TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - A lucrative five-year, $47.5 million contract was just one of the reasons Carl Nicks found the Tampa Bay Buccaneers attractive in free agency.
The All-Pro left guard spent the past four seasons in New Orleans as a key blocker for Drew Brees on the Saints' record-setting offense. He believes his new team also has the talent to put up impressive numbers, climb out of the NFC South cellar and become a Super Bowl contender.
The Bucs were 27th in the NFL in scoring and also had one of the league's least productive running games last year. But they've got a rising young quarterback in Josh Freeman, and Nicks and receiver Vincent Jackson were part of a free agent haul that first-year coach Greg Schiano is counting to make a difference.
Tampa Bay (No. 26 in the AP Pro32) finished 4-12 in 2011, including 10 consecutive losses to end the season.
Nicks, Jackson and cornerback Eric Wright signed deals worth a combined $140.55 million on the first day of free agency, each believing they were joining a talented young team that - despite its struggles under fired coach Raheem Morris - was headed in the right direction.
"It's not a rebuilding year. We're trying to win," Nicks said. "We're trying to shock teams kind of like Detroit did after their few years of not doing so good and how San Francisco shocked the world last season. We're trying to do something like that, bringing in veteran guys, skill guys, Pro Bowlers.
"It's going to be fun to see what we do out there."
Freeman shed 20 pounds during offseason and also reported to training camp sporting a stylish new haircut, eager to put a disappointing season behind him.
A year after having one of the league's best touchdowns-to-interceptions ratios with 25 TDs and only six picks while nearly leading the Bucs to a playoff berth, the 6-foot-6, 240-pound quarterback threw for 16 touchdowns vs. 22 interceptions.
Tampa Bay's defense also shouldered part of the responsibility for the club's collapse following a 4-2 start. The Bucs yielded a NGL-worst and franchise-record 494 points, while also finishing 30th among 32 teams in yards allowed and dead last in rushing defense, sacks and turnover margin.
"Reality is a beast, and last year was reality," two-time Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph said, noting players reported this summer with a renewed determination to do whatever's necessary to be successful.
"If you don't commit to the offseason, if you don't have structure, you don't have discipline, you're not going to be very good," the seventh-year pro added. "I think reality hit a lot of guys last year on potentially how short your career can be without wins and potentially how miserable football can be without wins. A lot of guys are committed to putting football first now. That's exactly what we need."
Joseph suffered a season-ending right knee injury in the third preseason game, an injury that strips the club of some veteran leadership and also figures to make narrowing the gap on the rest of the quarterback-driven NFC South more difficult.
But Schiano remains confident the Bucs can get the job done.
In addition to bringing in Jackson, who had 37 touchdown receptions in seven seasons with the San Diego Chargers, the former Rutgers coach signed tight end Dallas Clark. Then he drafted running back Doug Martin late in the first round in hopes of taking some of the burden off Freeman with a consistent ground game.
Rookies are also being counted on to make an immediate impact on defense.
Safety Mark Barron was the seventh overall pick in the draft, and second-round selection Lavonte David has played his way into the lineup at linebacker. With five-time Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber shifting to free safety, the Bucs technically will open the season with new starters in three of four spots in the secondary.
Barron was a playmaker at Alabama, helping the Crimson Tide win national titles two of the past three years. He's already made an impression on veterans such as Barber and cornerback Aqib Talib.
"He's an NFL-ready dude," Talib said. "Some people grow up faster than other people. That boy, he's grown. He's ready."
With David playing well in the preseason, and returning starters Quincy Black and Mason Foster progressing in the system, Schiano feels linebacker could emerge as a strength, too, especially if third-year tackle Gerald McCoy can remain healthy and elevate play on the defensive line.
"The whole thing is, doing your job," Schiano said. "One of the things you can't do as a defensive player is try to do too much, because what happens then is you try to do too much and something opens up, you have a big play and then guys start to lose confidence in what they're doing. So we've just got to do our job and do it consistently."
That also applies to Freeman.
Schiano brought in former New York Giants quarterbacks coach Mike Sullivan as his offensive coordinator. New quarterbacks coach Ron Turner has worked with the fourth-year pro on his footwork in the offseason, while Sullivan focused on the 24-year-old's decision-making in the pocket.
"I think just like the whole team, he's improving every day. And part of that is decision-making," Schiano said.
"It's very much like a fighter pilot. They're making split-second or high-speed decisions ... and then you have to execute once you make those decisions," the coach added. "Defensively, we're trying to show him looks and take them away so he's got to really figure it out, and I think he's doing better every single day. That's what we have to do at every position, but we all know how important the quarterback position is."
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