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Tampa Bay Buccaneers younger but better? Maybe, maybe not

TAMPA — At this time a year ago, the quarterback was 38. Today, the new quarterback is 21.

Back then, the outside linebackers were 36 and 29. Today, they are 25 and 22. Two of the receivers were 37 and 33. Their replacements are 24 and 23. The cornerback that got away was 29. The one who replaced him is 23. Placekicker has gone from 34 to 23.

None of this happened by accident, of course. The Buccaneers, under Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris, made the choice shortly after taking over in January 2009 that the team needed a fresh look and even fresher legs.

Now that we know Dominik and Morris are sticking around, how much will the choices they made in 2009 benefit them in 2010? It surely didn't make the Bucs a competitive team last season, but the change from the Jon Gruden regime was made with the long term in mind.

The only way a 3-13 season is remotely palatable — particularly if you're spending hundreds of dollars for tickets every week — is if something tangible was gained besides a last-place finish. In this case, did the Bucs find the correct answers for the future?

Naturally, the answer is not a blanket yes or no. In some cases, the Bucs got younger and better. At other positions, they simply got younger with no current hope of getting better. Here, then, is a breakdown of what the Bucs learned in 2009, both good and bad.

Linebackers

Nothing caused more of a commotion in the offseason than the coach's and GM's choice to release Derrick Brooks and Cato June. Brooks is a future Hall of Famer and one of the three best players to ever wear a Tampa Bay uniform. June was a coveted free-agent acquisition and the supposed heir to Brooks' reign as Tampa Bay's premier linebacker.

Yet the decision to release both 11 months ago was more than justified by the performances of Geno Hayes and Quincy Black. Even if, ironically, Morris and Dominik underestimated what they had in Hayes.

The initial plan was for Black to take over June's spot at strongside linebacker and Jermaine Phillips to move from strong safety to Brooks' spot at weakside linebacker to make room for Sabby Piscitelli in the secondary. (More on that later.) But when free safety Tanard Jackson was suspended for the season's first four games, Phillips went back to the secondary and Hayes became a starting linebacker.

And all Hayes did was finish with more tackles, more sacks, more interceptions and more stops behind the line of scrimmage than Brooks did in 2008. That doesn't mean Hayes will be a better player than Brooks. There haven't been many of those on the planet. But it does suggest that Hayes, at 22, is better than Brooks was at 36. And the Bucs now have Hayes for the foreseeable future.

Black did not have as big an impact as Hayes, but he had comparable stats to June while playing in a less glamorous spot at strongside linebacker. He may not have star power, but he probably has a good grip on the position for the future.

Defensive ends

No one is crying about letting Kevin Carter depart or trading Gaines Adams. On the other hand, I'm not seeing many Stylez White or Jimmy Wilkerson jerseys around town. White and Wilkerson are adequate pass rushers, but the Bucs still need help at defensive end.

Defensive tackle

In this case, the Bucs may have erred by not making sweeping changes. When Jovan Haye left via free agency, he was replaced by his backup Ryan Sims. Chris Hovan remained beside him on the interior line. One or both will likely be replaced in 2010.

Secondary

Turns out, losing Phillip Buchanon to free agency was not a big deal because Aqib Talib needed to be in the starting lineup. The way he played in 2009, Talib looks like he has Pro Bowls in his future.

Meanwhile, Piscitelli looks like he has special teams in his future. The new strong safety had too many bad reads, too many poor angles and too many missed tackles. Tampa Bay may consider moving Phillips back to strong safety, but he is a free agent who will be 31 with recent seasons interrupted by broken forearms, a thumb and a wrist.

Receivers

Hard to find fault with the departures of Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard, but the Bucs did little to solidify their future here. Sammie Stroughter was a nice acquisition for the seventh round, but Antonio Bryant is a free agent and you can't count on Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall. Next to defensive tackle, this may be the most glaring need on the team.

Quarterback

Again, Morris and Dominik made mistakes here but ultimately got it right. Bringing in Byron Leftwich did little besides take snaps away from younger quarterbacks in the preseason. In retrospect, the Leftwich move made no sense. If the season was all about building a younger, stronger team for the future, why muddy the waters with a retread quarterback?

Still, the coach and GM were willing to do what the previous regime had not. They spent a first-round pick on a quarterback and sacrificed their place in the standings today for the hope of a brighter future.

Ultimately, that is what Josh Freeman provides.

And it may, one day, be the reward for 2009.

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

From left, Geno Hayes, Quincy Black and Aqib Talib

From left, Sabby Piscitelli, Maurice Stovall and Ryan Sims

Tampa Bay Buccaneers younger but better? Maybe, maybe not 01/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, January 4, 2010 11:31pm]
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