In the final part of this Examining the NFC South series, I want to talk about the team going through the most transition from last season to this one--the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
In 2008, Tampa Bay started the season off very strong, thanks to great defense, and a good running game, along with efficient quarterback play. But then the ship collapsed and Head Coach Jon Gruden and General Manager Bruce Allen were shown the way out of town.
In steps Raheem Morris, 32, with youthful enthusiasm similar to Mike Tomlin, the Pittsburgh Steelers 36-year-old head coach who became the youngest head coach to win a Super Bowl. Tampa can only hope the results are so good, and accomplished with such swiftness.
Much like Tomlin, Morris has attempted to create an atmosphere in Tampa Bay which wreaks of toughness and attitude, and to do so with younger players.
Longtime fan favorites Derrick Brooks and Warrick Dunn were released. Kellen Winslow II was brought in to bring attitude to an offense which has clearly lacked an identity for many years now.
The defense is also in transition as it appears the team is going to play more of a hybrid-type defense. Gone are the days of "Tampa Two" being the only defense seen.
Instead, it will be a physical attacking defense, similar to Pittsburgh's, only with more 4-3 alignments, but undoubtedly some 3-4 will be mixed in, given some of the team's selections in the April draft.
Here is a breakdown of the roster at some key spots:
Byron Leftwich was brought in to compete for the starting spot prior to the draft. Kansas State Junior Josh Freeman was selected at no. 17 as the eventual franchise solution. They join Luke McCown, Josh Johnson, and Brian Griese as Gruden holdovers who will compete for the starting spot.
At some point one will have to be cut, and the likely victim is Griese partially because of age but also because he just doesn't have much of a realistic chance for the spot.
The competition will likely be between Leftwich and McCown, with Johnson and Freeman competing for the third spot. That leaves for an intriguing situation and question. What happens to Josh Freeman if Johnson beats him out for that third spot?
My best guess is that the loser of McCown/Leftwich battle is released, making Johnson the second string, and Freeman third in his rookie campaign. Very few people think Freeman has a chance to play this season, even in Tampa where he was drafted because Morris knows him from his time as Defensive Coordinator in Manhattan.
Clearly this makes for an intriguing battle going into July, but will also make it difficult for continuity and growth in Offensive Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski's system in Year One.
RB Derrick Ward
Ward signed with Tampa Bay this offseason, despite having a really good thing going in New York as part of "Earth, Wind, and Fire". Ward hopes to revise that role as part of a Tampa Bay backfield which will likely be very busy in 2009. Ward will likely be cast as "Wind" again.
With Earnest Graham and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams joining him, look for Tampa's rushing attack to be three-pronged and physical. They are going to look to beat up on opposing defenses.
If successful as a pounding unit, New Orleans could struggle to stop this offense, as the Saints are being built defensively to stop the pass. The good thing Tampa has going for it as well is an ability to work in playaction and throw it short to KII or deep to Antonio Bryant.
WR Antonio Bryant
Speaking of Bryant, Tampa made it a priority to retain his services for 2009. His ability to get vertical and be a big play receiver will help whichever QB wins the job. He's not quite at Larry Fitzgerald's level, but he makes big plays, which is sorely needed for an offense that has been pretty stale the past decade-plus.
He is tall and physical and the prototypical no. 1 receiver. Flanked by Michael Clayton--the best blocking Wide Receiver in the division--and Dexter Jackson, this is a receiving unit which has a chance to be pretty good, if the quarterback can get them the ball.
Kellen "KII" Winslow
This is a young man who at Miami called himself a Warrior. In his first two seasons in Cleveland he was more of a dumb idiot. Since then he has proved to most that he has matured and is a very tough and physical football player. He still suffers from a case of the dropsies at times, but more often than not will make big catches and big plays.
No doubt he brings an attitude this team has been missing on offense for quite some time. If he can keep that attitude positive and be a good influence on the rest of the team, this could be one of the best moves of the offseason, as he is one of the most talented tight ends in the league.
In one career game versus New Orleans, he caught a touchdown pass and was a nightmare for the Saints to cover. Of course that was three seasons ago, and the defense is different now. It seems we now have some players who can cover the tight end. But Winslow will challenge them as much as any tight end on the 2009 schedule--don't forget about Gonzalez and Witten.
C Jeff Faine
Faine, the former Saint, had a good first season in Tampa Bay a year ago. He solidified a young offensive line and helped produce an effective running game. Whoever is awarded the starting quarterback job is lucky to be taking snaps from this man, as he is one of the game's best at the position.
DT Chris Hovan & Ryan Sims
These two veterans are the presumed starters, but both were better fits in the old regime's Tampa Two system, where linemen were required to slit through gaps and use speed and quickness. Hovan is capable of taking up space at 298 pounds, and Sims is a large man at 315 pounds.
How these two transition to a more traditional 4-3, with some hybrid stuff, will determine how much fourth round pick Roy Miller, and second year player Dre Moore, get on the field. Miller is a good fit as a 3-4 Nose Tackle, which is why I'm pretty confident we'll see some 3-4 alignments from this team.
DE Gaines Adams & Kyle Moore
Adams hasn't quite lived up to the billing of a fourth overall pick in any draft. Given Morris' philosophy, Adams could easily replaced, but also seems to be a good fit at outside linebacker/rush end when Tampa uses some 3-4 alignments and then four down linemen in nickel situations.
Moore is the prototypical 3-4 DE, meaning he is a "five-technique". This is yet another reason I am almost sure Tampa will feature the 3-4 on at least a quarter of their defensive snaps this season, and likely transition more and more to it over the next few years as they acquire more personnel for the system.
They would be the first NFC South team to try it since Atlanta used it under Wade Phillips several years ago. The 3-4 is designed to stop the run and rush the passer--two key elements in having a successful defense in this run-heavy division.
OLB Jermaine Phillips
Phillips is a converted safety who doesn't fit at outside linebacker in a 3-4, but in a 4-3 system seems to be a good fit. He is an aggressive player and will succeed at covering running backs and tight ends. The rest of the linebacking corps is made up of no-names, so Phillips will have to be successful.
ILB Barrett Ruud
Ruud has been a very good linebacker the past few years, as he is tough and makes plays. That is a good fit for Morris, and was a must keep as he is young and has the kind of attitude Morris wants his team to have. Tampa will be physical on defense, that is a given.
S Tanard Jackson & Sabby Piscatelli
Jackson and Piscatelli make up one of the younger safety tandems in the league, but both have experience at free safety, meaning the two will be used as coverage safeties. That being said, Piscatelli showed he was capable of playing near the line of scrimmage a season ago, and has a chance to be breakout player in such an aggressive defensive structure.
New Orleans will look to take advantage of this aggressiveness by running the football effectively and then going over the top off playaction. Devery Henderson always burns Tampa for one deep pass play. There is no reason that should change this season.
CB Ronde Barber & Aqib Talib
Barber is the face of the franchise among players on the Tampa Bay roster. That being said, he is getting up there in years, meaning Talib will soon become the most well known and effective corner for Tampa.
Barber is one of the smartest corners in the league, but can beat with quickness and speed, meaning Henderson and Meachem are good matchups for the Saints.
Colston and Moore can take advantage of an aggressive Talib, who is susceptible to double moves and well-run routes.
Needless to say, I believe Tampa's defense is one in transition and can be run and thrown on, mainly because of their youth.
It may sound crazy, but I believe if Tampa can figure out its quarterback situation, that side of the ball could actually be their more productive unit this season. That should be a good sign for the Saints.