The Bucs have succeeded in free agency at the linebacker position by targeting players like Cato June who fit their system
- In the weeks prior to the 2008 NFL Draft, Buccaneers.com will analyze each position on the team in regards to the draft, looking at depth, selection history and available players. As usual, this look at the draft, free agency and the Bucs' roster is not intended to reflect the intentions or strategies of the team's personnel decision-makers. Today we focus on the linebacker position, where, even though the three starters return, the club has already made strides toward improving depth, and may continue to do so as the offseason progresses.*
The linebacker position for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will feature continuity at the top of the rotation in 2008, as all three starters return. Fourth-year man Barrett Ruud will be back to patrol the middle, flanked by likely Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks on the weak side and valuable 2007 import Cato June on the strong side.
Behind those three, however, the position could have a very different look this fall.
The starting trio returns as part of defense that ranked second in the league in 2007, allowing an average of just 278.4 yards per game. The Bucs defense ranked first against the pass (170.5 ypg) and 17th against the run (107.9 ypg), and finished first in the NFC with a +15 turnover differential. Brooks, Ruud and June had a lot to do with that.
The position may be even stronger in 2008, thanks to increased competition at all spots.
Quincy Black and Adam Hayward, a pair of 2007 draft picks, played well on special teams as rookies and could factor into the defensive plans in the next few years. Ryan Nece has started at the strong side in the past and filled in for an injured June in the playoff game against New York. Antoine Cash spent the entire 2007 season on injured reserve, but was a special teams ace and increasingly intriguing option at middle linebacker before getting hurt.
Furthermore, the Bucs have already added some new free agent faces to round out the group, further solidifying the depth at the position. Leon Joe rejoined the Bucs after spending a very short time with the club in the preseason last year before playing the 2007 season in Buffalo. Teddy Lehman comes to Tampa after spending his first four seasons in Detroit. And Matt McCoy, most recently of the New Orleans Saints and a former starter in Philadelphia, also signed on. All three have proven to be excellent special teams players and could also fill spots in the defensive rotation if necessary.
All told, the Bucs have already pumped up the depth at linebacker this offseason to fill out the rotation behind the three starters. Still, they may be looking to add even more talent as the 2008 season nears, particularly since linebackers generally make up a good part of a team's special teams core.
Before we delve further into other linebackers the Bucs could be looking to add, here's a look at who the team already has under contract:
|**Linebackers Currently Under Contract**|
|**Player**||**Exp.**||**2007 (Tackles, Sacks, Ints.)**||**Career (Tackles, Sacks, Ints.)**|
Special teams tacklesSpent the 2007 season on injured reserve ¹ - Joe signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent on March 4, 2008. Joe's 2007 stats were accrued with Buffalo. ² - Lehman signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent on March 5, 2008. Lehman's 2007 stats were accrued with Detroit. ³ - McCoy signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent on March 5, 2008. McCoy's 2007 stats were accrued with Philadelphia.*
The Buccaneers entered the 2008 offseason with two free agent linebackers, but one has already been re-signed. That would be Antoine Cash, who was a restricted free agent, but inked a deal to return to the Bucs on February 29.
The only unrestricted free agent the Bucs have is veteran Jeremiah Trotter.
|**Free Agent Linebackers from the 2007 Buccaneers**|
|**Player**||**Exp.**||**2007 (Tackles, Sacks, Int)**||**Career (Tackles, Sacks, Int)**|
The linebacker position was a key cog in a very stout overall defensive unit that will be looking to build on the success it enjoyed in 2007.
Here's a breakdown of some numbers relating to the linebacker position:
Linebacker Position Numbers:
As for free agency, the Bucs have plugged in a handful of successful linebackers over the years, particularly since the advent of a true open market in 1983. Tampa Bay has excelled in finding quality players for its defense by targeting players who fit particularly well in its scheme, a la Cato June in 2007.
As a prime example, Hardy Nickerson was a slightly smaller and faster linebacker than was the norm at the time the Bucs signed him in 1993, but he was a perfect fit in Tampa Bay's scheme. He was an immediate hit in Tampa, earning Pro Bowl honors in his first year as a Buccaneer, and he anchored the linebacking corps for the next seven seasons.
The Bucs added another linebacker via free agency in 1994, Lonnie Marts, who went on to become a productive cog in the defense for three seasons. A speed-demon off the edge, he brought a pass-rush element to the strong side position that the Bucs have rarely seen since. Still, the team has consistently filled that spot with good free-agent pickups, such as Rufus Porter in 1997 and Ian Gold in 2004.
The team did it again a year ago with June. Plucked away from the Indianapolis Colts, the former Pro Bowler and Super Bowl champion went on to post 120 tackles in his first season in Tampa Bay.
The Bucs have already added three more linebackers via free agency in 2008 – Lehman, Joe and McCoy. While the three returning starters would apparently nudge those three towards reserve roles, all of them have skills that fit in well with Tampa Bay's system.
Many of the big-name linebackers that may have been available this offseason have already been snapped up, often by the teams they played for last year. Baltimore placed the franchise tag on star linebacker Terrell Suggs, as did Arizona with Karlos Dansby, and Chicago re-signed Lance Briggs.
Some linebackers signing with new clubs included Calvin Pace, who left Arizona to join the New York Jets, Landon Johnson, who left Cincinnati for Carolina, and Clark Haggans, who left Pittsburgh for Arizona. In addition, the Jets traded Jonathan Vilma to the New Orleans Saints.
Here's a look at some of the remaining free agent linebackers:
- Michael Boley (RFA, Atlanta) – An athletic linebacker the Bucs are familiar with in the NFC South, Boley led the Falcons in tackles in 2007. * Roosevelt Colvin (released, New England) – A nine-year veteran, Colvin was let go by the Patriots and could add immediate experience to a new team. * Takeo Spikes (released, Philadelphia) – Another veteran looking for a new home after being released, Spikes is still solid against the run. * Victor Hobson (UFA, New York Jets) – A tough linebacker who fits well into a 3-4 scheme, Hobson could find a spot on a team looking for a physical, hard-nosed player.
In all, while the Bucs possess a measure of consistency with three starting linebackers returning, they have already shown a desire to bolster the depth and talent at the position with the signing of three free agents. Still, the team is clearly looking to use its newfound cap space to upgrade all 53 spots on the roster, so one can't rule out further additions to the position.