Athlon Sports is counting down its 2012 NFL preseason Power Rankings with in-depth team previews, schedule analysis and more as the start of the NFL season draws near.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers check in at No. 25.
The mutiny that nearly occurred last season when the Buccaneers lost their final 10 games resulted in a 26-day head coaching search and the hiring of Rutgers boss Greg Schiano, who definitely runs a tight ship.
In the first voluntary veteran minicamp, Schiano barked orders at his new players during the first series of drills. “Football is a game of details,” Schiano shouted. “Toes on the edge!”
How well the Bucs toe the line under Schiano will determine whether he can avoid becoming just another college head coach who struggles making the transition to the NFL. To that end, he hired Butch Davis as special assistant to the head coach. Davis, the former North Carolina and University of Miami head coach, knows the trap doors to avoid, having coached the Cleveland Browns from 2001-04.
“I think a lot is made about college coaches that haven’t done well,” Schiano says. “But if you look at it, there are a lot of coaches who haven’t done well. It’s a pretty high turnover rate in this business. Throw the pro coaches in there as well.”
The changes didn’t stop with the coaching staff. The Bucs committed $140.5 million in free agent contracts, adding players such as Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson and Saints guard Carl Nicks. The draft netted three more projected starters. Now Schiano needs to get them all rowing in the same direction.
Quarterback Josh Freeman has re-dedicated himself this offseason, losing 15-20 pounds. Along with the shrinking waistline, Freeman hopes to reduce the number of interceptions he threw last season — 22, with only 16 touchdowns.
Freeman will have new weapons and a new voice in his helmet. Former New York Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan, who did a pretty good job with Eli Manning, takes over as the Bucs’ offensive coordinator. Both Sullivan and Schiano are proponents of a ground-and-pound offensive attack that sets up big plays on play-action.
The Bucs added some weapons that should make Freeman’s job a little easier. Jackson, who signed a five-year, $55.555-million deal (the fives are a nod to Freeman’s jersey number), will help stretch the field and give the Bucs a legitimate No. 1 receiver. Mike Williams, who was among the league leaders with seven dropped passes a year ago and saw his TDs fall from 11 to three, should thrive with the defense rolling coverage toward Jackson. The Bucs parted ways with tight end Kellen Winslow for a seventh-round pick in 2013. Dallas Cark, who missed 15 games in his final two years with the Colts, is the new starter.
Schiano prefers a ‘bell cow’ running back who can play all three downs. That’s why the Bucs traded back up in the first round to take Boise State running back Doug Martin 31st overall. The 5'9", 223-pounder is a good route-runner, can pass-protect and should emerge as a starter. LeGarrette Blount, who has been mostly a one-dimensional, inside runner, will still have a big role with the offense. But he has to eliminate turnovers, having fumbled nine times in two seasons, losing six.
Nicks is a road-grader who will team inside with another Pro Bowl guard, Davin Joseph. Jeremy Zuttah moves from center to guard.
Freeman improved in some areas last season, posting career highs in completions (346), completion percentage (62.8) and passing yards (3,592). But he admits he made bad decisions with the football. “Really, it was just pressing too hard,” Freeman says. “Sometimes you just try to force things.” Remember, Freeman is only a year removed from leading a much less talented offense to a 10–6 record with 25 TDs and only six INTs.
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Under fired coach Raheem Morris, who doubled as defensive coordinator, the Bucs allowed a franchise-worst 494 points, ranked last in rush defense and allowed 30 touchdown passes. The collapse after a 4–2 start can partially be explained by injuries. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the No. 3 overall pick in 2010, has played a total of 19 games in two seasons while producing four sacks. He tore his right biceps last season (after tearing the left biceps a year earlier) after six games and finished the season on injured reserve.
Rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn led the Bucs with 7.5 sacks, but his draft classmate, end Da’Quan Bowers, tore his Achilles tendon in May. He could be lost for the season.
Among the Bucs’ worst decisions was to go with rookie Mason Foster at middle linebacker, coming off the NFL lockout without the benefit of an offseason. Tampa Bay wasn’t much better in the secondary.
Obviously, an overhaul was in order. Schiano hired Dolphins linebackers coach Bill Sheridan as defensive coordinator. Sheridan’s first shot at that job, as the Giants defensive coordinator in 2009, was a mess. The Giants gave up the second-most points in club history.
