TAMPA — During a break at the NFL combine in February in Indianapolis, Bucs general manager Mark Dominik insisted that his team wanted to surround quarterback Josh Freeman with young receivers he could grow old with.
A block away, hanging from Lucas Oil Stadium, was a big banner picture of Peyton Manning.
Two years before Manning arrived in Indianapolis, the Colts drafted Marvin Harrison. Four years after Manning came in, the Colts drafted Reggie Wayne.
Those three players are probably the gold standard when it comes to passing combinations. But Dominik's point was made.
But not even Dominik could've predicted how talented the Bucs' young receivers would be in 2010.
Rookies Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn have been superb. Williams, who leads all rookies in every major category, is the steal of the 2010 draft as a fourth-rounder from Syracuse. Benn has come on quickly. Sammie Stroughter is an effective third-down slot receiver, and Micheal Spurlock is an explosive force at age 27.
"This is a great group," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "To me, I can't imagine another team having as many young, good receivers than we have. Collectively, as a group — and I'm including (practice squad player) Dez Briscoe in that group — I just can't imagine another team having 4-5 young receivers like we have across the board.
"They're growing up quickly, much like Freeman. They keep getting better every week, which is encouraging. If you're an avid football person, and you watch it, you see the growth, you see them getting better every week, and that's encouraging."
Now, my midseason awards:
Freeman is the real deal, but he deserves even better.
If not for a suspect defense, and running back LeGarrette Blount going the wrong way, Freeman could have three more fourth-quarter comebacks, giving him nine in his career. Close losses to Miami and Atlanta in '09 and at the Falcons last week have skewed his record. But it's hard to imagine any quarterback making a bigger improvement from his rookie year to the second year.
Honorable mention: Cornerback Aqib Talib. He stepped up at Arizona with two picks, including one returned for a touchdown. He leads the Bucs with five picks but still takes too many chances.
Rookie of the year
The Bucs knew Williams was good, but if they knew he was this good, even they might have taken him in the first round. Williams' understanding of route running is rare among rookies, and he's on pace to set club receiving records among first-year players.
Biggest rookie surprise
Cody Grimm, a seventh-rounder from Virginia Tech, never expected to start at safety this year. At 6 feet 1, 203 pounds, he doesn't look the part of an NFL starter. But he's a sure tackler with great instincts and is third in special teams tackles with 10. What Grimm lacks in size and speed, he makes up for with heart.
Biggest rookie disappointments
1. Brian Price: The Bucs doubled down at defensive tackle, but Price was not right. He arrived in the offseason with a hamstring strain that got worse. He even played the first five games before an MRI found he had a pelvic stress facture. Ouch. How Price endured that much pain is admirable.
2. Myron Lewis: A third-round pick from Vanderbilt, Lewis has had trouble being active on Sundays. He's big and mobile but could not beat out last year's seventh-rounder, E.J. Biggers, for the nickel cornerback spot.
3. Gerald McCoy: This should come with a disclaimer. McCoy has zero sacks, which is 61/2 behind Ndamukong Suh. But it's not as if he's surrounded by the Purple People Eaters. McCoy has played better of late, but he still has to make splash plays whether a quarterback goes down or not.
The Titans made a mistake by trying to sneak Blount back onto their practice squad. The 6-foot, 248-pounder might have had off-field issues, but he provided the big, physical back the Bucs have lacked since Mike Alstott retired. It will be interesting to see what he does in the second half.
Wake up, Stylez White. The Bucs right defensive end plays the premier pass rush position on the defense. McCoy is drawing some double teams inside. But White, who guaranteed a double-digit sack season, has work to do. He leads the team with three sacks and 15 quarterback pressures. But the Bucs, who have only six sacks all season, are on pace for one of the fewest season totals in NFL history.
Assistant coach of the year
Rich Bisaccia. One day, a big-time college program or NFL team will wake up and realize one of the best coaches anywhere is the special teams coordinator in Tampa Bay. Aside from the revolving door of punters during the past two years, the Bucs are so well coached on covering kicks and punts that you rarely think an opponent is going to make a play against them. His special teams will win the Bucs one game this season. It should have been in Atlanta, when Spurlock returned kickoffs 66 and 89 yards, the second one for a touchdown.
Special teams player of the year
Adam Hayward. The Bucs linebacker covers kicks and punts with speed and violence. He is tied with Corey Lynch for the team lead with 11 special teams stops.