Only the Browns showed more improvement in the standings from 2006 to 2007 than did the Buccaneers, who went from 4-12 to 9-7 and won the NFC South title. The Bucs' biggest areas for improvement after 2006 were at quarterback, offensive line and defense.
Give the front office credit, as the Bucs acquired upgrades in all of those areas in the offseason. The biggest signing was quarterback Jeff Garcia, a soul mate to head coach Jon Gruden who could finally execute the West Coast offense Gruden loves. To help protect Garcia, the Bucs signed tackle Luke Petitgout and drafted guard Aaron Sears in the second round. Petitgout went on IR in midseason (knee), but Sears, along with the Bucs' first and second-round picks from 2006, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood, turned a struggling line into one of the league's better units.
Officially, the Bucs ranked 17th in the NFL in defense in 2006; unofficially, it was far worse than that in many impact categories. As a result, the team made several changes. They signed free agent linebacker Cato June and linemen Kevin Carter and Greg White; June and Carter were solid starters, and White, a former Arena League star who was doubling as a UPS driver, wound up leading the team with eight sacks. They picked up cornerback Phillip Buchanon on waivers, which that turned out to be a key move when Brian Kelly went down with a groin injury. After releasing declining MLB Shelton Quarles, the Bucs turned that starting role over to second-year player Barrett Ruud, who wound up leading the team in tackles. Fourth-round draft pick Tanard Jackson wound up starting at safety in Week 1 and stayed there all year; it took longer for first-round pick Gaines Adams to get going, but, by year-end, Simeon Rice wasn't missed much.With vets Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber raising their games, the Bucs' defense made a big comeback, ranking second in the league in 2007.
The Bucs also had to deal with injuries last year, as their presumptive starters at running back, Cadillac Williams and Mike Alstott, were both on IR by October. Michael Pittman also missed six games to injury. Offseason pickup B.J. Askew capably replaced Alstott at fullback, but the big news was the emergence of Earnest Graham, a fourth-stringer who scored 10 touchdowns and gained almost 900 yards as the feature back. The one area where the Bucs didn't really upgrade last year was at wide receiver and they'll need to get Joey Galloway some help with deep routes in order to improve and become legitimate Super Bowl threats, a game they'd play at home this year if they get that far.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (20) Aqib Talib, CB, Kansas
While he's competing for a starting role at the other corner, he's really the heir apparent to Ronde Barber.
Brian Griese, QB (Bears)
The solid No. 2 QB you need if your starter is 38 and scrambles a lot.
Warrick Dunn, RB (Falcons)
Likely will fill just a reserve role, but backfield depth is important.
John Gilmore, Ben Troupe, TEs (Bears, Titans)
A blocker and pass-catcher, respectively, to bolster the tight end corps.
Michael Pittman, RB (Broncos)
Bucs will miss his versatility, but they've gotten deeper here.
Greg Spires, DE (Raiders)
Crowded out in an improved D-line.
Mike Alstott, OT (retired)
Could not overcome neck injuries; leaves as the most popular Buccaneer ever.
WHO'LL HAVE WHAT ROLE IN THE BACKFIELD?
This time last year, Earnest Graham seemed pegged for special teams and maybe 20 carries over the whole season. Now, with Cadillac Williams on the shelf and Michael Pittman gone via free agency, Graham's the No. 1 back after an 898-yard, 10-touchdown season. You won't get the quick cuts or many long runs from Graham, but he keeps his legs moving after the first hit, turning a lot of two-yard gains into six-yarders. While the solid Graham will start, Jon Gruden will look for home-run ability out of the backfield as well. Michael Bennett gets the chance to show he can deliver that threat in a third-down-back role. Warrick Dunn, back after six years in Atlanta, likely sees just spot duty and serves as injury insurance. B.J. Askew successfully replaced Mike Alstott at fullback last season; he registered zero carries but played a role on pass routes. As for Williams, after his catastrophic knee injury last fall, he'll still be rehabbing when camp opens and seems unlikely to play again before 2009. WHO DO THE QUARTERBACKS THROW TO?
Joey Galloway, fresh off three healthy and productive seasons, returns as the lead wideout. Who'll line up alongside him is anyone's guess. Ike Hilliard was the No. 2 last year and actually led the club in catches, but Jon Gruden would really love to have a second receiver who can stretch the defense in tandem with Galloway. Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall have had chances to fill that bill, but neither has succeeded. They'll face stiff competition from second-round draft pick Dexter Jackson and free-agent signee Antonio Bryant (remember that 1,000-yard 2005, before drugs?). Also watch Paris Warren, who had the club made as a fourth wideout last year before a season-ending ankle injury in August.
SPEAKING OF QUARTERBACKS…HOW MANY IN CAMP AGAIN?
Baseball writer Roger Angell once wrote that Billy Martin loved the squeeze play the way winos love muscatel. You could say the same thing about Jon Gruden and quarterbacks. However, Gruden likely will have just five QBs on his roster when camp opens. Jeff Garcia returns as the starter, of course, and while he enjoyed a Pro Bowl year, he did miss three games due to injury. As Gruden learned bitterly with Bruce Gradkowski in 2006, you need a legitimate No. 2 quarterback to win, especially with a scrambler like Garcia as your starter. The Bucs got Brian Griese back from Chicago this winter to fill that role. Either Luke McCown or fifth-round pick Josh Johnson probably will hold the clipboard this season, leaving Chris Simms as trade bait.
Rising: Earnest Graham will get a full season's worth of reps as the top back. He doesn't have Cadillac Williams' flash, but he'll take hits and keep the legs churning.