but his injury history can’t be ignored. That’s the one concern here.
At the other defensive tackle spot, Gary Gibson and Akeem Spence will probably split snaps. They’ll replace the departed Roy Miller, who played the run alright, but did little else. Gibson, like Miller, is purely a run stuffer, who doesn’t generate much pass rush. He’ll probably come off the field on passing downs for Spence, a 4th round pick rookie who specializes in getting to the quarterback. Still, things are pretty bleak as far as pass rushers go so their secondary will have to play really well. It is a defensive line that plays the run well though, thanks in large part to McCoy, as they ranked 1st in the NFL in stopping the run on a per carry basis in 2012. Bennett’s absence will hurt in that aspect as well, but not too much.
The play of their linebackers also had something to do with their strong run play. The most important player in this unit was Lavonte David, a 2nd round rookie who played every down from the word go and played them well. He was ProFootballFocus’ 5th ranked 4-3 outside linebacker and should have gotten serious consideration for Defensive Rookie of the Year even against linebackers like Bobby Wagner and Luke Kuechly. He excels in coverage and stops the run well.
Middle linebacker Mason Foster, however, struggled last year, grading out as ProFootballFocus’ 38th ranked middle linebacker out of 53 eligible. The 2011 3rd round pick would be best suited as a 3rd linebacker who specializes in stopping the run, but the Buccaneers don’t have another linebacker to take his spot at middle linebacker. That 3rd run stopping linebacker will be either Adam Hayward or Dekoda Watson, who essentially split the job after the now departed Quincy Black got hurt. Whichever player wins that battle won’t matter all that much as it’s a largely unimportant position. The winner will come off the field on passing downs for a 5th defensive back.
Because of all the resources they’ve put into it, the Buccaneers’ secondary has actually become the strength of their defense. However, not everyone they’ve brought in has been worth what they’ve spent on him. Dashon Goldson was signed to the richest deal a safety has ever signed this off-season, but that was largely out of desperation. He’s nowhere near that kind of player. San Francisco’s supporting cast merely masked his flaws really well over the past 2 seasons. Remember, he had to settle for a one-year contract 2 off-seasons ago.
In 2011, he was actually ProFootballFocus’ 64th ranked safety out of 87 eligible, but made the Pro-Bowl because of what he did on 6 snaps, as he had 6 interceptions. Being on the 49ers vaunted defense also didn’t hurt. However, he was generally torched in coverage. In 2012, he was better despite just 3 interceptions, grading out 20th and fixing his issues in coverage, but he still didn’t deserve to make the Pro-Bowl, which he did largely on name recognition, team recognition, and the uncanny ability of the San Francisco Bay Area to stuff the voter ballots for professional sport All-Star games. He definitely doesn’t deserve this kind of money the Buccaneers have given him. He’ll be an asset as long as he doesn’t get complacent now that he’s been paid, but he actually graded out lower at his position than incumbent Ronde Barber, a long-time great who is now retired.
Eric Wright obviously wasn’t worth what they paid him either. That’s clear now, but it was pretty clear even when they gave him that ridiculous 5 year, 37.5 million dollar deal. He was ProFootballFocus’ 104th ranked cornerback out of 109 eligible the season prior. Last year, he graded out below average on 518 snaps before getting suspended.
They’re incredibly lucky that happened because it allowed them to restructure his contract down to 1 year and a non-guaranteed 1.5 million for the 2013 season. He might be a decent starter opposite Revis, but it’s hard to count on him and the value of a cornerback like Revis is lessened if opposing quarterbacks can easily through away from him. He doesn’t have Antonio Cromartie opposite him anymore. Perhaps Jonathan Banks can unseat Wright for the starting job. He wasn’t a mistake as a 2nd round rookie or anything, but it’s going to be tough to count on him this season as well. Leonard Johnson, who actually played pretty well in the absence of Talib and Wright last year as an undrafted rookie, is the other option. The 5-10 202 pounder could also be a natural fit on the slot.
