BRADENTON, Fla. -- It's rather commonplace in the NFL for a team to rise from the ashes in one season, spark optimism, and then plateau, if not regress (Bengals anyone?). The sharp edge that initially generated motivation tends to turn to comfort food and what looked like a team on the rise recoils, sometimes in chaos.
The ingredients are there for that to happen in Tampa, but I don't see it.
Will Bucs keep, add to talent?
Key players like offensive linemen Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood, running back Cadillac Williams and linebacker Barrett Ruud are set to be free agents. Re-signing Joseph is a priority, but who is to say he's not being targeted by another team(s)? While Joseph said that he wants to return, the team's commitment to its other free agents is crucial in his decision. If it does show the desire to keep those players, it tells Joseph that the Bucs are serious about winning. Showing him the money will tell him if they're serious about retaining him.
I understand Joseph's emotional ties to his teammates, but if the team can find better players then it has to be smart. It could mean a step back in the short term, since new talent will have a hard time being incorporated with little more than training camp to prepare for the season. Still, every team is dealing with the same situation.
Hunger still there?
Upstarts like wide receiver Mike Williams, running back LeGarrette Blount and safety Cody Grimm were on a mission to prove themselves after being slighted in the 2010 draft. All three were better than expected as rookies. But will they remain hungry? Williams and Grimm were among the 40 or so players at a three-day minicamp quarterback Josh Freeman and a few other teammates arranged at the IMG Academy this week. Blount wasn't there on Day 1 but supposedly has been at other player workouts.
Though Tampa Bay has a young roster, coach Raheem Morris has taught players how to take ownership in the team. Based on how these guys interact, a lack of focus or desire won't be tolerated -- by anyone.
Can kids keep performing?
Tampa Bay's reliance on young talent worked last season. Will it work again? The Bucs are hoping to start the season with a defensive line made up of two second-year tackles (Gerald McCoy and Brian Price) and rookie defensive ends (Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers). There is decent veteran depth. It could be asking a lot for that foursome to contend in the short term against NFC South teams that all have better-than-average offensive lines.
The Bucs need to be solid on the back end to mask any growing pains of the front seven. Which leads us to ...
Talib's future in doubt
Cornerback Aqib Talib is a Pro Bowl talent, but his felony gun charges in Texas could -- at the very least -- result in an NFL suspension, even if the legal system doesn't address the alleged incident until well into the season. Commissioner Roger Goodell is serious on any situation involving a gun. Plus, Talib has been disciplined before.
The Buccaneers have to protect themselves by adding a cornerback in free agency. Though they're not big spenders, now is the time to pursue Oakland's Nnamdi Asomugha or Cincinnati's Johnathan Joseph or one of the other quality cornerbacks. That would signal to everyone just how serious this team is about winning. Even if Talib gets to play, quality depth at cornerback can never be underestimated (See Green Bay Packers).
Talib has attended several player workouts this offseason, including the minicamp at IMG. Even though he's well-liked by teammates and is working hard, it's difficult to overlook the uncertainty surrounding him.
Freeman holding things together
The main reason the Bucs should contend for a playoff spot is likely simpler than all of this, though. The reason is Freeman. He's a quarterback on the rise. When I asked him how he can do better than the 25 touchdowns to just six interceptions he threw last season, he seriously looked at me and broke it down like this:
"Throw more touchdowns and fewer interceptions."
He wasn't playing. There are no excuses in his repertoire and he clearly doesn't think he's arrived. Besides his leadership, his skill set and his incredible desire to work to be good, Freeman's teammates believe in him to the fullest. Standout offensive lineman Donald Penn, every time he sees me, says, "Free is a beast." He said it again during this minicamp, and his words never imply anything to do with Freeman's physical ability.
In fact, Penn said the main reason he and so many other offensive and defensive linemen showed for a non-contact minicamp that they won't derive much from is because Freeman asked. That's all he had to do, Penn said, adding again, "Free is a beast."
Players on the mend
» Second-year wide receiver Aurelius Benn, who tore the ACL in his left knee last season, ran routes on the first day of the minicamp at least at three-quarter speed if not at full speed. It would not be a surprise if he's ready to play early in the season.
» Price, who is recovering from pelvic surgery, has done some light running but did not go through drills.
» Tight end Kellen Winslow looked to be in very good shape and very crisp.
» Under-the-radar-player-to-watch: Running back Kregg Lumpkin, who the Bucs signed off Green Bay's practice squad, is well liked by the coaching staff and the front office. He could have an expanded role, even if the Bucs re-sign Williams.