Point/Counterpoint: Which 2013 Buccaneer Opponent Improved the Most During the Draft?

Nowadays, everyone agrees that instant-reaction draft grades are essentially meaningless…and, of course, everyone does them anyway.  So if nobody is really being held to these grades in the long run, then here is my assessment of the Buccaneers’ 2013 draft: A+++.  Full scholarship to Harvard in the mail.

I might be a bit lacking in objectivity, however, so let’s turn our attention to something draft-related that, hopefully, we can address with some fairness and neutrality.  Specifically, let’s look at the 13 teams on the Buccaneers’ 2013 regular-season schedule and try to determine which one(s) just got harder to beat.  Forget about how these teams have helped themselves two or three years down the road; we’re only worried about which team made themselves a more formidable foe for the Buccaneers this fall by their actions on draft weekend.

Andrew, I will let you go first, since your accuracy rate is a bit south of that of a broken clock (twice a day!).

Andrew Norton: Geez. Pick the season opener with 1 out of 16 probability and all of a sudden you’re some kind of oracle. Hope you put up some money on Orb last weekend. So, great and powerful Oracle, I’ll try to throw a curveball and give you someone that you won’t expect.

I think that the team that “made themselves a more formidable foe for the Buccaneers” through the Draft is the Carolina Panthers.

As a division rival, the Buccaneers will face the Panthers twice, just as they did last season. In those two games last season, the Bucs walked away with the win, relying heavily on 1) stout run defense and 2) a powerful run game. Perhaps it is not 100% cause-and-effect, but looking at the Panthers’ pitfalls in these two matchups last season, it seems pretty interesting that they would spend the first three of their selections on the trenches.

With the 14th pick, the Panthers grabbed Star Lotulelei, one of the highest-rated defensive tackles who is capable of lining up at the nose or outside. You see this pick and think, dang, he is going to look pretty good lined up at tackle beside Dwan Edwards (11 tackles, 2 sacks vs. Bucs last season). You now have another big body who can effectively rush the passer and plug running lanes.

So what do the Panthers do in Round 2? They grab another big body at defensive tackle in Kawann Short. Now, your seemingly imposing front of Lotulelei and Edwards has just become a dynamic three-man rotation. The Panthers run defense and pass rush up the middle just got quite a bit better.

Round 4 rolls along and they snag offensive guard Edmund Kugbila who could make a play at the starting right guard position. And, while they look good at running back, they add a refreshing change-of-pace with RB Kenjon Barner out of Oregon.

While the latter two don’t necessarily point out immediate impact players, the two defensive tackles make the Carolina defense far more imposing when you look at their biggest weakness against the Bucs last season. In Week 1, the Bucs put up 130 rushing yards, compared to 138 in the air. The Week 11 game in Carolina saw nearly double the passing attempts and yardage, but the run game is still what did the Panthers as Doug Martin ran for another 138 yards, averaging 5.8 yards per carry.

After the draft, the Panthers now have what some might consider one of the toughest front fours in the NFL with Lotulelei, Edwards and Short rotating at tackle and the always-impressive Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson on the edges.

Needless to say, the Buccaneers have their own answers to these picks, with the return of two All-Pro guards, a sensational running back with a year under his belt, and one of the most high-powered receiver duos in the league. And that whole “revamped secondary with Dashon Goldson and Darrelle Revis to accompany the NFL-leading run defense” thing.

But, I suppose you’d expected me to say Carolina, right? The all-knowing Oracle is never surprised. How can he be, he knows everything. But if that’s true, then why write this Point/Counterpoint?

Maybe you knew I was going to say that, maybe you didn’t. If you did, that means you phrased this question and let me answer first deliberately, purposefully. Which means you’re writing this Point/Counterpoint deliberately, purposefully.

Scott Smith: Wow.  Need help climbing out of that rabbit hole you just went down?  I don’t even know how to react to that last part.  So, uh…

Panthers, you say?  Okay, Let’s start there.  So Carolina drafts two defensive tackles to rotate with superstar Dwan Edwards (he of the 5.5 sacks and 83 tackles in the six seasons prior to 2012), and now their interior line is a brick wall that Doug Martin won’t be able to crack?  Okay, got it.  The Panthers, who were almost exactly league average in stopping the run last year, are going to shoot to the top of the Run D rankings.

