Yardbarker Horiz

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

CBA Impact: Four- To Six-Year Players

With the CBA now officially heading for it's Final League Year (starting March 1st) some of the fog for the 2010 offseason has been lifted.  The first group of players to be examined are players with four, five, or six years of NFL experience.  For players in this experience range who's contract ended with the 2009 season the news is probably not what they want to hear.  Instead of being unrestricted free agents (can sign with anyone for any price) in an uncapped year, they are instead restricted free agents (giving Tampa Bay the option to match the best offer they can find).  Here is a list of Bucs players with 4-6 years of experience (in jersey number order):

24  Williams, Cadillac (5) -- signed 5-year contract in 2005; will be a Restricted Free Agent (RFA)
48  Economos, Andrew (4) --    signed 5-year contract in 2008; under contract through 2012
50  McCoy, Matt (5) -- drafted in 2005, signed with Buccaneers in 2008, on and off roster for 2009, suspect short term contract; will be RFA(?)
51  Ruud, Barrett (5) -- 2009 was last contract year; will be an RFA
65  Trueblood,  Jeremy (4) -- signed 4-year contract in 2006; will be an RFA
70  Penn, Donald  (4) -- signed one year tender in 2009; will be an RFA
75  Joseph, Davin (4) -- signed 5-year contract in 2006; under contract through 2010
85  Stovall, Maurice (4) -- contract expires at end of 2009, will be an RFA

I have no doubt that the one year tender offer given to Donald Penn last year was, in his mind, a bridge to unrestricted free agency.  That bridge is now gone. 

Williams was the team's leading rusher last year and showed great promise in returning from severe injury.  Penn played well against most of the best defensive ends this past season and solidified his position as a rare talent at left tackle.  If the deep pockets come calling, those will be the first places they stop.  Trueblood has also shown he is a more than capable right tackle, and Stovall and Ruud were important contributors as well.

The good news is that Tampa Bay gets to match any offer other teams bring to the table.  The bad news is that all five players highlighted above were important contributors last year and losing any of them will be problematic.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The 2010 Offseason: How to Predict the Draft

To try to discern what one team might do come draft day is nearly impossible. But to know ahead of time why some decisions occur and their impact on a franchise is not impossible at all.

The 2010 offseason has not officially started in the NFL, but important offseason decisions are well underway. These are just the first few events in a large chain reaction which will sweep across the league before the 2010 preseason begins.

Don't get me wrong -- it's fun to create (and look over) mock drafts. It's a veritable closet industry on the Internet. If you enter "2010 NFL mock draft" into Google you'll get results for about a million web sites (I'm not kidding). At this point in the year, mock drafts are totally and wholly misleading. I had planned to track several and see who was "most accurate" -- but how boring would THAT be??

The evolution of a roster during the offseason is where the thoughts and plans of General Managers and Coaches are revealed. Anyone can slap down a sheet of statistics and see which players on a team were productive (or not) or ranked lower than NFL peers. But a more careful look is needed -- no matter how many NFL teams there are, there will always be a first and a last place in the rankings. For example, the Denver Broncos averaged about 395 yards of offense per game last year, making it the #2 offense in the NFL. If Denver had produced the exact same number of yards this year, they would have finished #4 – so did Denver get better, or did other teams produce more offense? Even with that high ranking in Denver the house was cleaned, a new GM and new coach put in place, and eventually the starting quarterback was traded away. This is just one example of how only using statistics will tell us nothing about what a team is thinking.

Opinions on NFL talent are what matters in front offices, period. And nothing matters more than the talent already under contract. Statistics are never a great indicator of how a team values a player (or a unit), particularly if it is a young player who received limited playing time. Do the coaches think a player fits in their system? Does a player have upside? Is a player not maturing? To understand where the Rookie GM Class of 2009 is going with their teams will take some time. But they will tell us through their actions.

If I were an NFL GM (no thank you!!) the first part of the analysis I would want going into the 2010 offseason is a "current state" picture of the team. Not just a depth chart -- a depth chart with forward-looking numbers. So that is where we will start.

Next I would want to know the value of each player to my coaching staff. We can't know what coaches think, and this time of year you shouldn't really believe what they say (more about that later). In this case there are numbers which are important, such as how much a player played, what point during the season a player played, injury information, etc. A basic headcount is also surprisingly important.

