Last fall, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers got immediate and important contributions from their 2010 draft class.
Gerald McCoy, Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn and Cody Grimm were all starters in Week One or shortly thereafter. Dekoda Watson was a top special teams player throughout the year and Myron Lewis was a key figure in the secondary during the playoff stretch drive.
Eight of the Bucs' nine draft picks in 2010 were on the opening-day roster; throw in a handful of undrafted free agents like LeGarrette Blount and the team had 13 rookies on its season-opening roster, eight of whom saw action in the Week One win over Cleveland.
However, there were actually nine Buccaneers who made their regular-season NFL debuts that Sunday against the Browns. In a way, the team's incoming 2010 class had one extra player, and he also made quite an impact last fall.
That extra "newcomer" was cornerback E.J. Biggers, technically a second-year player after spending his entire 2009 rookie campaign on injured reserve. And, to be sure, Biggers had advantages the 2010 rookies did not; though he had no more regular-season action under his belt than the others, he did have the benefits of an entire year of learning the Bucs' playbook.
Like McCoy and Williams, though, Biggers was a new asset on the 53-man roster for the Buccaneers last season. A seventh-round draft pick out of Western Michigan in '09, Biggers would go on to play in all 16 games and make six starts, contributing 53 tackles, one interception and 12 passes defensed. He spent a majority of the season as the team's nickel back but manned the starting left cornerback spot during the Bucs' heady playoff drive after Aqib Talib was lost to a hip injury.
Biggers won the nickel back job from among a crowded field of candidates in training camp 2010. That wasn't too surprising; he had also looked very promising in his rookie camp before a shoulder injury just before the regular season took him out of the picture. The Bucs didn't exactly enjoy waiting a year to get Biggers into the defensive mix, but once the 2009 campaign was over it was almost like they had made an early start on improving the roster for the following season.
Of course, NFL teams get this sort of roster boost all the time. Linebacker Geno Hayes spent the second half of his 2008 rookie season on injured reserve but the Bucs had high hopes for him in 2009. Hayes has been the starting weakside linebacker in the two seasons since. Cornerback Torrie Cox tore up his knee during the 2003 preseason, months after being drafted in the sixth round. He sat out that year but in 2004 immediately became a strong special teams player and the part-time nickel back.
Often, of course, the returning player isn't a rookie yearning for his NFL debut but a veteran believing he has some unfinished business. Cadillac Williams was a question mark during the 2009 season after his second major knee injury in 2008; by the end of '09 he was back as the team's leading rusher after starting 15 games. The Bucs lost starting center John Wade for the second half of a tough 2004 season, but Wade was back in his spot to open 2005 and he started all 16 games as the Bucs surged back to the top of the NFC Central.
The 2010 Buccaneers finished strong, winning three of their last four contests when every outing was a potential elimination game. In the end, their efforts produced a 10-win season that surprised much of the NFL but left them out of the playoffs on a tiebreaker. It's tempting to wonder if they could have accomplished even more if their injured reserve list hadn't swelled to 13 players by the end of the year.
Now, as with Biggers and the others before, that slight feeling of disappointment turns to one of hope. The hope is that, in addition to whatever further roster improvements the Buccaneers make during the 2011 offseason, the return of some of those IR players will produce an even stronger team.
Here are eight players who missed significant portions of the 2010 season but have a very good chance to contribute more in 2011:
- Brian Price, Cody Grimm, Gerald McCoy and Arrelious Benn.
Those are the four members of the Bucs' very promising 2010 draft class who finished the season on injured reserve. They were lost in the order above, with Price last playing in Week Six, Grimm in Week 12, McCoy in Week 14 and Benn in Week 16.
Obviously, the latter three had a significant amount of the season to establish themselves as important pieces of the puzzle moving forward. However, both McCoy and Benn were just beginning to hit their respective strides when they were felled by biceps and knee injuries, respectively.
Price is thus the most intriguing name on that list. He appeared in just five games, and even then he was slowed somewhat by leg injuries suffered during the offseason. When healthy, both during training camp and in the first month of the season, he showed signs of being a very quick pass-rusher and a perfect complement to McCoy. While Price was a part of the defensive tackle rotation at the start of the season, he never had the opportunity to start a game or really settle into a groove. In that way, he most resembles the Biggers example, as he will still be very close to the launching point of his NFL career when his second season begins.
- Jeff Faine and Davin Joseph
One of the best stories of the Buccaneers' surprising 2010 season was the play of the offensive line despite constant lineup upheaval. For just the second time in team history, only one of the five starters on opening day was still on the starting line in Game 16 (Pro Bowl left tackle Donald Penn). Injuries to several players, including Faine and Joseph, opened the door to playing time for such unproven players as Ted Larsen and Derek Hardman, as well as the still-improving Jeremy Zuttah, and the results were often impressive.
Still, that line would certainly benefit from the return of those two proven veterans. Joseph was in the Pro Bowl as recently as 2008 and he gives the Bucs impressive thump in the middle in the running game. Faine was a highly-coveted free agent in the 2008 offseason and has anchored the Bucs' line since coming over from the division-rival New Orleans Saints. Put those two back into the mix, and now you have a pleasant problem trying to figure out how to make the most out of such players as Larsen, Zuttah, Hardman, James Lee, Brandon Carter, Will Barker and others. The Buccaneers also had promising but raw tackle prospect Demar Dotson on injured reserve all of last year; he had entered training camp as the primary backup to Penn at left tackle.
- Kareem Huggins
The Bucs had big plans for Huggins in 2010.
An undrafted free agent out of Hofstra who spent much of his 2009 rookie season on the practice squad, Huggins got a late-season promotion that year and had a little momentum heading into 2010. He turned that into a very good training camp and preseason, and this time he made the 53-man roster out of the game. The Bucs were intrigued by his speed and receiving ability and saw him as a breakout candidate as a change-of-pace back.
However, the Bucs' running game struggled as a whole in the early going before discovering how much Blount had to offer in October. Just as Tampa Bay's coaching staff was making a point of saying Huggins would become more involved, he sustained a season-ending knee injury against the Saints.
Obviously, Blount subsequently emerged as the lead back. Former starter Williams also settled into a very productive role as a third-down back, utilizing his outstanding blocking skills and his ability to catch out of the backfield. Williams heads into the offseason as an impending free agent, however, and even if he does return there is plenty of room in the attack for another weapon out of the backfield. The Buccaneers remain intrigued to see what Huggins can offer.
- Kyle Moore
In addition to McCoy and Grimm, the Buccaneers lost Talib and starting strongside linebacker Quincy Black to season-ending injuries during a bizarre late-season run of misfortune. Still, while Talib and Black were sorely missed down the stretch, they had certainly established themselves in the Bucs' defense before they were shelved for the year.
Moore, on the other hand, didn't have as much time to become entrenched. He won the starting left defensive end spot in training camp and the team had high hopes for the then-second-year player. He opened seven of the first eight games but was hindered at times by a shoulder injury. After missing one contest and struggling through a few others, Moore was named inactive for three weeks as he tried to recover and then was eventually placed on injured reserve.
The 6-5, 272-pound Moore is a solid run-stopper but the Buccaneers believe he can make a more significant impact in the pass-rush, using his speed and long frame. He did not have a sack in 2010 before his season was cut short, but he did record six quarterback pressures. It seems likely that the Buccaneers will be paying a lot of attention to the defensive end position in the months that lead up to the 2011 campaign, and even if that includes some new additions, Moore should be an interesting part of the equation.