EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson had options. So did veteran linebacker Jonathan Casillas. Both could have joined other teams as free agents in March, but both signed with the Buccaneers.
One reason stood out: the chance to contend for a championship.
Goldson left the reigning NFC champion 49ers and Casillas the perennial playoff-contending Saints in part because they think the Bucs have a chance to win big this season.
Not everyone agrees with them.
Las Vegas oddsmakers set their over-under figure for Bucs victories at 7½. The Sporting News picked them to finish last in their division. And Sports Illustrated has them 12th in the conference.
The Bucs, of course, are expecting bigger things. They believe they are a legitimate playoff contender with a chance to win their first division title since 2007.
It won’t be easy.
With eight Pro Bowlers, one more than the team that won Super Bowl XXXVII, the Bucs are a more talented than when they went 7-9 a year ago and, therefore, should be a better team.
The Bucs have not regressed in any one area, including the pass rush, where full seasons from ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers should more than make up for the loss of Michael Bennett’s nine sacks.
But better might not translate into more wins, especially in the rugged NFC South, where Atlanta and New Orleans are still considered two of the best teams not only in the division and conference, but also the NFL. The NFC South likely will be the NFL’s toughest division. Only the NFC West seems in a position to rival it , and the Bucs will play each of its four teams — Arizona, San Francisco, St. Louis and Seattle — once each.
The Bucs also play at New England early in the year, and have games against Miami and Buffalo, teams many believe are ascending at a rate similar to the Bucs.
Taking all that into consideration, it’s possible to see how the Bucs could be a better team this year, but not necessarily a more successful team — and why an 8-8 finish, while disappointing, could be a reality.
Like most in his profession, Bucs coach Greg Schiano has a tendency to be rather coy. Asked in what areas the Bucs should be better this year, Schiano mentioned the revamped secondary as an “obvious’’ choice, but refused to elaborate beyond that.
He’d rather opponents find out on their own.
OK, that’s fair enough. But the researchers at Football Outsiders suggest the Bucs will have to improve at blitzing to contend for a playoff berth.
The Outsiders determined that, compared to other teams, the Bucs didn’t blitz all that often last year, but when they did they blitzed strong, sending six or more pass rushers 13.8 percent of the time. That was almost as often as they sent five pass rushers (15.8 percent).
The problem is the Bucs weren’t very effective in either scenario. According to FO, the Bucs gave up 10.0 yards per play in those situations, third-most in the league and just a smidge less than the Lions and Eagles.
In an effort to expedite cornerback Johnthan Banks’ development, the Bucs placed the rookie’s locker next to four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Darrelle Revis.
Already, the locale has paid dividends.
“I really have learned a lot from being here next to him,’’ Banks said of Revis. “A lot of it is little things, like how to approach practice, how to get these techniques down that we’re using and how to tell what a team is going to do on a particular play.
“I might have learned more from him in this last month than I did in three years of college.’’