Finally, as General Manager, contract information comes into play. Does the value of the player match the relative payroll outlay for that player. For example, the Tampa Bay media bristled with the re-signing of Micheal Clayton, citing poor performance. Yet reports persisted he was valued by the Minnesota Vikings and Seattle Seahawks. Those teams saw a player they valued to fit into their organization. When the Buccaneers re-signed Clayton, Seattle signed T.J. Houshmandzadeh and the Vikings did not find another candidate of sufficient value, so they spent their first round pick on WR Percy Harvin. In this light, the move to keep Clayton by the Buccaneers makes sense, particularly if you believe the previous regime had not utilized his talents properly, if you believe that the Buccaneers needed a #2 receiver going into last season, and if you saw the market as empty. By noting these transactions it would have been reasonable to predict on draft day that Minnesota wanted a receiver.

So no mock draft here becuase, really, we just don't have enough facts. Besides, who wants to just guess when you can make educated guesses. They may take time but it's the offseason -- so let's get started!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Game Plan Revisited

During 2009 Week 15 a review of the overall direction of the offense posed the question: what type of offense will Tampa Bay have? At the time the Bucs were passing the ball on 60% of snaps making it appear the offseason would require some retooling of the offense.

There were only three games remaining on the schedule -- the Buccaneers went 2-1 over those games – but what type of team were they when the season ended?

vs Seattle
In the first half, Tampa Bay threw 12 passes and ran 13 times and went into halftime down 7-3. For the game, however, the Buccaneers passed 26 times and ran 34 times (14 passes and 21 rushes in the second half) and the Buccaneers won the game 24-7. Cadillac Williams finished with an average of 5.5 yards/carry.

vs New Orleans
The Buccaneers passed 18 times and ran 13 times in the first half on the way to being down 17-3 at halftime. For the game the pass/run was 31/34 (13/21 in the second half and OT) and the Buccaneers had their most memorable win of 2009 with a 20-17 overtime victory. Cadillac Williams averaged 5.4 yards/carry and ran the ball on 9 of 10 plays in OT getting into field goal range for the winning OT kick.

vs Atlanta
In the first half there were 14 passes and 11 rushes on the way to a 10-3 halftime deficit. In the second half the Buccaneers passed 17 times and rushed 12 (for a full game run/pass of 31/23), losing 20-10. In this game, Cadillac Williams averaged just 2.1 yards/carry.

In each game the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had over 20 rushing attempts. In the two wins, Cadillac ran for over 5 yards per carry (he averaged 3.5 yards per carry in the other 2009 win against Green Bay). In the games won by the Buccaneers the offense ran more times than they passed over the whole game. But most importantly, they ran more than passed in their signature game of 2009. While not totally convincing, it does seem like over the final three games of 2009 Tampa Bay reinforced the blueprint for the power running game which can be a big key for future success. Hopefully that mentality carries through the 2010 offseason and keeps producing in 2011 and beyond.


Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Couple Insights

Item 1:  Previous analysis has shown that a young core middle linebacker is not on the roster.  I have information that, contrary to the final published depth chart for 2009, the Buccaneers are planning to groom Adam Hayward at MLB.  This fills in an important spot for the young core defense and also reduces the need to draft for that position this year:

LE - Kyle Moore (1), Micheal Bennett (1)
DT - Roy Miller (1)
DT - Dre Moore (2)
RE - Stylez White (4), Tim Crowder (4), Maurice Evans (1)
SLB - Quincy Black (4), Lee Robinson (2)
MLB - Adam Hayward (4)
WLB - Geno Hayes (3), Rod Wilson (4)
LCB - Aquib Talib (3), Derrick Roberson (2), Brandon Anderson (1)
RCB - Elbert Mack (3), E.J. Biggers (1), Stoney Woodson (2)
SS - Sabby Piscatelli (4), Corey Lynch (3), Emanuel Cook (2)
FS - Tanard Jackson (4), De'von Hall (1)
P - Sam Paulescu (3)

