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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Changing of the Guard

With some familiar names leaving town, the Bucs are ready for a new wave of record-breakers


FB Mike Alstott has received more than his share of post-touchdown congratulations

Less than a month into the offseason NFL free agency period, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have treated their fans to a large dose of excitement and their roster to an instant upgrade. However, the 2000 offseason has also been a reminder that free agency means departures as well as arrivals, with such longstanding Bucs as QB Trent Dilfer, LB Hardy Nickerson and C Tony Mayberry moving on.

Earlier in the week, Dilfer signed with the Baltimore Ravens after the Buccaneers declined to pick up a two-year option on his contract. Prior to that, Nickerson signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent. Mayberry is expected to sign elsewhere after the Bucs added Pro Bowl starter Jeff Christy to play center.

As General Manager Rich McKay noted as the free agency period began on February 11th, the system is designed to allow player movement, and no team is immune. Thus, planning ahead is crucial. "Any time free agency starts, you can lose a player," said McKay. "You have to go into it realizing that any player that hits the street could be gone."

What that means for the Buccaneers is keeping the core of their remarkable level of talent intact. It means that even upon the departure of three record-breaking Buccaneers, Tampa Bay enters the 2000 season with a another wave of players ready to set new franchise standards.

The contributions of Dilfer, Nickerson and Mayberry to the Bucs' record books will be remembered for a long time. Dilfer started 77 games, the most by a quarterback in team history, and finished his six-year Buc career second on the team's lists for passing yards, attempts and completions, and third in touchdown throws. A free agent signing in 1993, Nickerson is the leading tackler in franchise history, having recorded 1,028 stops in his seven Tampa Bay seasons. He had a team-record 214 tackles in 1993. Mayberry started a remarkable 144 consecutive games, every one for the past nine years, a streak that is by far the longest in team history. He is the only Buccaneer offensive lineman ever to be selected to the Pro Bowl.

Now it's time for some more records to fall, and the names attached to those new standards will belong to such standouts as Derrick Brooks, Donnie Abraham, Mike Alstott, Karl Williams and Warren Sapp. Surely there will be others that emerge from the Bucs' deep well of talent.

As impressive as Nickerson's tackle record is, Brooks could be threatening it within a few seasons. In just five seasons, the 1995 first-round draft pick has amassed 763 stops and has been the team's leading tackler in three of those campaigns. It would be an upset if Brooks didn't pace the Bucs in that category again in 2000, and at his current pace of over 150 tackles per season, he would pass 1,000 in just two seasons and move past Nickerson's mark.

Considered one of the top two or three linebackers in the NFL today, Brooks' outstanding coverage skills (49 career passes defensed) keep him on the field for every play and his unmatched speed allows him to make plays from sideline to sideline. Nickerson made it to five Pro Bowls, just one short of Lee Roy Selmon's team record; Brooks has appeared in the last three and could become a fixture in Honolulu.

Abraham has needed just four seasons to move all the way up to third on the team's all-time interception list with 18 picks. The team's career leaders, Cedric Brown (29) and Mike Washington (28) may seem far ahead, but Abraham's history suggests he might catch them by 2001.

After being drafted in the third round in 1996, the somewhat unknown Abraham took over a starting spot just five games into his rookie campaign and has been the team's most productive defensive back since. He had five interceptions in his first campaign, tying the Bucs' rookie record, then grabbed five more in '97 to become the first Tampa Bay player ever to have at least five picks in each of his first two seasons. After snaring just one interception in 1998, Abraham rebounded in a huge way in '99 with seven more picks.

That interception total tied for the NFC lead, and though Abraham was denied a reasonable Pro Bowl berth, he did continue to build his profile around the league. Profiled as an 'All-Pro 2000' player by Sports Illustrated in 1998, it appears as if Abraham will make good on that promise. He is now seen as one of the league's top young cover corners. Interceptions seem to be a statistic driven at least partially by luck, but Abraham has a knack for putting himself in position to make the play. He set an unofficial team record in 1999 with 31 passes defensed, roughly two per game.

Still 3,000 yards behind James Wilder and with fellow standout Warrick Dunn hard on his heels, Alstott may be some distance from challenging for the team's all-time rushing record. However, in just four NFL seasons, the bruising fullback has developed a scoring touch rarely seen in Buccaneer history. Alstott already has 34 career touchdowns, tied with TE Jimmie Giles for second in team annals.

Wilder's previously unassailable mark of 46 TDs is now within reach, particularly for one of the only three Bucs ever to reach double digits in touchdowns in a season. Should the Buccaneers' 28th-ranked offense see marked improvement in 2000, Alstott could surpass his career high of 10 TDs (1997) and give Wilder an immediate run for his money.

Williams' name doesn't have as high of a profile as some of these other Buccaneer core players, but he has put together an outstanding career since joining the team as an undrafted free agent in 1996. Though he is mostly seen as a quietly efficient player, some of his punt returns achievements have been epic. For a short period this past season, Williams ranked as the NFL's all-time leader in punt return average.

Williams' career average of 12.4 yards per return is still among the best ever. Though he now shares that duty with the speedy Jacquez Green (who also has a 12.4-yard career average but does not have enough returns to qualify for the league lead), Williams could eventually become the leading punt returner in team history.

At the top of that list is Danny Reece, an original Buc who was famous for his near refusal to employ the fair catch. From the Bucs' inaugural 1976 season through 1980, Reece returned 222 punts and only fair caught the ball seven times. Reece has 1,556 career punt return yards; Williams is closing fast with 1,107. With roughly 275 punt return yards per season, Williams could fly by Reece in two years.

And then there is Sapp. As the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year in 1999, Sapp has already lifted himself into Selmon's dominant category. Sapp just missed breaking Selmon's 22-year-old team sack record of 13, recording a career-high 12.5 last year. Now, as unbelievable as it may seem to longtime Buccaneer fans, Sapp may have emerged as a threat to Selmon's career Buccaneer sack record.

It is by no means imminent: Selmon had 78.5 sacks in nine Tampa Bay seasons while Sapp is now second on the list with 42. That 36-sack gulf isn't as massive as it seems, however. Sapp has averaged just under 10 sacks per season over the past four campaigns and is clearly in the prime of his career. One of the most unstoppable defensive linemen in the league, it would not be surprising to see Sapp accelerate that curve.

If Sapp could catch Selmon, the only Buccaneer in the Hall of Fame, it would represent the most significant changing of the guard in Tampa Bay history. It is not the only one on the horizon, however, as the Bucs have shed their struggling ways of the 80s and early 90s and are now a hotbed of talent and achievement. Even with some of the most noteworthy names in team history continuing their careers elsewhere, the Bucs are primed for a record-breaking decade.

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