Blount and Freeman Form a Young Core
In the "Here Today, Browns Tomorrow" league that is the NFL, many franchises are forced into rebuilding phases. Hence, why the NFL is commonly described as Not For Long.
Every team has went through one, from the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers to the Cincinnati Bengals and the Denver Broncos.
Typically, GMs expect the new structure to fully take effect in three years. Some may last longer than others (cough, Oakland Raiders, cough), while the superior franchises will see these days be limited as a new "savior" emerges sooner than expected.
So, how does the Tampa Bay Buccaneers current rebuilding stage look?
Judging by a 10-6 record this past season, everything may look perfect. But, let's look deeper and see where GM Mark Dominik has this squad headed.
Very shortly after the Super Bowl XXXVII win (and some may argue during the run), Tampa started to slowly unfold.
First, they lost both their top receiving threats in Joey Galloway and Keyshawn Johnson. Then fell half of their defensive cornerstones in Warren Sapp and John Lynch, plus their Super Bowl-winning quarterback Brad Johnson.
The rebuild was in full effect.
Will the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Make the Playoffs in 2011?
From 2005 until the beginning of 2009, the Bucs just lingered with bad quarterbacking, an aging defense and under-performing free-agent signings leading the way through mediocrity.
In 2009, that all changed.
First, Jon Gruden was replaced with 33-year-old Raheem Morris. Second to succumb to the movement was GM Bruce Allen. Mark Dominik was his successor.
The 2009 season was a tough learning experience. A 3-13 record was hard to swallow for a franchise that had not seen such losing ways since 1991.
The season did bring quarterback Josh Freeman into the league, who won his very first start in the NFL against the Green Bay Packers.
Entering 2010, the Bucs and most of their fans expected maybe five to six wins.
The youngest team in the league, also boasting the league's lowest team salary, rocked the football world by battling to a 10-6 record and missing the playoffs just barely. Leading the charge were Josh Freeman with a QB rating of 95.9, halfback LeGarrette Blount (his 1,007 rushing yards led all rookies), possibly the steal of the draft in receiver Mike Williams, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Sean Jones.
So where does this youthful and hungry team go in 2011?
Offensively, there are little areas of concern. The quarterback position looks to be held down by Freeman for years to come. Blount provides power and speed out of the backfield not seen in the Bay Area since James Wilder. Mike Williams and tight end Kellen Winslow are dispelling league-wide rumors regarding "character issues," and the offensive line protected Freeman and paved the way for Blount on a consistent basis.
Coach Morris looks to have this young nucleus very motivated, but can he keep them that way when other teams don't regard them as underdogs?
On the defensive side, there are some issues that need to be addressed.
The most pressing definitely being the lack of a pass rush. Rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was expected to be a rush up the middle, reminiscent of Warren Sapp in his prime, but looked flat at times until a bicep tear forced him to miss the last three games of the season. Fellow rookie lineman Brian Price was expected to be a run-stopping clog, but he was placed on season-ending IR (pelvic injury) on Nov. 2. A lot is expected of these two next season and beyond. These are two of the many reasons Tampa finished with a measly 26 sacks.
The linebackers fared a bit better, but still possess some issues heading into an important offseason. Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, who has been the starter since 2007, led the team in tackles once again. Some around the organization criticize his speed and slight lack of athletic ability, nevertheless he is a free agent. Geno Hayes was fantastic when healthy.
The secondary was most definitely the strength of the defense. Cornerback Aqib Talib picked off a career-high six passes this season. He teamed with the ageless Ronde Barber and safety Sean Jones to provide an excellent backstop.
Special teams will be looking to reward incoming special teams coordinator Dwayne Stukes with another solid season. Returner Micheal Spurlock had a good year, returning his second career touchdown. Kicker Connor Barth performed well in the clutch, knocking in 105 points and 82.1 percent of his field goals.
So where does Tampa Bay go from here?
Obviously, the first need is to vamp up the pass rush. There will be plenty of options available when the Bucs select 20th. Ryan Kerrigan of Purdue, Akeem Ayers of UCLA or Cameron Jordan of Cal look to be potential options come draft day. Other positions to look at are middle linebacker and guard, depending on the status of Ruud and Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph.
Top unrestricted free agents include Ruud, Joseph, Barber and halfback Carnell Williams. Plus, safety Tanard Jackson will be suspended until Sept. 22, if the team decides to keep the troubled yet talented young safety.
Tampa Bay enters the 2011 offseason with the most salary cap room to work with.
Coach Morris, who some believe deserved some recognition as Coach of the Year, will have to keep this team motivated and hungry. The Bucs can ill-afford to rest on their surprising laurels of this past season.
Something tells me Tampa Bay will be here for many years to come.