Item 2:  It appears that many within the Tampa Bay Buccaneers front office feel there is not a pressing need to be active in free agency this year.  There are several reasons behind this.  First, most are satisfied that there is a good amount of talent on the roster (evidenced by the win over New Orleans) and experience and consistency on game day can improve the team significantly.  Secondly, with ten draft picks coming to the roster this year the team can continue to build from within.  Third, with the CBA looking less and less likely to be extended, free agents are going to get a couple extra years tagged onto current free agency restrictions which will significantly reduce the number of available free agents.  But most importantly, General Manager Mark Dominik appears to be rock solid in belief that building through the draft and only adding the occasional free agent where absolutely necessary will not just get the Buccaneers back to the playoffs but keep them in contention year after year.  Think draft for long term, free agents for the coming season.

Item 3:  With the coaching transitions in Seattle and Washington it would be preferable to play these teams earlier in the season than later.  Tampa Bay has no power over this so it would be just a nice-to-get.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Practice Squad Promotions: New Blood for 2010

The first new blood for 2010 has been added to the roster.  On Friday, January 8, 2010, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed six practice squad players to offseason contracts.  Those players are: CB Brandon Anderson, S Emanuel Cook, OL Marc Dile, DE Maurice Evans, LB Lee Robinson, CB Stoney Woodson.  According to the official announcement, five of these players were waiver wire pick-ups during the 2009 season.  The sixth player, Marc Dile, was signed in the Spring of 2009.

It is worth noting that five of the six men signed play on the defensive side of the ball starting what is anticipated to be a major theme of the 2010 offseason.

All these are players have less than 2 years experience making them part of the "young core" of the Buccaneers.

Signing Marc Dile adds one player to the young, core offense along the OL.  Since the 2009 season is now over, we can give everyone another year of experience.  In addition, players who received significant playing time and contributed statistically are highlighted with italics:
WR - Maurice Stovall (5th Year), Mario Urrita (2), Terrance Nunn (1)
LT - Donald Penn (5), James Lee (3)
LG - Jeremy Zuttah (3),  Arron Sears (4), Shawn Murphy (3)
C - Johnathan Compas (1)
RG - Davin Joseph (5), Marc Dile (1)
RT - Jeremy Trueblood (5), Demar Dotson (1), Xavier Fulton (1)
WR - Sammie Straughter (1),  Brian Clark (4), Micheal Spurlock (4)
TE - Ryan Purvis (1)
QB - Josh Freeman (1), Josh Johnson (3), Rudy Carpenter (1)
RB - Clifton Smith (3), Kareem Huggins (2)
FB - Byron Storer (4), Chris Pressley (1)
PK - Conner Barth (3)

Twenty-Five players make up the young, core offense and many of them earned important experience playing and contributing this past season.  This is a group that just needs time to keep getting better together.

The free agent signings also added 5 players to the young, core defense.  The years of experience here are also increased and contributing players are in italics:
LE - Kyle Moore (1), Micheal Bennett (1)
DT - Roy Miller (1)
DT - Dre Moore (2)
RE - Stylez White (4), Tim Crowder (4), Maurice Evans (1)
SLB - Quincy Black (4), Adam Hayward (4), Lee Robinson (2)
MLB -
WLB - Geno Hayes (3), Rod Wilson (4)
LCB - Aquib Talib (3), Derrick Roberson (2), Brandon Anderson (1)
RCB - Elbert Mack (3), E.J. Biggers (1), Stoney Woodson (2)
SS - Sabby Piscatelli (4), Corey Lynch (3), Emanuel Cook (2)
FS - Tanard Jackson (4), De'von Hall (1)
P - Sam Paulescu (3)

Twenty-Four players now make up the young, core defense.  A significant number of them are high on the depth chart and posted significant contributions to the team.  Unfortunately, the defense also was not a strong unit this year, so no doubt more young talent will be added here during the upcoming offseason.

The void at Middle Linebacker continues to exist.  Black, Hayward, and Hayes are shown at their established positions.  Lee Robinson played OLB at Alcorn State so the assumption is that he will be at Strongside Linebacker (SLB) for Tampa Bay.  Rod Wilson played at South Carolina -- as a safety.   So there still does not appear to be a young apprentice behind Barrett Ruud.  It is unlikely that this void will be filled by a free agent, so I expect a selection (or two?) here during the 2010 draft.