Mark Barron, the other youngster in the secondary, was also a mistake with the 7th overall pick in 2012. The safety position is just not important enough to spend that high of a pick on someone unless they’re a truly elite prospect and Barron, while a solid prospect, was reached for because of the draft class’ extreme dearth of safety prospects. He graded out below average as a rookie, struggling in coverage and while he should be better this season, I don’t expect big things from him, despite the fact that he was a high pick.
Darrelle Revis is really the saving grace of all their recent secondary moves. It’s not that they’ve brought in bad players, but I don’t like the prices they’ve paid. For Revis, however, a 1st round pick and a series of 1-year 16 million dollar contracts is definitely the right price, if not a bargain, considering the type of game changer he can be when healthy.
Revis was ProFootballFocus’ top rated cornerback in 2011, a title he held in 2009 also. He was ranked 3rd in 2008 and his “down year” in 2010, when he ranked 8th, was due to an extended holdout and lingering injuries. Including last year, when he played just 1 ½ games thanks to injury, Revis has allowed 153 completions on 371 attempts (41.2%) for 1946 yards (5.2 YPA), 8 touchdowns, 18 interceptions, while deflecting 62 passes, and committing 13 penalties over the past 5 seasons. That’s a QB rating allowed of 45.3.
No one else even comes close to that and he does it despite shadowing the opponent’s #1 wide receiver on every snap, something that most #1 cornerbacks don’t do anymore. Apologies to Richard Sherman, but he’s the only cornerback in the NFL who, when healthy, you can legitimately build your defense around. Sherman is a safer bet at a younger age with less of an injury history, but at his best, no one is better than Revis.
Players like him are almost never available and when they are, they are usually sold for a price that doesn’t meet their value because that’s simply not possible. It was a perfect storm that led to the Jets trading him, the cornerback equivalent of Peyton Manning being available last off-season. Antonio Cromartie’s emergence as a legitimate #1 cornerback in his absence last year, Revis’ pending free agency (his original contract was set to expire after the 2013 season), the Jets’ awful cap situation, and the fact that they weren’t going anywhere with or without him actually made it make sense for the Jets to move him and the Buccaneers are definitely the beneficiary of that situation, of course, provided he’s healthy. He’ll be 11 months removed from the ACL tear week 1 so I don’t have too many concerns.
It may have just been that the 2011 Buccaneers under Raheem Morris were arguably the worst coached team of all-time, but Greg Schiano’s presence in his first year as the Head Coach of the Buccaneers made a noticeable difference. They only improved 3 wins at the end of the day, but they went from missing the most tackles a team has ever missed since that became an official stat to blitzing on end of the game kneel downs. You might not agree with his methods, but he at least he has a pulse, unlike Morris, and you can’t deny he’s changed the clubhouse culture in a big way and fast.
The Buccaneers are a very tough team to predict because you don’t know what they’re getting out of their quarterback position. Darrelle Revis’ presence makes this a better defense that it was last season, even with other losses, but if Freeman plays the way he did last season, I don’t think that it will be enough to improve their record considering how rough their schedule is. He’ll have to elevate his game and I don’t know if he’s capable of that.
Furthermore, if Freeman struggles to start the season, the coaching staff might just pull the plug on him as the quarterback completely, which would essentially be a white flag and derail their season. Teams that bench their quarterback for reasons other than injury almost never make the playoffs and I don’t think this team is talented enough to make the playoffs in the NFC regardless. All 3 of their divisional foes are better than they are and they’ll be lucky to go 2-4 in the division. I have them at 1-5.
Outside of the division, they host Arizona, Philadelphia, Miami, Buffalo, and San Francisco. The former 4 games won’t be that tough, but the San Francisco game should be close to unwinnable. At best, I have them winning 3 of these games as they won’t win all 4 of those first 4 games. They also have trips to the Jets, New England, Seattle, Detroit, and St. Louis. They might win in New York and won other, but I have them winning 6 games total and finishing at 6-10. When you compare them talent-wise to the rest of the NFC, they’re no better than the 10th or 11th best team.
Projection: 6-10 4th in NFC South