Expectations are high in Tampa this season as the denizens of Raymond James Stadium try to end a five-year absence from the NFL playoffs. As the Tampa Bay Buccaneers open their 2013 training camp, the pressure is on the 90 players who reported to team headquarters on Wednesday not only to win a spot on the regular-season roster but to form a team that can rise to the top of the rugged NFC South.
But this isn't about pressure. There is some form of pressure on every player in the NFL, and most of those men will say that no weight from external sources can match what they put on themselves. Furthermore, most NFL players welcome and thrive on the pressure that comes with their occupation.
For instance, here's Josh Freeman on Wednesday as the Buccaneers reported to camp: "There's always going to be pressure, but it's all internal. When I look at what I want to be and who I want to be as a player, it exceeds everything that anybody else could hope for. I'm fired up. I don't feel pressure. I'm anxious to get going."
So this isn't about pressure; this is simply about the spotlight. The Bucs will need a strong roster from one to 53 if they are to achieve their goals for 2013, but there's no doubt that the performances of certain key players will be instrumental in determining how the season unfolds. And those players will draw more attention, will be under more external scrutiny, beginning with the first day of camp.
So, which of the 90 Buccaneers who crowded into the One Buc Place locker room on Wednesday will have the spotlight trained on them most directly come Thursday morning? Here are five likely candidates:
5. DE Da'Quan Bowers
NFL.com picked Bowers, the Buccaneers' third-year end, as one of 40 men they believe will "make the leap" in 2012, emerging as impact players. The Buccaneers are counting on it, as Bowers is the top candidate to step in as the starter at left end and replace the departed Michael Bennett.
Bowers will be a magnet for attention for reasons both in and out of his control. A second-round pick in 2011 who was once considered a candidate for the first overall selection before a knee injury (which he has overcome), Bowers is undeniably talented. He's got the speed to beat offensive tackles off the snap but is just as likely to use his strength and his 6-4, 290-pound frame to bull-rush an opponent. Because he was originally brought along cautiously as a rookie due to the knee injury, and because he missed half of last season due to a fluky Achilles tendon tear, he has yet to play the sort of snaps associated with a starting position. Proving he can carry that extra burden will be as important for Bowers this season as refining his pass-rush techniques. Fortunately, the team has already seen Bowers' strength and determination in his two impressive injury recoveries, and that should give them confidence that he can meet this newest challenge.
Outside of Bowers' control, in terms of the attention he and fellow 2011 draftee Adrian Clayborn will draw this summer, is the fact that the Bucs' pass rush hasn't been as productive as needed for going on a half-decade. The Bucs have sunk significant resources into trying to fix that, mostly on draft day with high picks spent on Bowers, Clayborn and Gerald McCoy in 2010 and 2011 and middle-round picks used on William Gholston and Steven Means this past April. All of those players are still quite young, and if enough of those moves pay off the Bucs could enter into another era of effective pass-rushing. In terms of 2013, however, Bowers' emergence may be the most important factor for the defensive front.
"He's played at a high level, but he's played as a situational pass-rusher," said Schiano. "Now he's got to learn how to play down after down and still be a situational pass rusher. His portion got bigger…or it's going to get bigger if he can do it. If he can't then we're going to have to find another guy."
The Bucs think Bowers can do it, but there will certainly be a lot of people watching to see if the team is right.
"He's had a good offseason," said Pass Rush Specialist Bryan Cox. "It's going to be up to him to make the plays. We need his focus, we need him to be in shape, we need his ability to play, but he has that talent. He's shown what he's capable of doing, when healthy."
4. CB Johnthan Banks
The 2012 Buccaneers had an eye-opening midseason winning streak and a window-closing late-season losing streak. Statistically, they had some obvious strengths, particularly on offense, and some equally obvious deficiencies. The most glaring entry in that last column was the pass defense, which finished last in the NFL. In response, the Bucs completely rebuilt their secondary during the offseason and are now banking on it holding up more successfully than last year's version.
"It better hold up," said Schiano. "If we want to win, they've got to hold up, right? We've got to help them with pass-rush and help them with an offense that scores points. They're going to be fine."
That rebuilding work included signing All-Pro safety Dashon Goldson, trading for All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis and drafting cornerback Johnthan Banks in the second round, the highest pick the team had after the Revis deal. All three could be in the starting lineup on opening day. Goldson has immediately been installed as the starting strong safety, of course, and the only question regarding Revis is the state of his recovery from a knee injury (more on that below). That makes Banks the biggest question mark, simply because he has no NFL experience, no "All-Pro" designation before his name (yet). The recent release of Eric Wright leaves the starting spot opposite Revis up for grabs, and it would certainly seem like Banks would be the first option.
He'll get plenty of competition from the likes of Leonard Johnson and Danny Gorrer, two young cornerbacks that Schiano specifically mentioned on Wednesday. And, of course, the Buccaneers have to determine who will be the primary nickel and dime backs, as well, so there could be playing time for all of those young players in the end.
"I know one thing," said Schiano. "I know Leonard Johnson and Danny Gore, those guys, Jonathan Banks, don't anybody be telling them they're not ready to go. I'm excited. I can't wait to watch them compete."
That sentiment will be shared by many a Buccaneer fan. And the young player they'll be watching most closely is Johnthan Banks.
3. G Davin Joseph/G Carl Nicks
It may be cheating a "Top Five" lists to use one of the spots on two players, but it's natural to think of these two guys' fates as being combined.
