It isn't always easy to write about my former team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I pull for them to do well every year. I also pull for individual players to do well. So, sometimes it's just not that easy to pull back from what I hope happens and write about what I actually think will happen.
That was the dilemma I faced when trying to choose their breakout player for 2015. I had to make sure I wasn't choosing a guy just because I wanted him to breakout, and trust me there were a lot of those. After re-watching a bunch of film I feel very comfortable with my choice: cornerback Johnthan Banks.
Banks started last season as a backup after starting all 16 regular season games as a rookie in 2013. I'm sure that had to be a blow to his pride, but when a new regime comes in most jobs usually aren't safe. When a team makes a change at head coach, it usually means some stuff has gone really wrong. It doesn't really matter what you've done before if the new staff feels like someone else is better.
Veteran Mike Jenkins, a local kid who played his college ball in Tampa at USF (full disclosure I was a GA for USF for one season while he was a starter there), was tabbed as the starter at the beginning of last season. Banks was going to be rotated in throughout each game.
Then, as tends to happen in the NFL, things didn't go quite as planned. Jenkins ended up injuring his shoulder so severely in the first game of the season that he had to be placed on the IR. Banks might not have been the Bucs' first choice, but he was basically their only choice for the rest of the season. His opportunity had arrived sooner than anybody could've thought possible.
The results early on were mixed. Banks is always going to have issues with speedy receivers because his top end speed isn't that great. That showed up several times at the beginning of the season. It also appeared he was initially unsure about exactly what he was supposed to do at times, which made him a half-step slower that normal on some plays. He was a pretty sure tackler, but there's a word for guys who tackle well but aren't very good in coverage: linebacker.
Somewhere around the middle of season, the light came on for Banks. He started doing a much better job dropping where he was supposed to drop and anticipating the route combinations he was seeing, breaking on them much quicker.
Suddenly, he was getting his hands on a lot more balls and even plucked a few of them out of the air for good measure. Three of his four interceptions came in Week 9 or later as did eight of his 10 passes defensed. He still has some things to clean up, like his penchant for getting illegal contact and hands to the face penalties at the absolute worst time. Still, Banks ended the season with his arrow pointing upward.
Over the course of the last season, I saw Banks evolve from a guy who was kind of feeling his way around, to a guy who was expecting to make big plays all the time. I think with another offseason under his belt in this system, Johnthan Banks is ready to take off in Lovie Smith's scheme.