The Tampa Bay Buccaneers got an outstanding overall contribution from their 2010 class of rookies – from LeGarrette Blount to Mike Williams to Cody Grimm – and needed every bit of it to produce a 10-6 record and 17 solid weeks of contention for the postseason.
However, the Buccaneers' impressive seven-win improvement and near playoff berth would not have been possible without another group that stepped up its efforts this past fall. Tampa Bay was the youngest team in the NFL in 2010 but also one of its most successful because many of its non-rookie players (some young, some not so young) accomplished things they never had before.
As good as rookies such as Gerald McCoy and Ted Larsen were last year, it's a good bet they'll produce even more in 2011. Can the same be said of the non-rookies who pointed their career needles upward last season? Will they continue to rise, statistically, or was 2010 the peak?
Let's take a look at a half-dozen such players and their situations.
Up or Down? Six Buccaneers with Career Highs in 2010
- Cadillac Williams: 46 receptions.
Williams started 15 games in 2009, played in all 16 for the first time in his career and was the Bucs' clear feature back despite the presence of Derrick Ward and Earnest Graham. In 2010, Williams ceded that starting role before midseason to Blount, the rookie sensation who succeeded in revving up a struggling ground attack.
Despite how that sounds, both 2009 and 2010 were fantastic seasons for the Buccaneers' fourth all-time leading rusher. Williams embraced a new role as a third-down back, a change of pace and a personal protector for quarterback Josh Freeman, and proved invaluable to the offense in those capacities. With Blount learning the Bucs' protection schemes on the go – he didn't join the team until September 6 – the coaching staff felt much more comfortable with Williams in the backfield in passing situations.
That kept Williams on the field for a good percentage of the plays, even though Blount was the main ballcarrier, and the veteran back became an important safety valve for Freeman. Williams caught everything and proved adept at making a quick move after the catch and eluding tacklers long enough to move the chains. In the end, he nearly hit 50 catches, turning his 46 grabs into 355 yards and one touchdown. He ranked third on the team in receptions to Kellen Winslow and Mike Williams, and those three became the first Buccaneers RB-WR-TE trio to all get over 40 catches in a season since 1986.
Williams is due to become a free agent in the 2011 offseason, so whether or not he chases 50 catches again for the Buccaneers next fall obviously depends first on his returning. If that occurs, there's plenty of reason to believe that he can duplicate that performance. Williams is still only 28 years old and, due to the knee injuries that plagued his early years, he has less tread on his tires than many backs that age. He hasn't missed a game in two years and showed a lot of spring in his step last fall. Also, the Buccaneers' offense is very young and, with Freeman at the helm, seems to be in line for even more improvement in 2011. Freeman obviously trusts William, and the former Rookie of the Year should be in line for many more pass-catching opportunities next fall.
- Aqib Talib: Six interceptions.
Talib's three NFL seasons have been a steady climb so far.
He was primarily a nickel back as a rookie in 2008, starting just two games but showing a lot of promise with his team-leading four interceptions (tied with Ronde Barber). In 2009, he moved into the starting lineup and started to emerge as a premier NFL cover man; his interceptions went up a tick, to five. Last year, Talib looked like a burgeoning star, a lock-down cornerback with rare athleticism and ball skills. Despite missing five games, including the last month of the season, he once again led the team in interceptions and once again improved on his career high with six.
Talib has established a nice little pattern with his picks that would lead one to expect seven thefts in 2011. The Buccaneers would be thrilled with that total; the last Tampa Bay defender to hit that mark was Brian Kelly, with eight back in 2002. Seven interceptions also would put him at or near the top of the league in all likelihood; the 2010 leader (Ed Reed) had eight and only three others got to seven (Devin McCourty and Troy Polamalu and Asante Samuel).
Interceptions are a fickle statistical master, however. Head Coach Raheem Morris says they occur when technique meets opportunity, and some seasons simply present a defensive back with fewer real opportunities for turnovers. Witness Barber, who had two interceptions in 2000, a team-record and NFL-leading 10 in 2001 and then two again in 2002. By all accounts, Barber was a fantastic player in all three of those campaigns. Thus, it is difficult to predict with much confidence that Talib can improve on his totals for a third straight season.
