John Romano: A realistic look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2011 prospects

Rookie linebacker Mason Foster, Barrett Ruud’s heir apparent, arrives at One Buc Place for training camp.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Rookie linebacker Mason Foster, Barrett Ruud’s heir apparent, arrives at One Buc Place for training camp.

TAMPA — The day is unlike any other. Expectant. Optimistic. Nearly perfect.

Actually, for an entire generation of Buccaneers fans, the opening of training camp was often the best day of a long football season.

In the time of other coaches, under the stewardship of another owner, this was the day when holes in the roster were not so glaring. When injuries were not yet a factor. When losses had not begun piling up at the locker room door.

The one day when hope was allowable.

So, tell me, how do you feel today?

Are you sold on Raheem Morris? Are you smitten with Josh Freeman? Are you ready to buy the idea that a great, new foundation has been put in place?

Because, honestly, this may be the most upbeat moment the franchise has seen in many a day. There is a marriage of accomplishment and direction that had been missing for far too long. It may be fleeting, and it might even be a mirage, but it is here today.

With that in mind, let's cut through the emotion and the cheer, and take a realistic look at what might become of the Buccaneers of 2011. The reasons for hope. The reasons for doubt. And the possible tipping points along the way.

Hope

1. Quarterback: Brad Johnson was older. Trent Dilfer was more erratic. Vinny Testaverde was not as sharp, and Steve Young never really had a chance.

You can make a pretty good case that the position of quarterback in Tampa Bay has never been in better hands than it is today. Freeman already has the size, the skill and the smarts to be an elite quarterback in the NFL. And the best part? He's just 23.

2. Continuity: The head coach is not on the hot seat, and the coordinators are not being reshuffled. The Bucs arrive in camp today with the same playbooks they had a few months ago, and the philosophies are no longer in doubt.

The defense has grown at a quick pace since Morris took over as his own coordinator late in 2009, and Greg Olson just completed one of the most impressive seasons turned in by a Tampa Bay offensive coordinator.

3. Running back: Grabbing LeGarrette Blount off waivers was the move of the year for GM Mark Dominik in 2010. And now, with Blount having time to absorb Olson's system, it could turn out to be one of the most important personnel decisions in franchise history.

Doubt

1. Middle linebacker: Mason Foster may turn out to have more potential as a middle linebacker than Barrett Ruud (and there's no guarantee that's true), but I have a hard time believing he's better than Ruud today.

Yet, the Bucs seem ready to hand the job to Foster because they do not want to cave in to Ruud's contract demands. Maybe that's good business in the long run, but it will not help the Bucs in 2011.

The last time the Bucs played a rookie at middle linebacker was Jamie Duncan in the final six games of 1998, and that was only because Hardy Nickerson went on injured reserve. The bottom line is you typically don't expect to see teams in the postseason with a third-round-draft-pick rookie starting at middle linebacker.

2. Defensive line: Roy Miller is 24 and has started 17 games in the NFL. And there's a chance he will be the old man of the defensive line. In the past three drafts, the Bucs have invested two first-round picks, two seconds, a third and a fourth-round pick on defensive linemen. It will pay off down the road, but it's asking a lot for rookies and second-year players to form an above-average D-line in the NFL.

3. Odds: The Bucs won an NFL-high five games by three points or less last season. You can look at that in any number of ways.

You can say Morris did a great job of game management. You can say Freeman was Montana-esque. You can say younger, fresher legs prevailed in the end.

Or you can wonder if the Bucs were the beneficiaries of good fortune.

Tampa Bay's scoring margin for the season (points scored minus points allowed) was 1.4 points per game. That's quite low for a 10-6 team. In a broad sense, it suggests a team won more games than its point totals would have indicated. Historically, that's not been a good omen.

Since 2000, 13 teams have won 10 or more games with a margin of victory below 2.0. Those teams, on average, went 7-9 the following season.

Tipping points

1. Cornerback: The starter on one side is facing a possible league suspension, and the one on the other side is the oldest player at that position in the NFL.

That doesn't mean Aqib Talib and Ronde Barber won't turn out to have fine seasons, but you have to be at least a little concerned about the position heading into the season.

The Bucs seem to think E.J. Biggers and Myron Lewis have fine futures in this league. They better be right because the young cornerbacks may turn out to be the difference between desolation and salvation in the secondary.

2. The knee: Kellen Winslow says his right knee is fine. Says he's pain-free. Says he's ready to go. All of which means he will probably be questionable for the first game.

Winslow has gotten used to playing hurt on a knee that supposedly has undergone six operations over the years. He has been forced to skip practices and adjust his game, but Winslow still came through big for the Bucs in 2010.

With the youth of the receiving corps, and some uncertainty about a third-down back, Freeman is going to be depending on Winslow again in 2011. The knee has to survive.

3. Interceptions: The strides made on defense can be attributed at least partly to Freeman's ability to avoid turnovers, which kept the defense from short fields.

Freeman last season had an interception rate of 1.3, which trailed only Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. That kind of ball possession is rare for a quarterback of his age. No matter what else he does in 2011, Freeman has to keep the interceptions to a minimum again.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

John Romano: A realistic look at the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2011 prospects 07/28/11 [Last modified: Thursday, July 28, 2011 11:15pm]

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