When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers walked off the field after beating the New Orleans Saints in their regular-season finale, they did so knowing they had reached 10 victories. They achieved that total battling through an injury list that was probably as long as the faces of the players when they found out later that night that they didn't make the playoffs.
Those 10 victories didn't get the Bucs into the postseason, but it did something almost as important.
It showed progress.
Ask any other general manager or coach in the league to point to a young team on the rise, one they fear in the coming years, and Tampa Bay will get a lot of mention.
Coach Raheem Morris has instilled a cocky attitude with this team and quarterback Josh Freeman is the building block to make long-term success more than just a hope.
Freeman established himself as one of the best young quarterbacks in the league, although he did it in relative obscurity compared to some of the other young passers. Freeman threw 25 touchdown passes and six interceptions and his infectious work ethic has rubbed off on the rest of the team.
"He's there early in the morning and late at night and guys see that," Morris said. "They follow him."
Tampa Bay finished third in the NFC South behind Atlanta and New Orleans last season. To leap them, the Bucs have to improve their pass rush. That's where this draft will be key.
Tampa Bay general manager Mark Dominik had a stellar draft last year, getting four rookie starters. He has to come close to that again this season if the Bucs are to plug some major holes.
|Five possibilities: Bucs|
Ryan Kerrigan, DE, Purdue: He might not be there when the Bucs pick in the first round, but he would be a perfect fit. His relentless style would fit nicely on their line.
Aldon Smith, DE, Missouri: Like Kerrigan, the Bucs might have to hope he falls to them.
Brandon Harris, CB, Miami: Ronde Barber's age and the Aqib Talib's legal situation could force an early pick on a corner.
Aaron Williams, CB/S, Texas: He played corner at Texas and with his size would be a fit in the Tampa scheme. He could also move inside to safety.
Jabaal Sheard, DE, Pittsburgh: He is a pass rusher whose stock is on the rise. He should be available in the first round when the Bucs pick.
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The biggest hole is defensive end. The good news is that this draft has some top-tier pass rushers available. Tampa Bay could use its first-round pick on a pass rusher.
The pending legal troubles for corner Aqib Talib could impact their drafting as well. He is facing charges in Texas for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon -- a second-degree felony that's punishable by five to 20 years in prison.
This is not the first time Talib has been in trouble in Tampa. He was suspended for a game last year after an incident involving a cab driver. Talib's problems could lead the Bucs to draft a corner early, maybe in the first round.
Dominik has done a nice job in his first two seasons running the team. His Year 3 draft should decide if this is a playoff team or not in 2011.
QB: Freeman is a gym rat. He loves the game. He loves working at it and he's a film nut. It's why he has quickly made himself into a franchise quarterback. Freeman is big, strong and has a good arm. As he grows as a passer, his numbers will be even better. There is not a lot to pick apart about this player. He will be special. Backups Josh Johnson and Rudy Carpenter don't offer much. Johnson has started games, so he's capable for the short term. He also plays in some Wildcat packages, which should be used less and less as Freeman grows.
RB: The move to claim LeGarrette Blount off waivers from the Titans paid off big. He led all rookies in rushing, although his inability to block right away limited his play early on. He is a tough runner who fits the Tampa Bay scheme. He will be the feature back for a few years. Cadillac Williams is the backup. He doesn't have the pop he once had, but he's good catching the ball. Earnest Graham is the fullback. He is undersized for the position, but gets the job done. Don't be shocked to see a pick at some point by the Bucs on a young back, maybe a speed guy.
WR: Rookie Mike Williams was the steal of the 2010 draft. He was taken in the fourth round because of off-field issues and quickly showed first-round ability. He was a 16-game starter who will only get better. He's big, fast and competitive. Arrelious Benn, a second-round pick, took time to get rolling, but he came on midway through the season before suffering a torn ACL in the 15th game of the season. If he's healthy, he should start opposite Williams. The Bucs love slot receiver Sammie Stroughter and young players Dezmon Briscoe and Preston Parker. They feel they have a real steal in Briscoe, who they signed after Cincinnati waived him. It is a young group, but it is a group that has a lot of potential, especially with Williams.
TE: Kellen Winslow remains a top target in the passing game. He had 66 catches and six touchdowns. Freeman loves using him in the middle of the field. He causes matchup troubles for linebackers. There isn't much behind him. They could use a good blocking tight end.
OL: When healthy, the Bucs have a talented line. But injuries slowed the group some last season. Center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph ended up on injured reserve. Joseph, when healthy, is their best lineman. He could be a free agent, but the Bucs would love to have him back. Faine has played well since signing as a free agent. In his absence, Jeremy Zuttah took over. He did a nice job considering he has been a guard for much of his career. Left tackle Donald Penn played at a Pro Bowl level. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood played through a knee injury and lost his job to James Lee. Those two will have a battle to win the job this summer. Ted Larsen, picked up after being waived by New England, played well at right guard and should start again.
DL: When your leading pass rusher has 4½ sacks, there are problems. The Bucs must fix that. The ends are just guys on this defense. Stylez White plays hard, but he should be a backup and not starting. The same goes for Kyle Moore and Tim Crowder. But they all have been pressed into duty because of a lack of talent at the position. The tackles have promise. Gerald McCoy, last year's first-round pick, and Brian Price, the team's second-round pick last April, will form a nice 1-2 punch inside. They both ended up on IR last season. McCoy has a chance to be special and the coaches love Price. Roy Miller, Al Woods and Frank Okam provide a nice group to go with the two young players.
LB: They have some questions here. Both middle linebacker Barrett Ruud and strong-side linebacker Quincy Black might be free agents. The Bucs would love to have both back, but the price will be the deciding factor. Ruud had led the team in tackles the past four seasons, but he isn't the star you would think. He's good, not great. Black has amazing athletic ability and has a chance to be special. But he is coming off a season ended by a broken arm. Geno Hayes is the other starter. He has good speed but is a bit undersized and gets overwhelmed at the point of attack at times. Dakota Watson, Adam Hayward and Tyrone McKenzie are the backups. They like Watson's potential. This is an area that could be addressed early in the draft.
DB: Talib's legal status is a big issue here. When he's on the field, he's one of the top cover players in the NFC. He had six interceptions before a hip injury ended his season in the final month. He is big and fast and has good ball skills. Ronde Barber, the other corner, is on his last legs. He's a smart player who excels in Tampa's Cover-2 scheme. He is also a capable blitzer off the edge when he slides inside in the nickel. The Bucs think they can get at least one good year out of him. E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis are two young corners the Bucs like. Some scouts think Lewis would be a better safety, but Bucs brass insists he can play corner. Sean Jones starts at one safety and he is serviceable. Rookie Cody Grimm took over as the starter last season and played well before breaking a leg. There is a chance the Bucs could get back Tanard Jackson. He was suspended indefinitely after the second game for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. He could be back if he is reinstated. If so, he would be a nice addition. Jackson is a good player when he's on the field.