NFL combine offers Bucs chance to continue building around Freeman, McCoy
Not long after you exit I-70 traveling from the Indianapolis International Airport to downtown, a large banner is visible at Lucas Oil Stadium that reads: Home of Super Bowl 2012.
The quest to play in that game began here two years ago, according to Bucs coach Raheem Morris.
Coming off a 10-6 season and fielding the league’s youngest roster (25 years, 295 days), Morris has grown to love the trek to the NFL scouting combine at the ballpark the Colts call home.
When Morris took over as head coach in 2009, this where the Bucs spent the most extensive time evaluating quarterback Josh Freeman, the unequivocal leader of the offense.
A year ago, the Bucs dissected the talents of defensive tackle of Gerald McCoy, who went to Tampa Bay with the third overall pick.
This year? Morris believes the Bucs are in a great position to continue building a championship team around those two players.
“I think when you take over a program, the first three drafts are going to define you,’’ Morris said Wednesday. “It started with the quarterback (Freeman) and then we got the centerpiece of our defense hopefully last year in Gerald. Coming off the second year, hopefully he will be able to show that even more. He was starting to come on when he was injured. Right now, we’re starting to add pieces around the quarterback and the three technique, which is what we’ve talked about forever.
“Adding pieces to those pieces, keeping the coaching staff together as much as is possible these days, is a major part of it.’’
The Bucs pick 20th overall, which makes targeting a singular player in the first round tricky. But Morris has demonstrated he’s unafraid of putting rookies right into the fire regardless where they’re drafted. Last season, the Bucs started 10 first-year players, the most by a winning team since the AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
That list not only included McCoy, who missed the final four games with a torn biceps, but rookie receivers Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, cornerback Myron Lewis, safety Cody Grimm, linebacker Dekoda Watson.
The physicals, 40-yard dashes, shuttle runs and bench press are all critically important for players who participate this week. But for Morris, it’s the individual interview sessions that might have the biggest impact.
“For me personally, it’s the interviews,’’ Morris said. “You get a chance to see these guys interact, be under the gun with questioning. You have a chance to get these guys on the (grease)board, depending on what position they play. Whether it’s a character issue, a football issue or a love for the game issue, we all have our individual issues so it’s a great chance to get around these guys.’’
Here’s a look at several storylines worth following for the Bucs this week:
--Focus on defensive ends: The 2010 draft class was rich in defensive tackles and the Bucs took advantage, grabbing Oklahoma’s McCoy with the third overall pick and using a second-round selection on UCLA’s Brian Price. Unfortunately, Price suffered a hip injury early in the season and McCoy finished with only three sacks before his season-ending injury.
Their future still looks bright. But this year’s draft is heavy in defensive end talent and the Bucs desperately need an edge rusher. Stylez G. White led the Bucs with just 4.5 sacks, is a free agent and unlikely to return next season. The Bucs were 28th in run defense in 2010, allowing 131.7 yards per game, and tied with Jacksonville for 30th with 26 sacks. Finding ways to get more pressure on the QB will be the No. 1 goal in the off-season.
Several players such as Iowa’s Adrian Clayborn, Purdue’s Ryan Kerrigan and Wisconsin’s J.J. Watt have all been linked to the Bucs in various mock drafts. But Morris is quick to note that the cupboard could be bare at that position when they pick 20th.
“The tricky part when you pick No. 20, a lot of times you can’t really tell what’s going to happen,’’ Morris said. “There could be a run on certain positions. There could be a run on quarterbacks, a run on defensive tackles, a run on defensive ends. The run starts differently in every draft. “I feel fortunate to be in the position we’re in because someone is going to be in play for us and we’ve just got to be prepared to deal with what ever situation pops up.’’
--Negotiate with free agents: Given the labor uncertainty, which could postpone free agency if no agreement is reached by March 4, there’s even more focus on the 2011 draft. But general manager Mark Dominik has a chance in the next eight days to lock up a few Bucs players set to test the market. That list begins with guard Davin Joseph and linebacker Barrett Ruud, but also includes running back Cadillac Williams, and perhaps right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. On Tuesday, the Bucs re-signed cornerback Ronde Barber to a one-year contract. That could be just a harbinger of things to come.