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Five players hold key to Tampa Bay Buccaneers' improvement

The Bucs are hardly a finished product, and it's impossible to know what this season will yield. But this is a team that has every reason to believe it will be an improved ball club.

The once-rookie coach will be better, and the once-rookie quarterback will be, too.

The defense was bolstered by what looks to be a successful draft, and as far as we know, the Bucs don't plan on changing coordinators after last year's double switch.

But — there's always a "but" — there is justification for concern.

The Bucs unquestionably have some emerging stars on this club. What is striking, though, is how many of them come with red flags attached. Tampa Bay is a team that is relying very heavily on players that might or might not let them down.

Let's take a look at some they can't afford to lose:

Tanard Jackson

He is one of the team's most feared hitters. And he is one of the more versatile safeties around, combining impressive coverage ability with good instincts when playing close to the line of scrimmage.

The problem is Jackson is still in Stage 2 of the NFL's substance-abuse program, serving a four-game suspension for a violation last season. After his most recent violation, the rules of the program call for Jackson to remain in the program for the lesser of 24 months or two seasons, a long time for a player to keep his nose clean.

Details of the program and violations are kept confidential, so it's impossible to know exactly what Jackson was guilty of. But a subsequent violation can be something as minor as a missed drug or alcohol test and result in a six-game suspension. Depending on the nature of a violation, he can be advanced to Stage 3, which could involve a one-year suspension.

Kellen Winslow

It's hard to imagine how dreadful the Bucs offense would have been last season without the tight end's significant contributions. He led the team with 77 receptions and 884 yards and developed a chemistry with quarterback Josh Freeman that both will build on this fall.

But Winslow's struggles with knee injuries are well-documented, and his recent arthroscopic procedure is a reminder they are not completely in the past. To be fair, the procedure was minor.

Winslow spent the latter part of the offseason working separately from the team but without any apparent discomfort or obvious limitations in range of motion.

That's welcome news because if the Bucs are going to improve, Winslow will have to help lead the way.

Aqib Talib

This could be a breakout season for the cornerback, who already has become a marked man by opposing offensive coordinators. He is a matchup nightmare for receivers given his size and physicality.

Unfortunately for the Bucs, Talib has developed a reputation for self-control issues, culminating with his arrest last year for that bizarre battery incident on a St. Petersburg cab driver. He doesn't have a long arrest history. (His past incidents were basically fights that were handled internally by the team.)

But the August incident, which culminated with Talib striking a deal with prosecutors this year, was enough to put him on commissioner Roger Goodell's radar — a place no one wants to be.

Cadillac Williams

He provided one of the most inspirational stories you'll see in sports, rebounding from career-threatening knee injuries in consecutive seasons to lead the Bucs in rushing last season.

But therein lies the problem: The Bucs' leading rusher is a guy who has had two torn patellar tendons, one in each knee. That should make them a bit nervous, don't you think?

Williams is a relentless worker and maintains the injuries were nothing but bad luck. He even believes he'll be better in 2010. The Bucs sure hope he's right.

Donald Penn

The left tackle is one of the team's best players at one of the game's most critical positions.

If you could choose one stud offensive lineman, you'd probably pick a left tackle.

Problem is Penn hasn't set foot inside One Buc Place since January and might not until the team decides to give him the contract extension he's demanding. The sides are locked in a high-stakes standoff that's about to get ugly.

And ugly is exactly how things could look if some of these players aren't available this season. That said, if they all stay on the field, things could be looking up for the Bucs.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

Five players hold key to Tampa Bay Buccaneers' improvement 07/03/10 [Last modified: Saturday, July 3, 2010 8:43pm]

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