With the preseason in full swing and the opening weekend less than a calendar month away, now is the perfect time to glance in at all 32 NFL franchises and get a scoop on what to expect this season. I will be grading every team on all three phases of the game: offense, defense, and special teams. I will also take a look at the coaching staffs of all 32 teams, including the 10 new Head Coaches and evaluate the impact they might have on their team’s success. Then I will outline some key position battles and some names you may or may not know about to watch for the upcoming season.
The 2006 edition of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the ability to either repeat what they did last season or completely go into the proverbial tank this season. That’s true with almost any team in the NFL, but the fact of the matter is that Tampa Bay can be read completely wrong regardless of what you think. They have pieces that can either perform well or just bomb. Even more so than most other NFL teams. I have difficulty seeing whether Jon Gruden’s 2006 squad will be like the 2005 season or the 2004 season, when they went 5-11. Even though they won their division in 2005, they lost to the 49ers, who finished the season 4-12. They are entrusting their offense to a quarterback who hasn’t been a full-time starter in the NFL and they are continually aging on both sides of the ball. Although it’s hard to read teams regardless of these extra circumstances, the Bucs literally could be on both ends of the spectrum. Where will they really be in 2006?
Head Coach Jon Gruden has established himself as one of the best coaches in the NFL during his stints with the Raiders and now with Tampa Bay. For all intensive purposes, he serves as the Offensive Coordinator as well as Head Coach for the Bucs. They have much to deal with this season on offense, even though the personnel doesn’t change too much. The team loses the quarterback that started the season as their starter, but they also get some new players in as well. We’ll have to see how the Bucs adjust to having Chris Simms as the full-time starter.
QB: With Chris Simms finally taking over full reign of the offense, the Bucs are depending on the 4th year players’ ability to finally understand and execute the complicated offensive system that Jon Gruden has. He does have plenty of potential, that part is undeniable. He’s got the physical gifts that are becoming to NFL quarterbacks, as did his father, NFL legend Phil Simms. Definitely able on the run and wants to make plays, which is a good thing but can also be a bad thing, especially when he takes chances that you wouldn’t want him to as a quarterback. The problem with Simms is whether or not he’s really evolved into a true quarterback in terms of the reading of defenses and being a leader within the huddle. If he is, then the Bucs offense should run smoothly, but if he falters then look for them to struggle mightily. Veteran Tim Rattay, acquired in a trade last season with the 49ers, will be his primary backup.
RB/FB: 2005 offensive rookie of the year Carnell ‘Cadillac’ Williams is looking to improve upon his rookie season, one in which he ran for 1,178 yards and scored six touchdowns. He did begin to see a little drop in his game as the season moved along last season, and you are looking for Williams to understand the schedule and the commitment to being in shape a little more than last season, but he did pretty well for himself in 2005. He’s a strong runner who can make catches if necessary out of the backfield. He won’t be confused for LaDainian Tomlinson in terms of receiving backs, but he will make the catch if its dumped to him. Williams also gives you a running back who excels at pass protection, something that a lot of other rookies have a problem with coming into the NFL. He takes linebackers and lineman head on with little hesitation and can knock them off their lines. Veteran Michael Pittman will once again work as the second running back and provide Williams with rest, hopefully keeping him fresh for a full 16 games. FB Mike Alstott endured rumors of his retirement earlier in the offseason and is still the starter in Tampa. He is one of the most unique FBs in the league, a combination of quick feet, agility, and strength rarely seen from that position. More of a runner than a blocker.
WR/TE: Joey Galloway and Michael Clayton make for the Bucs top two receivers for this season. Galloway is still one of the faster receivers in the NFl, although many would say that he’s lost a step or two over the years, he is still dangerous. He re-established himself last season with 83 receptions and 10 touchdowns. Clayton is a young receiver who is still growing in the NFL game. He’s a great route-runner and often makes tough catches in traffic or with a defender down his throat in coverage. He dropped a bit after a stellar rookie season, but he can rebound if Simms is able to get the ball out to them. They also possess two receivers in David Boston and Ike Hilliard who are veteran receivers. Boston specifically has had difficulty in the NFL for the past few seasons, but looks to make the most of his chances in Tampa. Anthony Becht is the number one at TE, but second-year player Alex Smith could push for more time this season.
OL: John Wade is the starting center, and he gives the Bucs a consistent presence for their offensive line. He’s been a solidifying force in the middle since coming over from Jacksonville. Very athletic for a center and can pull block with the best of them. Anthony Davis and Dan Buenning are the left tackle and left guard respectively. Davis is entering his third season in the NFL and his second as a starter for the Bucs. He made his presence known with an impressive 2005 preseason and hasn’t relinquished the starter role since. Buenning started all 16 games last season as a rookie and will also have his second season as a starter here in 2006. A great run blocker who is agile enough to provide good pass-blocking skills as well. Kenyetta Walker and Sean Mahan are on the right side of the line. Walker enters his sixth year in the NFL and gives the line added versatility with ability to play either side tackle for a team. Sean Mahan is also young and very talented, powerful with experience at either guard position as well as center.
