They were just 7-9 last season and 4-12 the year before, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the vibe of a team with loftier expectations in 2013.
Faced with a subpar defensive ranking against the pass from 2012, the front office moved aggressively to trade for difference-making cornerback Darrelle Revis, sign safety Dashon Goldson to a five-year deal worth more than $41 million and draft highly-touted collegian Johnthan Banks in the second round.
The activity was less noticeable on the offensive side, but the Bucs did dispatch one former 1,000-yard rookie rusher (LeGarrette Blount) to clear the ball-carrying decks for 2012's dynamic arrival -- 1,400-yard sensation Doug Martin -- and they extended another impactful arrival, Vincent Jackson, with a long-term deal that'll pay him more than $55 million for five more seasons.
So, even though they were five games behind the Atlanta Falcons in the chase for the South Division crown last season, the sense is that they feel the ground can be made up.
"We're not going to be last again, I know that much," Revis said. "Last season they were last in pass defense here, and the organization wanted to address that in a big way. Bringing in me and Goldson, and drafting Johnthan, it's awesome. We're going to be fine. We're going to compete."
Any suffocating presence by the defense will take heat off embattled quarterback Josh Freeman, who enters his fifth season with two weighty wild cards -- he's in the last year of his contract, and the Bucs drafted another quarterback, North Carolina State's Mike Glennon, in the third round in April.
Freeman's completion percentage dipped below the 60-percent respectability threshold in 2012, though his touchdown total was up and his interception number went down.
Regardless of the QB controversy, however, he insists it's business as usual on his end and feels confident that a quick break from the gate in September will quiet the whispers.
"We want to come out and have a fast start, that's the main goal," he said. "We have the ability to, for sure. It's just going to be a matter of guys locking in, focusing and ultimately doing their job, and me doing my job as well."
Overall, the task of ensuring improvement falls to second-year coach Greg Schiano, who encountered immediate skeptics upon his arrival from Rutgers University, but hushed at least some of the commentary while guiding the Bucs to six wins in their initial 10 games.
Tampa Bay finished just 7-9, but the three-game boost from Raheem Morris' final season and the tangible difference in mindset earned widespread kudos for Schiano, a longtime friend of the consensus best coach in the business these days -- New England's Bill Belichick.
"I had the opportunity in the last seven or eight years to get to really know him before I came to the Bucs, and there are a lot of things I gleaned from him when I was at Rutgers and he would come down," Schiano said. "I think he's the best, so there's a lot of things, coaching points and things like that. We've always been pretty organized, but just a different way to think of some things."
2012 RECORD: 7-9 (tied for 2nd, NFC South)
LAST PLAYOFF APPEARANCE: 2007, lost to New York Giants in NFC Wild Card Playoff
COACH (RECORD): Greg Schiano (7-9 in one season with Buccaneers)
OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Mike Sullivan (second season with Buccaneers)
DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Bill Sheridan (second season with Buccaneers)
KEY ADDITIONS: CB Johnthan Banks (second round, Mississippi State), G Gabe Carimi (from Bears), OLB Jonathan Casillas (from Saints), TE Tom Crabtree (from Packers), RB Jeff Demps (from Patriots), DE William Gholston (fourth round, Michigan State), QB Mike Glennon (third round, North Carolina State), S Dashon Goldson (from Niners), P Chas Henry (from Eagles), K Nate Kaeding (from Dolphins), DT Derek Landri (from Eagles), FB Brian Leonard (from Bengals), DT Andre Neblett (from Panthers), WR Kevin Ogletree (from Cowboys), CB Darrelle Revis (from Jets), DE George Selvie (from Jaguars), DT Akeem Spence (fourth round, Illinois), K Lawrence Tynes (from Giants).
KEY SUBTRACTIONS: S Ronde Barber (retired), WR Arrelious Benn (to Eagles), DE Michael Bennett (to Seahawks), CB E.J. Biggers (to Redskins), OLB Quincy Black (free agent), RB LeGarrette Blount (to Patriots), TE Dallas Clark (to Ravens), CB Brandon McDonald (free agent), DT Roy Miller (to Jaguars), WR Sammie Stroughter (free agent), OT Jeremy Trueblood (to Redskins).
