In 2008, the NFC South established itself as the toughest division in football. The South contained zero teams below the .500 mark, and no division in football was as good at home. The South produced two playoff teams in the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons, continuing the trend that the last place team from the year before reached the playoffs the next season. It also produced the best passing game in the NFL in the New Orleans Saints.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers looked to be a third playoff team from the South as they were 9-3 going into Carolina. It was Monday Night Football and the Bucs looked for a win to take the division lead, but something happened. A Monty Kiffin defense was annihilated by the Carolina run game as DeAngelo Williams and Jonathon Stewart could not be stopped on their way to a combined 299 yards rushing. The defense looked demoralized and Ronde Barber was embarrassed. The team went on to lose the rest of its games including a loss to Oakland giving the team a 9-7 record and finishing a half game out of the playoffs.
The Buccaneers had a fire sale during the off season. The Bucs hired a new Head Coach in Raheem Morris, a new Defensive Coordinator in Jim Bates, and brought in half a new team.
The Bucs biggest strength in 2009 will be the running backs. They signed Derrick Ward, who was coming off his first 1,000 yard season, to be the main back. The Bucs also have Earnest Graham who will compliment Ward’s speed with his power. The running core could be one of the best in football if Carnell Williams can stay healthy. He tried to come back last season, but the attempt failed. This group will need Williams as there is no idea as to who the quarterback will be, so most of the weight will reside on the shoulders of the running game.
The Bucs traded away their starting tight end Alex Smith to the Patriots, but for good reason. They needed an opening for Pro Bowl tight end Kellen Winslow. He is one of the best tight ends in the league when he is not injured, and one of the toughest. He will take on Ray Lewis and win. Winslow will be expected to stay healthy and probably be the main target for whoever the quarterback is due to a lack of a receiving core.
Another strength that the Bucs will rely on in 2009 is the offensive line. It is a young group, but they play nasty and are very talented. Tackles Trueblood and Penn will have the responsibility of protecting the new quarterback from the best defensive ends in the NFL this season, while the interior linemen like Faine and Joseph will need to take on some of the bigger and more versatile tackles in the NFL.
The Bucs are the quarterback collectors of the NFL. They currently have five quarterbacks on the roster with four of them fighting for the starting job. The Bucs traded up in the draft to get Josh Freeman who has a strong arm and great size for a future franchise quarterback. Both Leftwich and McCown are also fighting for the job knowing that Freeman is the future. McCown was the early favorite in camp, but Freeman has been showing skills that may put him as the starter in Week 1.
The receiving core only lost one person, but it changed the entire core. Joey Galloway had been the main guy for years, but his age made him the target of the Bucs’ new remodeling program. They now turn to Antonio Bryant who may have been just a one year wonder. The rest of the receivers are mostly underachievers and disappointments like Michael Clayton, so the new quarterback better get to know Winslow and practice handing off the ball.
The defense is very ugly after the fire sale. Monty Kiffin is no longer there calling the plays as he has joined his son in Tennessee. This group has hard times ahead as they have to deal with the three toughest divisions in the NFL.
Half the line was released as Haye and Carter have gone while Hovan and Adams remain. The linebacker core lost long time leader Derrick Brooks, so it will be up to Barrett Ruud to command an under-sized and unknown group. The secondary is in the best shape after the sale. Barber is still around and now Aquib Talib will get a chance to earn his first round grade. Plus, Tanard Jackson is still the eyes and the safety net of the defense.
Derrick Ward is now a No. 2 fantasy back, but has the potential to be so much more. He just needs to prove that he can handle being the guy in Tampa and he will get many opportunities to show it.
Kellen Winslow is a top 10 fantasy tight end. He will be the main target for the new quarterback and only needs to worry about staying healthy.
The sleeper is Michael Clayton. He will need to step up as the No. 2 receiver to help out the new quarterback. He has good size and should be the favored red zone target along with Winslow.