Point/Counterpoint: Which Buc makes “The Leap” this year?

Last season, Gerald McCoy played in 16 games for the first time in his three-year NFL career, racked up five sacks, 16 quarterback pressures and nine tackles for loss and became the first Buccaneer defensive tackle to make the Pro Bowl since Warren Sapp.

Gerald McCoy made “The Leap” in 2012.  Now, it’s true that it was mostly freak injuries that had held McCoy back from his potential during the first two NFL seasons, following the Bucs’ selection of him third overall in 2010.  Still, whatever the circumstances, the 2012 season will be remembered as the one in which McCoy transformed his career and became a much more important player for the Buccaneers.

McCoy was probably the only player that fell into that category for Tampa Bay last year, at least among those who were already on the Bucs’ roster the year before.  Doug Martin and Lavonte David put up huge numbers but were rookies; they simply established their NFL bona fides right away.  Vincent Jackson had put up big numbers for years in San Diego.  Josh Freeman set the Bucs’ single-season records for passing yards and touchdown tosses, but you could argue that 2010 was still a better season for him.  Players such as Donald Penn, Jeremy Zuttah, Michael Bennett, Roy Miller, Mason Foster and Ronde Barber obviously had strong seasons, but were essentially playing up to their already established standards.  Adrian Clayborn didn’t get the chance after a promising 7.5-sack season; he got hurt instead.

Hopefully, there will be more than one Buccaneer who will make “The Leap” in 2013…but for today’s exercise I’m only going to ask you to name one, Andrew.  That’s this week’s debate: Which player who was on the Bucs’ 2012 roster and is still with the team in 2013 is poised to take his career to another level?  This could be a backup winning a starting job or a player with reasonably good numbers suddenly putting up more impressive stats.  It could be a workhorse blossoming into a Pro Bowler, or a career special-teamer proving he can be much more.

You go first, Andrew.  Who’s your pick to make the leap in 2013?

Andrew Norton: The Buccaneers made a little bit of noise this offseason. The free agency period opened with a bang as the Buccaneer landed one of the most coveted names on the market, Dashon Goldson, a 2012 first-team All Pro from the NFC Champion 49ers. After a crescendo or two, not to mention a lengthy, emotional drum roll, there was another crash heard round the NFL, when the Buccaneers traded for Darrelle Revis, largely touted as the best cornerback in the league.

Just like that the Buccaneer secondary went from being 32nd in the NFL to the talk of the NFL. It’d be hard to argue against the pass defense being the most improved aspect of the team from 2012 to this year, so it only makes sense that the player making the biggest leap would also come from this group. Which is why my Buccaneer star to make a big career jump in 2013 is safety Mark Barron.

Barron came into the league last season as an NFL-ready safety. He ended the season having started all 16 games and amassing 88 total tackles and one interception. We should add to this that he had some of the biggest hits in all of the NFL, definitely starting to make a name for himself. The downside of all this though, of course, would be the nearly 300 yards per game allowed by that secondary unit.

Enter Goldson and Revis, however, and you see the tide turning for the entire group, and a change in the very way that Barron is allowed to play. On paper, you have a true shut-down cornerback in Darrelle Revis who can virtually cut off half of the field. Across from him, two strong cornerbacks, Eric Wright and rookie Johnthan Banks will be working on the other receivers, with two-time Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson taking care of the middle. With so much of the defensive backfield handled with three members of the secondary, Mark Barron is going to have to worry a lot less about coverage and can focus a lot more about being an absolute menace to anyone touching the football.

With this bolstered secondary, you have to imagine that all of Barron’s numbers will improve. He will have more tackle opportunities by stepping up into the box to find the ballcarrier. When allowed to roam, he could easily add to his interception total. He will be free to blitz more, notching more sacks. And with all that freedom, and his tenacious hitting, Barron will have more opportunities than ever to force turnovers.

There are a lot of talented safeties in the NFC, but next to two established secondary men, Barron will have one heck of an opportunity to make that giant leap.

Scott Smith: I like the pick, more so because of Barron’s raw talent than the perceived percentage of the field he’ll have to cover.  I agree that the added talent around him in the secondary should help a lot, but I think he’ll be asked to do as much as ever, and that will provide the opportunity for the leap.

For my pick, I’m going to stay on the defensive side of the ball but move closer to the line of scrimmage.  I think we actually have two excellent candidates on the edges of the front line, with ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers poised to do much more damage.

Bowers would be a more dramatic pick, as he has just 4.5 sacks through his first two seasons, in large part due to an Achilles injury suffered about a year ago.  Clayborn, on the other hand, already has a 7.5-sack season under his belt, that being his impressive production as a rookie.  Still, 7.5 sacks makes for a very promising debut but doesn’t yet put a player into “star” category.

I’m saying Clayborn makes that leap into stardom this year.  The sacks go into double digits and his name becomes recognized around the NFL.  Some of it mimics your reasoning above – with the secondary so much better, the pass-rushers should have an extra second or two on many of their backfield invasions, and that’s often all it takes to get the quarterback down.  Clayborn has always been known as the hustling, non-stop motor type, so as long as he keeps every pass-rush alive, he’s going to come into some “coverage sacks.”