QB: Incumbent starter Freeman enters his fifth season with the Buccaneers, and, similar to 2009 draft mate Mark Sanchez in New York, could be nearing a crossroads with the team. The 6-foot-6, 240-pounder has no real training camp competition this season, but the third-round selection of Glennon from North Carolina State in April may be indicative of his fate when free agency beckons after 2013. Freeman's completion rate dipped from 62.8 to 54.8 last season, though his TDs were up by 11 (16 to 27) and his INTs dropped from 22 to 17.
Also on the depth chart in the summer are veteran journeyman Dan Orlovsky and novice Adam Weber.
RB: The versatile Martin was a rookie sensation on Florida's Gulf coast last season while rumbling for 1,454 yards, catching 49 passes and scoring 12 times. He went for four TDs and 251 yards in a Week 9 shootout with Oakland and wound up hitting triple-digits five times in 16 games. His per-carry average was a shade better than 4.5 and his emergence made another former 1,000-yard rookie, Blount, expendable via trade to New England.
Behind him at tailback are seventh-year man Brian Leonard and rookie Mike James. Also among those present for the summertime are veteran Peyton Hillis, a former Madden cover boy whose career has stalled since he went for more than 1,110 yards for Cleveland in 2010.
Slotted as No. 1 at fullback is 265-pounder Erik Lorig, a seventh-round pick from 2010 who's hung around to appear in 40 games since his selection, though he has yet to get an in-game carry. He did catch 12 passes last season and scored once.
WR: The Buccaneers struck acquisition gold with the arrival of former San Diego star Jackson last season. Now entering his ninth NFL year, he established a career-high with 72 catches, eclipsed 1,000 yards for the fourth time en route to a career-high 1,384 and led the NFL with a yards-per-catch clip of 19.2 yards -- also his personal best. He scored eight times, including a 95- yarder, and gives Freeman a legitimate top end target through the air.
Jackson's arrival coincided with the continued emergence of No. 2 man Mike Williams, who hauled in 63 passes and fell just four yards short of giving Tampa Bay a pair of 1,000-yard receivers. He also scored nine times and was good for a career-high 15.8 yards per reception.
Ex-Dallas receiver Kevin Ogletree is new in the fold for 2013, and former Rutgers player Tiquan Underwood had 28 catches as a 15.2-yard average in limited time last season.
TE: The exit of veteran Dallas Clark to Baltimore opens the starting assignment door for third-year man Luke Stocker, a 6-foot-5, 258-pounder who caught 12 passes as a rookie in 2011 and upped that number slightly in 2012, to 16, while scoring once and average a shade more than 10 yards per reception. Clark was an experience asset while in Tampa Bay, but his 47 catches aren't exactly irreplaceable.
Fourth-year man Tom Crabtree is second on the Buccaneers' depth chart after catching eight passes in 14 games with Green Bay last season.
OL: Sixth-year man Carl Nicks gets another chance to fulfill the promise at left guard that the Bucs saw in him prior to 2012, when they signed him to a free-agent deal. The 349-pounder made it through just half the season before a toe injury shelved him. Now Nicks is sidelined again with a MRSA infected blister on his surgically repaired foot. While Schiano is optimistic the two- time Pro Bowl selection will be ready for the team's regular- season opener at the New York Jets on Sept., he offered no assurances.
"(We'll) take it very seriously," said Schiano of the injury. "It's not something you mess around with, but it's not your common injury either. So the next question is 'How long will he be (out)?' I don't know that. We've got to let the medicine run its course and see if we can't get that thing straightened out."
Former Rutgers man Jeremy Zuttah shifted left to fill Nicks' spot, but he'll return to his natural center spot for his sixth NFL season. The right guard is 313-pounder Davin Joseph, who was also lost last year with a knee injury, but is set to return for his eighth season.
Eighth-year man Donald Penn, a 340-pounder from Utah State, holds down the starting slot at the left tackle position ahead of youngster Mike Remmers; while 315-pounder Demar Dotson is the No. 1 man at right tackle ahead of Gabe Carimi, a first-round pick of the Chicago Bears in 2011.
DL: Gerald McCoy is back for his fourth season as the starter at left tackle and he'll try to maintain a standard that made the Bucs one of the league's elite at stopping the run. Tampa Bay's foes managed just 82.5 yards per game on the ground -- the stingiest rate in the NFL. His interior linemate is seventh-year man Gary Gibson, a 312-pounder from Rutgers who'll fill the gap left by the exodus of Roy Miller.