Overall Grade: B-
Monte Kiffin has been running the Tampa 2 defense for years. The ‘Tampa 2’ is a variation of a cover 2 scheme specifically made for Tampa’s personnel. He will be entering his 11th year as the Tampa Bay Defensive Coordinator, despite many offers from other teams to be a Head Coach. He remains the longest tenured Defensive Coordinator in the NFL. Tampa Bay was the top-ranked unit in the NFL for the second time under Kiffin and has been consistenly ranked in the top 10 for 9 seasons now. They are aggressive, play incredibly solid and disciplined cover 2, and are ballhawks, taking advantage of even the smallest offensive mistake and capitalizing to their full advantage.
DL: They still have Simeon Rice, one of the NFL’s premier defensive linemen, at the right end position. Rice is one of the most feared defensive linemen, and for good reason. He has been one of the more dominant figures on the Tampa Bay defensive line since he joined the team in 2001. He has 119 career sacks and has made a living in the opponents’ backfield. Very underrated against the run, he is a workhorse who works hard in practice, in games, and even in the offseason. Greg Spires, Chris Hovan, and Anthony ‘Booger’ McFarland all benefit from his presence. Hovan is a former All-Pro who has seen his career resurrected with the Bucs after falling out of favor in Minnesota, and McFarland makes their right side one of the best in the NFL on the defensive front. Spires is a talented pass rusher in his own right and makes it harder for teams to slide their protection to Rice on the right.
LB: Derrick Brooks is an all-world performer for the Bucs and continues to anchor a linebacking corp that has watched names come and go within their system. Brooks is an unquestioned team leader in his 12th NFL season. Many would consider him to be one of the most respected players in the NFL and rightfully so. Not only for his talents on the field, but his demeanor and personality off it. A game-breaker who is effective against the run or pass. Shelton Quarles has emerged as his best running partner, giving leadership to the defense and an intelligence for reading offenses that is well above average. Very wide range of coverage ability for Quarles makes it so much easier for the rest of the team in the Tampa 2 scheme. Ryan Nece will get the third linebacker position going into camp, but you will see fairly heavy competition for that role. He has the ability to be very physical and make a big hit when needed. Made his mark early in his career on special teams and covers on defense as well as he did on special teams. Jamie Winborn and Marquis Cooper are the top reserves who are solid as well.
DB: With a new extension, Ronde Barber returns to his usual spot as the team’s top corner and one of the league’s best. He and Brian Kelly make one of the best corner tandems in the NFL. Barber is very instinctive on the field, often knowing where the ball is headed before the quarterback has even made that decision. He can cover a team’s top receiver very well and gives the defense the ability to gamble at other points on the field. Kelly is also an above-average corner who has shut-down ability as well as the ability to play the run well, but specializes in physical man coverage. Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen give the Bucs two safeties who are young and athletic, able to make plays and be supportive against both the run and the pass. Phillips especially has excellent range and can play close to the line or deep in coverage.
Overall Grade: A+
K: Matt Bryant had an excellent season with the Bucs in 2005, making 21-25 kicks for them. He is already the most accurate single season kicker in team history and can perform for them at the same level this season. Xavier Beitia, a former Florida State standout, is also in camp, but will have to do something amazing in order to dethrone Bryant as the Bucs kicker.
P: Josh Bidwell is most likely going to keep this position, especially after his first Pro-Bowl selection last season in his first season with the Bucs. Has incredible leg strength, probably only second to Oakland’s Shane Lechler, and still possesses the ability to place a ball accurately to a spot if that is the situation. His body frame is very rare for a kicker, because a 6’3″ and 220 lbs., he can sometimes be imposing and looks like he could be a skill position player.
Overall Grade: B+
Everyone knows what Jon Gruden is about. Late nights, long hours of film study, and the scowl. What they also know is that he is one of the best monds in the NFL and has proven so by keeping the Bucs a consistent threat in the NFL, even if they are having a bad season. They always can compete with a team because of Gruden and his attention to preparation. Monte Kiffin is the best defensive mind in the NFL and has shown a commitment to the franchise by turning down numerous offers to be a Head Coach and has instead stayed the team’s DC for 11 seasons. Gruden and Co. are not the weak link.
Overall Grade: A-
Position Battle to Watch
C: John Wade has been solid, but there is now talk that Sean Mahan could be moved permanently to center. He’s got the ability to read defenses better and could see a switch in positions, or rookie David Joseph getting into the mix at guard.
RT: Kenyetta Walker is safe…. for now. However, if his injury problems become more than just a nuisance, then expect the franchise to seriously consider using Jeremy Trueblood in a starting role. He’s been solid in camp and if he can translate that into good performances on the field, then Walker could be looking at being left behind in the race.
Player to Watch
Michael Clayton, WR: Which Clayton will the Bucs get this season, the one who had an incredible rookie campaign or the one who was rather lackluster last season? My guess is more of the former, but that would also depend on just how well Chris Simms does for the team.
Record: 10-6, NFC Wildcard
Offensive MVP: Carnell Williams
Defensive MVP: Derrick Brooks