Makes perfect sense.  I mean, last year the Cincinnati Bengals spent two of their first four three on defensive tackles (Devon Still and Brandon Thompson) pairing them with Geno Atkins (who truly was a superstar in the making) and shot all the way from 10th in the NFL run defense rankings in 2011 to…12 in 2012.  Okay, sorry bad example.  Just trying to help.  Let’s see here.  How about the Lions, who finished 19th in the Run D rankings in 2010 with Ndamukong Suh in the middle, and chose to pair him with another top-of-the-draft DT in 2011 in Nick Fairley?  Why, with that dynamic duo plugging the middle, the Lions leapt all the way from that #19 spot in 2010 to…uh, 23rd in 2011.  Okay, sorry, another bad example.  Flukes, I’m sure.  I mean, it’s not like our own Buccaneers spent their first two picks on defensive tackles in 2010, helping them jump from ninth in rush defense in 2009 to…oh my…uh…dead last in 2011.  Gee, I’m really bad at this.

Listen, I understand that for this question we kind of have to count our chickens before they hatch in order to present a good argument.  For all we really know #1 pick Eric Fisher will be a huge bust in Kansas City and the much-maligned Geno Smith will be the next RGIII for the Jets.  I mean, I doubt it, but it could happen.  So I have to concede that Lotulelei and Short could work out as rookies in Carolina.  I just don’t think they are likely to step right in and fully correct what really wasn’t that horrible of a problem to begin with. I don’t believe that defensive tackle is one of the positions (as opposed to say, running back) where most good prospects are immediate studs.  It takes a while to develop ‘em.  And, you know, maybe Carolina did poorly against Doug Martin because, well, Doug Martin is really good.

You know that curveball you threw me?  Think you might have hung that one, buddy.  Next time, snap it off.

I don’t think I need to waste any additional time on Edmund Kugbila or Carolina’s 300th running back, so let’s just get to my pick.  Had I framed this question better, I’d probably go with the Seahawks, because I think Percy Harvin is going to be a difference-maker in that offense.  However, they didn’t really get Harvin on draft weekend, trading their first-round pick for him weeks earlier, so that’s probably not a legal choice.  As such, I’ll go with my second choice, the St. Louis Rams.

Here’s a team, like the Buccaneers, that clearly started a turnaround last year under a new head coach.  Playing in a tough division, they snuck up on .500 (7-8-1) and played the 49ers as well as anyone.  They were not, however, a particularly dynamic offensive team, especially through the air (27th in the NFL), despite having spent the first overall pick on a quarterback just a few years ago.  Then free agency comes and robs them of Danny Amendola and Brandon Gibson, their top two pass-catchers last year, and suddenly the cupboard is looking very bare.

But along comes the draft and the Rams move aggressively to get Tavon Austin.  I’m a Tavon Austin guy, as you know.  We all remember, I’m sure, that I was on the Tavon Austin bandwagon way back in early March, before his draft stock started to supernova.  Percy Harvin in Seattle and now Tavon Austin in St. Louis – the Bucs have some scary slot receivers to deal with this season.  The Rams also added the other West Virginia receiver, Stedman Bailey, in the third round, and while I know he’s not the same level of prospect as Austin, I think he will help immediately.

The same argument applies to these guys as it does to any of the draftees – we don’t know yet how well they will deliver on their promise.  Still, the question we’re debating today is which team improved the most on draft weekend, not over the whole offseason.  So whatever you think of losing Amendola and Gibson and replacing them with Austin and Stedman, the Amendola and Gibson departures had already happened when the draft came along.  The Rams desperately needed help there, and they got it.

WAIT!  I’m not done.  I know you’re eager to get back to navel-gazing about the nature of reality, but I have a little bit more to say.  That little bit more would be: Alec Ogletree.  That’s another player I really liked in the lead-up to the draft, and I wonder if he fell a little bit to the Rams at #30 because of some off-field troubles he had.  Whatever the reason, I think the Rams lucked into a player that will help them immediately.  Quick, name the Rams’ starting linebackers from last year.  I imagine you came up with James Laurinaitis, but did you also get Rocky McIntosh and Jo-Lonn Dunbar?  I think Ogletree can crack that lineup somewhere and offer all-over-the-field playmaking ability.

I like the two DBs the Rams picked up, too – T.J. McDonald and Brandon McGee.  However, I’ve gone on long enough here, so I won’t expound on that.  The impact of Austin, Stedman and Ogletree should be enough to improve the Rams to potential playoff contender status and, more importantly, win me yet another Point/Counterpoint trophy.

Andrew Norton: Alright. I might have taken the red pill going with the Panthers, but I still feel that they greatly boosted their run-stopping prowess. Does it mean that the Bucs can’t run on them? Absolutely not. But Lotulelei and Short are certainly two people that Schiano and Co. will need to pay attention to, especially since they will have seven games of NFL experience before they face the Bucs for the first time.

