The original collective bargaining agreement between the NFL and the NFLPA was put in place in 1993, making that offseason the first with true free agency, establishing the system with which football fans have now become quite familiar. The timing was perfect for Reggie White, the Pro Bowl defensive end for the Philadelphia Eagles who just happened to have an expiring contract.
White was the biggest prize in the first free agency class, and he landed a lucrative deal in Green Bay. It worked out phenomenally well for both sides, as the future Hall of Famer went to the next six Pro Bowls, won two Defensive Player of the Year awards as a Packer and helped Green Bay win Super Bowl XXXI. The Packers' bold move to snag White is still considered one of the best moves since real free agency hit the NFL.
It understandably reached a somewhat lower level of notoriety, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit their own home run during that inaugural free agency period. Heavy team shopping was a little more common in those early days of the open market, and the Buccaneers grabbed a handful of helpful pieces in 1993, including cornerback Martin Mayhew, safety Barney Bussey and running back Vince Workman. The centerpiece of that class of incoming veterans and the team's most coveted target, however, was Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Hardy Nickerson.
Nickerson was a hard-working and productive linebacker for the Steelers, but hardly a household name on a national scale. In Tampa, however, he instantly became the focal point of Tampa Bay's improving defense, and he eventually was selected for five Pro Bowls and two first-team All-Pro squads.
Like the Packers and defensive end, the Buccaneers set the free agency bar rather high at linebacker in that very first year. In Tampa's case, in particular, it was a very astute signing because Nickerson wasn't necessarily a star before he switched teams, but the Bucs obviously scouted him perfectly.
Given that Tampa Bay's defense had its least successful season in, essentially, two decades in 2011, it's likely that the team is looking for additions at several spots on that side of the ball. The draft may bring help, but Buccaneers General Manager Mark Dominik has made it clear on more than one occasion that the team will be actively shopping on the free agent market. Could the linebacker spot in particular be a target? The answer should become clear in less than a month, as the 2012 NFL free agency period – the 20th such open market and potentially one of the deepest in years – is due to begin at 4:00 p.m. ET on Tuesday, March 13.
Buccaneer decision-makers obviously do not plan on sharing their free agency strategies beforehand, but we can still survey the landscape, in regards to both team needs and the possible pool of free agents, before the opening bell. This is the third in a series of position-by-position primers prior to the start of free agency on Buccaneers.com. Once again, we will be discussing five categories of information in each article:
- How might the Buccaneers' own list of pending free agents affect the position?
- What level of talent will potentially be available at that position on the open market?
- How effectively could a need at that position be addressed in the early rounds of the draft instead?
- What is the Buccaneers history in free agency at that position?
- How did that position perform for the Buccaneers in 2011?
After covering the safeties and wide receivers, we now switch back to defense in order to examine the linebacker position. Coming up next: tight ends. As always, player evaluations and other points of conjecture are not meant to reflect the opinion of the Buccaneers' coaches or player personnel staff.
Positional Free Agency Primer: Linebacker
- Tampa Bay's own pending free agents
There is only one linebacker on the Buccaneers' list of pending free agents, including unrestricted, restricted and exclusive rights varieties, but it is a significant name. Geno Hayes, the team's starter on the weakside for the majority of the last three seasons, is headed for the open market if a new deal isn't struck before March 13.
Tampa Bay lost one linebacker starter to free agency last summer during the very abbreviated open market, as Barrett Ruud signed with the Tennessee Titans. Anticipating that possibility, the team had drafted Washington's versatile playmaker, Mason Foster, in the third round in April, and he took Ruud's place immediately. Another potential loss was avoided when strongside starter Quincy Black re-signed with the team just before training camp.
With Hayes, Black and Foster, the Bucs fielded a linebacking corps built entirely through the draft in 2011, and that extended to backup/spot starter Adam Hayward as well. (Like Black, Hayward became a free agent last summer but chose to sign again with the home team.) They could continue to do so in 2012 by re-signing Hayes, or they could tap into the draft or free agency again. It's worth noting that Hayes lost his starting job for several weeks at midseason before regaining it down the stretch.
- The potential free agent market
The list of established starting-caliber linebackers who could hit free agency on March 13 lacks the impressive depth of other two groups we've examined so far – safety and receiver – but it does have an advantage over those other two positions: It is less likely to be ravaged by franchise tags and early re-signings. While various teams scramble to try to lock up the likes of Wes Welker, DeSean Jackson and Marques Colston, the linebackers are probably going to get a shot at the open market.
