After a two-week winter break for the Christmas and New Year holidays, SR’s Fab 5 is back to ring in the New Year. SR’s Fab 5 is a collection of inside scoop, analysis and insight from yours truly, Pewter Report publisher and Bucs beat writer Scott Reynolds. Here are a few things that caught my attention this week at One Buc Place:
FAB 1. If you are looking for a early breakthrough Buccaneer in 2013, look no further than defensive end Da’Quan Bowers. Tampa Bay’s second-round pick in 2011 missed training camp and the first six games of the regular season due to an Achilles tendon injury he suffered last April during OTAs (organized team activities), but the organization is thrilled with how quickly he recovered and the impact he was able to have as a situational pass rusher over the last 10 games of the season.
Keep in mind that Bowers has yet to go through a full offseason with the Buccaneers due to the NFL lockout in 2011 and his torn Achilles tendon this past spring. The team can’t wait to see him build on what he accomplished in his second season in the NFL in which he rotated at right defensive end with Daniel Te’o-Nesheim and at left end with Michael Bennett.
Bowers recorded 13 tackles, five tackles for loss, three sacks, seven quarterback hits and a pass breakup. His sacks and quarterback hits ranked fourth on the team, and he did have another sack at Atlanta that was negated by a defensive holding penalty on free safety Ronde Barber.
“Bowers is Bowers,” Bennett said. “He’s got great strength. The crazy thing about him is that he is not even healthy. I would hate to see when he gets healthy how dominant of a player he’ll be.”
Although Bennett led the team with a career-high nine sacks, Bowers has the freakish athleticism and potential to develop into an even better pass rusher that is capable of putting up double-digit sacks year after year. In just three years at Clemson, Bowers recorded 19.5 sacks and 44.5 tackles for loss, including 15.5 sacks and 26 tackles for loss during his junior season in 2010 that led the nation.
Tampa Bay’s Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy marveled at the impact Bowers made from a pass-rushing standpoint following his Achilles injury.
“He definitely did,” McCoy said. “He’s a natural born pass rusher. He’s a get-off-the-ball, disrupt-type guy. That’s all he was for us when he came back. It comes natural to him.
“I told him that the other day in practice. Pass rushing just comes easy to some people. That’s him. The first day he came back to practice he did something in pass rush where I said, ‘Man, you’re not supposed to be able to do that yet.’ I’m glad to have him back. I’m looking forward to having everybody back for a full season.”
Remember all of the knee injury concerns Bowers had prior to the 2011 draft, which caused him to fall from the potential first overall pick in the draft to the 52nd overall pick? They’re gone. Bowers’ knee, which had surgery performed on it prior to the 2011 draft, has a clean bill of health. Factor in his age as Bowers turns just 23 on February 23, and he has a very bright future ahead of him in Tampa Bay.
Bucs general manager Mark Dominik might be getting ahead of himself if he thinks he can head into the 2013 season with Adrian Clayborn, who is recovering from season-ending knee surgery last September, back at right defensive end and a healthier Bowers at left defensive and get away without re-signing Bennett, who is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent. The Bucs need depth along the defensive line and re-signing Bennett to put into the mix with Bowers, Clayborn and Te’o-Nesheim, who was third on the team with four sacks and is scheduled to be a restricted free agent, is a must.
“I think it should be one of the first priorities with how he has prepared each week and how hard he’s fought the four years he’s been here,” McCoy said about the importance of Bennett staying in Tampa Bay. “He was great for us this year. It will be huge for getting us where we want to be.”
When asked if the Bucs need to bring in another pass-rushing defensive lineman to bolster the team’s weak sack production, which generated just 27 sacks in 2012, McCoy scoffed at the notion.
“No, we’ve got who we need right here,” McCoy said. “We just need to make sure they come back. If they don’t, that’s part of the business. If we do get everybody back I’m very, very, very excited to see what we could be if everybody stays healthy all 16 [games].”
Bennett echoed McCoy’s sentiment about whether or not the Bucs needed to add another pass rusher to the mix in 2013.
“Obviously they could bring somebody else in, and bring another D-tackle that can pass rush inside or do some more stuff,” Bennett said. “But honestly, the fans have never gotten a true picture of what can unfold. There has always been a piece missing. Last year, Gerald was missing. Now it’s A.C. missing, and Bowers was missing [earlier in the year]. If all of us play at the same time like we did last year a couple of times when we played together, we’ll be dominant. We played like that against the Colts last year before Gerald got hurt. Then everybody started getting hurt. We need to get everybody healthy.”
