RONDE BARBER (Starter, CB)
STATISTICS: 87 tackles, 1 sack, 2 interceptions, a team-leading 16 passes defensed.
ANALYSIS: While not an All-Pro or Pro Bowl year for Barber, it was certainly consistent. For a while Barber looked snakebit when it came to interceptions, as he had a pair reversed due to replay challenges. But his two picks were important. He picked off Jason Campbell of Washington to snuff out a potential scoring drive and picked off Atlanta quarterback Chris Redman to set the defensive tone for the Bucs' NFC South clinching win over the Falcons. You'll probably hear this for a long time. He's the best slot corner to play the game, and the slot corner is a position created by the Cover 2 and plays to his strengths. As he enters the third year of a five-year contract, he shows no signs of slowing down.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: His cap figures is $3.9 million for 2008 and he'll be one of the starting cornerbacks.
PHILLIP BUCHANON (Starter, CB)
STATISTICS: 63 tackles, 3 interceptions, 11 passes defensed.
ANALYSIS: For perhaps the first time in a while, Buchanon lived up to his first-round pick billing. The full offseason in the defensive system allowed Buchanon to free himself of past failures, as he started the season as the third cornerback to Barber and Brian Kelly. But when Kelly's groin flared up, Buchanon slipped into the starting lineup and didn't give up the job. His biggest play of the year had to be his interception in the end zone against St. Louis in Week 3, an acrobatic catch that signaled a shift in that game's momentum. He's a better tackler than advertised and remained a consistent force on defense, and a lack of consistency had been a chief criticism of Buchanon throughout his career.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: It will be interesting to see if the Bucs anoint Buchanon the starter opposite Kelly or make them compete. Both are in the final years of their contracts, but Buchanon is considerably younger than Kelly, and in that way has more upside. Buchanon is set to count $3.45 million against the salary cap in 2008.
JERMAINE PHILLIPS (starter, SS)
STATISTICS: 120 tackles 1 sack, 4 interceptions, 8 passes defensed.
ANALYSIS: A year after everyone wanted Phillips out of the starting lineup, it's hard to look at the 2007 defense's success without him in it. Phillips obviously benefited from the re-hiring of secondary coach Raheem Morris more than anyone else in the position group. He returned to playing with instinct, physicality and punishment. He established that early in the season with a perfect blitz and sack of Seattle's Matt Hasselbeck in the opener. What impressed me was how his coverage skills returned. He led the team in interceptions and didn't give up many plays deep, unlike 2006.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: The key for Phillips is to show that he can play at that level in consecutive years, and not odd-numbered years (you may remember that he had a fine year in 2005 under then-secondary coach Mike Tomlin, now in Pittsburgh). If he does, the Bucs will have to show Phillips some financial love. He's set to count $2.587 million against the salary cap.
TANARD JACKSON (Starter, FS)
STATISTICS: 78 tackles, 2 interceptions, 12 passes defensed.
ANALYSIS: When Jackson won the job in the preseason, the key worry was whether Jackson could make a full-time transition from cornerback, where he played in college, to safety. Turns out he did so swimmingly. He showed early that he had the skills to hit receivers over the middle (ask Dallas Clark in Indianapolis about that hit Jackson laid on him) and keep up with them in coverage deep. He tackled well, put his coverage skills to good use (a real asset for any safety) and by midseason any questions about Jackson's ability at the pro level — at least as a rookie — were put to rest.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: Jackson is set to count $445,000 against the salary cap. That's seems awfully cheap for a player of Jackson's ability. The key for Jackson is to build on his level of play and not let it drop off (sophomore slump, anyone) in 2008.
SAMMY DAVIS (Backup, CB)
STATISTICS: 20 tackles, 2 passes defensed.
ANALYSIS: Filled in a couple of games as a third or fourth cornerback when Brian Kelly was going through his groin misery. He did a solid job. But the fact that he didn't make the team coming out of the preseason meant that the Bucs weren't that comfortable with his progress. His signing afterward was expedient. For a former first-round pick trying to rehab his career, all Davis really did was show that he's not much more than a third or fourth cornerback.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: He's an unrestricted free agent. It's unclear if the Bucs will make an attempt to re-sign him.
BRIAN KELLY (Backup, CB)
STATISTICS: 25 tackles, 1 interception, 9 passes defensed.
ANALYSIS: Kelly suffered a groin injury in the season opener against Seattle and it dogged him half the season. He wasn't fully healthy until after the bye week, and by then he had lost his starting job to Buchanon. Kelly took to being the third cornerback and he made a huge interception against Washington to stop a potential game-winning touchdown. But after suffering an injury for the third time in five seasons, one has to wonder if Kelly's time in Tampa Bay is running short. When he's healthy, his level of play is above average.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: He's due to count $4.653 million. By releasing him before March 1, the Bucs could save $3 million. But Kelly is in the final year of his contract. The Bucs must weigh whether Kelly's chronic injuries make him worth the price they're currently paying and act accordingly. If the Bucs keep him, he'll likely compete for his starting job in training camp with Buchanon. Kelly is making noise that he may exercise a buyout in his contract.
WILL ALLEN (Backup, S)
STATISTICS: 14 tackles. He also had 15 special teams tackles.
ANALYSIS: After losing his starting free safety job to Jackson, Allen eventually warmed to special teams and made some fine plays late in the season. But his days as a starter, barring injury, appear to be behind him.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: He'll count $645,000 against the salary cap in the last year of his contract.
KAVLIN PEARSON (Backup, S)
STATISTICS: 19 tackles. Also made a team leading 21 special teams tackles.
ANALYSIS: Pearson did exactly what the Bucs re-signed him to do — make big plays on special teams. Maurice Stovall had a flashier season, but Pearson had the most consistent year on the coverage units and picked up some slack when Earnest Graham went to the offense full time.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: He's a restricted free agent, but given his important to special teams he's likely to be back for at least one more year.
DARRELL HUNTER (Backup, CB, Finished on practice squad)
ANALYSIS: He didn't play in a single regular-season game and since the media isn't allowed to watch practice, aside from stretching, it's impossible to know what Hunter brings to the table.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: Signed as a future free agent, the Bucs will get a full offseason to take a hard look at Hunter.
MARCUS HAMILTON (Backup, CB, Finished on practice squad)
STATISTICS: Spent the entire season on the practice squad.
ANALYSIS: Hamilton has a Cover 2 background from his days in Virginia. But he only proved enough last training camp and preseason to warrant a practice squad spot.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: He's already signed as a future free agent. His next step is to make the leap from practice squad player to active roster player.
TORRIE COX (Backup, CB, Finished on IR)
STATISTICS: Made six special teams tackles and returned two kicks for a 20.5-yard average before blowing out his knee against Jacksonville.
ANALYSIS: He missed the first four games due to a league suspension. When he returned he made an immediate impact on special teams coverage, notching six tackles in less than four games before his injury.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: He counts $975,000 against the salary cap. He should be ready for training camp, barring rehab setbacks.
SABBY PISCITELLI (Backup, S, finished on IR)
STATISTICS: He made two special teams tackles before an ankle injury ended his season in Week 3.
ANALYSIS: The Bucs love his size, hitting ability and fire. Piscitelli did not like sitting out most of the season. He's itching to get back to the practice field and prove he's worth the second-round pick the Bucs spent on him.
OUTLOOK FOR 2008: Piscitelli showed flashes of the form that could have made him a NFL starter during the preseason. He'll have to show that again in 2008, plus show he's made progress. He should be ready for offseason workouts in April and will count $620,000 against the salary cap.
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Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.