Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2008 Preview Report

July 15, 2008 by

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

By Andy Benoit, www.NFLTouchdown.com

Predicted: 3rd

2007 Record: 9-7 (1st NFC South)

Head Coach: Jon Gruden (7th year)

*rookie

**new veteran

Roster Quick View

Offense

QB: Jeff Garcia Thirty-eight and coming off a Pro Bowl alternate season. In the final year of his contract and demanding a new deal.

RB: Earnest Graham Compact, low-to-the-ground running style makes him tough to bring down. Was also looking for a new contract, and got one.

FB: B.J. Askew Wants to handle the ball. Capable of handling the ball. Bucs won’t give him the ball. They love his blocking though. (Team player––he understands.)

WR: Joey Galloway How can a guy this old still be this fast? Critics say he’s slowing down. His 1,019 yards and 17.6 ypc suggest otherwise.

WR: Ike Hilliard This guy’s old, too. And he is slowing down (just a hair). Can still be effective in this West Coast system.

TE: Alex Smith Excellent athlete and bright individual. Hard to explain why his numbers have decreased each of the past three years.

LT: Luke Petitgout Injuries––major injuries––have been an issue. Serviceable when healthy.

LG: Aaron Sears Earth-rattling power as a run-blocker, but technique is nowhere near where it needs to be. Talent is there; Bucs need to keep working with him.

C: Jeff Faine** Recently became the highest-paid C in history (excluding those who play basketball, of course). Nowhere near that good, but gritty and tough.

RG: Davin Joseph Same story as Aaron Sears, only with an additional year of experience under his belt. Strong hands make him a future Pro Bowler (if he continues his development).

RT: Jeremy Trueblood Has survived his first two years as a starter, but just barely. Lacks nastiness and really struggles in pass protection.

————————–

QB: Luke McCown Admit it….you don’t know the difference between him and his brother Josh. Both are athletic backups. This one will vie with Brian Griese for the No. 2 job.

RB: Warrick Dunn** Has lost some of his burst, sure. But excellent pass-blocking and dependable hands make him a good fit on third downs.

WR: Michael Clayton Let’s just say the movie is better.

WR: Maurice Stovall Maurice, you’re 6’5’, 220. Why, exactly, did you catch only 10 passes last season?

OL: Anthony Davis Swing tackle who can also fill in at G. Excellent auxiliary tool off the bench.

Defense

LDE: Marques Douglas** Led all NFL D-linemen in tackles behind the line of scrimmage last season. Will share time with Kevin Carter, Jimmy Wilkerson and Greg White.

DT: Chris Hovan High-energy player who can exhibit power and quickness. Scratches and claws his way through each play.

DT: Jovan Haye Had his good and bad moments as a rookie. Can become a good starter if he corrects some fundamental flaws.

RDE: Gaines Adams Led all rookies with 6 sacks despite a somewhat tepid start. Bucs appear destined to get their money’s worth with this fourth-overall pick.

SLB: Cato June Fast and weighs only 227. It makes absolutely no sense having him play in traffic on the strong side (rather than in space on the weak side).

MLB: Barrett Ruud Productive, but it’s impossible for the MLB not to be in Monte Kiffin’s scheme. Doesn’t like taking on blocks, and can be slow to diagnose.

WLB: Derrick Brooks Sagacious veteran leader, but at 35, has clearly lost a step. He may want to soon consider initiating his Hall of Fame eligibility.

CB: Ronde Barber Yet another elder statesman (33). Remains a good all-around player.

SS: Jermaine Phillips Came to life in 2007, showing excellent strength against the run and impressive range in coverage.

FS: Tanard Jackson An absolute steal in the fourth round last year. Custom made for this defense; could emerge as Tampa Bay’s best player in ’08.

———————

CB: Philip Buchanon In a contract year; will have to please coaches again this season if he wants to remain a starter here.

DL: Greg White Pass-rushing veteran who always stirs things up when he’s on the field. Coming off an eight-sack season.

LB: Ryan Nece Would you believe he’s one of just four guys left from the ’02 Super Bowl team?