On the right and left ends, respectively, are Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers, who were first- and second-round picks in the 2011 draft. The 280- pound Clayborn had 7.5 sacks as a rookie, but has held to just three starts last season by an ACL tear. Bowers, a 288-pounder from Clemson, started 16 games in 2011 but managed just 10 appearances -- with three sacks -- in 2012, thanks to an Achilles injury.
LB: The strength of the Tampa Bay linebacking corps comes in the form of second-year man Lavonte David, a second-round pick out of Nebraska who made a seamless transition while recording 112 tackles, defending five passes and registering a pair of sacks while starting all 16 games as a rookie. He's joined in the middle by Mason Foster, who made 80 tackles and had two sacks in 2012; and on the other side by former seventh-round pick Dekoda Watson, who's made just three starts in 45 games since arriving from Florida State.
Providing depth and perhaps pushing for starting roles are fifth-year man Jonathan Casillas, who had 17 tackles with New Orleans last season; and seventh-year veteran Adam Hayward, who's made 11 starts in six seasons with Tampa Bay.
DB: The Bucs made the highest-profile acquisition of the offseason when they picked up perennial All-Pro cornerback Revis from the New York Jets. Revis missed all but the opener in 2012 with a knee injury, but, at age 28, he's expected to recover fully and was cleared to play in the spring. He'll get immediate tests in an NFC South Division that features twice-yearly exposure to top-flight wide receivers Julio Jones, Roddy White, Marques Colston and Steve Smith. His position mate on the other side of the field is rookie Banks, whom the Bucs plucked from Mississippi State in the second round of April's draft. Second-year man Leonard Johnson could give Banks a push after starting six times as a rookie himself in 2012 and intercepting three passes, including one for a touchdown.
The free safety position got an offseason upgrade as well when Tampa Bay lured Goldson from San Francisco after he intercepted three passes, recovered two fumbles and made 53 tackles en route to a Pro Bowl selection with the Niners in 2012. The free safety is second-year man Mark Barron, who made 72 tackles and had one INT as a rookie. Also available at safety are second-year man Ahmad Black and fourth-year pro Cody Grimm.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Tenth-year veteran Lawrence Tynes was the No. 1 candidate to hold down placekicking duties after a 2012 season with the New York Giants in which he was 33 of 39 overall on field goals -- missing four times inside of 50 yards -- and converted all 46 extra-point tries. Tynes was scheduled to replace incumbent starter Connor Barth, who tore his Achilles in an offseason basketball game, but he is also suffering from a MRSA infection, leaving the door open for veteran Rian Lindell.
Punter Michael Koenen averaged 45.3 yards in 76 kicks last season for the Buccaneers, his second with the team after six seasons in Atlanta. Also on hand is offseason arrival Chas Henry, who had only 16 punts last season with Philadelphia -- albeit for a 48.5-yard average -- after logging a 42.9-yard clip in 16 games with the Eagles as a rookie in 2011.
Youngster Michael Smith gets the first chance to be the No. 1 kickoff returner after three tries for 55 yards last season, though Mike James and Underwood are in the hunt as well. On punts, it's the equally untested Eric Page listed alongside David Douglas and Branden Smith. Jeff Demps, who came over in the LeGarrette Blount trade, spent the offseason working on his track and field career, but could be an impact player on returns if he returns to football.
COACHING: The most newsworthy moments of Schiano's initial season with the Buccaneers came when his defensive line roughed up Eli Manning on a kneel- down play in Week 2. He was chastised by veteran coach Tom Coughlin, but the attitude he instilled on a team recovering from the Morris debacle a year earlier was evident.
The Bucs started with three losses in four games, but reeled off five of six from Week 6 through Week 11 to get to 6-4 before a series of close losses -- followed by a 41-0 blowout in New Orleans -- snuffed out any postseason flickers.
Considering where he was upon arrival, however, the initial year has to be considered a success, and now that he's got a few more high-profile players -- particularly Revis -- the expectations are a little higher for a .500 or better encore.
THE SKINNY: In 2012, the NFC South Division was the Atlanta Falcons and everyone else. This season, the Buccaneers hope to be the one team -- amid competition from Carolina and New Orleans -- that emerges from the 7-9 flotsam to give the Falcons a run for their money.
To do so, a good start is vital. Tampa Bay opens with a woeful New York Jets team and has home games with New Orleans and Arizona sandwiched around a trip to Foxborough to play the New England Patriots. If the record is 3-1 when the Week 5 bye arrives, Schiano will be on his way. If it's the reverse, chances are better that the leap toward respectability with once again land in mediocrity.