2006 NFL Preview: Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Last Year

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were a perfect example of modern day parity in the NFL, as they finished with an 11-5 record and atop the NFC South just one season after finishing in last place. They drove Cadillac Williams and a stout defense back to the playoffs, but fell short in a home tilt versus the Redskins. The Bucs have rounded out their roster and have added depth in several areas and will be an NFC threat once again.

What We Learned From Last Year

After a 4-0 start in which Cadillac Williams re-wrote all sorts of rookie rushing records and Brian Griese looked comfortable in Jon Gruden's offense, the Buccaneers were one of the NFL's biggest surprises.

But then Griese tore his ACL and the Bucs hit a midseason lull.

Chris Simms stepped in as the starter, but was shaky in the early going with a mediocre 2-3 record in his first five starts, including a disheartening defeat in San Francisco.

The offensive line that protected both quarterbacks was improved from 2004, but it still was not on par with the better units in the league. They allowed 41 sacks.

The Bucs were a sparkling 6-0 when Cadillac rushed for 100 yards or more, but he wore down as the season progressed and didn't properly report his injuries to the medical staff.

But Simms eventually found his feet in the offense and seemed to get better with each start.

He had some help in the passing game, as Joey Galloway output a career-best 1,287 receiving yards, 10 touchdowns, and several end zone bicep flexes.

His counterpart, Michael Clayton, who was outstanding in his rookie season, fell off the face of the earth in year two. Offseason surgeries limited his summer reps and then he dislocated his shoulder in the preseason. He played through pain all season.

While Clayton struggled, third wide receiver Ike Hilliard proved to be a dependable target.

Rookie tight end Alex Smith was second on the team in receptions with 41 and caught 367 yards in his first season. He was a nice complement to Anthony Becht, who handled most of the blocking duties.

On defense, the broken record continued to play about how the defense was growing long in the tooth, but all they did was finish with the first overall ranking.

Derrick Brooks, essentially an on-field coach, still performed at a high level, while Shelton Quarles, who rarely gets any attention for the work he does in this cover-two scheme, was also excellent.

Up front, Simeon Rice was still among the NFL's elite rushers and he benefited from a full season from tackle Anthony McFarland, who only played eight games in 2004.

The Minnesota Vikings though they were ridding themselves of a bust when they allowed Chris Hovan to walk in free agency, but their trash was the Bucs' gold. Hovan was integral in the Bucs' run defense and they quickly locked him up long term.

Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly were also expected to slow down, but there were no signs of that happening. At the back end, Dexter Jackson started, while youngsters Jermaine Phillips and Will Allen rotated in.

The Bucs have revamped their offensive line that let them down last season, but aside from that, return virtually the same team. While the defense is a year older, so are the likes of Michael Clayton, Chris Simms, Cadillac Williams, and Alex Smith, who have the potential to make this offense into a serious problem with Jon Gruden masterminding. Keep an eye on this team.

This Year

Finishing with the top ranking in the NFL, returning virtually all of its starters and with Monte Kiffin calling the plays, the Bucs defense didn't require much of a makeover.

Rather, it was the offense that the front office correctly decided to address.

The first order of business was to secure a shaky offensive line.

In the past, the Bucs have tried to cure this ailment by taking fliers on over-the-hill free agents, a la Derrick Deese.

Now the Bucs have added depth the right way — welcoming young, talented prospects.

In the first-round of the draft, the Bucs selected Davin Joseph, who will start for them immediately at right guard. He is a mauler and is going to facilitate any runs to the right side, even as a rookie.

Second-round pick Jeremy Trueblood is likely more of a long-term solution at right tackle, but even so, he is pushing starter Kenyatta Walker for the role and in effect, making him a better player.

With Dan Buenning and Sean Mahan looking like solid prospects on the interior, veteran John Wade might find himself as a backup shortly and at left tackle, Anthony Davis is also an up-and-comer. Not only will the starting five improve, the quality of the depth is better with last year's contributors, Jeb Terry and Mahan, present.

If the line is truly better, expect to see a monster season out of Cadillac Williams. He is poised for a 300+ carry season and like last year, when he tops 100 rushing yards, the Bucs will probably win.

Michael Clayton has rededicated himself in the offseason and he will resemble the player from 2004, rather than the laggard from 2005.

Many pundits are expecting a drop-off in production from Joey Galloway, which is a fair assessment, but with Clayton back in the picture, the passing game won't have to revolve around Galloway so much.

There is a ton of depth at wide receiver this year as the Bucs are high on third-round pick Maurice Stovall, who has impressed in the preseason. David Boston has also made a comeback to the NFL and has looked strong, while Ike Hilliard is still a reliable pair of hands.

Factor in Alex Smith, Anthony Becht, and Doug Jolley, who coincidentally had his best seasons when Gruden was coaching the Raiders, and this offense is loaded with talent around Chris Simms.

If Simms plays up to the raves that he has received so far, this is a very dangerous team.

On defense, we are familiar with what the Buccaneers bring to the table each week. Two concerns are the age of some of the components and the lack of depth at certain positions.

Linebackers Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles are key and virtually irreplaceable if the Bucs are aiming for a Super Bowl. Barrett Ruud has finally grasped the nuances of the middle linebacker role and should spell Quarles more often than in the past, while Jamie Winborn can fill in for Brooks in short-term absences.

Up front, the Bucs return the same front four and they should be more potent than last year. Dewayne White will push Greg Spires at the opposite end spot of Simeon Rice and both will get to the quarterback.

At the back end, Will Allen and Jermaine Phillips are ready to take on key roles in the cover two. Phillips is a big hitter and the team is confident that Allen is ready.

The Bucs may not need to rely on the defense as much as they have had to in the past because Gruden has a ton of chess pieces on offense to create mismatches and difficulties for opponents. If that is the case, the defense is still more than capable of stepping up in key games and carrying this team through stretches in the season.

If there is balance and Chris Simms is a stud — as Gruden claims — this team is most definitely a contender in the NFC.

Over/Under: 8.5

The NFC South squares off with the NFC East and the AFC North which means outside of the two matchups with New Orleans, the Bucs don't get much of a break in the schedule. Factor in their two other games versus first place teams Seattle and Chicago and the Bucs play 13 games versus playoff-caliber teams. They will be tested each and every week. They play: BAL, @ATL, CAR, @NO, CIN, PHI, @NYG, NO, @CAR, WAS, @DAL, @PIT, ATL, @CHI, @CLE, and SEA.

Fantasy Sleeper

No one is really talking about Michael Clayton because he is coming off a down year, but he was a reliable fantasy contributor in his rookie season. He used this offseason to condition himself and focus on honing his skills and there is no reason to expect another poor season. The Bucs will spread the ball around and Clayton will be a primary target. He is healthy and should be around the 1,000-yard range.

This is the fourth consecutive season of comprehensive NFL previews by Dave Golokhov. Stay tuned as he brings you previews for all 32 NFL teams! He can be reached at [email protected].

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