For anyone even remotely fond of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2011 was a season best forgotten. After a shaky but productive 4-2 start, the Bucs went on to lay 10 consecutive eggs, getting blown by nearly every team along the way to a 4-12 finish, including a lowly Jacksonville Jaguars team led by the fabulously inept Blaine Gabbert.
Naturally, head coach Raheem Morris and his entire staff were fired immediately following the regular season's end. In his place, the Glazers and general manager Mark Dominik hired Rutgers head coach Greg Schiano after a search that was as exhausting as it was exhaustive. Known for building a respectable football program from nothing at Rutgers, Schiano was brought in by the Buccaneers to instill some discipline in a team that wouldn't have been able to find any even if was shot from the cannons at Raymond James Stadium.
Like any incoming head coach, Schiano must evaluate the talent he has on his roster to determine how the team is going to proceed through free agency and the draft. The first place he absolutely must start is with his would-be franchise quarterback Josh Freeman, as well as the players around him upon whom Freeman must rely in order to earn the coveted title of "elite QB".
Josh Freeman regressed in 2012, there is no doubt about it. Sure, the rest of the team was as bad if not worse, but Freeman’s poor play cannot be blamed solely on the lack of playmakers around him. He made some awful decisions and could not take care of the ball. Nevertheless, Freeman should still be considered a franchise-caliber quarterback.
Freeman himself admitted that he was trying to do more than he did in 2010, when he threw 25 touchdowns to only 6 interceptions. That is a difficult statistic to fluke. Trying to take the next step with a sub-par supporting cast and a coaching staff which clearly could not realize Freeman’s full potential is difficult, to say the least.
There is no guarantee that Mark Dominik will be able to provide Freeman with the pieces he needs to truly take the next step. However, Freeman’s upside has not diminished by any significant degree. We won’t truly know what kind of quarterback Freeman will be until after next season.
Diagnosis: Not as bad as 2011 indicated, but further monitoring and more reliable receivers required.
The offensive line was arguably the most consistent unit on offense in 2011, which honestly does not say much. Quite a bit of the offensive line’s problems came from the lack of discipline that infected the entire team, but don’t be fooled—the offensive line is the real nucleus of the offense.
The line produced the Buccaneers’ only Pro Bowler in Davin Joseph, a mauler second only to Carl Nicks and Jahri Evans of the New Orleans Saints. Donald Penn remains an underrated blindside tackle while Jeremy Trueblood has significantly reduced the boneheaded penalties that nearly got him cut from the team.
Jeremy Zuttah has proven invaluable as a utility lineman and performed adequately as the starting left guard. The Bucs would be wise to find the heir apparent to an rapidly aging and injury-prone Jeff Faine. While Josh Freeman is clearly most comfortable with Faine as his ball snapper, Faine's inability to stay in the lineup disrupts Freeman's ability to get the ball out.
Easily the weakest link of the offensive line lies in its lack of depth. Ted Larsen's and James Lee's stock took a serious hit last year, and it remains unclear how they will recover this year or if Greg Schiano will look elsewhere to bolster the line.
The success of an offensive line is often predicated on the chemistry of its components. Simply adding new pieces is not necessarily the answer. The Bucs’ line does not need a lot of work, but injuries are very common in the trenches, and the Bucs can no longer afford to gamble on Josh Freeman's success with over-the-hill center and a lack of depth.
Diagnosis: Find a new center and more reliable back-ups.
If one unit on the team exemplified the unrealized promise of the 2010 season in 2011, it was the wide receiving corps.
Mike Williams was not nearly as effective a playmaker as in years past while Arrelious Benn struggled to take the next step. Dez Briscoe showed some flashes and Preston Parker became a fixture on third down. Still, none of them displayed nearly enough ability to earn the title of #1 receiver.
Mike Williams, fooled people into thinking he could be a #1 receiver with some eye-popping catches, but he lacks the speed and size to gain separation from quality cornerbacks. There are also questions about his work ethic, but the new coaching staff will likely weed out the layabouts.
Bucs fans may have yet to see the best of Benn, who could be a legitimate deep threat if he can develop a stronger rapport with Josh Freeman. Preston Parker and Dez Briscoe also have considerable upside. Nevertheless, each of the aforementioned receivers (notice how I don’t mention Sammie Stroughter or Michael Spurlock) is only entering his third year in the NFL. What the receiving corps could use more than anything is a role model.
Josh Freeman would undoubtedly benefit from a quality veteran catching balls down the field, but so too would the rest of the receivers. Pursuing free agents such as Marques Colston, Vincent Jackson, or Pierre Garcon would give Freeman an experienced receiver and a role model for the 3rd year receivers currently comprising the receiving corps.
Diagnosis: Throw money at one of the many wide receivers entering free agency and wait for the rash of drops to clear up.
What happened to Blount Force Trauma? Laziness, apparently. Yet another player who failed to take another step forward, LaGarrette Blount in 2011 was not the punishing runner he was in 2010.
He also continued to struggle with pass blocking and receiving out of the backfield. Instead, that task was left to little known Kregg Lumpkin.
The Buccaneers run game is one dimensional: slow. Blount can still break a tackle or two, but opposing teams know exactly what they’re in for when he’s on the field. There isn’t much to fear behind him either.
Earnest Graham was always underrated, but a torn Achilles is difficult to overcome at 30. He likely will not be back. Kregg Lumpkin won’t be missed. Finally, the Buccaneers have Mossis Madu, who is still unproven and will have to earn his roster spot all over again.
Many early mock drafts have the Buccaneers drafting Trent Richardson with the fifth pick of the draft. It’s hard to argue with the talent of the former Heisman candidate, who might even make up for Jon Gruden passing on Adrian Peterson.
Still, if the Bucs have more need at cornerback following free agency, they would be better served drafting Morris Claiborne if he’s available and taking a speed back like LaMichael James later in the draft.
Diagnosis: A healthy dose of talent from both free agency and draft required, but give the Blount treatment a little more time.
Is it ill advised for a team to bank an entire unit on knees that have been undergone five operations before the age of 30? If so, the Bucs need to reevaluate the tight end position.
Kellen Winslow has become Josh Freeman’s crutch in the past three years, but crutches become an impediment when they are no longer needed. Winslow has officially become more bane than boon.
Opposing defenses knew exactly what was coming from the Bucs on third down in 2011: a desperate pass from Freeman to Winslow, usually because Blount went nowhere on first down and the second down pass was dropped by Mike Williams. Whether Winslow actively lobbied for these passes is unconfirmed, but it is clear that Freeman is overly dependent on him. Unfortunately, Freeman has few options behind him.
Luke Stocker was only a rookie in 2011, but he failed to make much of an impression and dropped a number of key passes.
This is a problem that is best fixed in free agency. One of the most overlooked and underrated free agents hitting the market this year is Visanthe Shiancoe. The current Viking is a big body with good hands who is currently playing for a team without much going for it. With a quarterback like Josh Freeman throwing to him, Shiancoe would have a chance to resurrect his career, provided he keeps his pants on while the cameras are around.
Diagnosis: Direct application of Shiancoe, stat.