The Bucs have a glaring need at cornerback and will address it early in the 2013 NFL Draft, but because of the strong depth at the position through three rounds, it would be hard for Tampa Bay to pass up a premier pass rusher with the 13th overall pick if one is available. The thought here is that it is a gamble to head into the 2013 campaign counting on McCoy, Bowers, Clayborn, Te’o-Nesheim and Bennett, assuming he’s re-signed, as the team’s pass rushers given the inadequate results from 2012. But it is a gamble worth taking as each one of those players – with the exception of Clayborn, who was placed on injured reserve after Week 3 – made strides in sack production last year. And none of those players is over the age of 25 with the exception of Bennett, who just turned 27.
“It’s crazy, but a lot of players got hurt and we still won the games we did without a lot of those players,” Bennett said. “We have a pretty good chance of making something special happen when Carl Nicks and Davin Joseph line up at the same time, and when A.C. and me and Bowers line up with Gerald and Te’o. We have to get everybody healthy.”
Whether Bennett returns to Tampa Bay (and I think he will) or not, the early prediction for 2013 is that Bowers leads the team in sacks.
FAB 2. The Buccaneers absolutely got what they needed to end the 2013 season the right way. First, they got a much-needed win to stop a five-game losing streak and finish the season with a 7-9 record rather than a 6-10 record. Bucs general manager Mark Dominik is a big believer in the psychological impact double-digit winning seasons and double-digit losing seasons can have on an organization. Getting to seven wins, which is a three-game improvement over the team’s 4-12 mark from a year ago, was huge, and it also validated Pewter Report’s preseason prediction of a 7-9 record for the 2012 Tampa Bay team.
Perhaps more importantly, the Buccaneers also got a quality win by beating the NFC’s best team, Atlanta, at the Georgia Dome, which is an incredibly difficult place to score a victory. Enhancing the triumph was the fact that the Falcons desperately wanted to win the game to head into the playoffs with some momentum and played their starters the entire contest.
The Bucs beat the Falcons straight up in all three phases of the game for an entire 60 minutes. This wasn’t a chump win over Atlanta’s junior varsity team, as head coach Mike Smith did not rest his starters for the postseason.
“The losses we took this year – we were not far off,” Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. “We know what could have been – just one play in each game. That’s very encouraging, especially going into Atlanta in hostile territory. The Georgia Dome is not an easy place to play. Playing the number one team in the NFL and they gave you their best shot and you come out of there with a win. That’s encouraging going into the offseason. We had a few growing pains, but we will tweak some things. We will know what to do better next season.”
What was even more impressive was the fact that the Bucs held the Falcons to just 17 points and did so with a defense that was missing starters in cornerback Eric Wright, defensive end Adrian Clayborn and linebacker Quincy Black. The longest pass play the Bucs allowed all day was a 26-yarder to Julio Jones, and that’s saying something with the trio of Leonard Johnson, Danny Gorrer and Anthony Gaitor playing cornerback for Tampa Bay.
“There are a lot of young guys here,” Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett said. “Matt Ryan is one of those quarterbacks that does a great job with everything he does. He’s obviously one of the better quarterbacks in this league. To come out and beat him at his home is a big deal. It’s one of those things we can build on heading into next year.”
Tampa Bay’s defense had surrendered fourth-quarter leads against Washington, New York, Philadelphia and Atlanta earlier in the season, but was stout against the Falcons on their final drive with strong safety Mark Barron swatting down Ryan’s fourth down pass, which was intended for tight end Tony Gonzalez. That was a big step forward for the young Buccaneers defense and a confidence booster heading into next year.
The Bucs’ 22-17 win over Atlanta also was a rebound game of sorts for quarterback Josh Freeman. Although he did have an interception in which he threw late as he stared down receiver Tiquan Underwood, Freeman didn’t play terribly as he did in recent weeks and did enough to get the Bucs a victory and calm some of the fears around his late-season slide. Freeman’s touchdown pass to Mike Williams helped the Bucs build a 13-3 halftime lead and displayed the kind of top-notch playmaking ability he has when he’s on.