NB: Aqib Talib* Character issues are a concern…unless your coach is Jon Gruden and you’re an athletic 6’2” ball hawk.

Key Player Acquisitions

WR Antonio Bryant (FA)

DE Marques Douglas (SF)

RB Warrick Dunn (Atl)

C Jeff Faine (NO)

TE John Gilmore (Chi)

QB Brian Griese (Chi)

LB Leon Joe (Buf)

LB Teddy Lehman (Det)

LB Matt McCoy (TB)

TE Ben Troupe (Ten)

DL Jimmy Wilkerson (KC)

CB Eugene Wilson (NE)

Key Player Losses

FB Mike Alstott (retired)

TE Anthony Becht (Stl)

LB Patrick Chukwurah

QB Bruce Gradkowski (Stl)

CB Brian Kelly (Det)

OL Matt Lehr (NO)

SS Kalvin Pearson (Det)

RB Michael Pittman (Den)

DE Greg Spires (Oak)

C John Wade (Oak)

Bruce Allen has final say over the personnel, but Jon Gruden’s heavily-weighted input shows in the significant amount of roster turnover. Every free agent acquisition, save for the linebackers and the chemically-imbalanced Bryant, is almost certain to have a significant impact in 2008. Faine got $10 million guaranteed in a six-year, $34 million deal. That’s too much, though he is an upgrade over Wade. Replacing Pittman with Dunn is akin to replacing Al Capone with Mother Teresa (in terms of both character and stature). They won’t miss Kelly, and Alstott left them last year.

2008 Draft

Rd Sel # Player Position School

1 20 Aqib Talib CB Kansas

2 58 Dexter Jackson WR Appalachian State

3 83 Jeremy Zuttah G Rutgers

4 115 Dre Moore DT Maryland

5 160 Josh Johnson QB San Diego

6 175 Geno Hayes OLB Florida State

7 238 Cory Boyd RB South Carolina

Many felt Talib was a top-10 talent, but three positive drug tests for marijuana in college and an attitude that some have deemed “arrogant,” hurt his stock. Gruden has never worried too much about character, which is why it was an easy decision to scoop up such a natural Cover 2 artist. The last Dexter Jackson to come through here left with a Super Bowl MVP award. This Jackson is a little different. He was drafted for his return abilities as much as anything. With 4.3 speed he could become a dangerous receiver, but he never had more than 35 catches in a season at tiny Appalachian State. Zuttah can play all three O-line positions. Moore is said to be inconsistent. Johnson is the umpteenth QB on the roster; they love his athleticism.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers 2008 Preview Report

Look over there at the blond-haired, blue-eyed fortysomething-year-old man. The one with the crooked scowl. See him? The guy who just dropped the f-bomb….Now he’s pacing back and forth. See who we’re talking about? That’s the head of this Tampa Bay dragon they call the Buccaneers. That’s the guy shaping the persona of this franchise.

The Glazer family owns the Bucs, and technically GM Bruce Allen manages them. But the one really running the show is that guy right over there. You know he wakes up at 3:17 am everyday? Hardly sleeps at all. He’s a maniac. The scowl––look, right there! He’s doing it right now!––that scowl earned him the nickname Chuckie at his previous job in Oakland. Some have said he doesn’t like the epithet. Gotta admit, it’s fitting though. If you understand a little bit about that guy––Jon Gruden is his actual name––then this Buccaneers organization makes a whole lot more sense.

Gruden’s high-strung. He just Goes! Goes! Goes! Doesn’t want to wait for anything––always just looking for results. You can tell by the way he manages his roster. Look how many free agents this team brings in every year. You ever see a guy so hell-bent on winning right away?

Last year he signed quarterback Jeff Garcia even though Garcia was 37. Oh, that reminds me….Gruden loves quarterbacks. Loves ‘em. There were seven on the roster at one point. And not just training camp guys––actual NFL quarterbacks. He’s got five on the roster right now. It’s like he hordes them. If Tampa Bay’s locker room were a small house, and the quarterbacks were cats, all the neighbors would be creeped out.