One of the linebackers likely to draw the most attention is Atlanta's Curtis Lofton, a four-year starter in the middle. Lofton happens to be on the same list of Falcon free-agents-to-be that includes highly-valued cornerback Brent Grimes, and Atlanta can't put a franchise tag on both players, even if they were inclined to do so. That's a tough decision that could lead Lofton to free agency unless the team and player come to a new agreement before mid-March.
Two middle linebackers from the NFC South are intriguing free agency targets, in fact, but Lofton's advantage over Carolina's Dan Connor is in the health category. While Lofton has played in every game since he was drafted in the second round in 2009 (and started 63 of those 64 contests), Connor has seen two seasons cut short by knee injuries and has started just 19 times. However, Connor, himself a third-round pick in 2008, managed to get in 11 starts last year as the Panthers had other significant injuries at linebacker, so he was able to put together some good highlight reels in time for free agency.
The Buccaneers, of course, had their own rookie third-rounder starting at middle linebacker last year, but that doesn't necessarily mean they would be out of the market at that spot. When he was drafted last April, Foster was often referred to as a very versatile player who could conceivably start at any of the three linebacker spots. Though it is too early to know what new Head Coach Greg Schiano and his defensive staff will want to do with Foster, it certainly seems possible that he could be moved to an outside starting spot, opening up the middle for a newcomer.
That's an interesting possibility given that there are several other MLB types soon to hit free agency. Stephen Tulloch started in the middle for the Lions last year after doing the same in Tennessee the previous three years. Ruud, who took over for Tulloch in Tennessee in 2011 but missed some time due to injury, is back on the market after finishing his one-year deal.
An even more intriguing name at inside linebacker is Cleveland's D'Qwell Jackson, who was second in the Comeback Player of the Year voting in 2011 to Detroit quarterback Matthew Stafford. The 28-year-old Jackson missed the entire 2010 season due to injury but came back to record his finest season yet, with 158 tackles, 3.5 sacks and one interception. He was so good in 2011, in fact, that some believe the Browns will consider using the franchise tag on him.
New Orleans' Jo-Lunn Dunbar hits free agency for the first time at the right point in his career, as he got his first extended opportunity to start last year. Dunbar filled in for the injured Jonathan Vilma, then also played on the outside after Vilma's return, and that versatility could be attractive to other suitors. Other names that would likely draw a serious amount of interest if they hit the open market include Leroy Hill and David Hawthorne, both of the Seattle Seahawks; Anthony Spencer of the Dallas Cowboys, Ahmad Brooks of the San Francisco 49ers and Phillip Wheeler of the Indianapolis Colts. Even ageless wonder London Fletcher, most recently a Redskin, is headed for free agency after another impressive season as a full-time starter.
Perhaps, on further examination, the linebacker market will be as rewarding as the receiver and safety groups this spring, particularly if most of the candidates avoid franchise tags and early re-signings.
- Is the top of the draft a better option?
Given the same consideration with Mason Foster and his versatility, we can discuss the entire field of potential draft picks rather than focusing on just inside or outside players. This year's linebacker class is considered reasonably deep overall, though it might be lacking on top-10 star power.
Recent mock drafts have included up to six different linebackers in their first-round projections: Boston College's Luke Kuechly, Alabama's Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower, Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict and North Carolina's Zach Brown, with Kuechly and Upshaw most consistently getting the higher positions. However, the Buccaneers are scheduled to pick fifth in the first round (barring a trade) and few predictions even have a linebacker going among the first 10.
On the other hand, Tampa Bay also picks high in the second round (fourth in the frame, 36th overall), and that is where the apparent depth of the position in this year's draft becomes a factor. As one can see in the field of potential free agents discussed above, NFC South teams have had no problem finding impact linebackers in the second and third rounds in recent seasons (Lofton, Connor, Ruud). Interestingly, that was actually a very active trend for the Tampa Bay franchise in its early years, something that was only revived in 2005 with the Ruud pick. Among the very useful linebackers the Bucs drafted in the second or third rounds during their first dozen seasons were Winston Moss, Kevin Murphy, Scot Brantley, Ervin Randle, David Lewis and Dewey Selmon.
Kuechly is considered the best bet to step in and start immediately in the NFL, particularly at middle linebacker in a 4-3 defensive front, though Burfict is not far behind in the scouts' eyes. Those two appear to be the most coveted players among teams looking for an inside linebacker, though Hightower's stock could rise in the coming months.
