S Will Allen has proved capable of handling several different jobs in the Bucs' system
The fourth round of the NFL draft is a peculiar one. Right in the middle of a seven-round weekend, it's a bit beyond the point where teams feel certain of their decisions (though not always correctly so) and a bit early to take flyers on more marginal prospects.
It can produce an immediate starter, as it did for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this year in Wisconsin guard Dan Buenning, or it can turn up a player who never sticks in the league, as it did for the Bucs in 2002 with Tennessee running back Travis Stephens. Most teams hope to find a player who can contribute immediately on special teams and hopefully develop into a starter down the road, as the Bucs did with Temple linebacker Alshermond Singleton in 1997.
And the key to success in that endeavor is to identify players that fit your team's offensive or defensive systems. The "premier" athletes who are considered stars in the making no matter the system, a Michael Clayton or Warren Sapp, will be long gone. If you like fast and rangy middle linebackers, you don't take a massive, Levon Kirkland-type, and vice versa. You pick a player for your system, bring him in, give him a job and if he proves he can handle it, you've won.
And when you really won, when a fourth-round pick goes just right, is when your new man proves capable of handling more.
Will Allen may be one of those players. The Bucs are in the process of discovering that right now.
Allen is a 6-1, 200-pound safety out of Ohio State, a fourth-round pick last year. Instinctive, aggressive and quick, he was thought to be a good fit for the Bucs' cover-two base defense, which often uses both safeties back in a two-man zone. He only started one season at Ohio State, so the overall body of game tape on him was more limited than most, and scouting reports seemed to think of him as a free safety type who wouldn't necessarily intimidate enough to play up in the box.
Allen made the team as a rookie and succeeded in the first half of the young player formula, excelling on special teams. He played sparingly on defense and contributed four tackles, an interception and two passes defensed.
After the season, the Bucs declined to bring back John Howell, himself a fourth-round pick in 2000 and the team's primary backup at safety for the last few seasons. That made Allen the third safety behind starters Dexter Jackson and Jermaine Phillips, though the team did spend yet another fourth-round pick on a safety this year, picking up the hard-hitting Donte Nicholson from Oklahoma.
From day one, the Bucs have cross-trained Allen at both free and strong safety, in part because the two positions aren't radically different in Tampa Bay's defense, and in part because they want to be able to operate with only three safeties on the active roster on game day in many cases.
Allen responded fantastically, pushing Jackson for the starting free safety job and proving more than capable at strong safety behind Phillips.
"I've been doing a little both," he said. "You've got to be able to do both to play on this defense. You have to be able to defend the deep pass and you have to be able to play in the box. The coaches have been preparing me to do both since I've been here, since I became a Buccaneer. I'm glad they did because it's giving me opportunities and now I just have to take advantage of those opportunities."
Suddenly, the opportunities are piling up on each other. In Green Bay in Week Three, Jackson went down with a hamstring injury before halftime and Allen played the second half. All he did was intercept two Brett Favre passes in the fourth quarter as the Bucs barely held off the Packers, 17-16. Last week, with Jackson still ailing, Allen got the start at free safety and contributed seven tackles while helping hold Detroit to 13 points and 226 yards.
"I'm pretty happy with the way it went," said Allen of his game-and-a-half at free safety. "But I always feel like I can get better. There are some specific little things I can do to get better and put myself in position to make some more plays. It's all about working hard. I have to keep working hard in order to step my game up every week."
Now, with Jackson returning and Phillips likely out with a thumb injury, Allen will probably start at strong safety. While many of his overall duties will be the same, he'll definitely find himself around the line of scrimmage more often. That's where he'll have to prove he's more of a hitter than the scouts believed.
"[The switch to strong safety] is more of a mindset than anything else because I'm going to be more down in the box, so I've got to be a little more physical," he said. I'm always physical, but I've got to be even more so now. I just need to play my game. I'm just happy that I got another opportunity to play and to start. It's just another opportunity to show what I can do, to go out there and have fun and play hard for our defense."
The Bucs are confident in Allen after his strong training camp. In fact, during that camp they became impressed with his man-to-man coverage skills and even tried him out in some situations as the nickel back, covering the slot receiver. That experience has helped put him on the field for a few extra snaps this fall.
"I've played some man-to-man on some tight ends, and once or twice on the slot receivers," said Allen. "I've been successful so far. I just have to keep working on my technique, keep practicing hard, keep showing up in the games and everything else will take care of itself."
Young players tend to take their opportunities on the Bucs' defense seriously, as Allen seems to be doing. They won't last long if they don't because it's a proud unit with extremely high standards. After eight straight seasons in the league's top 10 in the defensive rankings, the Bucs are once again at number one with a quarter of the season gone. Always strong against the pass, they've jumped back to the top thanks to a revitalized run defense that has been a full-team undertaking. The Bucs' run defense needs contributions from everyone, including the defensive backs and especially the strong safety, to stay tight.
If Allen proves he can handle the strong safety job, too, it may be difficult to keep him off the field the rest of the way. Of course, it may be just as hard to find playing time for three different safeties who can flourish in the system. For the Bucs, that is, as they say, a good problem to have.
For Allen, it's something that's out of his control.
"That's not my decision," he said. "I just have to stay ready and produce when I get the chance. Of course I want to play. You want to contribute to the defense and help the team win. But everything's going to happen in perfect time, in God's time. I've just been patient, working hard and waiting for my opportunity."
Well, here comes another one.