The consensus among our five-person panel (including myself) was that the Bucs will finish third in the NFC South. For the record, I have them going 9-7. But John Clayton and Ashley Fox have them finishing fourth in the division.
And below is my Intelligence report on the Bucs:
1. It's all on Freeman: The Bucs have a strong offensive line, a good running back (Doug Martin) and solid receivers (Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams). That means there no longer are any valid excuses if quarterback Josh Freeman doesn't get the job done. Freeman is in a contract year that will determine if he is the Bucs' long-term answer. The talent is there, but Freeman needs to play with more consistency.
2. No sophomore slump: Martin rushed for more than 1,400 yards as a rookie, and that came with guard Davin Joseph missing the entire season with an injury and guard Carl Nicks missing half the season. If the offensive line can stay healthy, I see Martin's numbers improving.
3. The pass rush has to come through: By design, the Bucs have gone out on a limb when it comes to their pass rush. They willingly let last year's sack leader, Michael Bennett, walk away as a free agent. That's because the Bucs have such high expectations for Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. But there still are questions about both of those players. Clayborn missed most of last year with an injury after turning in a strong rookie season. Bowers has been nothing more than a part-time player so far. The Bucs need Bowers and Clayborn to come through in a big way.
4. Fixing a problem: Tampa Bay's defense ranked last in the league in passing yards allowed last season. That's why the Bucs completely overhauled their secondary. They made a huge trade to get cornerback Darrelle Revis. They paid big money to safety Dashon Goldson in free agency. They used their second-round draft pick on cornerback Johnthan Banks. That's a significant upgrade in talent, and the Bucs should be much better against the pass this year.
5. Filling the void: Tight end Luke Stocker had 16 catches for the Bucs last year, and Tom Crabtree had eight receptions for the Packers. Those numbers are far from spectacular. But the Bucs let veteran Dallas Clark leave as a free agent because they think their young tight ends can be more productive.