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2012 Record: 7-9
Key Pending Free Agents:Michael Bennett, DE; Ronde Barber, FS; E.J. Biggers, CB
List of Draft Picks (pending compensatory picks): 1 (13), 2 (43), 3 (73), 4 (109), 4 (123), 5 (140), 6 (171)
Available Cap Space: $31.3 million
GM/Coaching Moves: None
2012 Season Recap
Greg Schiano brought a much different demeanor to Tampa Bay in 2012, his first on the Buccaneers sideline, than predecessor Raheem Morris. In the end, though, the results were about the same.
Morris was fired when a promising 4-2 start to 2011 devolved into a 4-12 disaster. Enter the disciplinarian Schiano, who immediately began remolding the roster in his vision (goodbye, Kellen Winslow!). But while it wasn't quite as a drastic, his first season was also marked by a second-half collapse, from 6-4 to a 7-9 final mark, including an ugly 41-0 loss to the Saints in Week 15.
Schiano couldn't really do much to fix what was ailing Josh Freeman, either. Coming off of a lackluster 2011, getting the guy once thought to be the team's franchise quarterback back in rhythm was the prime objective. But Freeman was dreadful after a five-game stretch from Weeks 6 to 10 in which he had a rating over 100, finishing the season with 17 interceptions and 10 fumbles (2 lost) and creating serious doubts about the team's future under center.
Despite the team's continued struggles to win after Halloween, fans in Tampa Bay should come away from 2012 feeling good about a few things beside the three-win improvement. Those positives were embodied in one promising end-of-season win over a full-strength Falcons team in Week 17, one in which the Buccaneers allowed just 278 total yards and 65 on the ground while moving the ball efficiently and bottling up Atlanta's explosive offense on third down. It was the type of physical, sound win people expected Schiano to bring to Tampa Bay, and the type the locals hope to see a lot more of in 2013.
Stat To Feel Good About
3.5. Yards per carry allowed on the ground, best in the league. Sometimes, stats can be deceiving. A run defense could look better if its team gets a big lead and forces the opponent to stick to the air. The Bucs, though, truly earned their No. 1 rank, stifling opponents on nearly every carry.
If It Ain't Broke ...
The Bucs have invested a lot of high picks into their defensive line of late. The plan hasn't done much for the pass rush (27 sacks in 2012, 29th in the league), but it is paying off against the run. There is really no weak link for opponents to run at among the Tampa Bay front four. The Bucs cut their rushing yards allowed per game from 156.1 in 2011 to 82.5 last year, the first team since the merger to go from worst to first in run defense.
24. Combined first downs and touchdowns allowed within the primary coverage of Mark Barron, third-highest among safeties, per Pro Football Focus.
Must Fix It
Everyone knew the Bucs needed secondary help when they drafted Barron, but his true specialty is playing closer to the box and against the run. Expecting him to cover the league's athletic tight ends as a rookie was too much. He'll get better in that regard, but he's never going to be an elite coverage safety. The answer is to surround him with better talent. Ronde Barber found the fountain of youth in his first season at free safety, but you can't expect another year like the one the soon-to-be 38-year-old had.
Meanwhile, the corners are atrocious, especially after the trade that sent Aqib Talib to New England. (There's a reason the team was dead last in pass defense.) Eric Wright was particularly dreadful after inexplicably getting a big-money deal from Tampa Bay before the season, and E.J. Biggers is a decent depth cornerback who was forced to play too large a role after Talib's exit. Loading the secondary with better talent around Barron will free him from being stuck in isolated coverage and allow him to better play to his strengths. Their draft spot (13th overall) isn't an ideal value spot for any of the rookie corners (unless Alabama's Dee Milliner falls), but there is a bounty of second-round talent for the team to pick from, in addition to going hard after any of the top potential free agents like Brent Grimes, Cary Williams or Dominique Rogers-Cromartie.
More On The To-Do List
1. Find a contingency plan for Josh Freeman. At this point, we know who Freeman is. He's brilliant at times, boneheaded at others. The team has already said it would wait until after this season before deciding whether to extend him, but that alone gives you an idea what its plans are. A much better QB class awaits in the 2014 draft, so for now the team might be better served going after one of the better backup QBs on the market like Matt Moore or Tarvaris Jackson to serve as a somewhat reliable safety net in case Freeman really falters.
2. Add a tight end to diversify the passing game.Dallas Clark had a great career, but his time is up. The team has two great starters at receiver in Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams, but all it has to do is look at its NFC South mates to see what a talented tight end (Tony Gonzalez, Jimmy Graham, Greg Olsen) can do to an offense.
3. Re-sign Michael Bennett and Roy Miller. If the Buccaneers want to remain an elite run defense, they won't let these two key talents go.
What We'll Be Saying In July
The Bucs have plenty of money, and proved last year that they're not afraid to spend it. But will there be anyone really worth spending it on? Last year the team threw money at Wright, to the football nation's bewilderment, and a big contract didn't automatically just make Wright a good player.
None of the three potential free-agent options at corner are guaranteed to actually become available, and there aren't many decent fallback options beside Sean Smith (the pickings are even slimmer in the free safety market). At the team's other big problem, under center, don't expect it to be a big player either in the draft or free agency. The Bucs are going to play this year out with Freeman, and that's a giant shoe dangling over the team's 2013, threatening to drop at any second.
We'll be looking at the Bucs and seeing a team that has improved in the secondary, but maybe not enough, with a quarterback that threatens to destroy a team that should otherwise be squarely in the playoff race.
OFFSEASON PREVIEWS: ARIZONA, BUFFALO, CAROLINA, DALLAS, DETROIT, JACKSONVILLE, KANSAS CITY, MINNESOTA, NEW YORK JETS, OAKLAND, PHILADELPHIA, SAN DIEGO, TAMPA BAY, TENNESSEE.
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