One of Gruden’s quarterbacks is Brian Griese. Griese started half a season for the Bucs two years ago. But then he blew out his knee and went to Chicago. Gruden recently brought him back. Traded a sixth-round pick to get him. What’s kinda odd is that the Bucs used their fifth-round pick to draft Josh Johnson, an athletic quarterback who, apparently, they’re hoping they can develop. Johnson’s fifth on the depth chart right now.

Anyway, Gruden’s got Garcia. You would not think a 37––well, now, 38-year-old––could handle such a load. But Garcia does. He’s perfect for the West Coast offense that Gruden runs. Doesn’t throw picks, completes the underneath stuff––he’s solid.

Of course, Garcia’s kinda ticked right now because he’s in the final year of his deal and only making $2 million. He’s worth a lot more. Last year, Gruden had Garcia rest at the end of the season after Tampa Bay clinched their division. That rest wound up costing the quarterback about $1 million in incentives. Bruce Allen needs to rectify that.

Look at Gruden now…look how intently he’s watching the passing drills. You know who’s supposed to be in those drills? Chris Simms. Simms is the guy Gruden once thought would lead this team for the long haul. But then the kid took a nasty hit and lost his spleen. Hasn’t played since. And he and Gruden have hardly spoken since. Not sure what happened, but Simms isn’t coming around anymore. They’ll let him go soon anyway.

You wonder if Gruden will have any patience with running back Cadillac Williams’s recovery. He’s probably frustrated with the whole thing. I mean, draft a guy fifth overall, see flashes of brilliance from him as a rookie, then, all a sudden, guy tears his patellar tendon and you’re not sure you’ll ever have him again? Talk about a tough break. Gruden really likes Cadillac––he’s probably heartbroken for the kid.

At least Earnest Graham stepped up last year. Graham was another guy lookin’ for a new contract. They gave him a three-year deal. Gruden’s saying that Cadillac might still compete. Doubt that. Not in ’08 anyway. Why else would they bring back Warrick Dunn?

Well, actually, they probably would have brought Dunn back one way or another. That’s kinda what I was about to say earlier. See, Gruden’s impatient––hell-bent on winning now. He’s always signing veteran free agents, always relying on old players whom he thinks he can trust. Look at Tampa Bay’s lineup. Offense––Joey Galloway, 36. Ike Hilliard, 32. There’s Garcia, of course. Dunn’s 33. (That makes him 65 in running back years.) And on the defense? End Kevin Carter will be 35 in September. And Tampa just brought in a 31-year-old free agent to play in front of him (Marques Douglas).

Not saying having all the veterans is bad or anything. Look at Derrick Brooks. He’s 35. Sure, he’s slowing down, but you sayin’ you wouldn’t still take him? And of course there’s Ronde Barber––33 and coming off his fourth Pro Bowl.

Yeah, the guy over there, he definitely likes veterans. You know only four rookies have started the season opener for this team since Gruden’s been here?

You know what else? Impatient as he is, the guy is all about second chances. Just as long as the first chance you blew wasn’t with him. If you can play, Gruden will give you a shot. Look at some of the screw ups he has here now. Antonio Bryant? People like him are what makes the psychiatric health industry so profitable . But when Bryant’s right, he can play. Just like David Boston could play.

Tight end Jerramy Stevens is here too. You remember him…the Seahawk? Might be the biggest jerk in all of football. Gruden re-signed him. He’ll back up Ben Troupe––the really athletic guy who couldn’t stay healthy in Tennessee. Have you ever seen Troupe play? He’s not bad, but he’s tapered off the last few years. Gruden’s hoping he stays healthy.

Last year Gruden also brought in defensive tackle Ryan Sims. Sims’s character is fine––like Troupe’s––but boy did Sims ever lay an egg in Kansas City. Sixth-overall pick, and did absolutely nothing. No one knows why.

What’s funny is Sims is backing up Chris Hovan, another guy who used to be a bit of an enigma. Hovan was great in Minnesota before he disconnected with the coaching staff and lost his confidence. Or something. But that guy over there––oh look, there’s the scowl again––he and his assistants have gotten Hovan to play.