The Bucs have added talent. They traded down two spots to take Alabama safety Mark Barron with the seventh overall pick in the draft. In the second round, they netted Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David, who should start at weak-side linebacker.
The Bucs signed Lions free agent cornerback Eric Wright and coaxed 37-year-old Ronde Barber to return for a 16th season. Barber may be ticketed for a position change at free safety.
The Bucs can play the field position game with the best. Michael Koenen averaged 45.1 yards per punt and pinned 24 inside the 20-yard line (35.8 percent). He also is among the league’s best on kickoffs.
Placekicker Connor Barth set club records by connecting on 26-of-28 field goal attempts (92.9 percent), with half coming from 40-49 yards. No wonder the Bucs made Barth their franchise player, although he is hoping for a long-term contract and has not signed the tender.
The Bucs’ return game could be much better. Sammie Stroughter averaged 27 yards on kickoff returns while Preston Parker averaged 9.1 yards per punt return. The Bucs failed to produce a special teams touchdown.
Final Analysis: 4th in the NFC South
The Bucs were the youngest team in the NFL the past two seasons and needed discipline and direction. They will get that from Schiano and his staff. More important, the Glazer family decided to re-invest in their product, as witnessed by the large free agent spending spree. Unfortunately, Tampa Bay plays NFC East teams in three of their first four games, so a fast start will be needed. But if Freeman can return to his 2010 form, and the defense rises to the middle of the pack, a .500 or better record is not out of the question.
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Outside The Huddle
Eric LeGrand watched the NFL Draft from his motorized wheelchair at his home in New Jersey. The former Rutgers defensive tackle, paralyzed trying to make a stop on special teams against Army in 2010, was excited to see his Scarlet Knights teammate, receiver Mohamed Sanu, selected in the third round by the Cincinnati Bengals. “This was his class; he would’ve been in this draft,” said his mother, Karen LeGrand. “He watched the draft. He didn’t let it get to him. But he said to me at one time, ‘That could’ve been me.’” More than 1,100 miles away to the south, Bucs coach Greg Schiano was thinking the same thing. That’s why the former Rutgers coach telephoned LeGrand and offered him a contract with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent. “This small gesture is the least we could do to recognize his character, spirit, and perseverance,’’ Schiano said in a release by the team. LeGrand announced his retirement on July 26 at the start of Tamapa Bay's training camp.
If You Can’t Beat ’em…
The Bucs spend thousands on their scouting department, scouring the nation in a search for talent. But this year, they found two of their draft picks in the same apartment. West Virginia linebacker Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy, who are roommates in Morgantown, were the fifth- and sixth-round picks of the Bucs, respectively. Schiano never beat the Mountaineers in 11 seasons at Rutgers. “Obviously, I know a lot about both the West Virginia kids playing against them for four years,” Schiano says. “They were both a royal pain in the rear.”
Running back LeGarrette Blount will have a hard time holding onto his starting job, especially if he doesn’t get a handle on the football. Blount has fumbled nine times, losing six in his two pro seasons, something Schiano won’t tolerate. “No one who touches the football will get touches if they don’t protect the football,” Schiano says. “That is one of our core covenants — the ball. It’s so important, they named the game after it.”
Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman says he wasn’t surprised to learn about the NFL’s investigation into the Saints’ bounty system administered by former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams in which players were paid for hits that forced opponents off the field or out of the game, along with fumble recoveries and interceptions. “We just knew every time we played the Saints, they were going to take some cheap shots,” Freeman says. “I mean, it was always something we acknowledged. We knew Gregg Williams’ defenses were physical and they were going to get after you. Knowing what we know now, it’s not surprising that was the system that was set up for them.”
2012 Athlon Sports NFL Power Rankings and Team Previews:
No. 32:Jacksonville Jaguars
No. 31:St. Louis Rams
No. 30:Minnesota Vikings
No. 29:Indianapolis Colts
No. 28:Cleveland Browns
No. 27:Miami Dolphins
No. 26:Arizona Cardinals
No. 25:Tampa Bay Buccaneers
No. 24: Tues., July 31
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Related: 2012 Tampa Bay Bucs Schedule Analysis