By Tom Krasniqi (Twitter: @TKras)
The offseason produced big acquisitions and high expectations for the 2013 Buccaneers. With training camp almost upon us, it’s time to explore which players will be under the microscope. Some players will be more scrutinized than others. A couple of players on this list won’t surprise you at all. The player’s position, salary, draft status and relative impact to the team’s bottom line are determining factors. With that said, here are the 5 Bucs who will be under the most pressure when camp begins on July 25:
5) FS Dashon Goldson- The Bucs were not very active in free agency, but they spent big bucks to get the former Niners free safety. Tampa Bay made Goldson the highest paid safety in the game when they handed him a 5-year deal worth $41.25-million. The deal included $22-million in guaranteed money. Goldson fills a major need in a Bucs secondary that was shredded consistently last season. The Bucs expect the two-time Pro Bowler to be an immediate impact player. He’s a ferocious hitter who also has the range to make plays in coverage. Over the last two years, Goldson recorded 9 interceptions in San Francisco. Since arriving in Tampa, Goldson has take on more of a leadership role. He was seen working with the younger defensive backs during the OTAs and minicamp. The Bucs are banking on Goldson to become an impact player both on and off the field.
4) Tie- Guards Carl Nicks/Davin Joseph – There is a ton of money tied up with these two guys. The Bucs made Nicks the highest paid guard in the game last offseason with a 5-year, $47.5-million deal. Nicks played in just 7 games before a painful toe injury knocked him out for the rest of the season. Meanwhile, Joseph is one of the highest paid guards in the game after agreeing to a 7-year extension worth around $52-million back in 2011. Joseph didn’t play at all in 2012 after tearing his patellar tendon in his right knee during a preseason game last August. If healthy, both Nicks and Joseph are Pro Bowlers who can instantly transform the Bucs into maybe the best offensive line in football in 2013. However, both are coming off crippling injuries. Head coach Greg Schiano says both should be ready to go for training camp and the Bucs are taking a cautious approach. A healthy Nicks & Joseph means big holes in the running game for Doug Martin and more time for the enigmatic Josh Freeman to throw downfield. If both aren’t healthy, then the Bucs’ depth will be tested once again. Keep in mind: Joseph has already been paid the guaranteed money due to him in his contract. If he’s not healthy/effective, the Bucs may be forced to move on.
3) Tie- Defensive ends Adrian Clayborn/Da’Quan Bowers- The pass rush for the Bucs will be a big factor in determining the team’s playoff chances in 2013. Last season, the Bucs were hideous in this area. The team registered just 27 sacks last season which ranked them 30th in the NFL. Not nearly good enough and don’t forget, the Bucs lost their best pass rusher in Michael Bennett (9 sacks) to free agency. As much as everyone loved to criticize the secondary, they were not helped out at all by the pass rush. Clayborn tore his ACL in Week 3 last season at Dallas. Clayborn showed some promise as a rookie two years ago when he recorded 7.5 sacks. Clayborn says he feels stronger and will be ready for the start of camp. The Bucs need him just as much as they need Bowers. The Bucs let Bennett walk in free agency because they have high confidence in Bowers as an every-down left defensive end. Bowers suffered a torn Achilles a year ago which delayed his season debut until late October and then was hampered by a hamstring injury. Down the stretch, Bowers did flash some ability and finished the season with 3 sacks. Can Bowers be a 10 sack per year type of player? Bowers thinks so and so do the Bucs. Bowers and/or Clayborn need to step forward in order to alleviate the double teams that Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy will undoubtedly see on a regular basis. The improved secondary may force the quarterback to hold onto the ball a little longer, so that helps. Clayborn was a 1st round pick back in 2011. Bowers was a 2nd rounder that year. GM Mark Dominik wants them to be full-time players because of their draft status. Now he needs them to deliver.
2) CB Darrelle Revis- The Bucs have made some big deals over the course of their history-- trading for Jon Gruden & Keyshawn Johnson-- but the Revis acquisition is the biggest one this franchise has ever made. Make no mistake: If Revis doesn’t tear up his knee last September, there’s no way he’s on this roster right now. When healthy, he’s not only the best corner in the game, he’s one of the best PLAYERS in the NFL. When Dominik and Schiano huddled during the offseason, they placed an emphasis on ‘quality’ over ‘quantity’ in addressing their dreadful secondary from a year ago. So they went out and signed the best free safety (Goldson) available in free agency. Then, they acquired Revis from the Jets for a 1st rounder this season and a 3rd rounder in 2014 (provided that he’s on the roster when the 2014 league year begins). Schiano’s aggressive philosophy on defense mirrors the one run by Rex Ryan in New York and that’s why the Bucs wanted Revis so badly. It allows the Bucs to blitz more with Revis locking down the opposing team’s best wideout. Revis has been working overtime to rehab from his knee injury. The Bucs expect him ready for training camp but I would be surprised if Revis plays during the preseason. Why risk it? The Bucs will restrict his practice time during camp but they’re confident he’ll be ready to face his former team on Opening Day. The Bucs gave Revis the money he wanted—6 years at $96-million. None of that money is guaranteed. Now, it’s time for Revis to live up to the billing of “Revis Island”. The Bucs need him to be just that with Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton on the schedule for six times per year. Revis will also see Julio Jones, Jimmy Graham and Steve Smith so the pressure is on to live up to that gigantic contract.
1) QB Josh Freeman- Did you think it would be anybody else? Quarterback is the most important position in all of sports. Freeman is entering a contract year and it’s the most important year of his professional career. The pieces are in place for a career year---healthy offensive line, playmakers at the skill positions and a second year in the same system under offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan. But the big question is this: Which Freeman will the Bucs get in 2013? Freeman was fantastic in 2010 with 25 touchdown passes to 6 interceptions in leading the Bucs to a 10-6 record. In 2011, Freeman regressed with 16 TDs and 22 INTs with the lack of a supporting cast. Last season, Freeman was up and down. He looked great in some games early in the season, but not so much down the stretch when he threw four picks in consecutive games against the Saints and the Rams. He did top 4,000 yards passing and threw for 27 touchdowns, both franchise records. If Freeman flourishes like he did in 2010, the Bucs will be a playoff team and Freeman gets a huge contract. If he stumbles like he did in 2011, then the Bucs might be forced to pass the torch to Mike Glennon in 2014. But here’s the question the Bucs need to ask themselves: What if Freeman has another inconsistent season like he had last season? Do you franchise him? The franchise tag for quarterbacks was almost $15-million in 2012. It will undoubtedly be higher next season. You better be sure he’s your guy if you’re going to invest $16-million per season in him. If Freeman has a 4-pick type of game, the criticism will return and the calls for Glennon will get louder. This will be the most important issue facing the team this season.