Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas
TAMPA, Fla. -- Take a look at any preseason magazine or watch any television show. The verdict is unanimous.
Everybody's got the Tampa Bay Buccaneers picked to finish fourth in the NFC South. If you want to know where they're projected in the whole league, look somewhere between No. 25 and No. 32.
When you've got a new coach, a new general manager, uncertainty at quarterback and part ways with some of the biggest names in franchise history, you're going to be anointed as one of the NFL's worst teams.
"That's not a bad thing," middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said with a laugh. "That's the mindset we have going into this year. There may be no expectations for us from the outside. But, as a group, we think we can be pretty good.''
To understand what Tampa Bay has, you have to understand what the Bucs don't have. They don't have coach Jon Gruden, linebacker Derrick Brooks, receiver Joey Galloway, running back Warrick Dunn and quarterback Jeff Garcia back from the only NFC South team that's had a winning record each of the last two years.
That's been enough to drop expectations from prognosticators and fans to the lowest level since Sam Wyche and company were piling up double-digit losses in the mid 1990s. But maybe -- just maybe -- it doesn't have to be this way.
Maybe the Bucs aren't as bad as everyone thinks. They do have some positives.
"We've got a nice core group of players,'' Ruud said. "We've got a really good offensive line. We've got four or five really good running backs. We've got two quarterbacks that are really hungry and they're battling to be the starter. And we've got a defense that kind of had our pride taken away at the end of last year and we're trying to get back to where a Tampa Bay defense is supposed to be.''
Ruud has some valid points. Forget the quarterback situation for a second. The rest of the offense looks pretty good. The offensive line is solid, Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham are quality running backs and receivers Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton and tight end Kellen Winslow might be able to make whoever is the quarterback look good.
But, more than anything, the Bucs have new coach Raheem Morris. Yes, he's the youngest coach in the league and that's one reason for the low expectations outside the organization. But Morris is the reason the expectations are high within the organization.
"We were 9-3 last year and had a rocky ending because the atmosphere wasn't right,'' Clayton said." But the team we've put together this year is a whole lot better than last year. You know the energy is going to be in the right place because of the atmosphere. Raheem maximizes you. Raheem does a good job of maximizing everybody's effort and we didn't have that last year.''
Who will be the quarterback? Even the Bucs don't know the short-term answer to this one yet. They'll pick a starter after Saturday night's preseason game in Jacksonville. It will be either Luke McCown or Byron Leftwich; they have been basically even through camp and one preseason game.
The Bucs will go with the quarterback they think can be more efficient because they believe the rest of their offense is solid. But it's no secret that the quarterback who opens the season is merely a stopgap. It's blatantly clear that Josh Freeman is the quarterback of the future.
Since drafting Freeman, Morris has gushed about the quarterback he coa
ched at Kansas State. The selection went against the wishes of many fans, who believed the Bucs should have focused on a defensive player. But that's history now because Morris and general manager Mark Dominik are committed to building this team around Freeman.
They want to bring Freeman along slowly and that's why they'll open the season with one of the veterans. But Freeman isn't going to sit forever. If McCown and/or Leftwich struggle, the same fans who booed Freeman's selection will be calling for him to start.
What's the defense going to look like without Brooks? It's going to be completely different and that's not just because the best player in franchise history is gone. Coordinator Monte Kiffin, the man who made the "Tampa Two'' scheme famous also is gone. The Bucs have a new coordinator in Jim Bates and a whole new defense.
There will be more bump coverage, but the emphasis still will be on speed. This isn't a very big defense. Former safety Jermaine Phillips has moved into Brooks' old spot on the weak side. Ruud's the only proven star in his prime and the veteran Barber will try to ease the transition.
What will the offense look like without Gruden? Again, things will be totally different. Coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski brings in an offense that's focused on ball control and the Bucs have the parts in place to be a run-first team. Led by center Jeff Faine and guard Davin Joseph, the offensive line might be the team's biggest strength.
One of the first moves Morris and Dominik made was to bring in Ward. He's going to be used in tandem with Earnest Graham. Jagodzinski's first goal is to establish the running game, but he's also got big plans for the passing game.
Gruden relied mostly on a horizontal passing game, but those days are gone. Although the Bucs may not have a true speed receiver, they'll use play action to try to create opportunities for Bryant, Winslow and Clayton down the field.
Without much depth at wide receiver, camp was a golden opportunity for Dexter Jackson to redeem himself after a horrible rookie season. Jackson's been given a lot of chances, but hasn't been able to take advantage of him. A second-round pick from a year ago, there's a very real chance Jackson won't even make the roster. ...The move of Phillips to weakside linebacker is working out nicely and it comes with another component. Part of the reason the Bucs decided to move Phillips was because they wanted to get Sabby Piscitelli into the starting lineup at strong safety. He's embraced that chance and showed he can make big plays in the preseason opener.
The Bucs have known for months that they might have to go without starting guard Arron Sears, who hasn't reported to camp because of a "private matter." Sears was a very solid player the past two years, but there shouldn't be much drop off. The Bucs already were high on Jeremy Zuttah, who showed some promise as a rookie last year. He's had the entire offseason to work with the first unit. The Bucs would welcome Sears back, but they're not counting on that happening any time soon.
The Bucs knew what they were getting into when they traded for Winslow and turned around and gave him a huge contract. The tight end comes with enormous talent and baggage. Winslow had injury problems and often was the center of controversy in Cleveland. Morris is trying to light a fire under Winslow and already has criticized him. But that's all part of a plan to try to get the most out of Winslow's talents.
The Bucs also took a gamble by drafting wide receiver Sammie Stroughter in the seventh round. Stroughter has had some personal problems in the past. But all indications are he's put those behind him. Stroughter has been one of the stars in camp. At the moment, he's probably the leading candidate to be the No. 3 receiver. He's shown the ability to go across the middle and he also has return skills.
The Bucs had pictured Angelo Crowell as their starting strongside linebacker when they signed him as a free agent. But injuries have held Crowell back and Quincy Black appears to have locked up the starting job. Backup Adam Hayward also has had a strong preseason and can do a lot on special teams. Crowell no longer is a lock to make the roster. ... Defensive tackle was a big concern in the offseason because Chris Hovan is aging and Ryan Sims never has been dominant against the run. The Bucs will use those two as the starters, but they feel a lot better about this position as they prepare to break training camp. Third-round pick Roy Miller has had a strong preseason. So has Dre Moore, who did little as a rookie last year. Moore has kept himself in shape after struggling with weight issues last year. The Bucs plan to use a four-man rotation and play Miller and Moore a lot. Miller could emerge as a starter before long. ... Defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson has been a backup throughout his career. But the new coaching staff penciled him in
as a starter from the very beginning and he hasn't disappointed. The coaches believe Wilkerson can play the run and rush the passer. They'll also rotate Stylez White into the lineup, but Wilkerson will get the majority of the snaps.