Coming into the league, Aqib Talib was viewed as a talented playmaker that could change the reflection of a game on defense. But he also came with the stigma of being an off the field nightmare with a sketchy past. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers weren’t scared of Talib’s past or some of the off the field problems he’s had during his career, and decided to use the 20th pick overall in ‘08 to assure the growth of their secondary with the 6-foot-1, 205-pound ballhawk.
After a standout career on the field at Kansas - where he recorded 11 interceptions in his final two seasons with the Jayhawks – Talib entered his first year with the Buccaneers as a situational defender. Primarily playing in nickel situations, the top prospect in the Buccaneers organization, Talib, played in 15 games [he sat out one game due to injury], starting two and led all rookies and tied for the team high in interceptions with four. His rare combination of size and speed to go along with his tremendous athleticism and ball skills makes him a threat to pick off a pass anytime the ball is thrown his way. Talib will have an opportunity to make more plays this year, as he’s listed as the team’s starting left corner opposite Ronde Barber. As I predicted prior to the ’08 season in my “Rookie’s Most Likely To…” piece, I named Talib the most likely rookie to lead the league in interceptions. Although he fell short of that accomplishment, he finished 10th in the league in interceptions last year, which is impressive, but now as a starter this season, don’t be surprised if he doubles that amount, leads the league and is a starter in the Pro Bowl.
The decision to relinquish Jon Gruden of his head coaching responsibilities and promote former defensive coordinator Raheem Morris into the lead role makes the Bucs a team in transition and a franchise searching for an identity. Finding that identity starts by targeting a quarterback that can lead your franchise to the ultimate glory, and over the last few years, the Bucs have stockpiled four to five quarterbacks on their depth chart. Not much has changed in the numbers at quarterback this season, as they currently have four QBs challenging for a roster spots. However, one of those quarterbacks appears to be the chosen one, and the player the franchise envisions leading the Bucs to winning another Lombardi trophy is 2009 first round pick Josh Freeman. The promise that the 6-foot-6, 248-pound Freeman possesses is too great for him not to be the No. 2 prospect in the organization, but as talented as he is, he still has a long way to go before he’s handed the reigns. Freeman is a strong, athletic signal caller who has the physical attributes and upside to be a star. He has great size and a strong arm. He can make all the throws, but has to work on his accuracy. He has good pocket awareness and finds the open receiver, but he lacks straight-line speed and has to improve his footwork. He’s more of a project than a finished product, and with the Bucs having veterans Luke McCown and Byron Leftwich ahead of him on the depth chart; Freeman is in an ideal situation to learn rather than walking the plank.
It’s easy to see why the Buccaneers invested the 4th pick in the 2007 draft in former Clemson sack master Gaines Adams. He’s an athletic freak with untapped potential and has the ability to be one of the elite pass rushers in the NFL. But as much potential as Adams has and the 12.5 sacks that he’s generated thus far, there’s been inconsistency in his play and he has yet to develop his game defending the run. With that said, he’s still a major piece to the defensive puzzle and is counted on to apply pressure on the quarterback. And to be counted on that much and the value that he holds within the organization, he warrants the distinction as the third rated prospect. Despite many questioning his all-around game, Adams has been durable and consistent with the numbers he’s posted in his first two years. As a rookie, Adams played in all 16 games, starting eight and recorded 38 tackles and six sacks. Last year, Adams started all 16 games and registered 38 tackles, 6.5 sacks and two interceptions. Obviously, the Bucs would love to see that sack total double, and Adams has the talent to make that happen. But until he develops better balance and technique and doesn’t get knocked off his rush as much, he’ll be nothing more than an opportunistic defender. This is a huge year for Adams and he will be counted on to break loose and become that elite end the Bucs were so intrigued with two years ago.
The reason why the Buccaneers have been so successful on defense is because of their ability to find talent throughout the draft. The 2007 draft class for the Bucs has produced a couple of starters and a few key contributors, and one of those starters was a steal in the fourth round in former Syracuse standout Tanard Jackson. At 6-foot, 200 pounds, Jackson primarily played cornerback for the Orange, but moved to free safety when he was drafted by the Buccaneers; a move that suited his hard-nosed style of play perfectly. Jackson, the fourth rated prospect in the organization, has also been durable during his career and has started all 32 games the past two seasons. Last year, Jackson improved his play and became a much more consistent defender as he’s still learning the safety position. He finished the ’08 season with 69 tackles, a sack and an interception. Jackson has become more aggressive on the field and is being utilized as a blitzer. Now entrenched into the starting lineup, expect Jackson to continue his rise as one of the better safeties in the league and go from unknown to being a household name.
The fifth rated prospect in the organization resides on the offensive line in second year guard Jeremy Zuttah. The Buccaneers have made a conscious effort to upgrade their offensive line through the draft and they currently have one of the youngest O-Line’s in the league. As a third round pick, Zuttah has great value as he can play any position on the line. While at Rutgers, Zuttah moved back and fourth from right tackle to left tackle and then from right guard to left guard, before finally ending his career at tackle. The Bucs view Zuttah as a great fit inside as he played in 12 games, making four starts at right guard last year. Zuttah enters this season penciled in as the starter at left guard with former first round pick Davin Joseph holding down the right guard position. At 6-foot-4, 308 pounds, Zuttah has the size and athleticism to eventually end up at tackle, and with a lack of depth at left tackle, that remains a possibility. But it seems like the coaching staff wants to try Zuttah out inside first before making a determination where he ultimately fits best.Rounding out the top-ten is Pro Bowl return specialist Clifton Smith at No. 6, cornerback Elbert Mack at No. 7, speedy wide receiver Dexter Jackson at No. 8, hardworking safety Sabby Piscitelli at No. 9 and at No. 10 is athletic linebacker Geno Hayes. Just missing the cut were wide receiver Maurice Stovall and linebacker Quincy Black.
A member of the Pro Football Writers of America and the Football Writers Association of America, Chris Steuber has provided his analysis of the NFL and NFL Draft prospects on the web and on the radio since 1999. Steuber’s features are published across the Scout.com network and on FoxSports.com. If you wish to contact Chris Steuber, email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.