A ton of optimism abounds inside the walls of One Buc Place and throughout the Tampa Bay community. The Buccaneers showed improvement last season – at one point boasting a 6-4 record – before finishing the season with a five-game losing streak, then capping off 2012 with a win on the road against the Falcons, who had the best record in the league.
The biggest downfall and blame for the nine losses – the secondary – has been vastly upgraded with the addition of Darrelle Revis via a trade with the Jets, the free agent signing of safety Dashon Goldson and the drafting of cornerback Johnthan Banks. What was the worst secondary in the league, arguably can be considered one of the best.
Other things that make Bucs fans, players and coaches giddy, is the return of guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks to the offense after the two were lost to injuries in 2012. The Buccaneers offense still set a number of franchise records without the Pro Bowl duo, and the thought of quarterback Josh Freeman and Doug Martin showing off their abilities behind a healthy offensive line excites many.
Even with all of the excitement there are still a handful of players who need to step up their game in order to remain with the Buccaneers in the future and help build what many think can be a long-term playoff caliber football team.
PewterReport.com has put together a list of five players who need to improve on last season and if these five play up to their potential, the Buccaneers most likely will be in the playoffs in 2013. If not some may be looking for a new team in 2014. Quarterback Josh Freeman
No Buccaneers player has been scrutinized more this offseason than Freeman – and rightly so. As the quarterback of an NFL team the scrutiny comes with the territory. Is Freeman the franchise QB that Mark Dominik thought he was when Tampa Bay selected him with the 17th overall pick in 2009? Apparently there are some reservations – at least by head coach Greg Schiano – as the Bucs selected Mike Glennon in the third round last April.
Freeman has been a maddening fixture at the helm the past four seasons, especially in 2012. At one point last season Freeman produced a five-game stretch with a QB rating over 100. Then the Buccaneers went on a slide late in the season and Freeman turned the ball over eight times in two games and made mistakes even rookie quarterbacks shouldn’t produce.
The Buccaneers have given Freeman everything they possibly can to succeed. From a $100 million offensive line to a $55.55 million No. 1 receiver – the time for excuses are over, and Freeman and the Buccaneers understand this. Win 10 games and reach the playoffs and Freeman will move into the Joe Flacco tax bracket. Lead the Bucs to another 7-9 season and Freeman will be wearing one of 31 other NFL uniforms next fall.Offensive tackle Donald Penn
No one is questioning Penn’s outstanding Buccaneers career, but at age 30 and due almost $22 million over the next three years, Penn must not allow his level of play to slip in 2013.
Signed from the Vikings' practice squad in 2006, the former Utah State standout is rivaling Buccaneers great Paul Gruber as one of the best – and most durable – offensive tackles in Buccaneers history. Penn has started 92 straight games at left tackle and while he rarely dominates his opponent,very few times does he allow the quarterback’s jersey to get soiled with grass stains.
Penn loves playing for the Buccaneers and is one of those locker room guys that coaches love to have, but also has an occasional lazy streak and has failed to meet most of the weight clauses in his most recent contract (UPDATED
: PewterReport.com has learned on Monday that Penn did in fact meet his weight clauses for the 2012 season, although prior to 2012 Penn failed to meet some of the stipulations of weight in his contract, costing him bonus money), which also drives management crazy.
Demar Dotson proved last preseason he is capable of playing the left tackle position, and while maybe not at the level of Penn, he is capable nonetheless. The fact that the Buccaneers didn’t draft an offensive lineman last month actually bodes well for Penn, but with a number of contracts coming up in after next season, Penn could be a salary cap casualty if his play diminishes at all.Tight End Luke Stocker
Stocker has been a disappointment to a degree since the Buccaneers moved up in the 2011 draft to select the former Tennessee Volunteer. Stocker has developed into a solid run-blocker and does a great job of chipping defensive ends when releasing into pass patterns, but the receiving numbers that the Buccaneers envisioned when he was drafted, have failed to meet expectations.
Stocker’s career got off to a bad start as he suffered a hip injury just days into his rookie training camp back in July of 2011. While he was able to get himself ready for the season opener, he always appeared a step behind – and just a step too slow over the past three seasons.
Since cutting Kellen Winslow last spring the Buccaneers have drafted Drake Dunsmore and signed free agents Dallas Clark, Tom Crabtree, Danny Nobles and Nate Byham. So far Stocker has fended them off to a degree, however Crabtree is expected to push Stocker hard in training camp and don’t be surprised to see the former Packer as the Bucs primary pass-catching tight end in 2013.Cornerback Eric Wright
Wright is on dangerously thin ice as far as continuing to be a Buccaneer. Sources have told PewterReport.com that even a minor hiccup and the former Brown and Lion will be a former Buccaneer. With that said, Wright figures heavily in the Bucs 2013 defensive plans. As of now, Wright is pegged as the starting corner opposite Darrelle Revis, but may be moved to the slot depending on the progression of rookie cornerback Johnthan Banks. Tampa Bay loves Banks length and athleticism, but also understands he is a rookie, and most likely will struggle at times if he becomes a full-time starter.
Wright’s Tampa Bay career started off poorly right off the bat last spring when he was diagnosed with an undisclosed medical condition. The illness kept Wright off the field for much of the offseason workouts, but the veteran corner was able to get on medication that allowed him to be ready for the season. Unfortunately Wright was part of the Bucs poor secondary and took a lot of heat. As the season progressed Wright suffered a couple nagging injuries (Achilles, back) then the sky fell as Wright was suspended for four games by the league for violating the NFL’s policy on banned substances.
Wright came close to being released after the season ended but after meeting with Schiano and Dominik, Tampa Bay decided to give Wright one final chance.
Wright will need to stay clean, and just as importantly perform better on the field if he has any aspirations of being a Buccaneer beyond next season.Punter/KOS Michael Koenen
Koenen was the Bucs prized free agent from the 2011 class, much to the dismay of many Bucs fans. Many wondered why in the world Dominik would hand over a six-year $19 million deal for a punter and kickoff specialist. But Koenen earned his money that season, excelling on kickoff touchbacks and putting up great punting stats.
One of the unheralded skills Koenen possessed is working with placekicker Connor Barth as his holder. With Koenen serving as the setup man, Barth has gone on to have two of the most successful seasons years in franchise history. Barth is quick to give a majority of the credit to Koenen for his success anytime he is interviewed.
Koenen also had a solid season kicking off in 2012, and was one of the league leaders in touchback percentage, but his punting numbers fell, ranking just 22nd in the league in punting average (45.3) and 23rd in punts inside the 20.
With Koenen’s guaranteed money paid out over the first two seasons of the deal, the Buccaneers could release the former Falcon with out taking any type of salary cap hit. Scheduled to earn $3.25 million in 2013, it is even conceivable that free agent acquisition Chas Henry could push Koenen for the job this season. Even if Koenen retains his job in 2013, the Bucs will need to see much improvement as they may be in a situation where they need to free cap space to sign their own free agents in 2014.
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