Bucs have talent, but will they mesh to make playoffs?

Published Sep. 3, 2013 1:06 p.m. ET

There's more talent, but there are questions too.
Prepare for a bit of anything when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers open the season at the New York Jets on Sunday. Quarterback Josh Freeman should be motivated to stiff-arm the sharp words flung his way this offseason, but will he do so? Cornerback Darrelle Revis should be healthy enough to make an impact for a revamped secondary, but how can anyone know if he will meet a standard of his creation?
This will be an interesting ride, with twists and turns and perhaps a few detours along the way. The preseason left little to be desired, but we will learn soon if the Bucs can awaken to threaten in the NFC South. This is no rebuilding year: There is talent on both sides of the ball to contend for the franchise's first postseason berth since after the 2007 season. This campaign should be judged with that perspective.
Here are thoughts and predictions before the Bucs kick off 2013.

Yes. Let's end this "debate" now: Freeman will start all 16 regular-season games, barring injury. He will be better in a second year within offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan's system. He will not throw 17 or more interceptions. Will he be Drew Brees? Will he be Matt Ryan? No and no. But he doesn't have to be. Sure, he needs to be more consistent. But he has no reason to worry about his job.
This is why: Backup Mike Glennon is far from ready. Bucs coach Greg Schiano loves the rookie's potential, but we saw plenty of the N.C. State product in the preseason, and look at his stats: 33 for 70, three touchdowns and three interceptions. Some want to cook up a quarterback "controversy" in Tampa Bay. Move along, there's nothing to see here.

No. Make no mistake: Revis was an impressive get for the Bucs. The trade made national buzz. It made them relevant. It was the centerpiece of an aggressive offseason plan to overhaul a secondary that allowed a league-worst 297.4 passing yards per game last season.
But remember, Revis last saw meaningful action Sept. 23, 2012, in South Florida, where he clutched his left knee in pain, beginning a series of events that led to his trade to Tampa Bay last April. He will be strong in his return, and his leadership will be valuable to younger secondary members such as safety Mark Barron and cornerback Johnthan Banks. But he has been absent far too long from "Revis Island" to play at a four-time Pro Bowl, three-time All-Pro level this season.
No. The answer is more a compliment to Martin than a knock on his obvious talent. He burst onto the scene last year with 1,454 rushing yards, fifth-best in the league. He is no longer a rookie – he is no longer an unknown – and defenses will adjust accordingly.
Look for Martin to earn more than the 472 receiving yards he had last year, and expect him to have another 1,000-plus-yard rushing season. But his ground production will be less than 2012. He is the engine that makes Tampa Bay's offense run, so don't be shocked to see him have more than the 319 carries and 49 catches he totaled as a rookie. However, defenses will plot against him all season. Let the chess game begin.

* The pass defense must be as improved as the Bucs hope. Tampa Bay's "No Fly Zone" must be a real, in-the-flesh threat, not just a snazzy nickname fit for billboards. With Revis, safety Dashon Goldson, Barron and Banks, the talent is there to make last year's glaring weakness a memory.  
* The Bucs must have guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks on the field most of the season. The big guys have four Pro Bowl appearances between them, and if they are a consistent part of the Bucs' game-day plans, they will make Tampa Bay's offensive line the NFC South's best and one of the elite groups in the NFL. Joseph looks like a "go" for Week 1, but Nicks (infected blister on left foot) could have a longer road back.
* The defensive line must create pressure to help a revamped secondary. Will the Bucs produce a pass rush with Michael Bennett and Roy Miller lost in free agency? Adrian Clayborn, Gerald McCoy and Co., must do so to make life easier for the star power behind them. Tampa Bay had only 27 sacks last season, which ranked tied for No. 29 in the league with the Kansas City Chiefs. If the pressure is there, more opportunity awaits for eager hands in the secondary.

* If the Bucs lose to the Jets, look out. Nothing is a must-win in Week 1, but Tampa Bay's trip to MetLife Stadium is key if the Bucs have visions of playing meaningful games in November. Rookie quarterback Geno Smith likely will start for the circus that is Gang Green, but Brees and Tom Brady await Tampa Bay in Weeks 2 and 3. The Bucs are better than the Jets, plain and simple. This should be a victory, but if not, a 0-3 start is likely.  
* If Freeman begins like he closed 2012, this will be a long, long year. Aside from Revis, no one in pewter and red will be watched closer this fall. Freeman set franchise marks of 4,065 passing yards and 27 touchdowns last season, but many are quick to point to his nine interceptions in the last three games that contributed to Tampa Bay's 1-2 end. If Freeman is more cold than hot, the talk around him will sizzle.
* The NFC South is tough. On paper, the Bucs are more talented than a year ago. Will that result in drastic improvement from their 7-9 record in Schiano's first season? Possibly no. The Atlanta Falcons are loaded, the New Orleans Saints will be better with coach Sean Payton's return and the Carolina Panthers are dangerous with quarterback Cam Newton. In this division, there is little time to breathe.

8-8. Tampa Bay will beat New York in Week 1 but lose to New Orleans and the New England Patriots. Games against the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles at Raymond James Stadium look like wins, before splitting divisional matchups against the Falcons (loss) and Panthers (win) in Weeks 7 and 8. Leaving Seattle with a victory will be a tall order, but beating the Miami Dolphins at home is doable. Look for an upset of the Falcons in Week 11, before losses to the Detroit Lions and Panthers in Weeks 12 and 13. The Bucs will beat the Buffalo Bills at home in Week 14, but the San Francisco 49ers will be too good in Week 15. The Bucs can handle the St. Louis Rams on the road in Week 16, before a loss to the Saints at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to close the year.

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