On the other hand, there is the rather simple part of the equation that should help Talib: More games played means more opportunities. He missed one game each in 2008 and 2009 and, as mentioned, five in 2010. Should he play in all 16 games for the first time in his career, Talib could put up a greater interception total. The Buccaneers will get more up front out of McCoy and Brian Price, both of whom missed significant time due to injuries as rookies, and will obviously be looking to improve the pass rush in 2011. The Buccaneers' defense ranked 30th in the NFL in sacks per pass play in 2010; if there is more pressure next fall, defensive backs are likely to get more bad-pass opportunities.
- Geno Hayes: Four sacks.
Entering the 2010 regular season, the Buccaneers made no secret of their desire to get strongside linebacker Quincy Black involved in the pass-rush. Occasionally standing up at the end of the line at the snap, Black would try to stunt with the Bucs' linemen and find a gap to shoot. The strategy worked memorably well in Week Two at Carolina when Black hit QB Matt Moore like a missile and buried him with just his third career sack.
By season's end, though, Black had just two sacks and it was the weakside linebacker, Hayes, who was second on the team with four QB takedowns. Hayes also had five quarterback pressures, most among Buccaneer linebackers, and a team-high 15 tackles for loss, meaning he spent a lot of time in opposing backfields last year.
This wasn't an unprecedented occurrence. Hayes had three sacks, 12 QB pressures and 14 tackles for loss in 2009, his second NFL season and his first as a starter. He has blazing speed for a linebacker, so he can be a surprise for slower-footed offensive tackles trying to protect the edge. The Buccaneers have not typically used the weakside linebacker to generate much of a pass rush, but they obviously see that potential in the former Florida State star.
Sacks are all about opportunities, too, but in this case much of that has to do with play-calling. How aggressively will the Buccaneers go after the quarterback next year? Will they need to send extra rushers to get a good pass rush, or will the front four produce more on its own than it did in 2010? Will the favored blitz packages center around linebackers or defensive backs?
Hayes consistent sack/TFL/pressure numbers in his first two seasons as a starter indicate that his four sacks last year were probably not a fluke. In addition, Morris, who is the play-caller on defense, is very creative in how he mixes up his looks, moving farther away from a dependence on the Cover Two. It's likely that Morris will continue to look for ways to get Hayes into the quarterback's personal space.
- Micheal Spurlock: 17 receptions.
Spurlock's catch total in 2010 isn't particularly eye-catching on paper, but they do indicate that, for the first time in his unusual NFL career, he was seen as a viable wideout and not just a work-in-progress.
Spurlock played quarterback at Ole Miss but began a conversion to wide receiver when he signed with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent in 2006. His first extended playing time came with the Buccaneers in 2007, when he broke the franchise's infamous kickoff return drought and returned one 90 yards for a touchdown against Atlanta. He later spent time with San Francisco before coming back to Tampa late in 2009, but heading into the 2010 offseason he was still primarily a return specialist.
It was during that offseason that Spurlock, now 27 years old, finally cast off the mantle of "project" and convinced a coaching staff that he was ready to contribute steadily in the passing game. With rookies Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn settling in as the starting receivers, there were plenty of options to be the third pass-catcher, including Sammie Stroughter (a starter in the season's first month), Preston Parker and Maurice Stovall. Spurlock got a lot of that action, however, during the first half of the season.
Spurlock had just four receptions in his career before 2010, all in a single game for Arizona at the end of the 2006 campaign. He got two in his first outing of this past season and surpassed his previous career totals by the fourth week of the season. Spurlock never had more than three catches in a single game in 2010, but he made many of them count, as evidenced by his healthy 14.7 yards per catch figure.
Against Cleveland in the season opener, Spurlock scored the game-winning touchdown in the fourth quarter on a nifty 33-yard over-the-shoulder catch. Four weeks later in Cincinnati he set up the game-winning field goal with a stunning toe-dragging catch of a pass that looked like it was headed well out of bounds. That catch, with just seconds left on the clock, turned an iffy 52-yard kick into a much more manageable 31-yarder for Connor Barth.
