2013 Team Needs: Tampa Bay Buccaneers
If you didn’t get to follow the Buccaneers closely this season, don’t fret too much. Sure there were plenty of new faces and much to be excited about, but 2012 turned out eerily similar to Tampa’s 2011 campaign. A late-season losing streak once again dashed any hopes of the postseason, despite starting 6-3.
The Bucs’ management made quite a splash in the free agent pool a year ago, picking up big names such as Vincent Jackson, Carl Nicks, Eric Wright, and Dallas Clark. They paid a small fortune for these guys, and the results were mixed. Jackson once again proved that he can be a top flight receiver (when he can stay out of trouble), and Nicks put forth a fine season before missing eight games due to an injury. Clark, however, never became the difference maker he was in Indianapolis, and Wright may be released this offseason.
With some decent cap space available, and a good crop of 2012 free agents, management should have little hesitation in going out and getting their man. Considering the talent currently on the roster, it won’t take much to turn this team into a perennial playoff threat. You can see a complete list of the team’s impending free agents here, but let’s take a look at three key areas.
With the worst pass defense in the league, it’s no surprise that one of the Bucs’ most pressing needs is someone to shore up their coverage unit. Compounding the problem is that starting corner E.J. Biggers will become a free agent this offseason. Add in last years mid-season trade of Aqib Talib to the Patriots and the expiring contract of situational corner Brandon McDonald, and altogether that’s over 1,300 snaps at CB that need to be accounted for next year (even when Wright is cut).
Aside from the aforementioned Biggers and Talib, the Bucs’ rookie Leonard Johnson was the only cornerback on the roster to grade positively last season. He didn’t see significant playing time until Week 8, and while he wasn’t exactly a shutdown corner, he played much better than an undrafted rookie has any right to in his first year. However, even if he improves in his sophomore season, it will take more than one man to cover the opposition’s receivers.
The Free Agent Fix: Sheldon Brown
If Biggers isn’t back next year, Tampa will need to find a corner who can shoulder the load of a full season’s worth of snaps as a starter. Enter Sheldon Brown (+8.0). A veteran corner on an underachieving Cleveland team, Brown held up well last year, allowing more than five catches just three times and conceding over 60 yards just twice. The Browns seem unlikely to resign him, and while he won’t be the most sought after corner on the market, he should be a nice stopgap if the Bucs plan to draft a corner in the coming years.
The knocks against Brown are few, but they are relevant. First and foremost, he will be 34 when the 2013 season starts, and aging corners who lose their speed and agility usually find the bench in a hurry. Also, the nine penalties Brown racked up last year are more than you’d like to see out of any player.
He won’t be out of his comfort zone though. Johnson played roughly three-quarters of his snaps at left cornerback and will likely stay there. Cleveland lined up Brown at right corner on basically the same proportion of his snaps, so the two should have little trouble manning the edges of the field.
The second way to shore up a pass defense is to improve your ability to get to the passer. The back seven’s issues in coverage can largely be masked by a ferocious pass rush that forces early throws and disrupts the timing of the opposing offense. And while Gerald McCoy (+19.4 pass rush) continues to validate his lofty draft position, Michael Bennett (+11.5 pass rush) is the only other real pass rushing threat on the defense.
In spite of the lofty grades of those two, Tampa’s pass rushing graded at a disappointing -14.5 on the year. That’s understandable when you consider that McCoy and Bennett registered over half of the pressure for the entire defense. To make matters worse, Bennett will become a free agent this offseason, as will the other starting defensive end, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim (-12.1 pass rush), though it’s unlikely his pass-rushing skills will be missed.
The Free Agent Fix: Michael Bennett
He put in nearly 1,000 snaps for the Bucs last year, and there’s a good chance they can get a home-team discount if they get moving on a deal with the young defensive end. His +19.0 cumulative grade was good for sixth-highest among 4-3 DE’s, ahead of some guys like Charles Johnson and Julius Peppers, both of whom were given massive contracts recently. Bennett was a big part of the Buccaneers’ top-rated run defense too, as he led all of the Bucs’ defensive linemen with 29 stops.
Keeping hold of Bennett will also limit the responsibility of a couple of youngsters on the squad: Da’Quan Bowers and Adrian Clayborn. Both men graded in the red on the year for their pass rushing, though they combined to play less than half the defense’s total snaps. While Tampa Bay would love to give these guys more playing time, both sophomores have injury issues, and not having any insurance in place would be a tremendous risk.
This section won’t be dedicated to lobbying for anyone to steal playing time from Doug Martin. Rather, it would be wise for Tampa to find someone to spell the sensational rookie once in a while. Martin’s 1,454 rushing yards were nearly 10 times that of their next best rusher (LeGarrette Blount, 151 yards). Behind Blount (in yardage, at least) is the young D.J. Ware, and while he at least made a dent in the receiving game (100 yards compared to Blount’s 2 yards), he’ll be a free agent come 2014.
Having a workhorse back isn’t necessarily a bad thing (just ask Minnesota how it’s worked out for them), but you start to wonder how soon that amount of carries will wear down a young runner. Martin’s 368 touches were third-most in the league, and while this may work out in the short run, when you have a young talent like Martin on the roster, it pays to protect him.
The Free Agent Fix: Ronnie Brown
The Bucs don’t need a huge difference-maker here, but a reliable back who can shoulder his share of the load. That’s just who they’ll get if they land Ronnie Brown. It’s unfortunate that Brown’s most memorable play in recent years was that inexcusable fumble on the goal line while playing for the Eagles in 2011. However that may just stick in the minds of others and drive down his bargaining power. As much as that play could haunt Brown, he’s actually been extremely steady with the ball in his hands having fumbled just six times on his 813 touches over the past five years.
It won’t be a pickup that will make a big splash, but Brown has done well in the time since escaping the disaster that was the Eagles’ 2011 season. He tallied 4.8 yards per carry for the Chargers, and with 49 receptions, he’s an asset in the passing game as well. The only downside was some sub-par pass protection last season, but with only 78 snaps protecting Philip Rivers and some solid protection in previous years, there’s no reason to read much into that.