By Steven Levy
So here we are, finally, one day away from rookies reporting and merely one week away from Training Camp 2012 – the first real taste of the Greg Schiano era. You get the feeling that Coach Schiano, he of the famous 1440 minutes, 86,400 seconds per day mantra, is having a harder time than any of us dealing with the wait for the season to start.
So where are we? What kind of shape is this team really in? We’ll go through a position by position A – F graded assessment for the pre preseason.
QB – it all begins and ends here in terms of the team’s success. Yes, we all know that Josh Freeman has lost some weight this offseason, as if that’s the magic bullet in his return to good play. And while it’s an element of course, there are several other things that are more relevant. I think his relationship with new offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan cannot be understated. Not only will a new offense be implemented, Sullivan will be working with Freeman (as well as QB coach Ron Turner) on a daily basis to be sure that his concepts are implemented to his liking. Sullivan did a good job molding Eli Manning into a top 5 NFL QB. The tools are all there for Freeman. Clearly he was pushing it last year, trying to make things happen and obviously felt beholden to Kellen Winslow, resulting in forced passes and interceptions. Everything changes this year. Grade: B
RB – the Bucs officially become a two headed running team. With the drafting of Doug Martin the Bucs have made the statement that Lagarette Blount will be sharing the load. The Bucs will be interested in getting Martin established early. This will make Blount that much more effective. Also look for Mike Smith, the speedy back from Utah State to get some early looks. He has great potential as a 3rd down back in the Darren Sproles mold. And don’t overlook Moises Madu – he gets a fresh start as well. But make no mistake, the Bucs will run the ball early and often. Grade: C+
Receivers – we all know about Vincent Jackson. The big signing. Freeman’s new favorite target. Etc. but what I’m most excited about is how this affects all of the other talented receivers on the roster. Mike Williams thrived when he was an unknown quantity and struggled as ‘the man’. He is no longer the man and much closer to being if not the forgotten man, than certainly less of a threat. Jackson should make him a better receiver. Ditto Benn. Benn may have more raw talent than Williams but has never really put it together. He too gets a clean slate. Preston Parker could really thrive in this environment. Dez Briscoe, if he can get his head out of his ass, could as well. At TE veteran Dallas Clark replaces Winslow. He might be the perfect mentor for Luke Stocker, who the Bucs will be counting on. Grade: B
Offensive Line – yet another upgraded position. Carl Nicks gives the o-line true attitude. I believe we have the best guard tandem in the league. Blount and Martin will enjoy running to the left in this offense. Donald Penn and Carl Nicks are 700+ lbs of road grading offensive linemen. Jeremy Zuttah is back at his natural position at center. Jeremy Trueblood merely needs to hold his ground and not have stupid penalties to do his part. Grade: B+
Defensive line – nowhere are there as many question marks as there are on the D line. The projected starter at left end (DaQuan Bowers) has a torn Achilles, one DT (Brian Price) is still coming back from significant injury as well as a traumatic offseason, the other DT (Gerald McCoy) is coming off his second season ending bicep injury and is trying to avoid two labels – ‘bust’ and ‘injury prone’, only the right end (Adrian Clayborn) is healthy and has no question marks entering the season. Thankfully the Bucs seem to be prepared. They picked up veterans Amobi Okoye and Gary Gibson as depth inside and they retained the services of Michael Bennett, who played fairly well as a part time starter at left end last season. Grade: C
Linebackers – on paper the biggest weakness on this team. Mason Foster returns to the middle where he should be improved from last season. Quicny black gets another shot to prove that his free agent signing was not a mistake after a subpar and injury riddled 2011. The new blood is Lavonte David, who has much promise. Manning the weakside he will be expected to go sideline to sideline. Dekoda Watson adds decent depth and may play with his hand on the ground in some situations as a hybrid OLB/DE. The success of the linebackers will be predicated in large part by the success of the defensive line. Grade: C-
Secondary – after some true question marks this offseason surrounding the potential starting CB’s, things have settled, seemingly in the Bucs favor. Aqib Talib had his case thrown out; Eric Wright was not prosecuted for his alleged felony DUI. It remains to be seen if Roger Goodell with further discipline. If not, all projected starters in the secondary are intact. Talib and Wright should be solid. The big change is Ronda Barber at FS and rookie Mark Barron at SS. Cody Grimm adds well needed depth. And don’t forget about Ahmad Black, who will get every opportunity to show what he can do. Grade: B
Special teams are also back intact and performed well last year. Conor Barth had a very good year as sdid Michael Koenen. The return game was somewhat anemic but Mike Smith may add a spark in that area.
But none of this preseason prognostication will mean all that much as soon as camp starts. Once the real hitting begins, the cuts start and find out what kind of roster we end up with we’ll do this again with an updated assessment as well as a season prediction. Until then, let’s go to camp!