Mike Sullivan came to Tampa in part because he relished the opportunity to work with . Bill Sheridan has yet to address the media regarding his hiring by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Sheridan's introductory press conference is next Tuesday at 11:00 a.m. ET), but it's a safe bet that the team's recently-assembled batch of defensive line talent was a motivating factor.
Sullivan and Sheridan, new Head Coach Greg Schiano's respective choices as his offensive and defensive coordinators, are charged with reviving a once-promising offense and returning the Bucs to their usual defensive standards. Each man is sure to get a few more important tools through the upcoming free agency period and April's draft, but they will also need to coax larger production out of some of the young men already in place.
Third-year defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is a prime example. Last week, McCoy told Buccaneers Insider that he is expecting a breakout year in 2012. Team management certainly feels the same way after watching play at a high level early last year before a season-ending arm injury. In fact, McCoy has seen both of his first two seasons end prematurely just as he seemed to be hitting his stride. Given a full season of health, McCoy looks capable of giving the Buccaneers that dominant, pass-rushing presence on the interior line that has been so critical to the team's defense in the past.
Who else on the Buccaneers' roster might be in line for a breakout season in 2012, whether large or small? What players of decent production so far might be on the verge of becoming core performers for Tampa Bay next fall? And what players with relatively slim NFL resumes to this point might develop into more important role players?
Here are three possibilities on each side of the ball, players who could break out in big or small ways under the direction of Sullivan, Sheridan and the rest of the Bucs' staff:
1. Arrelious Benn
The Buccaneers selected two wide receivers in the 2010 NFL Draft, a pair of youngsters who would become the team's new starting tandem by a third of the way into that season. Illinois' Arrelious Benn came aboard early in the second round, and Syracuse's Mike Williams was grabbed at the top of the fourth.
After two seasons, Williams has 130 receptions and the team's single-season record for touchdown receptions (11, in 2010). His yardage and touchdown totals dipped in 2011, but he still has more catches in his first two seasons than any other player in team history to start his career in Tampa.
Benn, in the same time frame, has 55 catches. A couple injuries have cost Benn three games over his first two seasons, but even with that disadvantage he has obviously been out-paced by his fellow 2010 draftee.
And yet the Buccaneers are still pleased with both of those 2010 draft selections. Williams has been on the fast track since his first day in Tampa, coming in as a polished route-runner who was tailor made to the somewhat simpler split end position. Benn, leaving an Illinois offense that didn't have a well-developed passing attack in 2009, was slotted in at flanker, which was considered a tougher playbook to absorb. The Bucs were not surprised by his more gradual learning curve and were gratified when he started to produce larger numbers in the second half of his rookie season. His numbers only advanced by a small amount in his second season, but it's also true that Tampa Bay's offense as a whole took a significant step back in 2011.
What makes Benn look like a top breakout candidate in 2012 is his two-year yards-per-catch figure, which is an outstanding 15.2. That number is very similar to the career Buccaneer marks achieved by two of the top big-play receivers in franchise history: Joey Galloway (15.8) and Mark Carrier (15.6). Benn obviously has not yet sustained that number over nearly the same number of catches as Galloway or Carrier, but he certainly has looked like he can be that sort of downfield threat. Of the 15 passing plays the Bucs achieved of 30 or more yards in 2011, Benn was on the receiving end of six of them, including a season-high 65-yarder.
Now consider what Schiano said his Buccaneer offense would be based on going forward: A power running attack and taking shots downfield. Every team throws deep passes, of course, but some take more shots than others. Schiano apparently wants his team to be in that latter category and believes that Josh Freeman can make that concept work. Freeman could have another receiving threat at his disposal by the time the 2012 season rolls around, but he might already have one right under his nose. If Benn does indeed benefit from an added emphasis on downfield passing, he could be the biggest breakout candidate on the Bucs' offense this fall.
2. RB Mossis Madu
No, Madu is not going to be the Buccaneers' featured tailback in 2012, barring a number of unforeseen developments. He has all of 15 career carries, was an undrafted free agent less than a year ago and wasn't even on the Bucs' active roster until Week Eight of last season. Most likely, the very personable and very untested Madu will need to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff this offseason.
