Team Overview: An aggressive 2012 offseason for the Buccaneers looked like it was going to pay off in spades early as a four-game winning streak in the middle of the season put Tampa Bay, at 6-4, squarely in the middle of the playoff picture. Unfortunately, a 1-5 record down the stretch took the shine off that surprisingly strong start.
However, the Bucs batting average last offseason shouldn't be discounted when we start looking at what they might do in free agency and the draft this season. Tampa Bay hired Greg Schiano who, despite ruffling more than a few feathers around the league with some of his decisions, greatly improved the output of this team from 2011.
It didn't hurt that Mark Domenik crushed his roster moves either. Doug Martin, Mark Barron and Lavonte David were all home runs in the draft. Carl Nicks and Vincent Jackson were superb additions in free agency. It was the one position -- cornerback -- that Tampa Bay didn't address, that ultimately burned them last year.
What the Depth Chart Tells You: This is a very potent offense, depending on whether Josh Freeman is running hot or cold. He received a vote of confidence from Schiano at the NFL Combine, but there have to be questions about his long-term viability. For now he's slinging the rock, however, and if 2010 Josh Freeman shows up, watch out. Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams are a dynamic pair of wideouts. Donald Penn and Nicks lock up the left side of the line. Doug Martin would've won the Rookie of the Year award in most other others and is the perfect sort of back for this day and age.
Defensively the Bucs are facing some problems, however. They invested four early-round picks in defensive lineman and the return on investment is currently questionable. Gerald McCoy had a monster season in 2012 (don't tell anyone, but he's better than Ndamukong Suh if he's healthy, as he was last year) but Brian Price is already out of Tampa, potential star Adrian Clayborne is coming back from an early-season ACL injury, and Da'Quan Bowers was recently arrested at a New York airport with a firearm. As painful as it is to say, they need more help on the defensive line, especially with Michael Bennett leaving as an unrestricted free agent.
The secondary is a mess too. Eric Wright ended up being an alright investment last year, but there's plenty of chatter about the Bucs cutting him. Aqib Talib was dealt to the Patriots for a fourth-round in the middle of last year. Barron's a potential stud, but he can't do it all by himself, and there's not telling if Ronde Barber, an unrestricted free agent, will be back.
Ideal Free-Agent and Draft Strategy: Fortunately for the Bucs, they're loaded with cap space yet again. Whether or not they use it could determine how much success they have in the coming year -- this is a stacked market for cornerbacks in terms of free agency and the draft and Tampa would be wise to spend on a pair of defensive backs who can alter their gameplan.
It's a little curious they didn't tag Bennett, but Tampa Bay can still re-sign him before (or after) he hits free agency on March 12, and it wouldn't be that surprising if they did. If that doesn't happen, Tampa could also pursue someone like Cliff Avril, or seek to add a pass-rusher in the draft, though there might be questions about how many 4-3 ends in this class would be good value at No. 13. Tampa was active in trading during the draft last season, so seeing something similar this year wouldn't be a stunner.
As far as cornerback goes, Xavier Rhodes is an option in the draft (good luck trading up to get Dee Milliner, although that would help quite a bit, ha) and Sean Smith is available if the Bucs really want to drop cash on a tall, young cornerback who might not be a total stud. Chris Houston (another former Lions defensive back!) and Brent Grimes (hurt a division rival) could make sense too as potentially more expensive options. If they get financially aggressive after Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie or Cary Williams, well, I'll be less bullish on them next year than I might otherwise be.
What Will Happen in 2013: The Buccaneers could take another step forward, but things have to break right again. They need to work free agency and the draft the way they did in 2012 -- a possibility given the economic setup of positional scarcity this offseason -- and Freeman needs to become more consistent. If that happens and they don't suffer a rash of injuries, Tampa Bay could make some serious noise next year.