Now, on to your selection. The Rams definitely did some work. They had a hell of a defense last year and Ogletree lined up beside James Laurinaitis makes them that much scarier.

But your argument as to why they are imposing would really be my argument as to why the draft wasn’t that scary at all. The Rams got two stellar picks in Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, and I would agree that they had the best draft if we were taking this out long-term or at least a few years down the road. But counting on two rookie wide receivers to come in and have immediate impact, starting 1 and 2 (hypothetically) and being a force at all? That seems far-fetched.

Take, for instance, that in the past five years, only 12 rookie wide receivers have averaged 50+ yards per game. Last season it was Justin Blackmon who compiled the most yardage as a rookie wide receiver, that was good enough to land him solidly at 29th in the NFL in receiving yards.

The year 2011 shows two outliers, A.J. Green (73.8 ypg) and Julio Jones (70.5 ypg), who are the only rookie WRs since Marques Colston in 2006 to top 70 ypg. Green is the only one since Colston to have broken 1,000 yards receiving in his first NFL season.

2010’s best rookie, Mike Williams notched 60.2 yards per game and is the only rookie WR since 1998 to have more than 10 touchdowns. 2009 saw four first-year receivers break 50 ypg, but none of them had more than 57. Hakeem Nicks had the most yardage for a rookie that year with 790, good for 39th in the league.

So, I’m going to say that you might be stretching the potential of the two STL rookies. History shows that it is one of the hardest positions to make the transition to the NFL. And I feel that I should probably bring up the fact that one of them will be lining up against Darrelle Revis, the other against Eric Wright or Johnthan Banks, and if either of them dare make a break over the middle, they will be properly welcomed to the NFL by Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson. Yikes.

Spot on with that Ogletree paragraph though.

I know I’m going to get myself beat up again for bringing up one more team that is going to cause people more trouble this year than we figured they would at the end of last season. If we really are talking about teams that made themselves more imposing through the draft than they were before it, then I have to mention Buffalo Bills.

Are you done laughing? Good.

You get a rookie quarterback that you can really change into anything you want to. Many people are saying that he wasn’t considered a high round draft pick not because of his play, but because of the system and coaching he was in at Florida State. You have two receivers coming in with Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin. And while my argument against your WRs counts the same for these two, at least they open up the field a bit for the only two stars on the Bills offense, C.J. Spiller and Stevie Johnson. Along with maturity on their should-be-way-better defense, they add a solid inside linebacker in Kiki Alonso.

The AFC East should certainly be interesting this year. Patriots are always strong, many people are counting on the Dolphins to make things interesting, and I don’t think we should entirely dismiss the Bills. The Jets will certainly be interesting as well this year, just for different reasons.

Scott Smith: You really should have put that, “are you done laughing” paragraph at the bottom of your rebuttal because I was still laughing two paragraphs later.  The Bills?  Thanks for that!  My day needed a good dose of laughter.

Not that I’m one to laugh at any NFL team.  I’m a firm believer that one or two teams will shock us every year with how good they are, and it’s certainly possible the Bills will be one of them.  However, your very argument is the reason I would put them near the bottom of the list of possibilities: An a-still-to-be-molded rookie quarterback.  Yes, some rookie passers have made stunning impacts in recent years, but with the exception of Russell Wilson they have been guys drafted at the very top of the first round, many coming in with a fully-formed game.  Maybe you are right about the Bills being able to mold Manuel into something great, but I would be shocked if it happened that quickly.

Also, I really appreciate you making a list of all those great rookie receivers in recent years.  That’s a pretty impressive group in a fairly short period of time.  Makes me confident that another one can emerge this year, especially when he’s the most dynamic talent in the draft and he’s being plopped right into a starting job.

If you’re going to pick a second team, I will too, though I don’t know if I can possibly find another one with both Carolina and Buffalo off the board.  San Francisco would be a good choice – I like Eric Reid and Tank Carradine at the top – but it’s the Marcus Lattimore pick that everyone is raving about and he’s going to need some time to get healthy.  So I’ll go with Arizona and just a few quick words as to why.

The Cardinals badly needed help up front and they were fortunate that there were so many blue-chip O-Linemen this year, which allowed them to get guard Jonathan Cooper at pick #7.  I think he steps in and makes an immediate difference.  Then they got linebacker Kevin Minter of LSU at pick #45 after he was widely believed to be a fringe first-rounder.  I think he starts right away.  The wild card is third-rounder Tyrann Mathieu, of course.  If he can step in and give the return game a jolt, that would make it a worthwhile addition in my book.  That’s an “if,” I know, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to go find the key to my trophy case.

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