However, there is reason to believe that Madu could be a useful piece in the Bucs' backfield as a third-down back, a change-of-pace runner or any role that takes advantage of his outstanding quickness and burst. That this perception exists about Madu, about six months after he was a fairly anonymous figure in the Bucs' 2011 training camp, is already a major victory for the former Oklahoma Sooner.
As mentioned, Madu's activity after being promoted to the 53-man roster at midseason consisted of 15 carries, plus seven catches. He gained 55 yards the ground and another 53 through the air. His per-carry average of 3.7 yards wasn't an eye-popping, but what the Buccaneers saw on several of those runs was very encouraging. On an offense that was having a very difficult time generating any running game on the edges, Madu was able to get around the corner. The rookie hit the line of scrimmage quickly and had another burst on the occasions he broke through. He also clearly had no difficulty catching the ball out of the backfield.
Of course, the most important consideration for any breakout candidate is opportunity. The only thing currently clear about the Buccaneers' backfield situation in 2012 is that it isn't at all clear at this point. Earnest Graham is returning from an Achilles tendon injury and is a pending free agent. Starter LeGarrette Blount is still working to develop his game to the point where he is considered an every-down back. Kregg Lumpkin is another option, but not particularly more proven than Madu. The Bucs may add one or more player to that mix, but the path seems clear to Madu at least getting a shot to prove he deserves an expanded role.
3. Luke Stocker
The Buccaneers traded up in the fourth round of the 2011 draft in order to ensure that they landed Stocker, the University of Tennessee tight end. The rationale was obvious: The team felt it had a very good pass-catching tight end in Kellen Winslow but wanted a well-rounded blocking/catching tight end to pair with him in order to open up more options in the passing playbook. The Bucs felt they could make significant use of two-TE formations in which both players were legitimate receiving threats.
And, indeed, Stocker played extensively. Technically, he was a starter, opening nine of the 14 games in which he played because the Bucs often opened games in that two-TE set. It's clear that the team was at least satisfied with Stocker's blocking, because his playing time remained high throughout the season.
That said, while Winslow topped 65 catches and 700 yards for the third time in his three years as a Buccaneer, the dual-tight end passing attack never fully materialized. Stocker finished his rookie campaign with 12 catches for 92 yards and no touchdowns; the Bucs didn't have a specific number of receptions they expected him to achieve, but it's fair to say that it was more than a dozen.
Injuries certainly played a part. Stocker got hurt on the first day of training camp and missed some valuable development time, and he later missed two games during the regular season. That probably hurt his chances to settle into a groove in the Buccaneers' attack.
More significant, however, was the team's overall struggles. The Buccaneers found themselves battling large deficits quite often on Sundays, particularly in the second half of the season. That forced the team into some more aggressive play-calling than would have otherwise been necessary, somewhat limiting the impact of the two-TE set. Ideally, the formation with two tight ends works best when the opposition is still worried about the running game. Stocker's rookie reception numbers were a disappointment on the face, but not in a way that made the team question his abilities. A more balanced offense might allow Stocker to have the impact in 2012 that the team was hoping for in 2011.
1. Da'Quan Bowers
If one were drafting possible Buccaneer breakout candidates in 2012, Bowers might go number-one overall. This is not exactly an out-of-leftfield prediction.
Tampa Bay used both of its first-round picks on defensive ends last April, an unsurprising move considering that a pass-rush off the edge was, at the time, considered the team's biggest need. Couple that with a very deep class of pass-rushers, and it was virtually everybody's well-reasoned opinion that the Bucs would dip into that pool in the early going.
So the first-round pick was Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, a 100-miles-per-hour mauler who plays with both speed and strength. The second-round pick was a player that some predicted the Bucs would jump on at Clayborn's spot, Clemson's Bowers. In fact, Bowers had been considered a potential top-five pick in the weeks following the end of the 2010 NCAA season, but subsequent knee surgery had obviously hurt his draft stock. The Bucs' medical evaluations led them to believe that the most dire predictions about Bowers' future were off-base, and they jumped on him when he fell to the bottom half of the second round.
