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In a down year, rookies contribute

The team has seen better days. The franchise, better seasons. The fans, better games. With consecutive wins on the road the past two weeks, the Buccaneers will close the 2009 campaign giving fans something to hang on to. A couple of victories, well-played, well-coached games in hostile environments and better play from the defense and the young stars.

The Draft has never really been the Buccaneers’ thing. Just ask Dexter Jackson and Gaines Adams. However, in recent years the Bucs have had increasing success on draft day, especially in later rounds with players like Quincy Black (3rd round), Geno Hayes (6th round) and Tanard Jackson (4th round).

In 2009, rookie production was at an all-time high with players like defensive tackle Roy Miller (3rd round), wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (7th round) and, of course, first-round selection and franchise quarterback Josh Freeman.

"They say the second year is always the tell-tale year for a draft class," head coach Raheem Morris said. "That’s when they make the most improvement or the biggest jumps. But for the most part, you’d have to say it was pretty productive."

Roy Miller, who has 25 tackles and two sacks, has been a big part of the rotation on the defensive line, and could become a full-time starter in the next couple of years, as Chris Hovan is likely nearing the end of his career.

"You’re talking about the guy that comes in as the third tackle and gets 40 snaps per game," Morris said. "He’s fought his way through, played pretty well, played good at times, played bad at times, had his ups and downs but been a contributor. Whenever you’re talking about rookies contributing you’ve got to make that a positive note. Next year will obviously be the tell-tale of where he is and who he is."

Miller’s play has tailed-off toward the end of the season, recording just 3.5 tackles and no sacks in the last four games, as he adjusts to the physicality and length of the NFL season. But he also remains optimistic that 2010 will bring success to himself and the defense.

"I haven’t hit the wall, so to speak," Miller said, "but I’ve got a couple injuries here and there I’ve been trying to fight through. That’s one thing I’ve learned about the NFL – you’ve got to keep playing, you’ve got to keep fighting. Things aren’t always going to go the way you want them to go but it’s a long season. Just as a pro, you’ve got to be tough and you’ve got to be able to finish."

Though Stroughter is currently on injured reserve, his 31 receptions for 334 yards and a touchdown proves he’s not only a viable option as a No. 3 receiver, but also as a threat on special teams, averaging almost 30 yards per kickoff return with one touchdown.

Now 3-5 as a starter, Freeman has also shown the potential to be the quarterback the Bucs drafted him to be: The franchise player. Though he has struggled with interceptions and reading coverages at times, his overall competency and physical ability show he has the tools to play quarterback in the NFL.

"I learned a lot," Freeman said. "I learned a lot about different situations and a lot about reading defenses. I learned a lot about patience and what I need to work on as far as game management and making certain throws. There is a lot that I have learned. This offseason we are going to leave no stone unturned. We are going to watch every piece of film that you can imagine. We are going to try to set up a good workout plan to try to get ready and set up for next year."

At 3-12, next year is all the Bucs really have. The sophomore campaign for these young players and their rookie head coach will likely define not only their careers, but the direction of the franchise to start the next decade.

"They’ve been up, they’ve been down," Morris said, "back and forth, talking about rookies, talking about second-year players, talking about all those types of guys. I feel really good about that class."

The countdown to the 2010 NFL Draft starts Sunday.