Clayborn got hurt in the third game last year and missed the rest of the season.  He did not have any sacks at that time; however, his teammates racked up seven sacks through those first two games and frequently credited Clayborn’s backside pressure with opening up lanes to the quarterback.  Had he not been injured, I think Clayborn would have advanced his career in his sophomore campaign, maybe not in terms of pure sack numbers but in terms of refining his pass-rush moves.  Since he missed most of that season, he’ll just have to combine that anticipated progress with the common advancement players make in their third NFL seasons (see: McCoy, Gerald) and make One Big Leap in 2013.

Okay, let’s take this one more round and dig a little deeper.  Can you find somebody on the roster who is starting from a less prominent position but is also ready to make a significant leap forward.  You know, maybe a special-teamer becoming a nickel back or a lesser-known receiver providing a 40-catch season or a little-used lineman becoming an important part of the pass-rush rotation.  Something like that.  Got any candidates, Andrew?

Andrew Norton: One thing we can definitely agree on, the two new pieces of the Buccaneer defense are going to affect every position on the field. I cannot wait to see Barron, Clayborn, Bowers and company in action this year. There will definitely be some goose bump-inducing plays in 2013.

As for my more under-the-radar candidates, I feel that you could possibly argue my pick. The reason for that would be that he has 20 starts in two seasons. But I still think that he qualifies as lesser-known here and could make a big step this season in getting some name recognition around the Bay. That player would be tight end Luke Stocker.

In 2011, his rookie season, Stocker started 9 games, while fellow TE Kellen Winslow was a starter in 15 and took the vast majority of tight end receptions, yards and touchdowns. In 2012, Stocker was in the starting lineup for 11 games, four more than the Bucs’ recognizable tight end, Dallas Clark, who, like Winslow, ended the season with all of the tight end stats.

Of course, the reason for an inflated start total for Luke Stocker is that he is an outstanding blocker and is a must to be in the game in running situations. For 2013, Stocker has a lot of competition at the tight end spot, but no real frontrunner. He’ll surely split some time with new Buccaneer Tom Crabtree, who has shown that he is a great pass-catching tight end, but I think that with his lack of experience, this is the time for Stocker to step out and show that he is more than a blocking, run-situation tight end.

In his two seasons so far, Stocker has 28 receptions for 257 yards and one touchdown. His best game actually came in the season closer last year where he had three grabs for 50 yards. While a jump in 2013 to Pro Bowl-caliber numbers seems a little out of reach, I do feel that Stocker is more than capable to put forth the same production as Dallas Clark from a season ago.

Compared to his last two years statistically, that would be a great leap for him. With Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams continuing to produce on the outside, Doug Martin remaining a force in the running game and the backfield passing game, and a number of capable slot receivers, Luke Stocker has great sleeper potential with good one-on-one situations in the passing game. A 40+ reception, 400+-yard campaign like Clark’s last year is certainly a possibility. And who knows, with the amount of time he is on the field because of his blocking abilities, he could even eclipse those numbers.

Scott Smith: Makes sense to me.  As you say, even if Crabtree or somebody farther down the depth chart (Danny Noble?) emerges as a strong contributor, Stocker still figures to be on the field for a high percentage of snaps.

My pick: Keith Tandy.  Tandy, you may recall, was a cornerback when the Buccaneers drafted him out of West Virginia a year ago but he moved to safety and has been training there ever since.  It’s pretty clear that his future remains at safety because, even with all the injuries and the various players the team tried at corner last year, Tandy wasn’t put into that mix.

Now, this isn’t likely to be one of those Gerald McCoy type of leaps.  Tandy has the aforementioned Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson playing in front of him, so there shouldn’t be much of an opportunity to start.  Rather, I’m predicting the type of leap that won’t necessarily be obvious to the outside world.  First off, Tandy played in only nine games last year, as he was sometimes active and sometimes one of the seven players named as a game-day inactive.  That meant he spent the season on the edge of the list of players the Bucs felt they had to have available on game day, sometimes making it and sometimes not, unlike a reserve like Dekoda Watson, who didn’t start a game but was never considered as an inactive choice.  So that’s the first step in Tandy’s leap – he makes it farther up the priority list and is active every game, becoming a core special teamer.

With his spot on game day established, now Tandy has a chance to work into the mix on defense, somehow, someway.  Maybe – God forbid – one of the starters is banged up and unavailable for a couple games.  Maybe the Bucs use some extra-DB packages that include a third safety, as they technically did on occasion last year (thought that was with Ronde Barber sliding down into the nickel slot, so that package may no longer exist).  Right now, Tandy has to be seen as a prime candidate for the third spot on the safety depth chart, battling for that spot with Ahmad Black.  I’m not saying anything negative about Ahmad Black, who made his own sort of leap last year and played a good amount.  I’m just saying Tandy is poised to do the same thing.

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