Yardbarker Horiz

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)
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

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