Tampa Bay Bucs pin hopes on a green bunch

There are times, when the day has been too long and the sun has been too hot and a Bucs receiver leaps and snatches a football from the sky, you think "maybe."

And then you remember their youth.

There are times, quick seconds filled by fleeting thoughts, when a defensive back flashes across the field and makes a play, that you believe maybe the Bucs can be more than a little bit better than they were last year.

And again, you remember their youth.

There are times as they practice — and let's face it, the Bucs have been running one continual pass pattern since the draft — that you notice the potential has been upgraded, and the temptation is to think that maybe they can win six games. Maybe seven.

And once more, you remember their youth.

Always, this is the dose of realism that comes with the Bucs. They are so darned young, and there are too many resumes that are too darned thin. They are asking so much from players who have lived so little.

If you are thinking about 2012, or 2014, that may be a very, very good thing.

For now, however, it means a franchise is going to be asking a lot out of a group of players who aren't yet ripe.

It is a tough league, the NFL, filled with scarred knuckles and dirty tricks and veterans who think of rookies as glorified interns. Even now, as the Bucs wrap up their final minicamp, that seems to be the major drawback to this roster. It is too young. Even if you believe the players here are going somewhere, it is clear they aren't there yet.

Have the Bucs ever been this young? Has anyone? Consider this: Of the 84 players on the roster (83 plus holdout Donald Penn), 59 are under 25 years old. There are 25 rookies in camp, and nine first-year players and 14 second-year players. That adds up to 48 players who haven't played more than one year of pro football. None of them has started as many as 10 games. (Granted, by opening day, many of those will be cut, but it is clear the Bucs will be uncommonly young.)

In the NFL, the rule of thumb on rookies is that they can survive if they're surrounded by enough veterans.

So where are the Bucs' veterans? Pretty much, they live at Ronde Barber's house. He's the only guy on the roster older than 30. There are five others — Earnest Graham, John Gilmore, Ryan Sims, Stylez White and Jerramy Stephens — who are 30. Except for them, the Bucs might as well be a fraternity. Frankly, it's a little surprising the Big Ten didn't offer the Bucs a chance to join its recent expansion.

So how does this affect the Bucs' chances?

Well, it doesn't help. Not in 2010, anyway. Not unless the Bucs' first-year players can play like third-year players. Not unless the Bucs' second-year players can play like fifth-year players.

Start with the Bucs' defensive line. If Tampa Bay needed help anywhere during last year's 3-13 season, it needed it there. That's why the Bucs were last in the NFL against the run. And that's why they drafted Gerald McCoy and Brian Price with their first two picks.

It's a tough transition from playing defensive tackle in college football to playing it in the NFL. The season is longer. The game is faster. And McCoy and Price will find themselves lined up across from 30-year-old guards who know every shortcut.

Remember B.J. Raji? Back before the 2009 draft, scouts loved Raji. And the question that was asked most frequently when the Packers picked him ninth was how he lasted that long.

As a rookie, Raji started one game. He had one sack.

Remember Glenn Dorsey? When Dorsey came out in 2008, he was supposed to be the next dominant defensive tackle. After two years in Kansas City, you couldn't find his career with a GPS.

It happens. When it comes to predicting a defensive tackle's production, scouts have almost as hard a time as with quarterbacks. Just ask former Browns pick Courtney Brown, the Ryan Leaf of defensive tackles.

"We understand what rookies are," said Todd Wash, the Bucs defensive line coach. "If they're out there, it will be because they've earned it.

"It's a hard transition. Once you get to week 10 or 11, these guys are getting ready for their bowl games. It gets to be a long season. We need to control that a little. We don't want them to get burned out.

"If a player isn't physically ready to go, you can put a damper on his career by playing him too soon. As coaches, we've got to be smart about that."

So what is fair to expect? Pat Kirwan, writing for NFL.com, suggests that a great rookie season is 35 tackles and five sacks. A good rookie season, he says, is 25 tackles and three sacks.

With the Bucs, it isn't too much to expect a great rookie season from McCoy. After all, he was the player the Bucs thought of as a perfect fit. Let's say 15 starts. And the Bucs liked Price enough to add another defensive tackle with their second pick. He should get 10 starts.

So let's go with 25 starts between the two, with eight sacks and 60 tackles. That's not a bad start. But is it enough to make sure the run defense is no longer in the bottom third of the league? We'll see.

And wide receivers? That's a little easier transition.

Last season, there were six receivers taken in the first round. Five of those had at least 40 catches for at least 600 yards. Still, first-year success is not always a gauge for what a player's career will be. For instance, Jerry Rice wasn't very good as a rookie. Michael Clayton was.

The Bucs say they had first-round grades on both Arrelious Benn and Mike Williams. So far, Williams has been more impressive. It isn't hard to see him catching, say, 50 passes. Benn? How does 35 sound?

Yeah, Brent Bowden should be able to handle the punting. Yes, Myron Lewis should start at corner. As rookies, they should do enough to show you they can grow into players.

But how much can they help now?

For the Bucs, that's the question. If the Bucs are going to flirt with .500, their rookies are going to have to play beyond their years. They're going to have mature in a microwave.

Otherwise, it is the losing that will get old in a hurry.

Tampa Bay Bucs pin hopes on a green bunch 06/23/10 [Last modified: Thursday, June 24, 2010 10:01am]

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