NFL DRAFT NEEDS: NFC SOUTH Falcons | Panthers | Saints OVERVIEW
Tampa Bay endured their worst season in 18 years under first-year head coach Raheem Morris, but there are some positives to take out of the mess. First, rookie quarterback Josh Freeman looked like the future franchise passer the Bucs were expecting when they selected him 17th overall last April. He took over in week nine and upset the Green Bay Packers with a 38-28 victory in his first career start. Freeman went through typical growing pains as he threw 18 interceptions to 10 touchdowns, but showed a strong arm and poise. The future looks bright with the big signal caller under center. Second, a miserable defense that allowed 29.4 points per game through the first 10 weeks saw great improvement when Morris took over play-calling duties down the stretch. During the Bucs final six contests, the defense allowed just 17.7 points per game with Morris leading the unit. The head coach is slated to continue calling the defensive plays in 2010.
Morris and Mark Dominik, who became the league's second-youngest general manager when he was promoted last offseason, will continue trying to rebuild the Bucs with their 11 draft picks. Tampa Bay currently holds selections No. 3, 35, 42, 67, 101, 153, 172, 210, 217, 232 and 253. As is expected of a team coming off a 3-13 season, the Bucs have plenty of needs.
If Josh Freeman is going to continue developing, he will need weapons around him. Wide receiver Antonio Bryant, the team's franchise player in 2009, left in free agency. For reasons that still remain a mystery, the team re-signed Michael Clayton to a big contract after the 2008 season. Clayton has yet to live up to the promise he showed as a rookie and registered career-lows with 16 catches for 230 yards. Sammie Stroughter was a nice find in the seventh-round last April, but the Bucs are going to need a lot more talent around Freeman. Two receivers known to have visited Tampa Bay are Oklahoma State's Dez Bryant and Syracuse's Mike Williams.
The Bucs' offensive line was dealt a bad hand when they spent the offseason learning a zone-blocking scheme only to see the team fire offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski just before the start of the regular season. Tampa struggled to run the ball at times and ranked 23rd in rushing yards per game. Left tackle Donald Penn ballooned up to 370 pounds by season's end, but has reportedly trimmed down to 335 in the offseason. The group was hurt by the loss of left guard Aaron Sears, who wasn't medically cleared to play and missed the entire season. Jeremy Zuttah filled in at left guard and struggled. Sears is trying to make a comeback, but it would still be wise to invest in some young interior offensive lineman at some point in the draft.
The defensive line needs a major overhaul. Tampa Bay ranked dead-last against the run and tallied the fifth-lowest number of sacks in the NFL. Starting defensive ends Jimmy Wilkerson and Stylez G. White (formerly Greg White) combined for 12.5 sacks. Even worse, White's 6.5 sacks led the team and Wilkerson is a free agent. Tampa Bay desperately needs to find the pass rusher they thought they were getting when the team drafted the late Gaines Adams fourth overall in 2007. Georgia Tech's Derrick Morgan and East Carolina's C.J. Wilson have visited the Bucs. The interior defensive line is a mess as well. Tampa Bay's defensive tackles got pushed off the ball for most of the season and Roy Miller is the only one who showed some promise. The Bucs have met with several defensive tackle prospects including Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh, Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy and UCLA's Brian Price. With the third overall pick, it is widely believed Tampa Bay will select Suh or McCoy, depending on who's available.
Tampa Bay was good against the pass, as they ranked 10th allowing just 207.4 aerial yards per game. Perhaps it should come as no surprise considering Morris is a former defensive backs coach. Still, Ronde Barber is 35-years old and beginning to slow down. Tampa Bay will need a quality cornerback to play opposite Aqib Talib. Two candidates the team has met with are Patrick Robinson of Florida State and Amari Spievey of Iowa. Sabby Piscitelli has been a major disappointment at strong safety since being selected in the second round of the 2007 draft. Sean Jones was signed in free agency, but the team could still use a young player to compete with the two. The Bucs have met with Eric Berry of Tennessee, but will likely opt to address the need at safety later in the draft.
Other prospects Tampa Bay has hosted on visits include offensive tackles Russell Okung of Oklahoma State and Will Barker of Virginia, Idaho guard Mike Iupati, Florida linebacker Brandon Spikes and Oregon tailback LeGarrette Blount.
FRANCHISE PLAYER: None.
TRANSITION PLAYER: None.
UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: S Will Allen (signed with Pittsburgh), WR Antonio Bryant (signed with Cincinnati), LB Angelo Crowell (re-signed for one-year), S Jermaine Phillips (was not re-signed), DE Jimmy Wilkerson (was not re-signed)
RESTRICTED FREE AGENTS: WR Mark Bradley (received original-round tender at $1.226 million and signed), T Donald Penn (received first- and third-round tender at $3.268 million), LB Barrett Ruud (received first- and third-round tender at $3.268 million), WR Maurice Stovall (received original-round tender at $1.176 million and signed), T Jeremy Trueblood (received original-round tender at $1.176 million), RB Carnell Williams (received first-round tender at $2.621 million), WR Brian Clark (was not tendered, signed with Detroit), LB Matt McCoy (was not tendered, signed with Seattle), FB Byron Storer (was not tendered), LB Rod Wilson (was not tendered)
EXCLUSIVE RIGHTS FREE AGENTS: CB Elbert Mack (received tender), RB Clifton Smith (received tender)
PLAYERS RE-SIGNED: LB Angelo Crowell, WR Mark Bradley, WR Maurice Stovall
PLAYERS ACQUIRED: WR Reggie Brown (via trade with Philadelphia), LB Jon Alston, S Sean Jones (signed for two-years),
PLAYERS LOST: P Josh Bidwell (signed with Washington), CB Torrie Cox, P Dirk Johnson, S Will Allen, WR Antonio Bryant, S Jermaine Phillips, DE Jimmy Wilkerson, WR Brian Clark, FB Bryon Storer, LB Rod Wilson
DEFENSIVE TACKLE -- The interior of Tampa Bay's defensive line was atrocious and struggled to stop the run. There's a high chance the Bucs will grab Ndamukong Suh or Gerald McCoy with the third overall pick. Either player would be a huge upgrade and give the team the disruptive presence they have lacked in the middle since the Warren Sapp days.
DEFENSIVE END -- The 6.5 sacks registered by starting defensive end Stylez G. White were a team-high. Jimmy Wilkerson, the starter opposite White, came in second with six sacks but wasn't re-signed in the offseason. Tampa Bay whiffed on 2007 first-round pick Gaines Adams, who was traded to Chicago before tragically passing away. The team desperately needs to find a quality defensive end that can get to the quarterback.
WIDE RECEIVER -- Antonio Bryant was allowed to walk in free agency and signed with Cincinnati. Michael Clayton continues to underachieve since a great rookie campaign in 2004. Sammie Stroughter looks to be a quality receiver, but there is very little depth outside of him. The Buccaneers need to provide Josh Freeman with some dynamic weapons at receiver to continue his development.
CORNERBACK -- The always durable Ronde Barber is starting to show his age at 35. Aqib Talib is a quality starter on one side, but Tampa Bay needs to find Barber's replacement sooner rather than later.
SAFETY -- The team brought in Sean Jones to push Sabby Piscitelli, who has been a disaster at safety. Still, Jones isn't a long-term solution if Piscitelli fails to shed his bust label. The Bucs should look for a safety at some point in the draft.
OFFENSIVE LINE -- Tampa Bay should invest in a young interior offensive lineman as an insurance policy in case Arron Sears can't return to form.