Certainly, the Buccaneers connected Joseph and Banks when they signed the latter in March of 2012 to pair with the former and give the team two of the three reigning NFC Pro Bowl guards. The thinking then – as it is again now – is that an interior featuring both Joseph and Nicks could be the most dominant in the NFL, especially in terms of paving the way for the rushing attack. They stayed connected, unfortunately, when both went down with season-ending injuries, Joseph in August and Nicks after seven games. Now both are in the same boat, coming to the end of their recovery process and trying to work their way towards the starting lineup on opening day.
Schiano has said that each recovering player will have his own specific regimen, but that all of them would be on the practice field in some capacity when camp work starts on Thursday morning. It is unlikely that either Nicks or Joseph will be full-go on Day One, but their gradual returns to the lineup will be scrutinized closely.
"[Nicks] is going to be out there and he's going to be doing stuff," said Schiano. "With a guy of Carl's size, when he is not doing stuff we've got to get him doing some cardiovascular stuff to keep him in condition to play the game when he is able to do everything. He'll mix it up. He'll do some football stuff, then he'll go with [Director of Sports Medicine and Performance] Todd [Toriscelli] and his staff and do cardiovascular work. You'll see him back and forth, just as you'll see Davin do the same thing."
Then, at some point you'll see them both opening holes for Doug Martin, and Buccaneer fans won't be able to look away.
2. CB Darrelle Revis
With apologies to Hardy Nickerson, Brad Johnson and Simeon Rice and maybe even Vincent Jackson, the Buccaneers have never had a veteran offseason acquisition more sure to draw national attention than Revis, widely acknowledged as one of the very best players in the game.
The scrutiny on Revis is compounded by the fact that he arrived in April, just before the draft, but has yet to get fully involved in the team's practice work. That was understandable and expected, of course, as Revis is finishing up his recovery from a 2012 knee injury that cost him most of his last season with the New York Jets. At some point, though, Revis is going to line up at left cornerback – perhaps across the line from Vincent Jackson – and everyone will be watching.
The good news: Revis is expected to be on the field with the team on Thursday morning when the first practice of camp kicks off, though the team will pick and choose what drills to expose him to in the early going. The goal, as always, is to have Revis on the field for the first regular-season game, coincidentally against his former team on September 8.
"He'll be out there tomorrow," said Schiano on Wednesday. "Darelle is going to go through things. He'll do some stuff, but we're not going to have him do everything. He's going to take a little bit of everything, pretty much, but not a bunch of anything. We're going to play him back into good shape. I want to play him back into football shape. A guy like Darelle, he is a professional. He knows what he needs to do to get ready. We're going to help him and make sure he is ready to go when we start."
1. QB Josh Freeman
The quarterback will never escape the spotlight on an NFL team, and Freeman will likely make a list similar to this one every year he's a Buccaneer. It is also true, however, that the fifth-year quarterback is going to be the center of attention more than ever before.
That's what happens when you simultaneously post the most prolific passing season in franchise history and give critics the ammunition they need to doubt you. Freeman became the first Buccaneer 4,000-yard passer last fall and set both the single-season and career franchise marks for touchdown passes, but a late-season rash of interceptions coincided with the team's toughest losses. Add in the fact that Freeman's original NFL contract expires at the end of the league year, and the Bucs drafting of North Carolina State quarterback Mike Glennon in the third round in April, and all of a sudden the 2013 campaign is being labeled a "make-or-break" season for the fifth-year passer.
Whether it's fair or not, that sort of assessment is going to swing the spotlight squarely in a player's direction. All eyes are on Freeman this year as Buc fans hope to see a franchise quarterback at the helm of a winning team and members of the media try to predict where his career will go next. Fortunately, the added scrutiny isn't likely to distract Freeman.
"The one good thing about Josh, because he's been exposed to it already – he's been a starting quarterback for four years already, he's had the criticism, he's had the applause, he's had all of that quickly in his young career – I think he's able to just come in and work every day," said Quarterbacks Coach John McNulty. "Everybody knows about the contract situation and everybody knows people are depending on him, but that goes with the position anyway. Regardless of what he has on his contract, he is still held accountable to perform well as a quarterback, and he understands that because he's been doing it already for four years. I haven't noticed any change in his demeanor. He's worked extremely hard. I don't think he's the type of guy that gets affected by that."
If anything, Freeman is looking forward to being tested by the red-hot crucible that is training camp. He believes he's made significant strides during the first seven months of the year, thanks to a greater understanding of what was a brand-new offensive system in 2012.
"I honestly love training camp," said Freeman. "I feel a lot more comfortable this year in our system. Last year I was learning a lot and trying to understand things on the fly. This offseason I really studied and I feel more prepared. I'm excited."
Mike Sullivan, the man who installed that new system in 2012, leading to some rather impressive results, is obviously optimistic about what his young passer can do the second time around. Sullivan knows as well as anyone that the spotlight will be trained unsparingly on Freeman this year, but that could serve to illuminate a breakthrough campaign.
"Throughout the spring he did an excellent job from Day One having a good command of the offense, and that's to be expected," said Sullivan. "It wasn't just theory, it wasn't looking at tape of another team and some of the ideas of what the scheme was. He could look at himself and see the things that he did well and the things he needs to improve upon. It was very evident early on in the spring, his command of the offense in the huddle, in the meeting room. There is a comfort level that he has so now we're ready to move forward and take that next step."