View some select shots of the Buccaneer's linebackers.
Tampa Bay Buccaneer players report for training camp next week, and on July 30 they will hold their first open-to-the-public practice. Over the three weeks or so that follows, plus the overlapping month of preseason games, Buccaneer fans will have an opportunity to watch the 2016 team take shape right before their eyes.
They will also bear witness to the resolution of some very important questions for this Buccaneer team. In our last full week before the start of camp, we're taking a closer look at five of those questions. We've already touched on issues involving the wide receiver, defensive line, cornerback and kicker positions, and now we finish up with an examination of the battle among reserve linebackers.
5. Who will back up the starting linebacker trio?
At many positions on the Buccaneers' depth chart, there are questions heading into training camp about both the starting lineup and the entire shape of the unit. At linebacker, there is a sharp divide between those two topics. Though everyone will get an opportunity to compete for starting jobs, it seems nearly certain that the opening-day trio will be Lavonte David, Kwon Alexander and Daryl Smith. As for which three or four players will fill out the rest of the depth chart behind those three, we are miles away from certainty.
David is one of the very best 4-3 outside linebackers in the NFL and Alexander was a playmaking revelation at middle linebacker as a rookie. Smith, who came aboard as a free agent in the spring, has started 172 of his 174 NFL games and is conversant with Mike Smith's defensive system. Unseating any of those three would be a major challenge for the Bucs' seven other linebackers, who have made a total of two NFL starts between them.
There is also a sharp divide between those seven competitors for reserve linebacker roles. Three – Jeremiah George, Adarius Glanton and Josh Keyes – are all returning members of the 2015 team who have shown they can contribute on special teams. The other four – Micah Awe, Devante Bond, Cassanova McKinzy and Luke Rhodes – are rookies, and all but Bond were undrafted signees.
The first question that training camp and the preseason will answer is just how many linebackers the Bucs intend to keep. Six is a common total, but that number can sometimes swell to seven, and occasionally eight, if enough of the roster competitors prove to be core special teams players. The Bucs could also trim the linebacking corps down to just five players, but that's less likely as it's clear that a number of these players are strong contributors in kick coverage.
View the 2017 Buccaneers coaching staff.
The second question is whether any of the four rookies can prove they are more useful than the known commodities that are George, Glanton and Keyes. Those latter three were on the roster together for the last five games of 2015, and in each of those contests all three were kept among the active 45 players on game day. That is an obvious indication that all three were useful on special teams, especially since George and Glanton did not get any playing time on defense.
Keyes did, in two of the last three games, picking up 41 defensive snaps and getting a look on both the weak and strong sides. He contributed four tackles and one tackle for loss in the season finale against Carolina, and may be viewed as one of the reserves with a better chance to eventually contribute on defense.
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Bond is the one rookie linebacker who was drafted, picked up out of Oklahoma in the sixth round. His scouting report suggests he can make an immediate contribution on special teams, and he could be the player the team will groom to take over at SAM linebacker after what is probably going to be a relatively short stay in Tampa for Daryl Smith. However, it was Rhodes, a William & Mary product, who stood out during the team's offseason-capping mini-camp, as he was running with the second team at MIKE linebacker. Since most of the team's reserve linebackers profile more as outside-backer types, Rhodes ability to provide insurance in the middle could be a big advantage. Alabama's Cassanova McKinzy, the biggest of the four at 6-3 and 253 pounds, will probably get a shot in the middle, too.
All seven of those young linebackers will also be battling an invisible competitor in the NFL waiver wire, particularly after the entire league makes its "final" round of cuts on Labor Day weekend. That's how the Buccaneers added George last year, picking him over the likes of Jason Williams, who had gone through Tampa Bay's training camp. However, the Bucs appear to have enough linebacker talent on hand to be able to build a strong unit from within.
The good news for the young 'backers, particularly the rookies, is that there are more than 53 spots available. Whichever ones are cut, presuming they pass through waivers, could be strong candidates for the practice squad. Keyes, for instance, started last season on the practice squad after his own early-September waiver before eventually earning a promotion to the 53-man roster.
The mandated lack of contact in offseason workouts kept any of the seven reserve linebackers from rising far above his competitors, but that is about to change. In training camp, and especially on special teams plays in preseason games, the better players will find a way to stand out, and thus will clear up what is currently a very unpredictable portion of the depth chart.