Showcasing Tampa Bay Buccaneers' Biggest Strengths and Draft Needs
It was a season of streaks for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. An early three-game losing streak put them in an early hole. They rebounded to win four straight in the middle of the season. Then, five consecutive losses down the stretch doomed their playoff chances.
In many ways, the team's entire season mirrored the ups and downs of quarterback Josh Freeman. The fourth-year starter continued to show flashes of brilliance, but still lacks the consistency necessary to take his game to the next level.
On defense, the problem was obvious. The Bucs ranked dead last against the pass, giving up just shy of 300 yards per game through the air. That major weakness basically eliminated any advantage they were getting from their top-ranked rush defense.
All told, Tampa Bay is a fringe playoff contender that could use an upgrade in a couple key areas to bolster its chances for next season. Let's examine every area of the roster to see where the team should allocate resources in the offseason.
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Josh Freeman is under contract for another season and should remain the starter in Tampa Bay. The talent is there, it's just a matter of getting him to showcase it week in and week out. Right now, he's far too streaky.
In 2012, Freeman had a stretch of five straight games with a QB rating above 100 coming out of the team's bye week. He didn't break that barrier in any game before or after the streak. It's crucial that he performs at a high level more often next season.
Since he should be locked in as the starter and has missed just one game over the past three seasons, there's no real need to spend money on a backup. Dan Orlovsky, who attempted just seven passes last season, can handle the role for another year.
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Doug Martin was a workhorse for the Bucs in his rookie season. He carried the ball 319 times. The next two running backs on the depth chart, LeGarrette Blount and D.J. Ware, combined to carry it just 52 times. Martin also had 49 catches.
The most encouraging aspect of Martin's season was the fact he didn't hit the infamous rookie wall down the stretch. He rushed for 142 yards and a touchdown on 28 carries in the season finale. He will remain the uncontested starter next season.
In terms of the backup role, Blount is a restricted free agent and was less than impressive in modest action. And Ware has never handled more than an extremely limited role. So the Bucs might need to add another back to the mix, but not until the late rounds of the draft.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
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The Bucs should be set at wide receiver. They have a terrific one-two punch in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. Jackson was brought in last offseason to fill a major void on the outside and did exactly that, racking up 72 catches for nearly 1,400 yards and eight touchdowns.
Williams continued his reliable play despite moving to No. 2 on the depth chart, falling just four yards shy of 1,000 and reeling in nine touchdowns.
Tiquan Underwood has the potential to become a solid No. 3, and Arrelious Benn still has some untapped potential.
Tight end is a different story. Dallas Clark was solid in his first season with the team. He's scheduled to become a free agent, though, and he's not the player he was during his time with the Indianapolis Colts. So the Bucs should look to add another TE in the middle rounds. Perhaps Dion Sims.
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Another area where only marginal additions are needed. Tampa Bay's offensive line doesn't feature any marquee names, of which there are only a limited amount around the league, but it's an example of the sum being greater than each player individually.
The Bucs ranked 13th in run blocking and sixth in pass protection, according to Football Outsiders. Given the fact all of the key contributors from that group will return, the team shouldn't be concerned about the front five.
Reserve Jeremy Trueblood is scheduled to become a free agent, meaning there could be a need for a depth addition or two. But, just like at the other offensive positions, the Bucs shouldn't need to spend big free-agent dollars or a high pick to fill those voids.
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Now we get into areas where the Bucs need some serious help. They finished tied for 30th in sacks, with just 27 in 16 games. And, making matters worse, the only player who did get consistent pressure on the quarterback, Michael Bennett, is due to become a free agent.
Bennett led the team with nine sacks (no other player had more than five), and re-signing him should be the top priority heading into the offseason. Tampa Bay's other defensive ends were disappointments, so it will need to address the position either way—it's just a matter of to what degree.
Gerald McCoy finally started to show off some of his upside after being drafted in the first round three years ago. His fellow defensive tackles were less impressive. So expect multiple defensive-line picks for the Bucs after the opening round.
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There are two ways to look at the linebacker level for Tampa Bay. On one hand, the production was solid. Lavonte David and Mason Foster had 245 combined tackles, playing a key role in the team's tremendous run defense.
On the other hand, they didn't make many game-changing plays. The duo totaled just four sacks, two interceptions and no forced fumbles. The rotating third linebacker, which included Quincy Black and Adam Hayward, didn't do much in that area, either.
David and Foster will remain in place. They are both young, and they proved their worth throughout the season. But the Bucs should try to find another outside backer that would fall into the playmaker role in the middle rounds, like Zaviar Gooden, or on the free-agent market.
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Finally, we reach the spot where Tampa Bay should use its first-round pick. After getting torched on a weekly basis and trading away Aqib Talib, the Bucs need to find some serious reinforcements at the cornerback position.
They own the 13th overall pick, which should allow them to snag one of the top prospects at the position. In a perfect world, Dee Milliner would suffer a minor slide and fall into their lap. If not, Xavier Rhodes and Desmond Trufant are options.
The safety position is only a concern if Ronde Barber doesn't return. Rookie Mark Barron hit some bumps like most young players do, but should continue to improve. They are a solid tandem if brought back together. If Barber leaves, the Bucs will suddenly have another need to fill.
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Kicker Connor Barth is under contract through 2015. In 2012, he connected on 85 percent of his attempts, which is right in line with his career average, and was 6-of-9 from 50 yards or more. His spot should be safe.
Punter Michael Koenen is also signed to a long-term deal, but he will face some competition from Chas Henry. While Koenen will probably end up retaining the job, adding Henry definitely sends a message after the Bucs finished 26th in net punting average.
The return game needs some work. The Bucs ranked 30th in kick return average and 19th in punt return average. Punt returner Roscoe Parrish is also set to hit the open market. Luckily for Tampa Bay, it shouldn't have to invest heavily in these areas to find an upgrade.