With the 2013 NFL season rapidly approaching, we’re taking a spin around the league for a closer look at all 32 teams. Track all of our Snapshots here.
“Changing the culture” is one of sports’ most tired clichés. But it's an apt characterization of what Greg Schiano accomplished with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his first year as an NFL head coach. From his controversial play-to-the-whistle tactics in the waning moments of a road loss to the Giants, to his trading of talented cornerback Eric Wright after another off-field incident (the deal fell through after Wright failed his physical with the Niners; the Bucs cut him anyway), to his college-style micro management of team meals, workout routines and meeting room temperatures, Schiano has made his disciplinary intentions clear from Day 1. He epitomizes “no-nonsense” in the most obvious way, and the Buccaneers -- whether or not you agree with his methods in principle -- are clearly better off, football-wise, under Schiano’s strict leadership.
A disappointing 1-5 finish obscured what was an otherwise promising 7-9 season. For most of 2012, the Buccaneers -- powered by the league’s best run defense, an aggressive mentality on both sides of the ball and a potent set of offensive playmakers -- looked like a playoff team. The aim for 2013 is to recapture what made them one of the league’s better teams through the first 10 weeks of 2012, and Schiano’s continued emphasis on discipline and attention to detail will no doubt help the Bucs reestablish their early-season identity.
• Biggest storyline: Where will the pass rush come from?
Last season, the Bucs finished tied for 29th in the league with 27 sacks. And that was before their best pass rusher, Michael Bennett, left in free agency this offseason. Bennett’s departure places the onus on Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers to get after the quarterback, a scary proposition given their recent track records. Both were talented players coming out of college and have shown flashes of pass-rushing potential, but injuries have prevented them from developing into the consistent edge forces Tampa Bay envisioned when it selected them with first- and second-round picks, respectively, in the 2011 draft.
Bowers missed the first six games of last season nursing an Achilles injury, while Clayborn sat out the final 13 with knee trouble. Talent aside, their inability to stay on the field leaves the impression, fair or not, that Tampa Bay will again struggle to consistently apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season. Fourth-round pick William Gholston has promise, and the double teams defensive tackle Gerald McCoy routinely draws should lessen the blocking attention devoted to Tampa Bay’s edge rushers, but all in all, unless Bowers and McCoy can stay healthy, opposing quarterbacks need not worry when facing the Bucs.
• Most intriguing position battle: Defensive tackle
Another one of Tampa Bay’s defensive line defections this offseason was nose tackle Roy Miller. Unlike Bennett, though, Miller can be replaced internally without much drop-off. Either Gary Gibson, who appeared in 16 games last season, or Derek Landri, who started seven games for Philadelphia, could begin the year as the starter alongside McCoy. That assumes rookie Akeem Spence, a fourth-round pick who has drawn near hyperbolic reviews throughout the offseason, doesn’t leap up the depth chart sometime over the next four weeks.
The most likely scenario, at least from this early preseason vantage point, is that Spence -- despite a disappointing performance in Thursday night's preseason loss to the Ravens -- will outperform Gibson and Landri in training camp and the remaining exhibition games, eventually winning the starting job. Gibson and Landri are serviceable reserves, but neither boast anywhere near the athleticism or disruptive potential of Spence, who should pair nicely with McCoy to give the Bucs an impressive interior D-line tandem.
• New face, new place: Darrelle Revis, cornerback
Last season’s 32nd-ranked pass defense made upgrading the secondary priority number one for Tampa Bay this offseason. General manager Mark Dominik didn’t waste time scavenging the free-agent market for cost-effective market inefficiencies. Instead, he traded for one of the best cover corners in the league, giving up a first-round pick in the process and signing Darrelle Revis to a six-year, $96 million deal upon arrival. (Tampa Bay made another key upgrade to their defensive backfield by signing Pro-Bowl safety Dashon Goldson.)
Handing out exorbitant, multi-year contracts to non-quarterbacks, particularly in the NFL’s modern hard cap climate, is always a risky move -- and even more so considering Revis is coming off a knee injury (and subsequent offseason surgery) that forced him to miss all but two games last season. But if he can regain his pre-injury form, the Bucs will have added one of, if not the league’s outright best player at a position of need.
• Impact rookie: Johnthan Banks, cornerback
Landing Goldson and Revis transformed the secondary from an obvious roster weakness into one of the more intriguing free agent-bolstered position groups in the league. The Bucs will look completely different on the backend this season. That’s a good thing, mind you, and it could get even better if second-round pick Banks -- a player who graded out as first-rounder throughout much of the pre-draft process -- plays to his potential in his rookie season.
In a vacuum, adding Banks was a solid pick, one that addressed a clear position of weakness. After the Bucs bid adieu to Wright, Banks went from impressive developmental project to likely starter, and lived up to his billing Thursday night with an impressive five-tackle performance. Indeed, without Wright, and with no eminently superior alternatives, Banks will likely begin the season as the starting cornerback opposite Revis, provided he can beat out second-year Iowa State product Leonard Johnson.
If Banks can live up to his billing early on, the Buccaneers could be on the verge of completing one of the more remarkable position group overhauls of this offseason. Signing Revis, adding Banks and slotting Goldson next to Mark Barron at safety gives Tampa Bay enough talent and depth to squelch the echoes of last season’s league-worst pass defense.
• Looking at the schedule: Not so bad
There are reasons to be excited about Tampa Bay’s 2013 schedule. For starters, the Bucs open the season on the road at the Jets, giving Revis an opportunity to face his old team. The Bucs also get two primetime home games -- the first a Week 7 test against Carolina on Thursday night, the second on Monday night, Week 11, against Miami. Compared to the slate the rest of the division faces, this schedule isn’t terrible, but it’s also not without its share of challenges. Road trips to Seattle, St. Louis and New England are huge tests; home games against San Francisco and Philadelphia won’t be easy; and divisional games at Atlanta and New Orleans are enormous walls to climb. The schedule isn’t easy as much as it is feasible. There are plenty of challenges scatted throughout, but enough seemingly favorable tests to qualify this slate well below the “nightmarish” selection of games division foe Carolina -- owners of the toughest schedule in the league as measured by combined win percentage (.543) -- faces in 2013. The Bucs have every right to aim for a playoff birth this season, and their schedule is manageable enough to believe they can.