TAMPA, Fla. (AP) — Three years into a rebuilding project that’s produced inconsistent results, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers insist they’re headed in the right direction.
Despite going 3-13, 10-6 and 4-12 the past three seasons under former coach Raheem Morris, the Bucs feel replacement Greg Schiano inherited a solid young team that’s already improved through free agency and has a chance to get even better with the fifth pick in this week’s NFL draft.
Alabama’s Trent Richardson fits the description of the every-down running back that could make a difference on offense, and LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne has skills that could impact a defense that ranked among the league’s worst a year ago.
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Just don’t expect Schiano or general manager Mark Dominik to say much about either prospect or how they might fit into Tampa Bay’s plans.
“Anything I say publicly about this puts us at a disadvantage. … We have people scanning people’s websites, trying to find any clue, and every other team in the league does the same thing,” said Schiano, a first-time NFL head coach who spent the past 11 seasons at Rutgers, where he transformed one of college football’s doormats into a Big East contender.
“The thing I love, when you come from college, you get a chance at 200 and some draft picks. Those are the 200 or so of the best players in the world,” Schiano added. “How can you go wrong? As long as you pick the ones that fit your system and fit the kind of people you want, you should have good football players. So we’re very excited about that.”
Dominik and Morris launched Tampa Bay’s youth movement in 2009, purging the roster of several key players over the age of 30 and drafting quarterback Josh Freeman in the opening round. Nearly every move made since, including the selection of four defensive linemen in the first two rounds of the past two drafts, has been intended to put pieces in place to help Freeman be successful.
One of Morris’ favorite phrases was “It’s all about 5,” referring to the 6-foot-6, 250-pound quarterback’s jersey number. That’s not going to change under Schiano.
In addition to hiring Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan as offensive coordinator, the Bucs made a splash in free agency by signing receiver Vincent Jackson and luring All-Pro guard Carl Nicks away from NFC South rival New Orleans.
“Hiring Mike Sullivan kind of gives you a hint about what we want to look like, but I believe in running the football and I believe in taking shots downfield. What we were able to do in free agency, Carl Nicks helps in running the ball and I like our offensive line, how it’s coming together,” Schiano said.
“The whole game is players, so you look at the matchups and think how can we help our players be the best they can be? You look at the middle of the offensive line, I think we’re pretty strong. Josh is a big quarterback, he should be able to slide up in the pocket and deliver the football. He’s one of the few guys that can see over the line of scrimmage and I think that helps a lot. We’ve got to keep No. 5 upright, he got hit way too much last year. When you can run and throw play-action, it gives you a little better chance to protect him.”
The Bucs have six picks over seven rounds, and Dominik is confident there’s plenty of talent available to fill an abundance of needs, including linebacker and safety. If Richardson doesn’t wind up being the team’s top pick, adding a running back will remain a priority as the draft progresses.
“I think there’s value throughout. I don’t like to get into this position is strong, this position is weak. But I do think there is good value throughout this draft that I think fits the needs of our football team. … I think it’s a good draft class and that some impact players will come out of this draft class that we’ll talk about for a long time,” Dominik said.
Third-year pro LeGarrette Blount has been an effective runner the past two seasons. However, fumbling has been an issue and so has his inability to demonstrate he can master pass protection schemes and other responsibilities in the passing game. As a result, there are long stretches of games where he remains on the bench, especially when Tampa Bay falls behind.
Schiano prefers a dominant back, but isn’t opposed to filling the position by committee as long as he can get the production necessary to win.
“We’ve done it both ways. We turned our program around at Rutgers on the shoulders of Ray Rice. He certainly never walked off the field feeling he didn’t have enough touches,” Schiano added.
“I believe if you have the right one, you just feed him. Great backs want the ball. … They all want touches to get into a groove. I talk about touches during a football game being kind of like a pizza and you earn your slice of the pie. The better a player you are, the more productive you are, we’re going to find ways to get you touches.”
With cornerback Ronde Barber entering his 16th season, the Bucs once again are in the market for an eventual replacement for the 37-year-old. Claiborne is considered the best prospect at his position.
Dominik isn’t tipping his hand.
“I would say that whoever we pick at five, of the amount of players that we’re discussing at that fifth pick, you just have to look at the overall picture,” the general manager said. “I know that’s kind of a vague answer, but I don’t want to pigeon-hole us either because that’s not the way we’re looking at our draft right now.”