So far, Tampa Bay's hopes have borne out. Bowers was not only available on opening day, he was able to play in all 16 games of his rookie season. The Bucs took it slow on purpose, though that was occasionally frustrating for Bowers, and by the second half of the season he was seeing expanded playing time and emerging as an impact player.
At Clemson, when in full health, Bowers was a dominant pass-rusher. He was not a one-dimensional speed player who always shot around the end; rather, he was often most effective overpowering his opponent. Though no incoming NFL player would ever realistically be compared to Michael Strahan before he ever played a professional down, Bowers was considered that type of player, a power-rusher who could dominate off the left edge.
Bowers finished his rookie season with 25 tackles, 1.5 sacks, four tackles for loss and eight quarterback pressures. Those are, by no means, overwhelming statistics. Still, his late-season emergence and the fact that no health setbacks came into play, are reasons for a very high level of optimism. Clayborn, who had 7.5 sacks in his debut season and was one of the team's most consistent defensive players, has already broken out as an impact player. His 2011 draft partner may very well be next.
2. Cody Grimm
Of all the breakout candidates in this analysis, Grimm might be the most debatable. Some might argue that he already had a breakout season as a rookie, given that he was a seventh-round draft pick who wound up as a starter about a month into the campaign. The former Virginia Tech standout admitted in 2010 that even he was surprised by the rate of his ascension – the loss of Tanard Jackson to a season-ending suspension was the catalyst – but he handled the promotion extraordinarily well.
As a rookie, Grimm was surprisingly effective. He quickly showed that he was a hard-hitter who excelled in run support, and his strong work in pass coverage was a pleasant surprise. In fact, when he eventually saw his season end due to injury in late November, it was a surprisingly big blow to the Bucs' secondary.
Then, in the early weeks of 2011, Grimm quickly showed that his rookie season was no mirage. The Buccaneers struggled against the run – that problem became much bigger as the season went on – but Grimm often kept those struggles from becoming overwhelming. His play in the Buccaneers' Week Two win at Minnesota, in particular, drew rave reviews as he kept a red-hot Adrian Peterson from running roughshod over the Bucs' defense.
Unfortunately, just as the Buccaneers were beginning to fully appreciate what Grimm could bring to their defense, he suffered another season-ending knee injury in a Week Three win over Atlanta. The loss was somewhat mitigated by the return, several weeks later, of Jackson from his suspension, but the Bucs were still robbed a full-season look at what Grimm could do in their defense.
That opportunity will come again in 2012. The Bucs' safety depth chart is rather interesting heading into '12 offseason, with Sean Jones a pending free agent and Grimm returning from injury. Jackson signed a new deal shortly after returning from his suspension but faded a bit down the stretch. With a full offseason to prepare, he could return to the level of play that made him one of the most promising young safeties in the game. The Bucs also got a late-season look at 2011 fifth-round pick Ahmad Black and were relatively impressed. It's not completely clear how the Bucs' safety position will play out in 2012, but it would be surprising if Grimm is not a significant part of the picture.
3. Dekoda Watson
The Buccaneers will have a new defense in 2012, and one of the key tasks of the offseason and training camp will be determining which players on the roster fit best within that system. Some players, obviously, will be key parts of the puzzle no matter what the base schemes are, including Clayborn, McCoy and linebacker Mason Foster.
Watson is a less obvious commodity. A sixth-round pick in 2010, the former Florida State standout is already a good special teams player. This past season, however, the Buccaneers' previous coaching staff made an effort to utilize Watson's elite size-speed combination in certain defensive packages. The team occasionally went to three-down-linemen sets with a linebacker on the edge as a stand-up pass-rusher, and often that pass-rusher was Watson.
That option seemed very promising during the preseason, though Watson's defensive impact during the regular season was limited. He finished the year with 18 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss, two passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. He did return that one fumble recovery for a touchdown against Dallas on December 17.
It's difficult to predict what the new coaching staff will make of Watson's talent set. It's clear, however, that the young man is a very talented athlete with some pass-rushing ability. If there is a role for Watson in the new defense, he could be one player who produces far more in 2012 than he did a year ago.