Will Spurlock build on that season and continue to fashion a productive career as an NFL receiver. That answer is probably open to more variables than the ones above. The Buccaneers have a deep group of intriguing weapons at receiver, many of them very young, and it's difficult to predict who will emerge. But Spurlock has the added advantage of being a trusted man in the return game, which could help keep him in the mix. And he'll head into 2011 with no more lingering wonder as to if he is an NFL-caliber receiver.
- Connor Barth: 105 points.
Here we have yet another angle on the opportunity issue. As any fantasy football player knows, the best kickers are tethered to the league's most potent offenses. The Buccaneers didn't have one of the most potent offenses in 2010, ranking 19th in yards and 20th in points, but it certainly showed signs of getting there. The Buccaneers will still be young on that side of the ball in 2011, but they will also be somewhat experienced now, and the presence of Freeman means the ceiling is very high.
Barth cracked triple digits in scoring for the first time in his still-short NFL career mostly because he played all 16 games in a season for the first time. He had notched 54 points each in 2008 and 2009, in 10 games in the former campaign and nine in the latter.
Those nine games in '09 were with the Buccaneers, after Tampa Bay had tried and then moved on from Mike Nugent and Shane Andrus. Barth scored an average of six points a game that season, for an offense that ranked 28th in the NFL. In 2010, he scored 6.6 points per game – the offense was better, but so was his own accuracy. After making 73.7% of his field goals in 2009, Barth made 82.1% (23 of 28) in 2010.
After his promising relief job in 2009 earned him a more permanent spot with the team, Barth entered 2010 saying he wanted to improve his accuracy on the shorter kicks. He did just that, making all 16 of his tries from 39 yards or closer. Two of his five misses from 40 yards out or further were blocked; two hit the upright.
Of course, a demonstrated ability to make the longer field goals can increase a kicker's opportunities to score, too. Barth memorably made three field goals of 50 or more yards at Miami in 2009, the first Buc ever to do so in a single game, and the team believes in him from long distance. Questioned about his aforementioned last-second catch at Cincinnati to set up the game-winning kick, Spurlock downplayed its performance, saying he figured Barth would make it from 52 anyway. Morris is confident in Barth, too, meaning he may be inclined to try a few more 50-yarders rather than the safer coffin-corner punt.
They don't mount up as fast, but extra points count, too. Assuming the 25-year-old kicker is similarly accurate on his field goal tries in 2011, he could raise his point total if the Buccaneers simply put the ball in the end zone more often.
- Josh Freeman: Just about everything.
It was only his second season in the league, and his first as an opening-day starter, so it wasn't hard to predict that Freeman would establish a lot of new career highs in 2010, in the counting numbers at least. And, of course, he did. Freeman's touchdowns rose from 10 to 25; his yards from 1,855 to 3,451; and even his rushing yards from 161 to 364.
But his percentages rose significantly, as well. He improved from a completion rate of 54.5% to 61.2% and saw his yards per attempt go from 6.40 to 7.24. Coupled with a dramatic drop in interception rate (6.2% to 1.3%), those numbers produced a steep rise in passer rating from 59.8 to 95.9. As the Buccaneers' Answer Man pointed out in a recent column, that was the second biggest jump a quarterback has made in passer rating from one season to the next in the last 30 years.
The Answer Man also ruminated in great detail about whether or not another improvement was likely from Freeman between Seasons Two and Three, so there is no need to cover that ground again. Essentially, Freeman set the bar so high in a few categories – particularly passer rating and interception percentage – that he could have another great season in 2011 and not necessarily "improve" in those categories.
The main counting numbers, however, are another story. Freeman's 25 touchdown passes last year were just one behind Brad Johnson's 2006 Buccaneer record in that category, and his 3,451 yards were fourth-most in team history. That doesn't mean there isn't room for significant number inflation; the Buccaneers aren't trying to top their own offensive history but rather to rank among the best in the NFL. The Buccaneers' passing yards and touchdowns numbers were pretty close to the league average in 2010 (3,544.7 and 23.5), but with Freeman at the helm and so many young talents ready to emerge, the team feels as if it can be much better than average.