Teams that are faced with having to rebuild in upcoming seasons would be smart to take some lessons from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The rebuild produced by Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris in Tampa has been quick, efficient and, based on what the team is expected to do in the near future, extremely successful.
Ultimately, after cleaning house in 2008, the Bucs and their fans only had to suffer through an abysmal 3-13 season before returning to the winner’s circle last year. They rebuilt almost entirely through the draft. Franchise quarterback Josh Freeman was added in the 2009 draft, and his fellow team cornerstones, Gerald McCoy, Mike Williams and LeGarrette Blount, were either drafted or signed as undrafted rookies in 2010.
This summer, the Bucs signed just one free agent, a punter. But they kept all of the in-house free agents they felt were important to have around (Quincy Black, Davin Joseph, Jeremy Trueblood) and added at least two more immediate starters via the draft.
This is a young team that somehow breaks from the norm by doing the little things right. The offense was ranked No. 7 in the league on third downs and they had the fifth-best turnover ratio in football in 2010.
This season, the focus will be on Freeman, who is expected to become an elite quarterback (although some would argue that he already hit that territory with an off-the-charts 25-to-6 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2010), and about a dozen 20-somethings who Dominik and Morris believe can become stars.
If everything comes together the way it’s expected to, it could mean big things for the Bucs.
2010 in a nutshell: They nearly beat the eventual division champion Falcons on two occasions and boost their 2009 win total by over 300 percent. Ultimately, they fall short of the playoffs by being on the wrong end of a tiebreaker with the eventual Super Bowl champion Packers.
Three predictions for 2011:
1. An improved pass rush will give them a playoff-caliber defense: Only three NFC teams surrendered fewer points than the Bucs last year, so they aren’t far from becoming elite defensively. The problem in 2010 was a pass rush that recorded a conference-low 26 sacks. But the defensive line has a lot of upside. McCoy and 2010 second-round pick Brian Price have the ability to be Pro Bowlers if they can stay healthy, and rookies Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers will have a chance to contribute immediately at defensive end. Clayborn has reportedly been stellar thus far, and McCoy was just beginning to excel before an injury ended his rookie campaign early. This is a young and talented line that will get a lot of pressure.
2. LeGarrette Blount will become a Pro Bowler: Lots of people are concerned about Blount’s ability to perform on a consistent basis and contribute as an every-down back, but I’m confident that Morris will know how to use him to the best of his ability. In the modern-day NFL, you don’t have to be a great blocking back to be a star, and Blount should continue to break ankles while acting as Tampa’s top running back from the get-go. This year, he’ll have added support from the return of veteran center Jeff Faine, who was out with an injury during Blount’s reign of dominance in the second half of 2010. If Blount can keep it going and the coaching staff can avoid overworking him, the Bucs might have a top-five running game in 2011.
3. The run defense will continue to have problems: They were 28th against the run last year, and while the aforementioned progress being made on the defensive line is promising, they’re really pushing their luck by installing rookie third-round pick Mason Foster as the starting middle linebacker in the 4-3 defense. Quincy Black and Geno Hayes provide solid support on either side, but I expect Foster to struggle early at a tough position for rookies to step into. The Bucs had tons of cap space to re-sign Barrett Ruud; I’m very surprised they didn’t do so.
The final word(s): The youngest team in the league won six road games to finish 10-6 last year. On paper, they should be much better this year. While they aren’t as talented as the Falcons or Saints, there’s no reason to believe they won’t win at least 10 games again. But this time, they’ll join the postseason party.