DT Ellis Wyms' ever-expanding role in the Bucs' defense is the product of many hours of offseason work
Ask how the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will handle the 2006 offseason, and you'll spark a debate over free agents and the salary cap; over which players should be retained, added or let go; over whom should be targeted in April's draft.
But "offseason" and "player acquisition" are not synonymous in the NFL. Sure, free agency can alter a team's outlook and there's no denying that the draft is the most important weekend between the Super Bowl and opening weekend. But there are five full months between the start of the new league year and the first live action on the gridiron, and those 20-odd weeks are just as important to the development of players as they are to the development of the roster.
How does a player like Ellis Wyms go from sixth-round flyer to ultra-valuable defensive line reserve? How does the team find a viable flanker in an undrafted college free agent like Edell Shepherd? How does a Sean Mahan improve from little-used backup to 16-game starter at right guard?
Here's how: hours of dedication and hard work – by both the players and their coaches – during the offseason.
Yes, the Bucs want to improve on their 11-5 season and first-round playoff exit next fall, and yes, they know they must find a few more playmakers and a few more pieces to the puzzle between now and next August. Free agency and the draft, hopefully, will help in that endeavor, but not every new contributor will necessarily be a new Buccaneer.
"Where are the playmakers going to come from?" asked General Manager Bruce Allen. "They are going to come, hopefully, from inside this locker room right now, and anybody we can acquire in free agency or the draft, we will give them an opportunity. We gave Edell Shepherd an opportunity in the first Washington game and he came through, strong. Some say he came through strong in the second game, too."
It's hard to predict who will emerge for the Buccaneers over the next half-year, just as it would have been impossible to know for sure that Chris Simms' hard work over the last few offseasons would pay off so well in 2005. Who might emerge during the coming offseason? Could Will Allen turn into a playmaker in the secondary? Could Michael Clayton regain his rookie form and more? Might the offensive line get another jolt from a Jeb Terry or a Scott Jackson? Perhaps Edell Shepherd will continue his ascent or Marquis Cooper and Barrett Ruud will push for starting spots in the linebacking corps.
It's reasonable to assume that somebody will make the leap into a larger role as the result of a strong offseason.
"Depending on injuries and other factors of who we are able to sign, I think we could have some new starters [in 2006]," said Allen. "The competition we want will be there because that will improve some players' individual performances on their own. There might be some future starters right here in our building. What they do this offseason with these coaches will determine that."
There is turnover on every team in the league every offseason, of course. Two defensive starters from the Bucs' Super Bowl championship team in 2002 were gone before the 2003 season started. But while changes in Tampa over the few years that followed the Super Bowl win were mostly driven by salary cap issues, the Bucs are now starting to see the influence of new, young talent pushing for more playing time. The team is hoping that the 2006 offseason is characterized not by change but by growth.
"I think we have improved the foundation of this team with young players," said Allen. "We played so many young players on offense that they are going to get better. They are going to start working in March with our coaches and getting better every day and that gives us high hopes."
As tempting as free agency can be – and the Bucs hope to be a more important player on the market going forward than they have been over the last few years – most teams consider it imperative to build from within. That takes strong scouting work before and after the draft, but it also takes commitment from the young players who are expected to work toward larger jobs.
The Bucs were pleased with their players' collective commitment last year, and the strong offseason paid off with a season better than most outsider's expectations. Head Coach Jon Gruden repeatedly praised the 2005 team for its attitude toward the game, its love of practice, meetings, workouts and everything else that builds the foundation for success. The Bucs hope for a similar offseason approach in 2006
"The chemistry is good in our locker room, and it usually is when you win," said Allen. "This team worked very hard starting in March to get the team back [to its winning ways]. They did a very good job. You heard me say before that what we look for in a player is, we want a good teammate. We did acquire some new teammates that were excellent teammates not only on the field, but off of the field. We will continue to do that."