WR Jacquez Green had a breakout season in 1999
Buccaneer Head Coach Tony Dungy contemplates which Bucs might be ready to make a bigger impact in 2000 (and also signs a new punter)
Well, it's not exactly a question for the ages…maybe just the question for today.
Perhaps going into withdrawal because it's been almost two weeks since the Buccaneers have added another Pro Bowl player to the roster, Tampa Bay fans have begun discussing a new topic: Which returning player will have the most improved season in 2000?
That's a prominent discussion on Buccaneers.com's Bulletin Board (want to add your two cents? Click here to join the topic stream), and it is indeed an intriguing notion. Much of the focus in the upcoming months will probably fall on talented newcomers like Keyshawn Johnson, Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy and what their arrivals will do to jumpstart the team's offense. However, as impactful as those three and the team's new draftees may be, there is also likely to be a returning player or two (or three or four, if the football gods are smiling on Tampa) that takes his game up a notch.
Who will it be?
Last year, that distinction would probably have to go to WR Jacquez Green, who went from 12 receptions as a 1998 rookie to 51 as a sophomore, best among all the team's wideouts. Green was most effectively used in the punt return game as a rookie, posting an outstanding 15.1-yard average, but he emerged as the top deep threat in the team's passing game in '99.
Green's breakout came in a rush, with a phenomenal four-game midseason stretch in which he hauled in 23 passes for 424 yards and two touchdowns. By contrast, CB Ronde Barber staged a similar coming-out party in 1998 by gradually stacking one big play on top of another. Slated to fight for time as a nickel back after playing in just one regular season game as a 1997 rookie, Barber instead climbed steadily upward to a permanent starting role. By the time he was finished, he had compiled 68 tackles, two interceptions (returned for 67 yards), three sacks, two forced fumbles and a team-leading 17 passes defensed. He seemingly made a game-turning play every week.
So who will follow in Barber and Green's footsteps in 2000? Bucmaniac, posting to the Bulletin Board on Friday, leans towards RB Warrick Dunn, while ShadowSails likes second-year quarterback Shaun King. By Saturday, there will likely be another dozen predictions. We thought we'd check with an expert: Tampa Bay Head Coach Tony Dungy.
After surveying the Bucs' crowded depth chart on a board in his office, Dungy offered up several suggestions, plus a reminder that this year's breadth of talent offers less room for your classic breakout.
"Really, it gets tougher because you have more established guys and less young guys playing (than in previous years)," said Dungy. "I would think Jerry Wunsch, who got the chance to play last year when Jason got hurt, could do that. He has a chance to go in as a starter and I think he could develop and play really well. (Third-year cornerback) Brian Kelly could have the same sort of jump that Ronde had (between his first and second year).
"I think (linebacker) Shelton Quarles will get to play a little bit more on third downs in Hardy (Nickerson)'s spot, so he has a chance to make some more plays in the passing game and be involved a lot more. Possibly, because of that, Alshermond Singleton will get a chance to play some more and could take another step forward. And we're hoping Dexter Jackson gets a chance to play a little bit more at both safety and nickel corner in nickel situations."
Dungy's first interpretation of the question, obviously, was along the lines of what transpired in Barber and Green's careers, strong but lesser-used players who suddenly took a big leap forward. Buccaneer Bulletin Board users began their focus on established core contributors who might expect even bigger things. Dungy sees merit in that idea as well.
"Yeah, we think that Warrick can get back to the 1,200 or 1,300-yard range with some of the things were going to be doing and because of those two new guys on the offensive line," said Dungy. "I also think that Reidel Anthony has a good chance to bounce back and play a lot like he did in 1998. Those are two guys that will benefit a lot from the new scheme."
Dunn, as both 'bucmaniac' and Dungy are aware, has shown a knack for big-time production in both the running and passing games but has also seen his role shift from year to year. After a rookie Pro Bowl campaign and two straight seasons of approximately 1,000 rushing yards and 40 receptions, Dunn saw his ground gain dip to 616 yards but his receptions rise to 64 in 1999. How he and potent backfield mate Mike Alstott are used in the coming season under new Offensive Coordinator Les Steckel is a point of much interest for Tampa Bay fans.
In 1998, Anthony had a season much like Green's '99 campaign, with a team-best 51 receptions and seven touchdown catches, but he was on the receiving end of just 30 passes last year. Anthony's breakthrough factors are also sizeable; not only will Anthony be playing for a new coordinator in 2000, but he also surely feel the impact of Johnson's addition to the lineup.
After contemplating the fan-driven question of the day, Dungy went back to more immediate personnel matters, including Friday's signing of P John Shay. Shay, a 1995 graduate of Temple, participated in last week's post-draft minicamp with the Buccaneers and was impressive enough to earn a roster spot for training camp. Shay joins incumbent veteran kicker Mark Royals as the only two punters on the roster.
At Temple, the 6-0, 205-pound Shay averaged 37.9 yards on a school-record 258 punts. His best season came in 1993, when he averaged 40.5 yards on 69 kicks.