Notoriously tight-fisted with the ample wads of cash handed to them by the NFL, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have never been known for spending much of it. That changed this spring. Tampa Bay snagged two of the top free agents on the market, including former Chargers receiver Vincent Jackson who took all of 11 seconds to decide to join the Bucs.
Really, they had no choice but to open the Glazer family check book. The NFC South is quickly and quietly becoming one of the strongest divisions in pro football. Besides, the Buccaneers have some young blue chip players, like quarterback Josh Freeman, that should probably be further along than they are. Squandering such resources would have made them a permanent fixture in the division's basement.
Not to be ignored, the Buccaneers also changed head coaches, firing Raheem Morris who presided over an 0-10 run to end the season. New head coach Greg Schiano, hired away from Rutgers, has more talent to work with than his predecessor. Schiano has raised a few eyebrows early on thanks to a decided preference for former Scarlet Knights, jettisoning tight end Kellen Winslow and being a bit of a control-oriented leader who likes to keep his rooms at a precise temperature.
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To call the Buccaneers' 2011 season anything but a disappointment is generous, especially when a team goes from a prodigious looking 10-6 record off a cliff to 4-12. The season did not start off so bad for the Bucs. They beat the New Orleans Saints, of all teams, in Week 6 to improve to 4-2. The wheels came off after that, and it was the last game they won all season.
As for their ultimate undoing, pick something, anything. Systems failed across the board. One of the most notable flaws was the team's lack of offense. Josh Freeman had a breakout year in 2010, throwing 25 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He threw 22 picks last season along with just 16 touchdowns. Part of his problem was the lack of a supporting cast. Mike Williams underwhelmed after a bright rookie season.
On defense, they lost defensive tackle Gerald McCoy early in the season. No team in the league allowed more points than the Buccaneers did last year, surrendering an average of more than 30 points per game. Even the offense deserves some credit there, thanks to 29 turnovers in the second half of the season, and their -16 turnover differential was the worst in the NFL.
Best Free Agent Pickup
Give the Bucs some credit. They needed playmakers on offense, so they signed the best receiver on the market with Jackson. The former Charger gives Tampa Bay a viable option down the field, and his presence should also help Wallace find more opportunities working in lighter coverage.
It wasn't a free agent move, but a Texas court did the Bucs a huge favor when it tossed out Aqib Talib's assault case, allowing them to keep their top corner out of jail and on the field.
2012 NFL Draft
General manager Mark Dominik's draft have been questioned in the past. This year, he took an aggressive approach, making three trades in the first two rounds of the draft to fill a trio of holes on the roster with some very good picks. The Buccaneers moved down from their fifth pick to select Alabama safety Mark Barron at No. 7, giving them the only blue chip safety in the draft. They traded into the bottom of the first round to grab Boise State running back Doug Martin with the 31st pick. Martin was arguably the best back not named Trent Richardson in the draft, and more importantly, he can contribute instantly as both a runner, receiver and a very good pass blocker.
In the second round, Tampa Bay selected Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David, whose speed and knack for coverage ought to make him a starter from Day 1 on the weak side. Late-round picks like cornerback Keith Tandy and linebacker Najee Goode, both from West Virginia, add depth for the future.
Related: Bucs NFL Draft Grade
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers arguably had the most successful offseason of any NFL team. Coming off a dismal season with a team that was losing every game by double-digit margins by the end of the year, the Bucs set out to overhaul their entire franchise. They started by firing head coach Raheem Morris, replacing him with Greg Schiano. The former Rutgers coach brings discipline and an emphasis on football fundamentals to the Tampa Bay area, aspects that were sorely lacking last season.
The team then set out to elevate the talent level. The first move was to go after premium free agents quickly and effectively. The Buccaneers signed two of the best and most expensive free agents on the market in wide receiver Vincent Jackson and offensive guard Carl Nicks, two players who should help quarterback Josh Freeman approach his 2010 form again. They then added cornerback Eric Wright, another expensive free agent who can play all over the defense. The Bucs shelled out some $72.5 million in guaranteed money just to sign those three free agents.
The next step was to purge the roster of unwanted players, while adding depth across the board. The Bucs cut safety Tanard Jackson after a failed physical and traded tight end Kellen Winslow to the Seattle Seahawks for peanuts, but both players were reportedly let go because they didn't fit the culture Greg Schiano is trying to establish in Tampa. The Bucs then proceeded to add depth with a number of lower profile free agent signings, adding players like WR Tiquan Underwood, DT Gary Gibson, QB Dan Orlovsky and TE Dallas Clark. Those players could all be valuable role players during the season, but at the very least they add competition during the offseason.
Finally, the Bucs had a terrific draft, adding three immediate three-down starters with their first three draft picks. Safety Mark Barron should step in as the strong safety, bolstering a weak run defense while adding the ability to match up one-on-one with tight ends. Doug Martin looks like the feature back the Bucs need to run their offense, while second-rounder Lavonte David can be a roaming linebacker with plus coverage skills for Tampa Bay. Overall, the Bucs have massively upgraded the talent level on their team this offseason, but they need more than that to contend: they need their talented, young players to improve and stay healthy. If Josh Freeman, Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, Mike Williams and other young players do not improve on last year's outing, all of the new talent will go to waste, and the Bucs will look at another lost season. But if the team can get improved play from those key players they have what it takes to be a contender in the NFC South.
They Make The Playoffs If ...
The NFC South is suddenly very competitive. Atlanta and New Orleans are reliably good, and Carolina is on its way up for obvious reasons. Tampa Bay improved considerably this offseason, but it is still fair to ask whether or not it was enough to keep pace with the arms race in the division.
For the Bucs, the most essential part of this season is finding the form they had in 2010, which means putting Josh Freeman back on track. Entering his fourth season in the league, Freeman finally has some talent around him. Tampa also needs to see big strides from the young core of players on its defensive line, especially Gerald McCoy. Contributions from that unit will be key to contending against three very good quarterbacks in their division.
The good news for the Bucs is that they beat both Atlanta and New Orleans last season, before everything fell apart. They have to do that again this season, adding to that wins over Carolina, if they are going to have a shot at making the playoffs.