Lost in last year's four-win debacle is the fact the Buccaneers won 10 games and lost out on the playoffs in a tiebreaker with eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay in 2010. New head coach Greg Schiano inherits a team that's not far from making noise in the rugged NFC South.
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Any turnaround depends on quarterback Josh Freeman. In 2010, Freeman threw 25 touchdown passes against six interceptions and finished No. 6 in passer rating at 95.9. Last year, he slumped to 16 touchdowns, 22 interceptions and a rating of 74.7. Defensively, the Bucs gave up league-worst totals of 494 points, 7.6 yards per pass play and 156 rushing yards per game. With six projected starters being former first- or second-round draft picks, that unit must improve.
Three free agents -- receiver Vincent Jackson, tight end Dallas Clark and guard Carl Nicks -– and first-round running back Doug Martin figure to join the starting lineup. Jackson immediately upgrades a horrible receiver corps, and Martin and LeGarrette Blount provide a potent one-two punch in the backfield. Defensively, first-round pick Mark Barron will start at safety and second-rounder Lavonte David might remind fans of the great Derrick Brooks.
The Bucs hope two-time Pro Bowler Carl Nicks can help revitalize the offense.
Most four-win teams -- especially those with a new coach -- want to stockpile draft picks to provide a top-to-bottom upgrade. Instead, after the Buccaneers got Barron at No. 7 overall, they moved back into the first round to grab Martin. That left the Buccaneers without a second-round pick, but they gave up their third- and fourth-rounders to get back into the second round, where they nabbed David.
The Buccaneers get some help with the NFC South facing the NFC East and AFC West. Of the eight teams from those divisions, only the Super Bowl champion Giants (9-7) finished over .500. Due in part to the luck of the draw, the Bucs face the NFL's sixth-easiest schedule, with an opponent winning percentage of .484 (124-132). Only five opponents won at least nine games.
The key stretch begins in Week 4, with Tampa Bay getting to stay home for a month. It leads off with a home game against Washington. After a bye, it's home against Kansas City. That gives the Bucs a shot to build some momentum for the big Week 7 game against New Orleans. Then, it's road games against Minnesota and Oakland. That could leave them right in the thick of things for the stretch run.
BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER
Carl Nicks, guard. Overhauling quarterback Josh Freeman is paramount, but the physical left guard Nicks will be a building block for an offense that ranked 27th in scoring.
BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER
Ronde Barber, defensive back. That this nod goes to the 16th-year pro, a slot corner/safety, says something about a defense that allowed a club-record and franchise-worst 494 points in 2011.
WILL WIN DIVISION IF ...
Division rival quarterbacks Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Cam Newton forget how to play football. But seriously, if Schiano can make the jump from Rutgers to the NFL, the Bucs should be vastly improved. Really, their measuring stick is keeping up with Carolina in the pursuit of the Saints and Falcons.