The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are young. In fact, they've been the youngest team in the NFL the past two seasons. That was one of their strengths and one of their weaknesses: it spoke to a promising future, but that youth and accompanying immaturity led in part to the massive meltdown that was Tampa Bay's 2011 season. While that season has caused a lot of doubt about the team's talent level, ESPN and Football Outsider still believe that they have the fourth-best 25-and-under talent in the NFL:
The 2011 Buccaneers were a cautionary tale for those of us who take pride in these rankings. Tampa Bay was our No. 1 team last year, but virtually every youngster we cited ended up playing worse than advertised. Franchise QB Josh Freeman (24) threw 16 more interceptions than he did in 2010 and fell from inside the top 10 in DYAR and DVOA to outside the top 30. Freeman's No. 1 target, WR Mike Williams (25), had nearly 200 fewer receiving yards and eight fewer touchdowns than in 2010 despite an identical number of catches (65). RB LeGarrette Blount (26), though not a qualifier this year, lost his job thanks to a case of fumblitis. Hey, it's not all bad. Rookie Doug Martin, who had the fourth-highest speed score among this year's backs, replaces Blount in the starting lineup.
On defense, it was the same story. CB E.J. Biggers (24) allowed 4.4 yards per pass more than he did in 2010 and dropped from 13th to 76th in success rate. DE Da'Quan Bowers (22) finished third on the team in quarterback hurries despite limited playing time for most of the season, but he tore his Achilles tendon two months ago. LB Geno Hayes (25) was solid against the run once again, but he took his talents to the Windy City this offseason.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (24) tore his biceps (again) and ended up starting only six games. If there was any silver lining to the Buccaneers' black cloud last year, it was the promising play of young starters DE Adrian Clayborn (24), DT Brian Price (23) and LB Mason Foster (24). Add in first-round strong safety Mark Barron and the situation seems even less depressing.