You hate to say it because Gruden’s really a good guy, but he tolerates shady character from a lot of his players as long as they can still perform. I mean, besides Bryant and Stevens, there’s first-round rookie Aqib Talib––the guy who tested positive for marijuana three times at Kansas. There’s Torrie Cox––he got suspended by the league for two games last year because of multiple DUI arrests. Cato June also got a misdemeanor DUI last season. Michael Pittman is gone now, but he was here for several years even after police arrested him for ramming his Hummer into the car that his wife, two-year-old son and babysitter were in. What a scumbag. Apparently his wife had just fled their home after they had had an altercation. Gruden kept Pittman around because the ballcarrier was also good at ramming linebackers.

Not saying the Bucs as a whole are bad––not saying that at all. There are lots of great guys on the roster. Brooks was once named the NFL’s Man of the Year. Dunn was just enshrined into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. Most of these Tampa Bay players have kept their noses clean.

I guess what I’m really saying is, the guy we’re talking about here––Gruden––he’s just so driven to win. Even if it means being liberal with second chances. Or munificent toward veteran free agents. Whatever it takes.

Thus far, it’s worked so-so. Gruden brought a Super Bowl title here his first year, but that was mainly with Tony Dungy’s and Rich McKay’s players. Since then, Gruden’s gone 36-44. And the Bucs have never posted back-to-back winning seasons under him.

Guess that’s bad news considering they went 9-7 last year.

Offense

Ironically, the impatient Jon Gruden prefers a very patient brand of offense. His system is more West Coast than Snoop Dogg, emphasizing a short, controlled passing game. The mild-armed Jeff Garcia is a near-perfect field general. Experienced in a West Coast system from his days in San Francisco, Garcia produced a rating of 94.6 last season, throwing 13 touchdowns and turning the ball over a total of six times (four picks, two fumbles).

While Garcia has never been seriously injured, health concerns come into play with the former Canadian league star. Last year, he battled a sore back late in the season. In prior years he’s dealt with shoulder and ankle problems. Should Garcia be unavailable, Brian Griese would be a more suitable backup than the less experienced Luke McCown. Griese, however, is short on mobility.

Active feet––which Garcia has––are almost essential when operating behind Tampa Bay’s offensive line. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood can survive, but just barely when facing a speed-rush. His side of the pocket regularly collapses in obvious throwing situations. Left tackle Luke Petitgout is a natural pass-blocker, though he’s coming off surgery on a torn ACL. Taking into account the back problems he had prior to joining the Bucs in ’07, the ninth-year veteran is anything but reliable at this point.

If Petitgout is unable to go, third-year pro Donald Penn will once again step in. Penn did an admirable job on the left side last season, but Garcia’s quarterbacking acumen masked a lot of his flaws. Penn is slow-footed to the extent that he appears to be playing in sand. It’s surprising the Bucs won’t look to former starting left tackle Anthony Davis in a moment of need. They’re currently using Davis as a utility reserve, mainly at guard. However, he can contribute outside, plus former starter Dan Buenning is probably Tampa’s best interior backup anyway.

Buenning is working behind Jeff Faine––the man they overpaid by about 40 percent. Faine is a hardnosed fist fighter who brings some much-needed feistiness inside. However, he struggles to land blocks in the open field.

Working next to Faine are two of the more intriguing young guards in football. On the left is Aaron Sears, a second-round pick a year ago. On the right is Davin Joseph, the team’s first-rounder in ’06. Offensive line coach Bill Muir––who also serves as the coordinator––has the significant responsibility of teaching these players proper pro-level technique. Both are überpowerful, but both need work on their lower-body fundamentals, particularly in changing direction and blocking for the pass.

Improved pass protection could do a lot to diversify Tampa Bay’s aerial attack. Currently, the aerial attack consists of downfield weapon Joey Galloway, underneath outlet Ike Hilliard and a slew of underachievers. It’s natural to think that the Bucs will soon need a replacement for the hoary Galloway. They will, but not this year. Hilliard is a better fit in the slot, but not if that means relying on butter-fingered Michael Clayton or tree-trunk-stiff Maurice Stovall.