These two "squads" total 49 players of a potential 80-man 2010 offseason roster with draft choices to follow.  So what do we know?  Over half the Tampa Bay preseason roster will be players with less than five years of NFL experience.  The youth has arrived!

(Updated:  Some Additional Insights)

Thursday, January 7, 2010

2009 Tampa Bay Free Agent Review

Before the 2009 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers made bold moves to get younger.  A lot of chances were taken by cutting veteran players and exposing unproven and inexperienced players to the starting lineup.  The final record showed the inexperience, but a youthful core of offensive and defensive players emerged with a lot of game experience.  Was it all worth it?

Players Lost during 2009 Free Agency

Noah Herron
, RB - was signed by the Cleveland Browns but produced no recorded statistics.
Phillip Buchanon, CB - was signed and played for the Detroit Lions in 2009 appearing in 13 games, starting 11.  Buchanon recorded 38 tackles and 5 assists with a sack and 2 forced fumbles.
Paris Warren, WR - was signed by the New Orleans Saints but produced no recorded statistics.
Jovan Haye, DT - was signed by the Tennessee Titans appearing in 15 games and starting each one.  Haye recoded 20 tackles and 12 assists with half a sack.

Buchanon and Haye were obvious losses on a defense that struggled all year.  Buchanon was a questionable tackler and did not fit the mold of the press corners the Buccaneers wanted going into the 2009 season.  His season statistics for Detroit were only down slightly from his last season with the Buccaneers (and he played three fewer games).  Haye was the biggest loss as Tampa Bay struggled in the defensive trenches for most of the season.  Haye was undersized for the even front defensive scheme the Buccaneers planned to implement in 2009.  Nonetheless, Haye's statistics for the Tennessee Titans were comparable to his final year at Tampa Bay.

Players Cut during 2009 Free Agency

Will Allen, S - rejoined the Buccaneers after a veteran safety received a suspension and a string of injuries at safety.
Jeff Garcia, QB - appeared in two games for the Philadelphia Eagles.  Garcia recorded no passes and three rush attempts for a net of -2 yards and a lost fumble.
Cato June, LB - played preseason for Texans and was cut.  Signed with Chicago and appeared in one game but was cut again.  June produced no recorded statistics in either situation.
Joey Galloway, WR - since we last checked in, Galloway signed with Pittsburgh for Week 16 and is still on the roster, although he has not produced any recorded statistics.  For the 2009 regular season, he played in three games (starting in two) recording 7 receptions for 67 yards (all while at New England).
Derrick Brooks, LB - was not signed and did not play in 2009.
Kevin Carter, DE - was not signed and did not play in 2009.
Patrick Chukwurah, DL -was not signed and did not play in 2009.
Warrick Dunn, RB - was not signed and did not play in 2009.
Brian Greise, QB - was not signed and did not play in 2009. 
Ike Hilliard, WR - was not signed and did not play in 2009.
Anthony Mix, WR - was not signed and did not play in 2009.

This is the group which made the 2009 offseason (and the beginning of GM Mark Dominik's tenure at the top of the organization) unforgettable for Buccaneer fans.  It was a bold and daring change removing Brooks, Carter, Dunn, Garcia, Galloway, and Hilliard in one fell swoop (Griese a bit later) as each man was a 10+ year veteran of the NFL.  The balance of the 2009 offseason was spent gathering offensive players to replace the two quarterbacks, a running back, and two wide receivers in this group.  This was the defining moment for Dominik - putting his imprint firmly on the franchise - clearly demonstrating the Buccaneers would no longer rely on aged veterans but would instead build with youth.  All these players were important to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during their careers. But the 2009 results indicate that, indeed, it was time for them to move along after fruitful careers.

Players Retained during 2009 Free Agency

Micheal Clayton, WR - after being sought after by the Seahawks and Vikings, the Buccaneers signed Clayton to a two year deal.  His 2009 numbers were not exceptional:
Cortez Hankton, WR - cut early in the 2009 season.
Donald Penn, T - An integral part of a young offensive line, Penn faced many of the best pass rushers in the NFC during 2009 and fared well.  Unfortunately, he only signed a one year deal.
Jermaine Phillips, S - Although often injured Phillips still seems to be the 2nd best safety for Tampa Bay.  His deal was for one year.
Jeremy Stevens, TE - Was productive in 2008 and signed a two year deal.

