By Erik Sabol
Cold, Hard Football Facts Buccaneers beatdown man

Exhale.  It's over.  Two months, 17 days without a victory, summed up poignantly with a 45-24 loss to Atlanta's backups.  And it was long fall from the success of 2010.  In just sixteen games, Josh Freeman transformed from franchise to fall guy, Raheem Morris from savior to scapegoat, the defense from up-and-coming to down-and-out.  There are few positives to pull from the crapheap of 2011, but if you look real close, there were glimmers of competence in the darkness of Tampa's forsaken 2011.

Here are five reasons for optimism heading into next September:

1. Morris Claiborne, Trent Richardson, Justin Blackmon, or Matt Kalil.  The NFL Draft is an organic process, always changing and evolving from September to April.  Things can change from now until April 26th, but the Buccaneers have locked up a top-five pick with their uninspired play (the plan all along, surely), and all but guaranteed themselves a college superstar.

Tampa needs help everywhere.  They're in the bottom-half of the league in 19 of 20 Quality Stats (hooray for Rushing Yards per Attempt!).  They can't pass, can't catch, can't run, can't block, can't tackle, and can't cover.  Just about anyone they draft in the first round will be an upgrade, and they have a legitimate shot at the draft's top rusher, blocker, receiver, or cover man.  Whoever is selected, it'll go a long way toward defining the team's philosophy from 2012 onward.

2. Free agency.  The Buccaneers blew it.  Johnathan Joseph was a defensive cornerstone for Houston this season, and played a big part in their playoff push.  Jason Babin finished with 18 sacks, the most of any Philadelphia defender in almost 20 years; the Buccaneers, in case you were wondering, recorded 23 as a team.  Willis McGahee eclipsed quadruple-digits in Denver, and would've made a nice compliment to LeGarrette Blount.  Better than Kregg Lumpkin, anyway.

Tampa Bay suffered from lack of veteran leadership in 2011, and the mistake won't be repeated.  Someone like Carl Nicks, or Jermichael Finley, or LaRon Landry, or DeSean Jackson could help supercharge the roster and narrow Tampa's draft day needs.  The minimalistic approach completely failed this season – eight undrafted players started games, and four others saw extensive game time – and with the second most cap room in the NFL, look for the Buccaneers to dive wallet-first into free agency.

3. The defensive line.  Tampa finished last in quarterback sacks, last in rush defense, and very probably last in the Defensive Hog Index, and at first glance, the defensive line doesn't seem awfully exciting heading into next season.  But despite underachieving, the unit bleeds potential.  Adrian Clayborn, Gerald McCoy, Brian Price, and Da'Quan Bowers – all high-round draft picks – were brought to Tampa to wreak havoc on opposing offensive lines.  Their job was to pass rush, collapse the pocket, penetrate gaps like Lexington Steele, and squash opposing comeback attempts.

Two problems.  First, inexperience completely derailed Tampa's run defense.  The young lineman didn't develop any sense of gap integrity and spent most of the season blowing assignments and taking poor pursuit angles.  Second, the Buccaneers trailed more than any team in the league in 2011.  They spent 535 minutes and 22 seconds (just under nine games' worth of time) trying to catch the opposing team, and the pass rushing opportunities – the reason the four of these men were drafted – weren't there.

If the offense improves and Tampa Bay actually gets to defend a second-half lead in 2012, look for a matured front four to take over the game.

4. Raheem Morris and Greg Olson won't be allowed on the premises. That's not to say that their replacements are going to step in and immediately right the ship.  But any distance the organization can put between itself and the current staff is major, major progress.  Teams have down seasons once in a while; schemes sour, players get hurt, and none of the bounces go the right way.

But when players surrender – when they forfeit their pride halfway through the season – change becomes mandatory.  They lost their last five games by an average of 23 points, and despite some half-hearted and hollow vocal rallies late in the season, the team played numb through most of November and December.  A new regime will bring some fresh ideas to Tampa, and the Buccaneers can finally sever all remaining roots from the Gruden/Kiffin administration.

5. No one stays bad for long in the NFC South. Fortune is a fickle beast in the southeast.  No division in the last decade has seen more turnover than the NFC South, and while there's no mathematic or formulaic evidence to support a prediction regarding Tampa's unexpected resurgence in 2012, the history is certainly intriguing.  Take Tampa's turnaround in 2010 as the most recent example.  Or Atlanta's rebirth, post-Vick, in 2008.  Or 2005, and the end of the Haslett era in New Orleans.

In fact, no team in the history of the NFC South has ever gone three seasons without posting a winning record.  If the trend is to be trusted, Tampa Bay should be rebuilt and contending no later than 2013.

Keep your fingers crossed.