Late Season Review (It's Long!)
This is a late season look at the Bucs, with the intent of pointing out what is clearly right and wrong with this team, and what needs to be done going forward. With the team 3-8 as of this writing, it’s clear that the Bucs’ season is effectively over. Now it’s all about pride and draft position. The Bucs appear to be set to draft in the top 10 this off-season, which will help the Bucs continue to recover from the lost picks from the Keyshawn, Kenyatta, and Gruden deals.
Let me break down each of the three main areas of the team individually, as they clearly must be treated as such.
On offense the Bucs appear to have finally built up some talent on the offensive line, assuming Buenning, who has now been placed on IR, will be back to full strength next season. The only really weak area is at Center.
The skill positions appear to be pretty solid as well.
The one question mark really left on offense is at Quarterback. Will Gradkowski be the long-term guy? Or will Simms be back? Or will some other QB be brought in through FA or the draft? This is the one position that must be taken care of going into next season. If Bruce is the guy, then they need to work hard to make him the QB they need. If not, they need to get the right guy in here. Gruden’s offense is very reliant on the QB play, and that’s the key to seeing this offense become explosive. The plays have been there, but the throws often have not. Until that’s resolved, the offense will muddle around in the lower half of the league. But once the QB play becomes average or better, the offense has the firepower to be in the top third of the league. Offensive draft picks should be rare this year, as offense is just not a big need area.
Let’s be honest here…the defense we know and love has gone bye-bye. The lack of a top tier defense is the single biggest reason why this team is in the toilet. Knowing that fact, the defense needs to be fixed at all costs, and with Bucs likely to have at least 4 picks in the first 70-75 draft selections, as well as around $25-28 million in cap space for free agents, this is the year to rebuild it. Normally a rebuild project of this magnitude would be a multi-year thing, but the Bucs have ridden the defense for all it’s worth while using the last 3 drafts to really fix the offense. With that apparently accomplished, the Bucs can focus almost exclusively on defense this off-season.
There are 4 things that make this defense work when it’s humming: 1) disruptive Under Tackle play, 2) sideline-to-sideline Weakside Linebacker play, 3) physical Cornerback play, and 4) playmaking Safties in run and pass support. Let me address each.
The UT spot is the lynch pin to the play of the defensive line. As we’ve seen over the last few weeks, the removal of McFarland has led to slightly better pass rushing, and superior run stopping from the defensive line. This is with Wyms sidelined with injuries and former practice squad guys starting in his place. If the Bucs can find or draft someone that can play at or near the level that Sapp did during his younger years, then the rest of the defensive line will morph into a much better pass rushing line. Hovan is getting more pressure on the QB because of better play next to him. If Rice was 100% healthy, we would probably have a very strong pass rush right now. White is solid, but
The Weakside Linebacker spot has been manned by one of the best ever, Derrick Brooks, but he’s not getting the job done like he used to. The key to the WLB spot in the Tamp 2 is speed. The Will has to be able to cover a large area of the field, and that can’t be done without the kind of sideline-to-sideline speed we’ve seen from Derrick over the years. In my opinion, and apparently some others, Derrick should be slid over to the Strongside (Sam) replacing Nece, who is likely to never be better than average. Then they can put Winborn in at the Will and see if he can play it with the speed we need, and with enough instincts to make this position go again. Derrick would be outstanding at the Sam, because it doesn’t need the speed, just solid instincts and tackling, both of which Brooks is likely to maintain for at least a few more years, should he choose to stay that long. Ruud is already showing himself to be a very good MLB, and will only get better. Finding out if Winborn is the future at the Will is key, because if he isn’t then someone needs to be brought in or drafted. Lance Briggs may be one of the first FA targets of the Bucs. They have the cash to throw at him, only, he would have to change his number if Brooks is still here.
Physical corner play is pretty much intact when Kelly isn’t injured. With Zemaitis on the roster, his replacement/back-up is there. Getting Bolden back to Nickel would be big, as Bolden has become pretty solid starting, but would be much better at the Nickel, and would make it tough for teams to pass or run against our corners. The Bucs need to look at drafting to replacing Barber who is not making plays as often as he used to. I wouldn’t be surprised if Barber retired within the next two years, so getting a replacement in here should be on the list of needs this off-season. Overall, the corners aren’t a huge need if Kelly can comeback healthy next year and stay that way, but future starters would be nice to pick up. If an upgrade can be found in FA, then the Bucs should go for it, as well.
Now we get to the real trouble spot. It’s bad enough to have the other 3 areas not playing the way the Bucs need them. So far this season, the play at Will and at the Corners has been good enough, though not great. Without the pressure up front, however, the Safeties become exposed. And once that happens, you find out just how good, or bad, they are. In our case, as we’ve seen, the Safety play has been atrocious. There is simply no other way to say it. They stink. Allen and Phillips need to be replaced. The Bucs need to look high and low to find themselves 2 starting safeties and a solid back-up or two. Last year we saw that, with Dexter Jackson playing it was harder for teams to beat us deep. But we were still vulnerable because either Allen or Phillips was playing with him. Get two solid safeties back there and this defense will suddenly be tough to pass on. If the Bucs are can only fix two things on this defense, the Safeties and the UT spot are the one’s they must address first. Fixing those two areas would turn this defense back into a top 10 defense immediately.
Ultimately, with all the cash and draft picks, the Bucs should address every need this off-season and get this defense turned around.
If the Bucs needed to really address any areas on this unit, it would be the returners and the kicker. The punter is safe, and the rest of the group is good enough. The Bucs should really look at trying to find a guy that can return kicks and punts and do so with the best in the league. They might be able to find a guy in FA, or they could draft a guy in the later rounds to attempt to do just that. But spending too much time, money, or draft picks would be unwise, as we are getting good play here as it is.
The field goal kicker, however, is one where the Bucs may want to upgrade. It’s tough to be certain, however, has Bryant has been hitting the kicks of late, and may have simply had an early season slump. Overall, though, Special Teams doesn’t look to be a need, or even a priority, this off-season. Fix the defense, and this team can return to the play-off’s next year, assuming the QB play is improved on offense.
So, to close this lengthy post out, the defense is where the Bucs must spend their assets this off-season. Get a pass rusher or two, a top notch UT, find Brooks’ replacement, get some more corners, but, for the love of God, get some friggin’ Safeties!! While this season has been a great disappointment, it may have come at just the right time to give the Bucs a lot of top picks just when they needed them most, combined with the money to get some top tier FA’s to help as well. These two things will make this off-season one of the more memorable one’s in years.