On the outside, Hightower's Alabama teammate, Courtney Upshaw, is widely considered the top prospect, though he may end up as a shorter (6-1) defensive end in the NFL, given his 270-pound frame. North Carolina's Zach Brown, a more traditional 4-3 outside linebacker but a very good pass-rusher in his own right, appears to be rising up the board. The Buccaneers can certainly get a good scouting report on Brown from their new senior assistant to the head coach, former Tar Heels Head Coach Butch Davis.
Other linebackers who are well-regarded entering the spring and thus could flesh out the draft's depth in the second and third rounds include Stanford's Terrell Manning and Audie Cole, Cal's Mychal Kendricks, Oklahoma's Ronnell Lewis and West Virginia's Bruce Irvin.
If the prevailing opinion about the strength of this year's draft class at linebacker is shared by NFL scouts, this could be a very good year for teams to restock that position on the second day of the draft. The Buccaneers' high picks in the second and third rounds could help them get the cream of that crop, if they so choose.
- Tampa Bay's free agent history
The Bucs' most notable free agency decision at linebacker is covered in the introduction above, as the 1993 signing of Hardy Nickerson might still be the best FA acquisition in team history (the 2001 signings of Simeon Rice and Brad Johnson being the most notable competition for that honor). However, Tampa Bay actually made a habit of hitting on that position in the early days of free agency.
The Bucs nabbed Nickerson for the middle in 1993 and found their long-term answer on the weakside with Brooks in the 1995 draft. However, the strongside position in Monte Kiffin's defense was something of a revolving door, in part because it wasn't included in the nickel scheme and was thus the least important of the three starting spots. The Bucs used free agency to fill it repeatedly, usually with good results. Former Chief Lonnie Marts, signed in 1994, gave the Bucs a pass-rushing element from that position that they haven't had before or since. In 1997, it was Rufus Porter's turn, though that signing was less successful. Homegrown products Jeff Gooch, Quarles and Alshermond Singleton took turns at the spot, and then the team went back to free agency in 2004 for Ian Gold and again in 2007 for Cato June. Gold and June were reasonably productive for the Buccaneers but didn't stick around long.
In 2008, the Bucs tried to build depth at that position with the offseason signings of Matt McCoy, Leon Joe and Teddy Lehman, but only McCoy stuck, and mainly as a special teams player. Still, reserve linebackers can often make up the core of a team's special teams units, something to which the Buccaneers pay great attention, so similar signings could be on tap in 2012.
- 2011 Performance
Like the defensive backs and the linemen bracketing them, Tampa Bay's linebackers have to be judged based on the overall defensive results in 2011, which were not up to the franchise's usual standards. Most importantly, the Buccaneers finished last in the NFL in points allowed per game.
The other statistic worth noting in this evaluation is the frequency of big plays from the position. The Bucs' five primary linebackers – Foster, Black, Hayes, Hayward and Dekoda Watson – combined for two sacks and three interceptions in 2011, and the rookie Foster accounted for much of that during his hot start to the season.
That is not to say that the Buccaneers think their 2011 linebackers lack big-play ability. Hayes in particularly had shown such ability in 2010, particularly in pass coverage, and Black has shown signs throughout his career of being a potential impact pass-rusher. Whether it was scheme or something else, however, the expected results just were not there last fall.
Foster was given a difficult task in his debut campaign, starting at middle linebacker, and while his season was inconsistent he definitely appeared to be a player the team will build around. Foster did lead the team in tackles with 126, second-most ever by a Buccaneer rookie, and also had two sacks and an interception. As mentioned above, some believe Foster could play well on the outside, but he might also continue to develop in his original NFL position.
Hayward and Watson got several opportunities to play and looked promising at times. Hayward gives the Bucs a security blanket as he can capably fill in at all three positions. Like Black, Watson is a potential weapon as a third-down pass-rusher off the edge.
Summary: With Hayes headed for free agency and Foster just coming off his rookie campaign, the Buccaneers' linebacker position looks like it could be in a bit of a flux. That depends, of course, on whether the team attempts to re-sign Hayes and if it believes middle linebacker is still the optimum spot for Foster. The Bucs also have some acceptable depth at the position in Hayward and Watson, both of whom are still under contract. The 2012 field of draft-eligible linebackers is an intriguing group, however, and it appears as if multiple teams will be able to address that position in the first two days of the draft. Even those teams who don't make linebacker a first-round priority should be able to find intriguing options in the second and third rounds. If the Buccaneers choose to address the position in free agency instead, something they have done well in the past, they will find quite a few players who could step in and be productive right away. Overall, if the Buccaneers judge that they have a deficiency at the position, it appears as if there will be several attractive ways to address it.