The Tampa Bay Buccaneers now have coach Greg Schiano’s freshman year picks in the books. He has been concise in player evaluation and building his vision of where this team is headed. As with most first year coaches, the players who have most to lose are the hold-overs from the previous regime. Other than Josh Freeman, Adrian Clayborn and Ronde Barber, nearly every other player will have to build Shiano’s trust. Also working against some of these young veterans is the fact Mark Dominik has been watching them since before the transition, giving him a perspective of how well or poorly his investments are doing. At a certain point, you either cash in those investments and take your losses or double down. Many of those investments face make or break seasons this year.
GERALD McCOY: Entering year three, the third overall pick of the 2010 draft is a mixed bag. When on the field, he has affected nearly every play. Though many point to his lack of “splash” plays, McCoy often forces offensive linemen to slide over and help in guarding him. The result is a better opportunity for man match ups along the line. He is an impact player even when he does not make an impact.
The problem is McCoy has only played in 19 games through two seasons. After tearing his bicepts muscle last year, Raheem Morris called McCoy out, stating it was due his tendency to “arm tackle”. Ironic, given it was Raheem’s responsibility to ensure his coaches were teaching proper technique. If there is one thing the current regime will focus on, it’s fundamentals. Should McCoy fall into the same bad habits or re-injure himself, it will be time to look towards the future . His $35 million guaranteed contract has netted the Buccaneers only 4 sacks and 39 tackles to date. At minimum, McCoy will have to return to his rookie season numbers which saw most of his total production. Working in his favor is the fact he is a character guy and has three years remaining on his contract. McCoy could be another Michael Bennett, a late bloomer who takes some time to put it all together. Though he won’t be parted ways with if he plays poorly, looking at defensive tackles in the draft could become an option.
BRIAN PRICE: Price showed flashes of his talent last season, totaling 3 sacks, 6 stuffs and 24 tackles in 15 games played. This coming after only playing in 5 games in 2010 due to hip surgery. Price was also plagued by ankle and hamstring issues last season but played through them, most likely a result of over-compensating as his body adapted. Price’s fate could be tied to how well newly signed Amobi Okoye plays in camp. If Okoye shines and Price falters, it could put a spotlight on his contract value in Mark Dominik’s eyes.
AQIB TALIB: The troubled corner has been given a “clean slate” by Schiano and the lack of focus at the corner position could mean they have good reason to believe he will overcome his court case. Talib may also have the fortune of avoiding league discipline since the infraction took place during the lockout. Talib has always had the talent, but in year six, the focus will be on how he does off the field. If he can keep his nose clean and prove he has turned the page, the Bucs may put some effort into re-signing him next season. Talib is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent next season so he will be playing for a long term contract. That said, the flip side is if the organization can trust him if signed long term? He could be a choir boy for one season then easily revert once his future is secure. The only way Talib should receive a new contract (presuming he plays well this season) is if the new contract is incentive laden, something which does not bode well for an extension with the Bucs.
LEGARRETTE BLOUNT: The Bucs will still have the opportunity to keep Blount in 2013 as a restricted free agent. After being harshly criticized this off-season, Doug Martin was selected at the end of the first round. That kind of investment puts Martin as the only long term option at the position. Despite all the criticism, Blount has been a great investment. Signed for only $540,000 this season, Blount has amassed 1,950 total yards and 11 touchdowns in two years. The signing of Martin will eat into Blount’s totals and limit his numbers which would keep Blount’s asking price within reason. However, if he produces well in a shared role, it could also boost his value and lead to a hold out. Like Talib, Blount is playing for a big payday and can be expected to put his best foot forward this year.
MIKE WILLIAMS: The rookie stud hit a sophomore slump last year, drawing instant comparisons to Michael Clayton. Rumors of a poor work ethic were abound after Morris’ firing and rumors of his inability to be a true #1 receiver started upon Schiano’s hiring. This is the year Williams either becomes Michael Clayton or shows his rookie season was no fluke. With Vincent Jackson likely to take on extra coverage, Williams will have no excuses. The Bucs have a solid roster of talent waiting in the wings, so sliding Williams down the depth chart won’t be too hard for the organization if he fails to produce.
ARRELIOUS BENN: Unlike Williams, Benn hasn’t had a truly standout season. What he has produced are some flashes of athleticism and the ability to stretch the field. Benn has averaged more yards per catch than Williams and is second in pass plays of 20+ yards on the team the last two years. The issue with Benn isn’t his talent, it’s his work load. Benn hasn’t topped 30 receptions in a season and may see fewer if Williams takes his role and forces him to the slot. This is a make or break season for Benn in terms of his early career and not so much how the team views him. He will need to shine in camp and fight Mike Williams for the #2 role in order to truly shine. Though Josh Freeman did focus on the slot during pressure situations, Vincent Jackson will negate that need. If Benn loses out to Williams, he could find himself stuck with 30 catches per season. It’s a great situation for the Bucs but not so much for Benn’s personal growth.