Freeman completed 54.3 percent of his passes for 222 yards and did a better job of moving around the pocket and making plays than he had during Tampa Bay’s five-game losing skid. The fact that he was able to become a 4,000-yard passer, the franchise’s first-ever, and set the all-time and single-season touchdown marks in Week 17 against Atlanta was a positive boost to Freeman’s psyche heading into the offseason, as well.
Rookie running back Doug Martin finished with 142 yards rushing – his fifth 100-yard game of the year – and the game-winning touchdown. Wide receivers Mike Williams and Vincent Jackson also played well against the Falcons and saw their seasons end on a high note, too.
A play here or there in several of Tampa Bay’s close losses could have helped this team achieve a winning record in Greg Schiano’s first season at the helm. However, the Bucs were able to win their seventh game of the year to end the 2012 campaign and head into 2013 the best way possible.
FAB 3. Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik could be heading into a make-or-break year in 2013 and knows he has to get the team back into the playoffs. The sooner the better as Tampa Bay has not made it to the postseason since the 2007 season and hasn’t won a playoff contest since winning Super Bowl XXXVII following the 2002 season.
The good news for Dominik is that he is coming off a banner 2012 offseason in which he landed Pro Bowl wide receiver Vincent Jackson and Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks in free agency, and he even gets a get-out-of-jail-free card for his poor decision to overpay for Eric Wright, as the cornerback’s four-game suspension for Adderall use negates his guaranteed money in 2013.
Dominik Also saw the first player selected under his reign make the Pro Bowl when 2010’s overall No. 3 drat pick Gerald McCoy earned a February trip to Hawaii. McCoy finally put together a full 16 game season after ending his first two season on injured reserve. Dominik is fond of saying you sign free agents because your draft picks didn’t pan out, so it was a nice feather in his cap to have McCoy earn the postseason honor.
But more importantly for Dominik, the Bucs had a monster draft with three starters in the team’s first three picks in strong safety Mark Barron, running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David.
Martin’s exploits have been well documented this season, and for him to rush for 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns as a rookie shattered Buccaneers records. But for Tampa Bay’s ailing defense, Barron and David provided some much-needed tonic and quickly earned the respect of the team’s veterans.
“Lavonte and Mark came in and did great for us,” Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said.
Barron, the seventh overall pick in the draft, started all 16 games at strong safety and proved to be an upgrade over Sean Jones even though neither player produced many splash plays. Barron had 89 tackles (72 solo), one forced fumble and one interception as a rookie.
After going eight games with less than eight tackles in any contest, Barron stepped up and played better over the final three games of his rookie season. The Alabama product was a force at New Orleans with 10 tackles, including a career-high eight solo stops, and a pass breakup. The next week against St. Louis, Barron had eight tackles, including seven solo tackles and a tackle for loss, followed by a two-tackle, one-pass breakup effort at Atlanta in which he did a good job of limiting Pro Bowl tight end Tony Gonzalez to five catches for 41 yards.
David led the Buccaneers – and all rookies – with 139 tackles (112 solo), and two sacks, one interception, one forced fumble. His 20 tackles for loss were not only the most of any Tampa Bay player this year, it is believed to be a franchise record for any Buccaneer in any season.
David’s coming out party was a 14-tackle affair in Tampa Bay’s 24-22 loss to Washington in Week 4. He also notched double-digit tackle performances against Oakland (16), San Diego (14) and Denver (10), and was often the team’s leading tackler in most games. David also took over the defensive play-calling duties from Mason Foster as a rookie.
“Mark Barron and Lavonte David did everything we asked them to do coming in,” Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett said. “Lavonte took a very good leadership role in terms of calling the defenses and make the plays he made. He is a great player and it is an honor to play with him.”
While the 6-foot-2, 213-pound Barron had a solid rookie campaign and shows great promise as a hard-hitting member of the secondary, David was spectacular in 2012.
“The dude was amazing,” McCoy said. “I think he’s going to be one of the best to ever do it. We call him ‘The Flash’ for a reason, and he definitely showed it. [In Atlanta] when he got that sack he ran to the wrong side of the field after the sack and I’m trying to chase him down and then he ran to the other side. I told him, ‘Man, I’m not going to be chasing you to celebrate!’ He’s too fast for that. That dude is amazing. If he did that this year I can’t imagine when he learns the game what he’s going to be able to do.”
The 6-foot-1, 233-pound David has a skill set that reminds many of legendary Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks.