Clayton, Penn, Phillips, and Stevens each served an important role last offseason.  So much experience had already been trimmed.  Penn and Phillips were needed for stability.  Clayton had been in the doghouse with the prior regime for so long nobody knew what he still had.  Stevens provided competition for new TE Kellen Winslow.  These were key parts and needed to be retained.

So was it a good 2009 free agency period?  For most fans, emotionally, it was not.  Familiar faces are what the fans like to cheer for.  But for the long term success of the franchise it was inevitable.  The Buccaneers could have purged slowly, but at what cost?  The 2009 season saw the emergence of young players already on the roster at many of the released veterans positions such as Geno Hayes (Brooks), Cadillac Williams (Dunn), Maurice Stovall (Ike Hilliard), and provided opportunity for rookies to shine such as Josh Freeman (Garcia, Griese) and Sammie Straughter (Galloway).  None of these young players are complete replacements but, long term, I believe the Buccaneers will reap great benefits from finding out that there was already competent youth on the roster.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Early Draft Peek

As a very, very early look at what the top players in the 2010 draft might be, I inventoried the top five players from ten mock drafts.  Only one player was in the top five on all 10 drafts -- defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh.

Here is the list with number of Top 5 occurrences:

Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska - 10
Jimmy Clausen, QB, Notre Dame - 8
Eric Berry, S, Tennessee - 7
Gerald McCoy, DT, Oklahoma - 7
Russell Okung, OT, Oklahoma State - 7
Jake Locker, QB, Washington - 3
Derrick Morgan, DE/OLB, Georgia Tech - 2
Dez Bryant, WR, Oklahoma State - 2
Bruce Campbell, OT, Maryland - 1
Terrence Cody, DT, Alabama - 1
Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma - 1
Carlos Dunlap, DE, Florida - 1
Trent Williams, OT, Oklahoma - 1

It's far too early to make a prediction since the combine is still weeks away and underclassmen have until January 15th, 2010 to declare.  But there are a couple things to notice:  1)  lots of defensive line, 2) several QBs, 3) no cornerbacks listed(!).
 
Here are the draft sites I visited:
1- DraftCountdown.com
2- NewNFLDraft.com
3- WalterFootball.com
4- MyNFLDraft.com
5- BleacherReport.com
6- FootballsFuture.com
7- NFLDraftDog.com
8- DraftSite.com
9- NBCSports.com
10- NFLDraftBlitz.com

Another pulse will be taken after the NFL combine.  Remember, the draft this year starts on a Thursday night!

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

2009 First Year Coaches

In 2009, first year GMs had first year coaches in Tampa Bay, Detroit, Kansas City, Denver, Cleveland, and St Louis.  For comparison, they are mixed in with the records of some past first-year-coaches:

John McKay 0-14 (1976, Tampa Bay)
Tom Landry 0-11-1  (1960, Dallas)
Steve Spagnuolo 1-15 (2009, St. Louis)
Jimmy Johnson 1-15 (1989, Dallas)
Jim Schwartz 2-14 (2009, Detroit)
Bill Walsh 2-14 (1979, San Francisco)
Raheem Morris 3-13 (2009, Tampa Bay)
Bill Parcells  3-12 (1983, NY Giants)
Norm Van Broklin  3-11 (1961, Minnesota)
Bud Grant 3-8-3 (1967, Minnesota)
Todd Haley 4-12 (2009, Kansas City)
Marv Levy 4-12 (1978, Kansas City)
Dick Vermeil  4-10 (1976, Philadelphia)
Don Coryell 4-9-1 (1973, St. Louis Cardinals)
Eric Mangini 5-11 (2009, Cleveland)
Andy Reid 5-11 (1999, Philadephia)
Lou Saban 5-9 (1960, Boston Patriots)
Bill Bellichek  6-10 (1991, Cleveland)
Tony Dungy  6-10 (1996, Tampa Bay)
Mike Shannahan 7-9, (1988, LA Raiders)
Jeff Fisher 7-9 (1994, Houston Oilers, first full season)
Vince Lombardi 7-5 (1959, Green Bay Packers)
John Gruden 8-8 (1998, Oakland)
Joe Gibbs 8-8 (1981, Washington)
Josh McDaniels 8-8 (2009, Denver)
Marty Schottenheimer 8-8 (1985, Cleveland, first full season)
Don Shula 8-6 (1963, Baltimore Colts)
Hank Stramm 8-6, (1960, Dallas Texans)
Dan Reeves 10-6 (1981, Denver)
Mike Tomlin 10-6 (2007, Pittsburgh)
Bum Phillips 10-4 (1975, Houston Oilers)
Bill Cowher  11-5 (1992, Pittsburgh)
John Madden 12-1 (1969, Oakland)
Chuck Knox 12-2 (1973, LA Rams)



