Tampa Bay Buccaneers: How 2012 Rookie Class Can Shake Up the NFC South
For the first time in recent memory, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made huge waves in the NFL offseason. Dwindling ticket sales and local TV blackouts put pressure on team ownership to field a team that would do more than just show up to Raymond James Stadium on Sundays.
The additions of WR Vincent Jackson, OL Carl Nicks and CB Eric Wright through free agency were the first good faith efforts put forward by the Glazier family that this franchise was trying to right a ship that Raheem Morris had sailed drastically off-course.
Enter the Bucs' 2012 draft class, which is led by rookie head coach Greg Schiano. There's little doubt throughout the league that the talent and leadership the veteran free agents bring to One Buc Place will help the newest Bucs make an impact when the team hosts the Carolina Panthers in Week 1 on Sept. 9.
As the youth movement continues in Tampa Bay—the Bucs fielded the NFL's youngest team in 2011—the NFC South will be an amazing race to watch for Bucs fans if their rookies can transition fast enough from Saturdays to Sundays.
Head Coach Greg Schiano
Oddly enough, the most important Buccaneer rookie will not play one down all season.
Head coach Greg Schiano has brought new life into the locker room and the Tampa Bay community after the disastrous Raheem Morris experiment. The team still owns the league’s longest current losing streak at 10 games, but Schiano is bringing a new edge to Tampa Bay.
Offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan told Sirius XM NFL Radio (h/t USA Today) it's an edge that involves a discipline on and off the field.
"I think what a lot of folks can expect is just to see a team that's going to be very disciplined and that's going to be really focused on the type of preparation it takes to be at their best."
Schiano and his staff have a lot to prove; the list of college coaches who have failed at the NFL level is far longer than those who have succeeded. He's also dealing with a fanbase that will have to see results before they fully buy into the Schiano era in Tampa.
Mark Barron, S
Rookie Safety Mark Barron will immediately help one of the NFL's worst defensive units.
It's not too often that a team takes a safety with the seventh overall pick. Leave it to the Bucs to break from tradition, if NFL draft tradition actually exists.
Barron brings leadership and a hard-hitting resume to a defense that ranked 21st against the pass and dead last against the run in 2011. He'll share a defensive backfield with veteran Ronde Barber, who made the switch from CB to S this offseason.
Critics were left scratching their heads when the Bucs traded down in the first round from fifth to seventh, even though LSU CB Morris Claiborne was still on the board. However, it was a draft day strategy that played out perfectly for the Bucs front office.
For weeks leading up to the draft, RB Trent Richardson and Claiborne were two of the only names associated with Tampa Bay, which is apparently just what GM Mark Dominik wanted.
"Obviously, being a two-time captain at the University of Alabama, a two-time National Champion, [and] a very productive football player at a very important position in the National Football League. Safety has become an extremely important position. It’s a position we value and other teams value. We felt that we got an extremely productive guy who has a lot of leadership experience." Dominik said, via buccaneers.com.
Barron believes his college experience groomed him perfectly for the NFL level.
"We played in a very difficult defense," he said at the combine (h/t Los Angeles Times). "We did a lot of different schemes. My role was, as far as communicating, I had a lot to do with that on the back end. And I felt like sometimes, I brought some energy to it with the hits I make and things of that nature. I did a lot of different things."
Bob Sanders and Troy Polamalu are excellent examples of how a safety can totally change a defense. If Barron lives up to the hype, NFC South offenses will not look forward to seeing the red and pewter's No. 24 on Sundays. Bucs fans also know that subpar play at safety could make for a very long season.
Doug Martin, RB
The Bucs moved up late in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft to take Martin with the 31st overall pick. The front office realized the need for a complement to incumbent RB LeGarrette Blount, who has shown the ability to make big plays with his physical, in-your-face style of running.
The problem is, when Blount plays that hard, he also tends to fumble.
The rookie RB out of Boise State is expected to make an immediate impact on third down, one of the most crucial aspects of the running game that Blount has been unable to grasp over the last two seasons. Martin's ball-catching and pass-blocking abilities will give QB Josh Freeman a safety net to check down to when opposing defenses tighten up their coverage.
Longing for the days of a backfield of Alstott and Dunn, the Bucs and GM Mark Dominik are hoping Martin can be the lightning to Blount's thunder.
"Those two players specifically bring make-you-miss [moves] with speed, and they have that run-after-contact [ability] that we like as an organization," said Dominik, according to buccaneers.com. "They bring big-play ability. They both have really good hands to catch the ball out of the backfield. I think the big thing is those explosive plays, those chunk plays that we want to have, those guys can deliver those when they get an opportunity."
With the addition of Pro Bowl OL Carl Nicks, NFC South teams may find Raymond James Stadium full of a brand-new thunder and lightning in 2012.