The first three players the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted a year ago all had something in common in 2012. Safety Mark Barron, running back Doug Martin and linebacker Lavonte David each started all 16 games for the Buccaneers during the regular season.
That is not common. Tampa Bay had one rookie open every contest in 2011 (first-round defensive end Adrian Clayborn) and one in 2010 (fourth-round wide receiver Mike Williams). The team had two 16-start rookies in the three seasons combined before that (guard Arron Sears and safety Tanard Jackson in 2007).
The Buccaneers' 2012 starting lineup also featured wide receiver Vincent Jackson for the entire season and guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright for about a half-season each. They were part of another rarity in franchise history – a huge big-name, big-ticket splurge in unrestricted free agency.
Tampa Bay is almost sure to get at least one more full-time starter out of free agency this year in safety Dashon Goldson, and perhaps a few others. The upcoming draft could impact the lineup, too, if the Bucs hit on their picks as thoroughly as they did last year. But if the team is to deliver on the promise it showed last season, under first-year Head Coach Greg Schiano, it won't be simply because every perceived hole was patched by a free agent or a new draftee.
The Bucs did a great job of acquiring talent in 2012, and hopefully will do so again in 2013, but they also must develop additional talent from within to have a complete and successful team.
"There are some guys in this building that maybe aren’t household names yet, that need to improve and we need to develop as coaches and they need to play for us," said Schiano, as the Buccaneers began their offseason training program on Monday. "Not every guy has to be a first-round pick or has to be a high-profile free agent signing, but at the end of the day you need to add those pieces up and be able to play winning football. Certainly, with every decisions we make, that’s the goal, is what gives us the best chance to win. I am pleased with where we’re going and we just need to keep moving in that direction.”
At the moment, the Buccaneers are waiting to learn whether long-time star defensive back Ronde Barber will return for another season in 2013. Barber has been a linchpin in the Bucs' defense for so long that it's difficult to remember that he barely played as a rookie in 1997. He saw action in one regular-season game and was elevated to nickel cornerback just in time for the playoffs that year, but he was in the beginning a third-round pick quietly developing into an important piece for the team.
Barber started at safety for the Bucs last year. Jeremy Zuttah, Demar Dotson, Erik Lorig, Donald Penn, Michael Bennett and Adam Hayward were all other examples on the 2012 squad who were not immediate NFL starters. Who might follow such a path and begin to emerge in 2013, whether as a starter or a valuable contributor? Danny Gorrer or Leonard Johnson (both of whom got some starting experience last year)? Chris Owusu or David Douglas to help with receiver depth? Second-year West Virginia defenders Najee Goode and Keith Tandy? Da'Quan Bowers is obviously a prime candidate; perhaps a young defensive tackle like Matthew Masifilo or Pep Levingston will join him as a prominent member of the D-Line. As for that last unit, Schiano specifically stated on Monday that he likes the young talent on the defensive front and thinks his team has a chance to be very good at that spot.
It will take some development, however, and that's what the following nine weeks, plus training camp, are all about. Some talent has been added, some more will come from the draft, and some will emerge from the existing ranks, all to compete for their opportunities.
"One of the things that I told the players is that I think we have to compete with ourselves right now," said Schiano. "How do you get better? You compete. You compete with yourself you compete with the guy next to you. That is really kind of more my message to them. The one thing that I know is the more good players you put in one team the better the whole team is going to be.”