This is pretty definite evidence that past performance does not dictate future results.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Buccaneer Building Blocks: Defense

The 2009 Buccaneers are one of the youngest teams in the NFL.  Twenty-seven players (a.k.a. half) of the Buccaneers 53-man roster has less than 3 years of NFL experience.  With a 10-player 2010 draft and an offense that was retooled during the 2009 offseason a 2010 offseason focused on the defense appears to be in order (particularly since the game plan appears to be working). However, adding 10 rookies means the team will not get much older during the upcoming offseason.

Although there are plenty of exceptions, young teams generally have to make the playoffs and lose before they make the playoffs and win.  Said another way, teams with veterans who have been to the playoffs do better in playoff games than young teams who have been to the playoffs.

Assuming all this it follows that a realistic target for a deep-playoff-run-caliber-team is probably 2012 or 2013 for this franchise.  For the record, a winning record could happen next year and nothing says the team can't achieve ahead of schedule.  I'm just following the probabilities.

The average NFL career lasts just 3.5 years.  So three years from now (2012/2013) Tampa Bay will (probably) rely on players who have less than 5 years experience today.  It is important to note that a 5 year vet now (that is, after the 2009 season) could be an 8 year player with some nagging injuries in three years.  Also note this does not imply that all players over 5 years of experience in 2009 will be done and gone by 2012.  Can Barrett Ruud have a 9 year career?  Sure, but that's 50+ games prowling the interior colliding with tackles, guards, and running backs.  To think he'll be be the same then as he is now is positive thinking for sure, but probabilities lean hard against it.

To build a crystal ball for a look three years ahead, I took the most recent Buccaneers team depth chart and roster (both of which have been a moving target all year) and added the players from IR since they are generally under contract.  I ignored players on the practice squad as they are under a less-binding contract structure.  This provides a glimpse of the "core" of the offense.  These are the "young core" defensive players which will determine how quickly the Buccaneers get back to the playoffs:

LE - Kyle Moore (0), Micheal Bennett (0)
DT - Roy Miller (0)
DT - Dre Moore (1)
RE - Stylez White (3), Tim Crowder (3), Maurice Evans (0)
SLB - Quincy Black (3), Adam Hayward (3)
MLB -
WLB - Geno Hayes (2), Rod Wilson (3)
LCB - Aquib Talib (2), Derrick Roberson (1), Brandon Anderson (0)
RCB - Elbert Mack (2), E.J. Biggers (0)
SS - Sabby Piscatelli (3), Corey Lynch (2)
FS - Tanard Jackson (3), De'von Hall (0)
P - Sam Paulescu (2)

Big contributors which might be gone include:
Ronde Barber (13 years) - Can the ageless one continue to produce?  We all know the clock is ticking, but leadership in the defensive backfield is still needed very badly.
Chris Hovan (10 years) - This is a player which will deserve more scrutiny in the offseason.  He rarely misses games, is productive, and is a leader on a very young unit.  However, it is truly unbelievable to me that he has played 10 years in the middle of the trench and can still walk to his car after a game.  One almost hopes he'll retire soon before it's too late to enjoy the rest of his life.  I selfishly want him to play forever, but then again I sit in an easy chair on Sundays.  I'll stand, clap, and roar loudly for what he has given to my team when retirement happens.
Jermaine Phillips (8 years) - he has struggled mightily to stay healthy but ends the year on IR.  One can only wonder how much longer he can hold up.  Putting him in a linebacker role, even as a reserve, could extend his carrer and maintain his value.
Barrett Ruud (5 years) - He is the third piece of the leadership of the defense, the top tackler, and the play caller.  With no obvious candidate to back him up on the roster he's as valuable to the defense as Jeff Faine is to the offense.

