PRIORITY THREE: DETERMINE IF DT JOVAN HAYE IS THE ANSWER AT UNDER TACKLE OR IF A FREE AGENT SIGNING IS IN ORDER.
WHAT I SAID THEN?
I really enjoyed watching Haye play this year. He came up through college football as an end and began his NFL career at end. But when the Bucs got a hold of him in 2006 they asked him to transfer his skills to the under tackle position. After a transition period, Haye got the most out of his skills, finishing with 97 tackles, six sacks and an NFL-leading four fumble recoveries.
But one must wonder if the 6-foot-2, 285-pound Haye is the right player at under tackle in the long term. That is what the Bucs will spend the offseason trying to figure out.
Haye has solid pass rush ability. Where I think he's a bit deficient is on running downs. The Bucs finished 17th against the run this year and the under tackle is a key component. The perfect under tackle — Warren Sapp — could stop the run and rush the passer without having to come off the field. Sapp also has at least 15 pounds on Haye, which means a player of Sapp's size is less likely to be pushed around by a 325-pound right guard.
And that could be a problem in the long-term if the Bucs want to return to stopping the run as they did several years ago.
Haye may eventually become that Sapp-like player, but the Bucs would have to bank on the potential flashed during just one season. Haye is a restricted free agent, so it's very unlikely he'll end up going anywhere.
The question is, can the Bucs do better?
At 6-foot-6, 320 pounds, Haynesworth has everything the Bucs could be looking for — size, height, quickness and natural ability. It's no surprise that the Titans had a great run defense with Haynesworth and an average one without him.
That is why Haynesworth will be one of the most sought-after free agents this offseason, if he hits the open market. The Titans could re-sign him before free agency begins or slap him with the franchise tag, all but making him impossible to sign.
But if he's out there, and the Bucs are committed to signing "Tiger Woods" type players in free agency, Haynesworth has to be at the top of their list.
WHAT I SAY NOW?
The Bucs never got the chance to make a push for Haynesworth. The Titans did the smart thing and franchised him.
The Bucs, meanwhile, proved they believe Haye has some worth to them by slapping a first-round tender on the restricted free agent, meaning Haye will make about $2 million this year. Not exactly chump change for a late-round pick that worked his way through the NFL ranks.
So the Bucs answered at least part of the question. They believe Haye is their man at under tackle. But is he the short-term answer or the long-term answer? Haye is signed only through this year, and he'll hit the market next year as an unrestricted free agent. Another season like 2007 and his asking price could be too rich for the Bucs to pay.
While I made the point that Sapp was the perfect under tackle (and I still believe that), the idea that your under tackle or nose tackle has to be a 300-pound behemoth is changing, thanks to what the New York Giants did last year.
The name of the game now is creating a pass rush, as teams are passing more than ever before. Many teams are also playing the Tampa 2 defense, which means they're reliant on four down linemen to create pressure. Those defenses don't want to use linebackers and corners to blitz. So many teams will start taking a page from the Giants' playbook — and for that matter Indianapolis' — and create packages with three ends, one of which is in that all-important under tackle position.
The Colts made the move a couple of year ago, slipping one of their top ends, Raheem Brock, inside. The Giants used plenty of sets last year using a pass rushing end, usually Justin Tuck, inside. Since teams are passing more, defenses are sacrificing less in terms of stopping the run by using an end inside. Now, defenses will get burned now and again, but that's going to happen anyway.
The Bucs were burned by the Giants' pass rush in the playoffs. They saw the value of this philosophy first-hand. And, to be truthful, the Bucs started down this path last year. The Bucs used Haye, Gaines Adams and Greg White together during the second half of last year, and given how they all blossomed during that time, one has to believe it worked. Since Haye came up as an end, he has the skill set. And working under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and line coach Larry Coyer, one has to believe his run defense will improve. It probably wasn't lost on the Bucs that Haye had as many sacks as Adams last year. The Bucs will probably commit to this personnel set full bore in 2008.
But the way I see it, the Bucs are gambling a bit. If Haye continues to improve, he'll have a better year than 2007, which will prove two things — that he's their tackle of the future and that he was worthy of a long-term deal before the season. But by then, Haye will be nearing free agency and a big payday, and the Bucs will have to pay up or lose him. Unless you believe Greg Peterson or Dre Moore is that position's future?
To me, the question isn't quite answered yet.
Did you miss our previous editions of "Buccaneers Rewind? Just click below to read more about how the Bucs did this offseason:
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald.