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FIVE WORDS you never want to say to your team or to your fans: "This is a rebuilding year." Realistically, though, there's no other way the Bucs can present their 2010 season to the faithful. Far too often teams believe they're two players or a couple of breaks away from a Lombardi Trophy. But the Bucs, teamed in the NFC South with the Super Bowl champion Saints and playoff contenders in Atlanta and Carolina, realized after last year's 3--13 nightmare that they had some major repair work to do.
The Bucs have hung out the UNDER CONSTRUCTION sign. By sitting out free agency and becoming a major player in the April draft, they followed the blueprint Tony Dungy employed when he took over in Tampa in 1996 and said his team would sink or swim with the kids on the roster. The Bucs went 24--24 in Dungy's first three years, but the groundwork was laid for a Super Bowl championship in the 2002 season. For this team to have similar success down the road, two things are vital. Last year's first-round quarterback, Josh Freeman, must prove he's the real thing. And this year's draft class—from which three of the top five choices could wind up starting and another two seeing major minutes early on—has to be the kind of blockbuster that great teams produce every few years. "We don't have any room or any time for our rookies to think they're rookies," said third-year corner Aqib Talib. "This is the land of opportunity. They've got to come through."
The Bucs passed on some places of need, such as running back and pass rusher, to address two positions above all in the 2010 draft: defensive tackle and wide receiver. Tampa Bay allowed 158.2 yards per game on the ground last year, last in the NFL and third-worst in team history, so lively defensive tackles Gerald McCoy (selected third overall, out of Oklahoma) and Brian Price (35th, UCLA) will be counted on to resuscitate the line in a rotation with 2009 third-rounder Roy Miller. The 6'4", 295-pound McCoy will be expected to knife through gaps, push the pocket and pressure the quarterback, whether he gets sacks or not. Price, more squat at 6'1", 303 (he played the nose, rush end and tackle in college), will be relied on to hold the point on running downs. Price was a disruptive force during camp, more so than McCoy, and the Bucs think he can be the kind of tackle who won't have to leave the field on passing downs.
At receiver, general manager Mark Dominik made one logical pick and one risky one. Second-rounder Arrelious Benn of Illinois probably won't push incumbent Sammie Stroughter (a 2009 seventh-rounder) out of a starting job, but he looks to be a lock to play the third, or slot, receiver. The star of training camp, fourth-round pick Mike Williams from Syracuse, was one of the surprises of the summer in the NFL. Freeman says the 6'2", 212-pound Williams "allows me to just put the ball up there, and he makes the contested catch." Almost from the first practice coach Raheem Morris has called Williams a starter and talked about making him a major building block of the offense. "I want to be the steal of the draft," says Williams. "The teams that didn't pick me are gonna have to suffer."
That's pretty lofty stuff for a kid whose college career ended in controversy. In 2008 he was accused of cheating on a test and suspended from school. In '09 he was suspended from the team for two curfew violations, and coach Doug Marrone announced that Williams had quit the squad—a charge the receiver denies to this day. "My problems at Syracuse weren't character issues," he says. "They were school issues. I wasn't very good at school. I didn't quit there, and I won't quit here. Ask anyone here. I run extra routes after practice, I do whatever I'm asked to do and more."
"Everyone deserves a second chance," says Morris. "I don't know, maybe a third chance. I don't know what chance he's on, but we spent as much time on him before this draft as on anyone, and we believe in him."
So, in the last 18 months the Bucs set out to fix three critical units through the draft: quarterback (Freeman), defensive tackle (McCoy, Miller, Price) and wide receiver (Stroughter, Williams, Benn). Those seven players are all 24 or younger. Is the foundation for success established? We'll begin to learn this year.
WITH 2009 STATS
COACH RAHEEM MORRIS