It was absolutely a shock to me to not find a middle linebacker on the roster to back up Barrett Ruud.  Certainly this must be addressed.  The Buccaneers added Angelo Crowell last year in free agency but, based on his time in Buffalo, he is more of an outside linebacker.  This position cannot wait for additional help, and like tight end on offense, two younger players by next preseason would almost seem to be a requirement since even a one game injury to Ruud leaves a big hole.  The young linebackers already on the roster seem to be coming on strong.  Nevertheless, there is a concern here.

Up front, White, Miller, Moore, and Crowder are already getting a lot of reps.  Bennett was a steal from the Seahawks as a waiver pickup during the 2009 season.  And Evans keeps returning to the lineup over and over -- there must be something in that young man the coaching staff appreciates.  The concern here is the lack of depth on the interior which could be addressed this offseason as premium interior defensive lineman appear to be plentiful in the 2010 draft.

It youth at safety makes that position appear prepared for the next three years.  The 2009 season, however, did not support this conclusion.  Safety play seemed to be erratic through most of the season with many big plays given up.  Add to the fact that Tenard Jackson was suspended for four games and there are questions here.  The Jackson suspension was under the NFL substance abuse policy which covers addictive substances (painkillers, perhaps, but it has never been specified).  Addictions such as this are never really "cured" as anyone who has a recovering alcoholic in their family would know.  One more violation by Jackson will mean a full-year suspension.  Given this fact plus the 2009 performances and adding some additional young talent at this position would make sense, just to be sure.

Finally, top flight cornerbacks are rare.  Tampa appears to have one in Aqib Talib.  But nobody has stepped into the slot opposite Talib and won the position.  With four corners (besides Talib) on the roster with under three years of time in the NFL it is possible someone already on the roster may grow into the position.  Elbert Mack has the most experience and has contributed in 2009, Biggers spent the year on IR, and Roberson and Anderson were waiver wire pickups.  Like safety, adding some additional young talent to this position makes sense.


Overall, the young defensive core does not appear to be as deep and experienced as the young offensive core.  I feel confident that time and effort will be spent during the 2010 offseason on this side of the ball.

See also:  Updated with 2010 Practice Squad Signings
 

Friday, January 1, 2010

Buccaneer Building Blocks: Offense

The 2009 Buccaneers are one of the youngest teams in the NFL.  Twenty-seven players (a.k.a. half) of the Buccaneers 53-man roster has less than 3 years of NFL experience.  Tampa Bay also played a rugged schedule.  With a 10-player 2010 draft ahead the team figures to not age much during the upcoming offseason.  This means the inexperience will remain if the new draft picks are impact players and find their way onto the depth chart.

Although there are plenty of exceptions, young teams generally have to make the playoffs and lose before they make the playoffs and win.  Said another way, teams with veterans who have been to the playoffs do better in playoff games than young teams who have been to the playoffs.

Assuming all this it follows that a realistic target for a deep-playoff-run-caliber-team is probably 2012 or 2013 for this franchise.  The time to prepare for that run is now.

For the record, a winning record could happen next year and nothing says the team can't achieve ahead of schedule.  I'm just following the probabilities.

The average NFL career lasts just 3.5 years.  So three years from now (2012/2013) Tampa Bay will (probably) rely on players who have less than 5 years experience today.  It is important to note that a 5 year vet now (that is, after the 2009 season) could be an 8 year player with some nagging injuries in three years.  Also note this does not imply that all players over 5 years of experience in 2009 will be done and gone by 2012 (can Jeff Faine have an 11 year career?  Sure, but that's another 50 games playing on the interior line).  Again, it's just weighing the probabilities.