The Buccaneers have a lightning-fast second-round rookie on the roster in Dexter Jackson, though he’s more of a return specialist at this point (he may prove to be only a return specialist at all points in his career). Third-year pro Paris Warren looked good in the OTAs, but it’s unlikely he’ll crack the lineup (especially if Antonio Bryant somehow works out).

The tight end should be a bigger part of Tampa Bay’s offense. Fourth-year veteran Alex Smith is a smart player (Stanford guy) who possesses sound blocking mechanics and fluidity as a runner. It’s difficult to say why Smith has sputtered as a receiver (his reception totals have dropped from 41 to 35 to 32 the past three years). He’s nearing the end of his contract, and the more-dangerous Ben Troupe just joined the team. Hence, Smith has a lot to prove in 2008.

The Bucs are eager to use former Chicago tight end John Gilmore as an extra run-blocker. They already enjoy the services of fullback B.J. Askew (who, by the way, is capable of handling the ball if need be). With the grit and power on the O-line, and the solid supporting cast of blockers, it’s fitting that compact insider runner Earnest Graham has become the featured ballcarrier. Unlike Cadillac Williams, Graham is a pure north-south runner who looks to break tackles rather than elude them. He isn’t dynamic, but he’s certainly capable of building on his serendipitous 898-yard ’07 campaign.

Warrick Dunn brings leadership and an added dimension on third downs. Dunn’s not as fast as he was in his first stint here, but if the Bucs need pure speed they can always look to Michael Bennett.

Defense

Monte Kiffin is a genius. There’s no other way to put it. His defense ranks No. 1 in the NFL since 2002. He makes due with just about any players, and he consistently has his group prepared to win (even if the offense can’t always carry its weight).

Last season, Tampa Bay ranked second overall in yards allowed and first against the pass. They did this despite a pass-rush that produced a middling 33 sacks (tied for 16th in the NFL). The return of secondary coach Raheem Morris had a lot to do with the sterling pass defense. When Morris left for Kansas State after the ’05 season, he said goodbye to two fairly good-looking young safeties: Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen. When he came back last year, he found both players in a state of decay. Neither could make big plays in coverage, and both were botching their reads on a far-too-consistent basis.

Morris austerely pointed out both men’s faults and had them get to work. Phillips wound up rebounding with a phenomenal season. He intercepted a career-high four passes and, using his 6’2”, 220-pound size, became a menace against the run. Allen was a different story. He was unable to keep his job from fourth-round rookie Tanard Jackson. It maybe wasn’t entirely Allen’s fault. Jackson, a Syracuse product, has preternatural playmaking abilities. He’s not blazing fast, but his instincts give him great range. He has a nose for the ball and a proclivity for punishing anyone who dares to carry it in front of him. Simply put, in this scheme, Jackson is going to be a star.

Tampa Bay’s outstanding safety play is buttressed by stellar cornerbacking. Ronde Barber continues to thrive in the zone-oriented Cover 2. Philip Buchanon reasserted himself as a first-round talent last season, mainly because he finally understood the system he was playing in. The Bucs do not ask Buchanon to cover wideouts on an island like the Raiders did.

Another fine season from Buchanon could lead to Barber’s exit in ’09. How so? First-round pick Aqib Talib is pining to get on the field and is probably ready to contribute right now. The Bucs also signed former Patriots safety Eugene Wilson and moved him back to his college position at corner. Buchanon turns 28 in September. A good season will warrant a hefty long-term contract––something Tampa Bay would not be inclined to finance with Barber on the payroll. Bruce Allen has no trouble letting veterans go a bit early (just ask Warren Sapp, John Lynch, Shelton Quarles or Brian Kelly). With this in mind, Buchanon could end up replacing Barber.

The linebackers are a big part of Tampa’s pass defense. Weakside legend Derrick Brooks has long set the bar for coverage at the linebacker position. However, at 35, Brooks no longer has the quickness that made him great. He’s actually lost a lot of his tackling prowess as well.

Only hardheadedness would prevent Brooks from switching positions with strongside linebacker Cato June. Brooks is still viable in traffic, and lining up across from the tight end would decrease the amount of ground he has to cover. June––who is eight pounds lighter than Brooks––struggles taking on blocks and needs to be in a position that allows him to use his speed to chase the ball. Yes, Brooks has held down the weakside duties for 14 years, but that doesn’t change the reality of the present.

