Getting younger and better at the same time as a team requires pinpointing the right youthful talent, like second-year TE Alex Smith
Last week, near the end of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offseason-ending mini-camp, Head Coach Jon Gruden mused aloud about the youth of his squad. He thought the 2006 Bucs, as currently constructed and as likely to appear on opening day, might be the youngest the NFL has seen in a decade.
Considering the sheer volume of players from the 2004-06 drafts who are likely to be on the roster, that seems intuitively accurate but difficult to verify. To be sure, the Buccaneers aren't the first team to undergo a very pointed youth movement when faced with a successful but aging roster.
What is indisputable, however, is that this is the youngest team Gruden has had in his five years in Tampa, and that it has been growing steadily wetter behind the ears since the franchise's Super Bowl victory in January of 2003.
What is encouraging is that, last year, the team got younger and better at the same time. With a core of starters retained almost intact from last year and some impressive young talent at key positions, the Bucs believe that can happen again.
"You look at Davin Joseph and [Jeremy] Trueblood and Alex Smith and Cadillac [Williams] and [Michael] Clayton – this is a young team," said Gruden. "Dan Buenning. Jeb Terry's had a great spring. It will be fun. Hopefully that will translate into wins."
The Buccaneers' Super Bowl-winning roster, the final one of the 2002 season, sported an average age of 30.77 years old. By the end of 2003, the average was 29.60, and it dipped to 29.26 in 2004. Last year, while improving to 11-5 and winning the NFC South title, the Buccaneers got younger still, with the final roster of 2005 averaging 27.53 years old.
Headed to camp in a month, the 2006 Buccaneers have a roster that averages 25.85 years old per player. The comparison to the season-ending roster of 2005 isn't fair, of course, because the Bucs have 100 players on the roster at the moment and will have to get that down to 53 by the regular season. It's reasonable to think that a good percentage of those 47 excised players will be young men, bringing the team's average age up.
However, the team could still continue its reverse-aging trend if this year's draft class proves to have the type of immediate impact provided by last year's group. Cadillac Williams, Dan Buenning and Alex Smith all were essentially starters last year, and a surprising 11 of the 12 draftees from 2005 made it onto the active roster at some point.
"We had three rookies start a year ago and we might have three start this year," said Gruden. "You never do know. We're going to try to prepare these guys for the opportunities that are provided them. They're all going to play a tremendous amount in the four preseason games. We want them to do well and we want them to show their teammates that, if needed, they're ready to step in. Hopefully they've put the pressure on some of the guys above them."
Those "guys above them" include some of the all-time greatest Buccaneers, some stalwarts from the championship squad who are still at the top of their games: Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber, Mike Alstott, Shelton Quarles, etc. Youth brings enthusiasm, which is always welcome, but it also brings inexperience, and thus it is important to retain an experience core during the roster-reshaping process. That is, if you're still planning to win.
To maintain that core, the Bucs had to be creative during the free agency period, finding ways to bring back free agents or potential cap-busters like Brooks, Alstott, defensive tackle Chris Hovan, tackle Kenyatta Walker and kicker Matt Bryant.
"Getting Derrick and Mike Alstott, some of our key veteran leaders, back was important," said Gruden, who cites the competition from established veterans as important in developing the rookies. "We got Hovan back. For a player like Davin Joseph, going against Hovan and McFarland every day is no small task. He's had his eyes opened; at the same time he's opened mine and we're happy he's here."
Gruden is obviously happy that Williams, the NFL's reigning Rookie of the Year, is here, too. That goes for Clayton, Smith, Will Allen, Dewayne White and all of the team's up-and-coming youngsters. Gruden has long resisted attempts to paint him as a coach who always prefers veterans to young players. Simply, and obviously, he likes good players. At the moment, the Bucs have good players who are young.
"We've got a lot of young guys," said Gruden. "A lot of the guys who started and played all last year are still very young. It's important for these guys to get to the point where they understand our stuff well enough to compete for a job or a starting job or whatever we're talking about.
"That's why we have our mandatory mini-camp at the end instead of the beginning. We have our rookies isolated at the first mini-camp and we basically teach them our snap count and our vernacular. We teach them where to go and what to do. Then at the end of the whole thing we try to feature these guys. [Bruce] Gradkowski took almost 40% of the work today and did a heck of a job. Davin Joseph and [Jeremy] Trueblood took a lot of snaps, and against a great defensive team. We're doing a good job, I think, bringing those guys along, and at the same time we respect how far they have to go. All we can do is keep working and do the best we can to get them ready."