NFL Team Previews: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

If there was a team more disappointing in 2011 than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, I’m hard-pressed to think of who it might be. After going 10-6 the prior year and with a young team built around quarterback Josh Freeman, the Bucs not only failed to keep it going, not only regressed, but turned in one of the most shameless tank jobs in sports. They quit on their coach and got Raheem Morris fired. Now they have to rebuild under new boss Greg Schiano and some notable free agents. TheSportsNotebook sizes up the 2012 Buccaneers…

OFFENSE: Freeman turned into an interception machine in a year when he should have been learning how to trim back the mistakes. But there’s no mistaking his talent, and the front office went out and got him a big-time target in free agent receiver Vincent Jackson. Then the team added tight end Dallas Clark, as he escaped the post-Peyton era in Indianapolis. Carl Nicks, a fantastic left guard signed on to join an offensive line that already has good, albeit not great, players. Tampa Bay drafted Doug Martin out of Boise State to join forces with LeGarrette Blount in the backfield. If it’s coming off as though I like this offense, I do. I’d like it even more if guard Davin Joseph hadn’t been lost for the year in the preseason and my liking certainly depends on Freeman cutting back the mistakes and finding his 2010 form again. I think the toys he has to play with at the skill positions, the protection from the line and the focus the entire team should have under the new coaching staff will be what Freeman needs.

DEFENSE: This is about as true a 4-3 team as there is, with a high-quality defensive front and a low-quality linebacking corps. Adrian Clayborn and Michael Bennett make for a good pair of defensive ends. They need to pick up the sack totals, from 7.5 and 4 respectively, but they’ve got the talent, they’re young and they’re already good NFL players. Gerald McCoy is the same on the interior. Then you get to linebacker and the nicest thing there is to be said is that Mason Foster is 23-years-old and Lavonte David is 22 and a rookie. They can get better.

Defensive back is more of a mixed bag. The corners, where Aqib Talib is solid and Eric Wright decent, are in good shape. The safeties are two players at opposite extremes of their careers. Mark Barron, a strong safety out of Alabama that I really like makes his NFL debut. And Ronde Barber continues to keep playing football is at free safety, though at 37, his age is evident in his play at this stage.

LAS VEGAS OVER/UNDER WIN PROJECTIONS: 6—Tampa Bay has been out of the playoffs for four years, but two of these seasons have produced 10-6 and 9-7 records, under Morris and Jon Gruden respectively, so it hasn’t been raw misery in Tampa. It’s just when they’ve been bad, they’ve been genuinely awful. But I don’t think they’re going to be bad this year. The issue they’ll face is the quality of competition in the NFC in general and the NFC South in particular, so it will be a battle to get back to .500. But the potential is there, I certainly don’t think they’d do any worse than 6-10, so I’ll take the Over.