“His instincts and his speed,” McCoy said. “A lot of people have instincts, but everybody doesn’t have the physical tools to make the plays. He has the physical tools and he will hit anything moving. He’s extremely fast and his instincts take over and that’s how he makes all those plays.”
Now it’s up to David, Barron, Martin and the other players that Dominik acquired last offseason to step up even more and get the Bucs into the playoffs in 2013 by turning a lot of the team’s close defeats into victories. Of course Dominik can help his own cause and the team’s by having another outstanding draft this April.
FAB 4. Not only will Tampa Bay be looking to get better competition for Buccaneers quarterback Josh Freeman this offseason, PewterReport.com has learned that Freeman will not be getting a contract extension in 2013.
Through the first 10 games of the 2012 campaign, Freeman had thrown 21 touchdowns and seven interceptions as Tampa Bay compiled a 6-4 record. But during the team’s five-game losing streak Freeman threw just five touchdowns and nine interceptions, including back-to-back four-pick games against New Orleans and St. Louis.
While the Bucs might have entertained the notion of offering a contract extension before Freeman heads into his contract year in 2013, that late-season skid has dispelled that idea. Instead, the front office is being patient with the fourth-year player, who will turn just 25 on January 13, and wants to see how he performs next season before deciding whether or not to re-sign him and for how much.
The Bucs won’t be fearful of Freeman blowing up next year statistically. Instead, they’ll welcome it because a great year by Freeman likely means the playoffs, and general manager Mark Dominik can always use the franchise tag on Freeman in order to keep him if necessary.
The front office has seen what has happened in New York with Mark Sanchez and in Buffalo with Ryan Fitzpatrick in terms of giving young quarterbacks rich contract extensions at the first sign of promise. In those instances it has come back to bite those respective franchises.
Dominik, head coach Greg Schiano and the Glazers, will be exhibiting patience and using all of the time they have, which is the 2013 season, in order to make the right decision for the franchise regarding their franchise quarterback. And that seems like the right thing to do.
Dominik has a great relationship with CAA Sports, the sports agency group that represents Freeman, and Ron Freeman, Josh’s father. There aren’t expected to be any hard feelings between the Freeman and the Buccaneers about waiting until the end of 2013 to possibly strike a new deal.
FAB 5. Here are a few things to hold you over until the next edition of SR’s Fab 5 next week:
• The Buccaneers were excited to see middle linebacker Mason Foster finish the 2012 season strong with a team-leading 12 tackles, including 11 solo stops. After starting off his second year strong, Foster’s play dipped in the middle of the year before his hot finish. The team believes that Foster needs to get his body right conditioning-wise for a 17-week schedule and that he will have better success doing that in his third NFL season.
• The Tampa Bay front office is thrilled with the progress that Pro Bowl guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks have made with their respective knee and toe injuries during the fall and winter. Both players have a chance to be cleared for on-field work during the OTAs (organized team activities) in the spring. The two players the team is concerned about are linebacker Quincy Black, whose NFL career could be in jeopardy, and defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who is still on the mend from a Week 3 knee injury. I wrote about Black’s injury earlier this week. Clayborn still has a chance to make some progress and get on the field for OTAs, but he may not be ready until training camp.
• The Bucs didn’t want to play cornerback Eric Wright in the season finale at Atlanta because the team intends to release him at some point in the offseason before the OTAs begin. Tampa Bay didn’t want Wright suffering an Achilles tear or a knee injury that would keep him out for the 2013 campaign and force Tampa Bay to be on the hook for the $7.75 million he is scheduled to make in 2013.
• After restructuring the contracts of wide receiver Vincent Jackson and guard Carl Nicks, Tampa Bay is believed to have in excess of $20 million in salary cap room in 2013. And that’s already accounting for signing all of the team’s 2013 draft picks and with cornerback Eric Wright’s $7.75 million on the books. Tampa Bay could be close to $30 million under the cap by releasing Wright. Bucs general manager Mark Dominik has done a very good job of managing the salary cap over the past two years, although this year’s free agent class is nowhere nearly as talented or robust with depth as it was a year ago.
• Stay tuned to PewterReport.com this month as Mark Cook and I will be at the East-West Shrine Game practices in St. Petersburg starting January 14 and the Senior Bowl in Mobile beginning January 21, as we ramp up our 2013 NFL Draft coverage.
Scott Reynolds is in his 22nd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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