Replacing a full-time, four-year starter with an unproven rookie is surely an exercise in faith. The value of experience in the NFL is immense, and throwing a youngster into the fire on Day One of his NFL career can yield unpredictable results.
When that rookie plays a position as critical as middle linebacker – the "quarterback" of the defense, if you will – the question marks only grow larger. Does he have what it takes? Will he be overwhelmed? Can he handle the responsibilities? Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris has been answering these questions – in the affirmative, it should be noted – since training camp began and the Bucs evaluated their options for replacing the departed Barrett Ruud.
Morris and the Buccaneers believe Mason Foster, a third-round draft pick brought in potentially to replace Ruud, can answer those questions himself without flinching, beginning Sunday when Tampa Bay kicks off its 2011 season against the Detroit Lions.
Foster believes it, too.
A 6-2, 242-pound University of Washington product, Foster was a first-team All American in 2010 and a full-time starter for the Huskies his final three seasons. He was a tackling machine, with 378 in 50 career games, and a big-play maker as well, as evidenced by his 6.5 sacks last fall. After such a productive and decorated collegiate career, Foster already had an internal belief that he could start immediately in the NFL, but he never took for granted that such a vision would actually become a reality. No rookie coming into the league can assume such an opportunity will be waiting for him.
"I'd be lying if I said I didn't envision being a starter," Foster said. "It's a goal, something you strive for, no matter how far-fetched it might have been before you got drafted. You like to envision yourself being the best you can be and coming in starting. But when I came here I just wanted to come in and play as hard as I could and do whatever I can to help the team win, and I still have that same attitude."
The first step in the process was an abbreviated offseason – training camp started pretty much immediately after five months of labor impasse – and the usual four preseason contests. Foster picked up some starting experience in those games, and with a steady dose of film study and a heavy reliance on his coaches and teammates, he feels ready to assume his role at the heart of the Bucs defense. He thinks his play will put to rest any lingering doubts about placing such a burden on a rookie middle linebacker.
"I'm definitely more comfortable now [after the preseason]," Foster said. "I'm ready to go. I've been studying film every night, listening to the older guys, taking their advice as much as possible throughout the preseason, and I feel well-prepared. We've got great coaches here and the game plan is great, so I'm ready to play."
Foster has the benefit of playing between two outside linebackers who are both young and, while established starters, aren't far removed from their own ascendance to the starting lineup. To one side is fourth-year man Geno Hayes, a full-time starter for the last two seasons, and to the other is Quincy Black, a fifth-year veteran who has also been atop the depth chart for the last two years.
His fellow starting 'backers, in addition to a cast of other defensive teammates around him, have made Foster's transition into the NFL as smooth as possible – both on the field and off. Reserve linebacker Adam Hayward, the Bucs' special teams captain, has been a big help as well.
"[Hayes and Adams] helped me out getting comfortable just being down here in Tampa," Foster said. "Adam Hayward and everybody else, they all made me feel comfortable and helped me out with the plays, with everything. A lot of stuff I'm doing now is because of the things they've done that helped me get there."
Being a solid starter is one thing, but middle linebackers are often called on to be leaders of their defensive units. With his NFL career in its infancy, to expect Foster to immediately assume such a vocal role on the Bucs defense would be unfair, if not presumptuous, considering the presence of veterans like Ronde Barber and Sean Jones on the unit. And the Bucs are easing Foster's merge into the starting defense by putting the play-calling duties on Black, and asking Black to play the 'MIKE' position in the nickel defense instead of the rookie.
Still, Foster plays a position that demands a high level of knowledge and, at times, the direction of surrounding teammate. The requirements of the job and Foster's own confidence in what he can do help him believe that he can be a leader on the defense even at a young age.
"I feel like even though I'm a rookie, being thrown into the middle linebacker spot you have to automatically accept a leadership role, even if it may not be a vocal leader," said Foster. "You have to be out there making checks. I try to be out there and practice as hard as I can and listen to everybody and be a sponge – listen to Ronde, listen to Aqib [Talib], listen to E.J. [Biggers], listen to Sean. I just try to listen to everybody and lead by example and follow Quincy and do what he does, talk a lot out there and make the checks. I get more comfortable each and every day."
Foster isn't the only young defensive player the Bucs will be counting on to produce in 2011. Other than Barber (a 15th-year veteran) and Jones (eighth year), the Bucs don't have a single player at the top of the depth chart at any defensive position with more than five years of NFL experience, and will also feature two rookies (Foster and first-round pick defensive end Adrian Clayborn). In addition, none of the Bucs currently listed on the second team have been in the league more than five years either.
So what exactly is it that leads Foster to believe this young-across-the-board unit can find success?
"First off, we've got great coaches and great leaders," Foster said. "And, like Coach Morris says, everybody's hungry. Everybody wants to find their role. If it's running down on special teams, if it's coming in on nickel, everybody, every single person in this locker room, even on the practice squad, wants to find a role and do their role the best they can possibly do it.
"So that's what makes me feel confident. I know everybody has the same mindset. Everybody wants to be the best and everybody is trying to be the best, and everybody is going to do whatever they can to help this team win."
That quest begins Sunday, when the Buccaneers open the 2011 season in front of thousands of rabid fans at Raymond James Stadium. For Foster, those initial few steps onto the field for his first regular season NFL game – as a starter, no less – will be memorable ones.
"I can't wait," Foster said. "The biggest thing for me ever since I was a little kid is going out there and hitting somebody first. That's going to be the biggest thing, getting that first hit out of the way. Like they said, it's going to be a lot different than the preseason. This is real football now. But I'm going to go out there and have fun, try to have fun with it. It's football and I love football, so I want to go out there and have fun and get that first hit out of the way, and I think I'll be alright."