Previewing and predicting the Bucs

We now continue our NFC South previews with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Here’s the link to Tampa Bay’s complete preview page.

Before I get to what I wrote about the Bucs, let me share a little confession. When I first wrote my predictions, I had Tampa Bay fourth in the NFC South. Yes, for a brief time, I had the Carolina Panthers ahead of the Bucs.

The reasons I changed that were that Carolina had some injuries on the offensive line and the NFL informed the Bucs that cornerback Aqib Talib would not be suspended this season.

That was enough for me to change my prediction, but why was I thinking Panthers over the Bucs in the first place? I think the world of Tampa Bay quarterback Josh Freeman and he’s going to make this team respectable.

But I’ve got serious concerns about the front seven of the defense. I also think the Bucs were very lucky last season in that every time there was an injury, they plugged in some rookie or guy of the streets and things worked out just fine. You can’t count on that happening every time.

Five things you need to know about the Buccaneers:

1. This is totally Josh Freeman's team: In his first full season as a starting quarterback, Freeman carried the Bucs to 10 wins. He threw 25 touchdowns with six interceptions and brought up the level of play of everyone around him. More important, Freeman showed he has the intangibles to be an elite quarterback. He took control of the locker room, calling a players-only meeting to order everyone to behave after a series of off-field incidents. His leadership role was only enhanced during the offseason when he first organized workouts for the skill-position players and later put together a minicamp for the full squad.

2. The defense is incredibly young: Just look at the front seven. It's possible the Bucs could be starting two rookies at defensive end, two second-year players at defensive tackle and a rookie at middle linebacker. I understand and like Tampa Bay's philosophy of building through the draft. But I think the Bucs took a risk by letting middle linebacker Barrett Ruud leave and not bringing in someone with experience to help the younger members of the front seven along.

3. Youth is not always a bad thing: Last year, it seemed as though every time the Bucs had an injury, they plugged in a late-round draft pick or someone they claimed off waivers and that guy instantly stepped up. It happened with safety Cody Grimm and guard Ted Larsen. But most of all it happened with receiver Mike Williams, a fourth-round pick, and LeGarrette Blount, an undrafted free agent who signed with the Bucs after being cut by Tennessee. Williams instantly became the team's top wide receiver. Blount took over the feature-back role from Cadillac Williams around midseason and rushed for 1,000 yards. Mike Williams should get more help this year from a young receiving corps that also includes Arrelious Benn, Dezmon Briscoe and Sammie Stroughter. Blount is going to be asked to become more of an every-down back. The Bucs were hesitant to use him as a pass-blocker or receiver out of the backfield last year. They want him to do both those things this year. If Williams and Blount continue to progress, Freeman should have little trouble taking another step forward.

4. The offense is as flexible as any: Offensive coordinator Greg Olson isn't one of those guys who are totally committed to running the ball or throwing it. Instead, Olson takes what the defense gives him. If the defense is loading up on the pass, Olson will run Blount 30 times. If the defense is putting eight men in the box, he won't hesitate to let Freeman throw the ball 40 times. That makes this offense tough to defend.

5. In a division filled with good tight ends, Kellen Winslow might be the best: He put up good numbers last year, even though he often was missing practice during the week to rest a sore knee. Winslow now says the knee feels better than it has in years. He could be in for a huge season.

DIVISION FINISH: 3 A lot of people say the Bucs got lucky with an easy schedule last year and the team will take a step back. I'm not one of them. The offense can score enough to stay with Matt Ryan and Drew Brees. I just don't know if the defense can stop guys like that.