Middle linebacker Barrett Ruud led the team with 114 stops in his first season as a starter last year. Take that with a grain of salt though. Kiffin’s system all but ensures that the middle linebacker gobbles up the most tackles. Shelton Quarles had over 100 tackles in four of his five seasons here (the one season he fell short, he had 80 in 11 games). Ruud is productive, but he needs to get tougher against blocks and quicker with his reads.

Backup Ryan Nece has been with this organization longer than every defender save for Brooks and Barber. He can play all three positions off the bench, making him the first option ahead of faster players Teddy Lehman and Quincy Black.

Second-year defensive end Gaines Adams is not Simeon Rice, but he’s certainly on the rise. The game is almost eerily easy for Adams. Should he continue to improve his awareness and technique, it will only be a matter of time before his athletic legerdemain lands him in Hawaii.

Along with Adams is a quartet of rotating veterans: Marques Douglas, Kevin Carter, Jimmy Wilkerson and Greg White. Douglas is a noted run defender, though he’s not nearly as good as his 12 tackles-for-loss last year imply. He struggles to anchor down his side of the line of scrimmage. Carter turned down more money from Oakland to manage his inside-outside role as a Buc for one more year. He’s lost a little off the top, but he’s still better than Wilkerson. White is an energizing presence who led the team with eight sacks in 2007.

Defensive tackle Chris Hovan is destructive with his sheer effort. Opposing offenses must pay attention to him. Second-year player Jovan Haye looked alright as a rookie but must learn to dictate the action more. Backup Ryan Sims is inconsistent though deserving of playing time.

Special Teams

Matt Bryant was a solid 28/33 last season. He missed all three of his kicks over 50 yards, but remember, he drilled a 62-yard game-winner in October 2006. He’s just fine. Josh Bidwell is a decent punter, though he left 10 balls inside the end zone last season.

Michael Spurlock became the answer to a trivia question when he turned in the franchise’s first kick return score in Week 15. However, the speed of rookie return ace Dexter Jackson likely knocks Spurlock out of the picture for this season.

Tampa Bay’s coverage units are excellent. They ranked seventh against punts and second against kickoffs in 2007.

Bottom Line

The Bucs are rock solid on defense, and they have veteran players who know how to execute a West Coast offense. That said, there’s something inherently unsettling about this team. There has been too much inconsistency from year to year in Tampa Bay.

Myth Buster

Joey Galloway––37 in November––is slowing down

Simply put, No he’s not. The 14th-year veteran has six 1,000-yard seasons to his name. Three of them have come in the last three years. Last season, he gained 1,019 yards on just 57 receptions, giving him an NFC-best 17.8 yards per catch. Remarkably, Galloway’s speed seems to be everything it was when he came into the league as a first-round pick out of Ohio State. Can he keep this up? Probably not. But has his slide already begun? Remarkably, no.

Open Thought

The Buccaneers are the only team in the NFL better known by their abbreviated name: Bucs. A lot of teams have abbreviated monikers (Cowboys––Boys, Dolphins––Fins, Jaguars––Jags, etc.) but only Tampa Bay goes primarily by the shortened name. (Some would argue that the 49ers, aka Niners, do. Not quite.)

What’s odd is that the Bucs’ first name is elongated: Tampa Bay. There is no city named Tampa Bay. Rather, Tampa Bay is the name of the 1,031-square mile estuary off the west/central Florida coast. The city the Bucs call home is Tampa. Imagine: Tampa Bucs. How’s that sound? Pretty crisp, huh?

Taking this a step further, Tampa Bay’s professional baseball team––which plays in St. Petersburg––officially shortened its name this past year from Devil Rays to Rays. Many have asked why the negative word “Devil” was ever included in the name to begin with. Simple answer: that’s the name of the fish that serves as this team’s mascot. But I digress.

Note: A friend of mine read this and pointed out that including the “Bay” in the name makes sense given that both the Bucs and the Rays are water-centric mascots. Touché.

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