It's safe to say that no NFL team improved its fortunes, at least on paper, more this offseason than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The same franchise that finished 4-12 after an 0-8 start and the second of two stressful seasons under former head coach Greg Schiano made more smart, cost-effective and decidedly necessary moves than any in the league. New head coach Lovie Smith is an established winner with an even temperament -- the perfect antidote to Schiano's need for drama -- and the team's free-agent haul was singularly impressive, with a new quarterback (Josh McCown), left tackle (Anthony Collins), premier pass rusher (Michael Johnson) and potential shutdown cornerback (Alterraun Verner) among its acquisitions. Add in a draft that will pair Texas A&M receiver Mike Evans and Washington tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins with established star Vincent Jackson, and it's easy to like what Tampa Bay has done since giving Schiano the boot.
"We feel like we have the guys in the right positions, [and] have the right guys competing for certain positions," Smith recently said. "We have put in our packages. Again, they know how we're going to do things, they know what's expected."
That will be a big change right there -- that the Bucs' players will know what is expected of them. No question there was more talent on last year's team than the record indicated, but it's hard for that to show when players start to give up on the man in charge, as the team did under Schiano.
McCown, who played for Smith in Chicago and threw 13 touchdowns to one interception as Jay Cutler's backup last year, has already put himself in charge of morale.
"Time is of the essence. It just takes the work," he said of a young team learning to win. "You have to put in the time, and that's what we're saying with the young guys. There's extra things that need to get done to get that established, and it's still a process, it's still a daily thing, but it's grabbing the extra hours here and there at night to spend together that maybe gives us an edge, maybe speeds that learning curve up."
Teams built on paper are just that -- we all remember the "Dream Team" Eagles from a couple years ago. But this Bucs team seems to have the look of a unit that's been constructed the right way. And it might just continue the NFC South's long tradition of "worst-to-first" stories.
Best acquisition: Michael Johnson, DE
It's tempting to put Collins here, since he allowed no sacks in 317 pass-blocking snaps in 2013, and his predecessor, Donald Penn gave up 12 takedowns in 573 snaps. But this is a team that hasn't had a defender with 10 or more sacks since 2005, when Simeon Rice put up 14. It hasn't been for lack of trying, but the defensive ends the Bucs have drafted over the last few seasons haven't been able to consistently bring pressure. Michael Bennett came close with nine sacks in 2012, but he sallied off to Seattle and a Super Bowl title. Tampa Bay went hard after Johnson, the former Bengals star, in free agency and wrapped him up with a five-year, $43.75 million deal that included $24 million in guaranteed money. Johnson had just 3.5 sacks last season, and has exceeded 10 just once in his career (11.5 in 2012), but he amassed 17 quarterback hits and 41 hurries last season, and he was frequently double-teamed after super-tackle Geno Atkins was hurt. Johnson can play outside, swing inside to tackle on passing downs, and is flexible enough to drop into coverage. On the same line as Adrian Clayborn and Gerald McCoy, Johnson should get more than his share of opportunities.
Biggest loss: Darrelle Revis, CB
Yes, the Bucs signed ex-Titans cornerback Alterraun Verner to replace Revis, but Verner's had just one good year, while Revis is still a lockdown defender when healthy. Admittedly, Verner's one good year was a very good year -- in 2013, he allowed a 55.8 opponent quarterback rating, third-best in the NFL behind Seattle's Richard Sherman and New England's Logan Ryan (who played predominantly in the slot). Revis now joins Ryan in Bill Belichick's defense, and if Verner isn't able to repeat last year's performance, there will be legitimate questions about the departure of a player who was misused in Tampa Bay's former schemes, and played better down the stretch as he fully recovered from his 2012 knee injury.
Underrated draft pick: Robert Herron, WR, Wyoming (Sixth round, 185th overall pick)
It was hard to tell at times given quarterback Brett Smith's erratic play, but Herron looked pretty good as an undersized speedster in Wyoming's offense. He caught 72 passes for 932 yards and nine touchdowns in 2013, and showed legitimate 4.4 speed on the field. Herron needs some work with the little things, especially advanced route concepts, but he's a straight-line burner who will see a lot of single teams as opposing defenses try to deal with Jackson and Evans at the same time. The 5-foot-9, 193-pound Herron could be especially dynamic in the slot.
Looming question for training camp: Can Jeff Tedford bring this offense together?
Former offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan didn't do his players any favors in featuring a set of schemes last season that were predictable and ineffective. Sullivan was swept out in the Schiano tide, to be replaced by Tedford, the ex-Cal coach and longtime quarterback guru. This marks Tedford's first time in the NFL running an offense. He's earned a reputation for putting balanced offenses on the field in an effective fashion on the college level, though Cal's recent travails might make some wonder if he's prepared for the next level. And in Chicago, Smith wasn't always vigilant about making sure his offensive masterminds were operating in the best interests of the team.
Whatever he's going to bring to the Bucs, Tedford isn't eager to reveal details.
"There's nothing earth shattering about it," he said in early June. "Everybody has different tempos that they go at, so there’s nothing earth shattering about it. Football is football. It’s about matchups and getting things done with personnel and making sure we’re putting people in the right position. And execution, that’s what it’s about. No matter how much you think you can trick people, it still comes down to execution. It’s not about tricking people. Obviously you need to keep people off balance with certain phases of the game and we'll try to do that. But there’s really nothing earth shattering about anything going on."
Tedford will certainly get Tampa Bay's running backs heavily involved in a rotation -- between Doug Martin, Bobby Rainey, Mike James and rookie Charles Sims, there's a lot with which to work. Will Tedford also put his estimable receiver corps in the best positions to make consistent plays? That may be the most compelling question about the Bucs this season -- how their receivers operate.