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At the end of minicamp, do the Bucs look as if they’ll be better?

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They have a new quarterback. The offensive line has had a facelift. The defense has reinforcements.

But are these the same old Bucs?

There is a new offensive coordinator. The energy is different. The pass rush should be better?

But has anything really changed for the Tampa Bay Bucs?

As the Bucs got to the end of their minicamp Friday, that was still the burning question. Can the worst team in the NFL find its way to mediocrity this year, and beyond it in the years after that. Can this really be the start of something special? Or are the Bucs’ just trading in yesterday’s disappointments for tomorrow’s?

You cannot help but wonder. Last year, they won two. They were the worst team in the NFL, the 30th ranked offense and the 25th ranked defense. They had no quarterback, and no offensive line, and no running game. As far an offensive coordinator, well, who could be more uncoordinated? They were bland, uninteresting, and every week they created new and intricate ways of salvaging defeat.

So what’s different? Even with new players, the offensive line is still a science project. The running backs haven’t changed. There is still not enough of a pass rush. The linebackers have questions to answer. And so on.

But at the end of minicamp, there is some hope. A glimmer, at least.

Quarterback, for instance. Yes, he’s a rookie, and yes, he just got here. But so far, there is every reason to believe that Jamies Winston will give his team more than One-Win Josh and more than One-Win Mike. Oh, Year One is awfully early to expect a polished project, but if the Bucs are right about Winston, he could take a significant stride toward taking the place of the league’s aging star quarterbacks. Winston did some exciting things (and some controversial ones, if you’re counting) while he was at FSU. There is no reason to believe he will become the latest in a line of Vinny Testaverde and Trent Dilfer and Josh Freeman.

“You would like a lot more (time), but that’s how it’s always been,” Coach Lovie Smith said. “I know just talking about our rookie quarterback; he has come a long way in a short period of time. I’m very impressed with the amount of knowledge he has now about our offense. Some of us are leaving and will be leaving. Jameis  is one of the last guys each day. (Quarterbacks coach) Mike Bajakian has done an unbelievable job with him. Again, I’ll make the statement again, he’s right on track.”

Throw in the wide receivers. That’s still the strength of the team with Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson, both 1,000-yard receivers last year. Yes, you can quibble that they are similar type receivers, and that the team could use a downfield threat. But with Louis Murphy and rookie Kenny Bell, the corps should be deep.

Ah, but will the offensive line be any better? Certainly, the team won’t have a bust like Anthony Collins to waste their time any more. He was one of the biggest disappointments in an off-season filled with them for coach Lovie Smith. The team has to get dependable play from Logan Mankins and Demar Dotson, and it needs to find two players from the rookies of last year (Kevin Pamphile and Kadeem Edwards) and this year (Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet).

Defensively, the Bucs say they should be better because of the familiarity with the defense.

“If anything, mentally, just knowing what coach expects,” said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. “The big part of last year was trying to do it the way coach wanted it. He brought in guys this offseason that have played in this system that know how he wants it done. Then you have guys that have a year under their belt with Coach Smith’s system, how he likes to do it. I think coming in we can hit the ground running. The rookies we brought in and the younger guys they can just get on board. We know how to lead them now. Last year we didn’t know how to lead them because we were learning it ourselves, but I think in that aspect we’ve grown.”

The defensive line should be solid in the middle with McCoy and a rotation of Clinton McDonald and Henry Melton. But is there enough at defensive end with Jacquies Smith and George Johnson? Both are pass rushers, but can either of them play the run as well? We’ll see.

McCoy has been impressed with Smith, however.

“He’s a completely different guy from last year,” McCoy said. “When he first came in we would do individual and he would look a little unorthodox and kind of uncoordinated and just kind of couldn’t get it. Well now, he looks like he has been doing it for 10, 15 years. Completely different guy. His knowledge of the game and the things he has to do, especially at the right end position. He is versatile. He can play both sides. Just the aspect of him growing as a player, mentally and physically, is a completely different guy.”

The linebacking should be better. You have all-world Lavonte David, and free agent Bruce Carter and rookie Kwon Alexander.

But how about the secondary, where last year’s corners played chase for a season? Alterraun Verner is at one corner and Jonathan Banks the other. The safeties are Bradley McDougland and one of Major Wright, Chris Conti or D.J. Swearingen. The nickel back will be either Sterling Moore or Mike Jenkins.

Does all of that add to more than two?

If you’re fair, you’d say it does. You look at last season’s close losses. You look at a division in decline.

This year may not be all that a Bucs’ fan would want. But it should be a start. This Bucs team should be better.

Or else.

Gary Shelton is one of the most recognized and honored sportswriters in the history of the state. He has won the APSE's national columnist of the year twice and finished in the top 10 eight times. He was named the Florida Sportswriter of the Year six times. Gary joined SaintPetersBlog in the spring, helping to bring a sports presence to the website. Over his time in sports writing, Gary has covered 29 Super Bowls, 10 Olympics, Final Fours, Masters, Wimbledons and college national championships. He was there when the Bucs won a Super Bowl, when the Lightning won a Stanley Cup and when the Rays went to a World Series. He has seen Florida, FSU and Miami all win national championships, and he covered Bear Bryant, Bobby Bowden and Don Shula along the way. He and his wife Janet have four children: Eric, Kevin, K.C. and Tori. To contact, visit garysheltonsports@gmail.com.

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