TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers finished 3-13 last season and dealt with the growing pains of starting a rookie quarterback for the last nine weeks. Now they feel its time to cash in on their investment.
The team's front office and coaching staff continued the youth movement in the offseason and its possible four rookies will start this year. That would bring the number of projected starters with fewer than three years of experience to eight (plus the punter). These numbers are fluid, however, given how the preseason can change the depth chart.
Raheem Morris can motivate his young team, but until the real games start, it will be impossible to determine if this talented group can win games this year. A few years from now they could be a force in the NFC South with Josh Freeman, their 6-foot-6, 260-pound signal-caller. For now, however, they are a fearless group ready for an uphill climb towards respectability.
The Bucs have four of their first six games at home and a few of those games are winnable. A fast start would help their confidence, and allow them to build on last season's 2-1 finish.
» Freeman has a presence on the field and this has clearly become his team. After sitting down with him and watching him work, I'm convinced he's ready for the challenge.
» Earnest Graham has been moved to fullback, and it's a good move because of Graham's receiving ability and blocking skills.
» Keep your eye on E.J. Biggers, a 2009 seventh-round pick, to make a strong run at the nickel corner job. Biggers is having a strong camp and has caught the attention of the coaches and front office.
» There's a really good battle at strong safety, where last year's starter, Sabby Piscitelli, is competing against veteran Sean Jones. When it's all over, I still think there is reason to use a "big nickel" package with both players on the field.
» Look for the Bucs to move away from the traditional Tampa 2 package they made famous over the years. Elements of it will still be present, but expect more blitzing and pressure calls.
» Sixth-year middle linebacker Barrett Ruud got caught in an uncapped salary situation this year and knows an injury could end his career and leave him on the outside looking in when it comes to getting a big contract. Ruud, however, is not like a number of players that refuse to practice, and complain to the media. He told me he would not do anything to hurt his team.
» Michael Clayton, the team's 2004 first-rounder, is going to have to work really hard to make this team as a fourth or fifth receiver.
» Gerald McCoy, the third overall pick, will start as the 3-technique and give the Bucs a defensive tackle with Warren Sapp qualities. Morris and McCoy were both quick to dispel the comparisons to Sapp, but watching McCoy practice brings plenty of excitement. He is disruptive and is getting great work against veteran guard Davin Joseph.
» Second-round DT Brian Price has been injured and missed a few practices, but he is very anxious to get back on the field. Price and McCoy are going to make a combination that may someday resemble Booger McFarland and Warren Sapp.
» Second-round WR Arrelious Benn is working at "Z" receiver, or flanker spot, and has already shined as a blocker, while he works on his route running. He might not start in Week 1, but he should get there in his rookie season.
» Fourth-round WR Mike Williams is the talk of camp and is already penciled in as a starter. I sat down with Williams after practice and I talked with him about route running and catching the ball, rather than the issues that followed him from Syracuse where he left the team in midseason. He is taking his second chance very seriously, and as one coach said to me, "All I know is he's been great to work with here."
» Cadillac Williams is looking like his old self, running the ball with power and elusiveness.
» Guard Jeremy Zuttah is in a battle to keep his job with recently signed veteran Keydrick Vincent pushing him hard.
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» Watching the backup quarterbacks trying to run the offense when Freeman takes a break is not always a pretty sight. The Bucs might consider signing a veteran QB that would give them some insurance and help mentor Freeman.
"The linemen all respect Earnest and we bring him out to dinner with us, but he never pays. Only kidding." -- Jeff Faine, on Earnest Graham
The Bucs are in a very tough division with the Saints and a much-improved Falcons team. Last year they were 1-5 in the NFC South. This team will be better, but with so many young players and a pass rush that needs to be developed, it is still a work in progress. The Bucs will win more than the three they won last year, but getting to 8-8 is probably unrealistic.