TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
By Brian Fraze
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
The Buccaneers were clearly one of the NFL's surprise teams in 2010. While there was no doubt that they had assembled some young talent heading into last season, no one expected them to surge to a 10-6 record, barely missing the playoffs. QB Josh Freeman had a near-Pro Bowl level season in only his second year and rookie WR Mike Williams and rookie RB LeGarrette Blount both massively exceeded expectations with stellar campaigns. The lockout-shortened offseason has seen the Bucs continue a youth movement that began two years ago, as they bid adieu to long-time starting MLB Barrett Ruud, RB Cadillac Williams and DE Stylez G. White via free agency. Though the Bucs started the post-lockout $70 million under the cap, they spent most of their money re-signing the free-agents they wanted to keep, inking draft picks, and adding former Falcons P Michael Koenen to solidify that position and to add a long-kickoff specialist.
The Bucs are continuing their recent strategy of building through the draft as the main source of talent for the team. Headlining the team's 2011 draft crop are DE Adrian Clayborn, the 20th overall pick in the draft, second-round pick DE Da'Quan Bowers and third-round LB Mason Foster, all of whom should end up starting as rookies.
It will be interesting to see just how much the players the Bucs let go this offseason end up being missed. Barrett Ruud is one of the best tacklers in the league, and while Mason Foster could end up being a better MLB, it may not happen in his rookie year. Cadillac Williams, while not the RB he once was, produced enough the past two seasons that the lack of his presence, especially as a third-down specialist and blocker, could hurt the offense a little. Also, by letting Ruud and Williams walk, the Bucs have lost two of their key veteran leaders.
Look for the 2011 Bucs to be a team that will continue to rely fairly heavily on the running game to control the clock, keep the defense fresh and QB Josh Freeman upright. However, they will not hesitate to let Freeman air it out some, as he continues to mature as a passer. Because the Bucs are such a young team, they may regress a little in 2011, but it seems like, in general, they are moving in the right direction.
Round, Overall, Player
1. (20) Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa
May start right away at DE, given his pass-rushing talent and the team's weakness at the position.
2. (51) Da'Quan Bowers, DE, Clemson
First-Round talent fell hard in draft due to injury concerns, but could be a steal and also end up starting Day 1.
3. (84) Mason Foster, LB, Washington
College tackling-machine is being counted on to replace and eventually exceed Barrett Ruud's production.
4. (104) Luke Stocker, TE, Tennessee
Big, strong tight end with decent hands drafted to provide depth behind Kellen Winslow.
5. (151) Ahmad Black, S, Florida
Smallish safety who could make the team as a backup.
6. (187) Allen Bradford, RB, USC
Big RB in the mold of LeGarrette Blount; should make team with departure of Cadillac Williams.
7. (222) Anthony Gaitor, CB, Florida International
Potential depth at CB.
7. (238) Daniel Hardy, TE, Idaho
Potential depth at TE.
Michael Koenen, P (Falcons)
Brought in to solidify punter and to add a long-kickoff specialist.
Ashton Youboty, CB (Bills)
Provides valuable cornerback depth.
Barrett Rudd, LB (Titans)
Will be missed, as he was the team's leading tackler four straight years.
Cadillac Williams, RB (Rams)
Though not the RB he once was due to injuries, was still productive when called upon and was a team leader.
Stylez G. White, DE (FA)
Sack leader for the Bucs in 2010 won't be back as they expect better production from Adrian Clayborn.
John Gilmore, TE (Steelers)
Strong blocking TE with decent hands will be replaced by rookie Luke Stocker.
CAN Mike Williams AND LeGarrette Blount KEEP IT UP?
WR Mike Williams and RB LeGarrette Blount both exceeded expectations in 2010 as rookies. Now that they are second-year players locked in as key cogs, they will be expected to improve even more in 2011. However, that is not given in that opposing teams will be more prepared for the duo - who won't be sneaking up on anyone -- in 2011. Moreover, both players have had character issues crop up in the past and they'll need to stay on track on that front. Both Williams and Blount will need to exceed 1,000 yards and 10+ TDs in 2011 for the Bucs to remain a playoff contender.
WILL Arrelious Benn BE ABLE TO STEP UP IN 2011?
After getting off to a slow start in his rookie season, Benn started to show some of the ability that made him a highly-touted WR prospect coming out of college, as he led the team with 15.8 yards per catch. However, Benn hurt his knee in the next-to-last game of the season in 2010 and required surgery that he is still bouncing back from. If Benn can be at or near 100 percent by the time the regular season starts, then perhaps the promisng wideout will avoid last year's slow start, as he is now more comfortable in the offense.
IS Josh Freeman REALLY THIS GOOD?
Yes he is. What a difference a year makes. After having his share of rookie struggles, albeit while showing some potential for future success, Freeman had an amazing second season as a QB as he threw for a career-high 3,451 yards, 25 TD's and only six interceptions while completing 61.4 percent of his passes on 7.3 yards per attempt. Freeman also scrambled for 364 yards, only fumbling twice. These are impressive numbers for any QB playing a full season, no less one in his second year. With his combination of arm strength, size, leadership, mobility and ability to take care of the ball, the sky is the limit for Freeman and it's only a matter of time before he becomes one of the NFL's best.
WILL THE DEFENSE IMPROVE EVEN MORE IN 2011?
One of the reasons that the Bucs record improved so much in 2010 was that their defensive unit stopped being such a sieve. They still were poor against the run -- 28th overall, but they were seventh against the pass in large part due to their excellent secondary. With the additions the team made on defense through the 2011 draft, as well as full season from the likes of DT's Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, the team hopes to become more stout against the run. Along with rookie DE's Adam Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, rookie MLB Mason Foster will be especially important, as he is considered to be a better fit for the team's defense than departing MLB Barrett Ruud.
Rising: Josh Freeman took a huge leap from his rookie season to last year. While he may not rise quite as much in 2011, his ascent should continue.
Declining: Sammie Stroughter saw a drop in production in his second year and that trend could continue, assuming Arrelious Benn is ready to contribute.
Sleeper: Arrelious Benn really started to come on after a slow start at the end of his rookie season before getting hurt. He has a lot of upside with his combination of size, speed, and strength.
Supersleeper: Allen Bradford could make some noise at running back as a rookie if LeGarrette Blount misses any time or struggles.
Mason Foster, LB
Will take over for Barrett Ruud in the middle and has the potential to post 100+ tackles.
Geno Hayes, LB
Had 82 tackles and four sacks in 2011.
Tanard Jackson, S
Had 61 tackles and two sacks in only 11 games played.
RotoWire Rank: 19