To build a crystal ball for a look three years ahead, I took the most recent Buccaneers team depth chart and roster (both of which have been a moving target all year) and added the players from IR since they are generally under contract.  I ignored players on the practice squad as they are under a less-binding contract structure.  This provides a glimpse of the "core" of the offense.  These are the players which will determine how quickly the Buccaneers get back to the playoffs:

WR - Maurice Stovall (4th year), Mario Urrita (1st year), Terrance Nunn (0th year/rookie)
LT - Donald Penn (4), James Lee (2)
LG - Jeremy Zuttah (2),  Arron Sears (3), Shawn Murphy (2)
C - Johnathan Compas (0)
RG - Davin Joseph (4)
RT - Jeremy Trueblood (4), Demar Dotson (0), Xavier Fulton (0)
WR - Sammie Straughter (0),  Brian Clark (3)
TE - Ryan Purvis (0)
QB - Josh Freeman (0), Josh Johnson (2), Rudy Carpenter (0)
RB - Clifton Smith (2), Kareem Huggins (1)
FB - Byron Storer (3), Chris Pressley (0)
PK - Conner Barth (2)

NOTE:  Tackle Demar Dotson has spent some time at TE but has yet to catch a pass and may only be getting used as an extra blocker at that position.

Big contributors which might be gone include:
Jeff Faine (C, 7th season(2009)) - some linemen have very long careers, but serious injury and wear and tear can catch up to you quickly on the line.
Kellen Winslow (TE, 6th season(2009)) - injured more than once before he got to Tampa, Winslow may have a long career by the fact of how much time was missed early in his career.  On the flip side, a re-injury could be devastating.
Carnell Williams (RB, 5th season(2009)) - Like Winslow, Williams has missed parts of more than one year.  However, two reconstructed knees can't hold up as long as two healthy ones.  Nevertheless, he could be around for several more years because he's splitting time in the backfield.
Derrick Ward (RB, 6th season(2009)) - He should be around for a while as he has pretty much split time for several years now.

Is that young core possibly a playoff-caliber offense?  If not, where does it need to be upgraded/updated with draft picks or free agents?
 
The offensive line is young, has been playing together for a couple years, and performs well.  It is certainly a playoff caliber unit and it certainly will be a strength going forward.  One hole in the armor was revealed when Jeff Faine went down early in the 2009 season.  The lack of depth required bringing in Sean Mahan to fill in.  Should the Buccaneers draft a center?  Should they find one in Free Agency?  Is Marc Dile (South Florida rookie), who has physical size similar to Faine, a future center prospect or has Compas progressed to a point where only additional depth is needed?  Can any of the reserve guards play center?  Finally, is Aaron Sears healthy and able to continue his football career?

Wide Receiver actually looks pretty good.  Straughter and Stovall have had good games and have become involved in many aspects of the game as the 2009 season has progressed.  Brian Clark has had some moments as well.  Only two questions here:  can they continue to improve?  Does Tampa Bay need more depth at this position?

Running Back is well stocked and young.  If just one of the current backs (Williams, Ward, or Graham) has a longer career it is certainly a playoff caliber unit and matches up perfectly with the young offensive line.

Quarterback also seems well stocked.  Both Joshes have both gotten playing experience and Josh Freeman has had full games where he played very well with numerous flashes of what is still to come.  Carpenter brings accuracy and removes all pressure to make moves at this position this offseason.

The tight end position is a big unknown.  Purvis spent all of 2009 on the practice squad and so is a complete unknown.  In 2009, Kellen Winslow set yardage and receptions records at this position.  This is a position of need -- possibly in need of two more players for the 2010 training camp.  This assumes that Demar Dotson has taken snaps at TE for blocking and not for pass catching.

Placekicker Conner Barth has shown a good leg but also some inconsistancy.  There will probably be routine competition at this position until someone can secure it hands down.  Veteran kickers are generally available year round in free agency so no depth is needed here nor does youth have to be served.

So, with a tip of the hat to the 2009 offseason acquisitions (Freeman, Winslow, Ward, Straughter), it appears that the offense has a strong nucleus of players to build around.  While there are not pressing needs, if a high caliber center, tight end (or two), or wide receiver is available in free agency (must be  young) or is the best player available at some point during the draft it would solidify the young offensive core of the Buccaneers.  This half of the team is well positioned to get the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back into the playoffs in the near future.

See also:  Updated with 2010 Practice Squad Signings
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