TAMPA, Fla. -- Sit down with Mark Dominik even for just a few minutes and you’ll quickly hear his theory on why the term “youth movement’’ shouldn’t come with negative connotations.
“Don’t confuse youth with immaturity,’’ the general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers said. “There’s a big difference between those two things. I’m sure we’ve all met 23-year-olds that act like they’re 28 and we’ve met people that are 28 but act like they’re 23. I feel like we’re a mature, young football team, which is important.’’
Yes, the Bucs, who were the NFL’s youngest team last season, are going to be young again. They have only three players 30 or older and they’re counting on big things from a lot of rookies and second-year players.
But this is a team that won 10 games last season with a lot of young players in key roles, and all of them should be a year better. That experience only encouraged the Bucs to continue with their youth movement and steer clear of making any dramatic moves in free agency. Instead of worrying about regressing, like a lot of fans and media are predicting, the Bucs fully expect to take another step forward.
“It doesn’t matter how old you are,’’ quarterback Josh Freeman said. “It matters how well you’re playing and if you have the ability to step up in big situations.’’
Freeman epitomizes what Dominik was talking about. The quarterback is 23, but spend a few minutes with him or think about how he led his teammates through workouts during the lockout and you’d swear he was 28. Or 38.
“It’s about the type of player we’re looking for,’’ Dominik said. “Certainly, the skill level has a lot to do with it. But it’s also very much about the type of player we’re looking for in terms of their demeanor. Plus, I have a lot of confidence in our coaching staff as far as getting guys prepared.’’
The Bucs hit it big when they drafted Freeman, and pickups such as receiver Mike Williams and running back LeGarrette Blount have made quick impacts. That’s part of the reason why they plan to plug rookie Adrian Clayborn in as an immediate starter at defensive end and why they’re willing to put rookie Mason Foster at the all-important middle linebacker position.
"When we talked to Adrian Clayborn and Mason Foster in the draft process, we felt that sense of someone who was wise beyond his years," Dominik said. "It gives you confidence to be able to see a young man who takes his game and his craft seriously and puts time into it and it’s important to him. That's the kind of thing that's important to us. We have a young team that we like very much and we look forward to it growing older together."
THREE HOT TOPICS
1. Where will the pass rush come from? The Bucs were among the worst in the league at pressuring quarterbacks last season. That’s why they drafted Clayborn in the first round and fellow defensive end Da'Quan Bowers in the second in April. A year ago, the Bucs used their top two draft picks on defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price.
There’s a lot invested in those young defensive linemen and the Bucs expect immediate results. Sure, they wouldn’t mind getting some sacks from blitzes by their linebackers or defensive backs, but it’s not like the Bucs have some other pass-rushing defensive end hidden up their sleeves.
Throughout camp, Clayborn’s looked even better than the Bucs thought he was when they drafted him. Bowers, coming off knee surgery in January, hasn’t been quite at Clayborn’s level. But he has looked better than the Bucs expected him to be at this point. At worst, Clayborn will start right away and Bowers will be used as a situational rusher. At best, Bowers might get on the field more than that and show every team that let him slide to the second round that his knee is fine.
2. Can Blount be a complete running back? That’s the hope and the plan, but Blount is a work in progress. We learned quickly last season that he can run between the tackles. He didn’t take the starting job from Cadillac Williams until midseason, but he still managed to rush for 1,007 yards.
Williams thrived as a third-down back last season, but he left via free agency, creating a void. When Blount was on the field last season, it was pretty obvious the Bucs were going to hand the ball to him. He caught only five passes and the team was hesitant to rely on Blount to pick up on blitzes on pass plays.
Earnest Graham and Kregg Lumpkin can do some of those things, but the Bucs have been working hard to make Blount a more balanced player. The coaching staff said he’s now up to speed on pass blocking and he has worked a lot on catching the ball out of the backfield in camp. If Blount can do everything this season, Tampa Bay’s offensive intentions no longer will be telegraphed.
3. Was Freeman’s first full season as a starter misleading? Not at all. He threw for 25 touchdowns with only six interceptions and pretty much carried an offense that had to do a lot of shuffling through a series of injuries.
Freeman took over as leader of the team last season, and he only reinforced that with the way he kept the Bucs together during the lockout. Those workouts only improved his chemistry with Williams, Arrelious Benn, Sammie Stroughter and tight end Kellen Winslow. Freeman is capable of throwing for 30-plus TDs and passing for more than 4,000 yards.
The Bucs had a pretty strong feeling about receiver Dezmon Briscoe when they made the unconventional move of signing him to the practice squad, but paying him like he was a member of the regular roster at the start of last season. Briscoe later earned his way onto the regular roster and has made the Bucs look like geniuses throughout camp and in the first preseason game. The team believes Benn is coming along well after suffering a torn ACL late last season. But the Bucs don’t want to rush Benn. That's why Briscoe could end up starting at the “Z’’ position opposite Williams early in the season. The long-range promise of Briscoe is off the charts because he can play all three receiver spots.
It’s not so much that the Bucs have been disappointed with what they’ve seen from McCoy and Price when they’ve been on the field. The problem is the two second-year defensive tackles simply haven’t been on the field a lot. The hopes are still high for these two, but Price is coming off a rare surgery on his pelvis and is being brought along slowly. McCoy, who had his rookie season end with a triceps injury just when he was starting to blossom, has missed some of camp with a shoulder injury. Roy Miller is a consistent player and the Bucs don’t mind starting him. But they need McCoy and Price to be on the field and making big plays.
There’s concern on the outside about depth in the secondary. A lot of that concern stems from the uncertain situations of cornerback Aqib Talib and safety Tanard Jackson. Talib could face suspension by the league for an offseason incident in which he was charged with aggravated assault, and Jackson is out until at least late September as he finishes a one-year suspension for violating the NFL’s substance-abuse policy. The Bucs have no idea what’s going to happen with Talib. If Jackson returns to them, they view it as a bonus. But the team isn’t nearly as concerned with the depth situation as fans are. Coaches are comfortable with Sean Jones and Cody Grimm as starting safeties and think they’ve found quality backups in Larry Asante and Corey Lynch. At cornerback, the Bucs believe E.J. Biggers could step into a starting role if anything happens to Talib, and there’s hope that second-year pro Myron Lewis could succeed as a nickelback.
The Bucs like what they’ve seen from Lumpkin during camp and think he might be a reliable backup for Blount. But Graham is a nice fallback option. He’s been playing fullback, but played tailback earlier in his career. With Erik Lorig getting time at fullback last season, the Bucs have flexibility to move Graham around.
Although Foster is expected to start in the middle, the Bucs aren’t going to overload the rookie. At least in the short term, outside linebacker Quincy Black will wear the radio helmet and call the defensive plays. Part of that is because Black will be on the field all the time, and Foster will come out when the Bucs go to the nickel package.
Attention, fantasy football players: Consider drafting Winslow. He was good last season, despite missing a lot of practice time with an achy knee. Winslow said the knee feels better than it has in years. He spent most of the offseason working out with Freeman in Tampa and their chemistry should be even better than last season.