What Jermaine Phillips does in training camp could affect the starting lineup at two positions
Last week, we introduced a short pre-training camp series on Buccaneers.com called "Hot Spots," in which we will look at a handful of positions on the depth chart that will find new starting names in 2009.
These aren't bold predictions of lineup overhaul but rather statements of fact. When Jeff Garcia departed via free agency this past spring, it didn't necessarily mean that there would be a quarterback battle in Tampa, but it did mean there would be a new starter under center in 2009.
There are no shortage of such positions for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this season, thanks to a series of conspicuous roster moves made earlier this year. For the purposes of this series, we counted 28 starting and high-impact non-starting positions (the 22 offensive and defensive starters plus the two kicker spots, two kick return spots, third wide receiver and nickel back) and found that at least nine would definitely have new occupants in 2009.
After opening with the left cornerback and nickel back spots and following with the third receiver job last week, we now consider a pair of positions that are connected by a single player who may be vacating one and taking over the other.
Strong safety Jermaine Phillips is one of the leading candidates to take over at weakside linebacker, a position that had been locked down for the past 14 seasons by the great Derrick Brooks. If Phillips does win that starting job, then the team will need to replace him at strong safety, where he has been starting essentially without interruption since 2005.
Hot Spots: Weakside Linebacker and Strong Safety
The Buccaneers have received very good production from these two positions in recent years. In fact, it's fair to say that few teams have ever gotten as much out of one position for such an uninterrupted period of time as Tampa Bay did at weakside linebacker from 1995-2008.
That was the result of Derrick Brooks' presence, of course. Brooks stepped right into the lineup as a rookie in 1995 and didn't leave it for the next 14 years, appearing in 224 straight regular-season games. That total is the franchise's all-time record for both overall games played and consecutive games played. Brooks also holds the team record for games started at 221; he was not on the field for the opening play during three of the 16 games in 1995, but once he became part of the nickel package in 1996 his streak of 208 straight starts began.
The Buccaneers won't be looking to replace Brooks, specifically, because that would be nearly impossible. Brooks finished his 14-year Tampa Bay run with 2,198 tackles, an average of 157 stops per year. He also intercepted 25 passes (almost two per year) and broke up another 135 (almost 10 per year), while adding 13.5 sacks and 25 forced fumbles.
As is evident in his statistics, Brooks was always used far more in coverage than he was as a pass-rusher. It's possible that the Buccaneers may be looking for more pressure out of that spot with the changes in the lineup and the base scheme. New coordinator Jim Bates has made it clear that his crew will aggressively look for ways to rush the passer.
It's uncertain how much of a weapon Phillips would be as a pass-rusher from the WLB slot. He has just three career sacks from the safety position. However, the team is confident that Phillips can provide the rugged and sure tackling they need out of their linebackers, and his coverage pedigree is obviously strong given his years as a defensive back. Even though the safety-to-linebacker experiment caught some observers by surprise, it's actually fairly natural for Phillips. At 6-2 and 230 pounds, he's a big safety and in the same general area as most of the Bucs' linebackers. Brooks, for instance, usually played a few pounds shy of 230 during his prime. Phillips has also long been known as a hard-hitter.
Of course, Phillips is not the only candidate for the weakside starting job; far from it. The Buccaneers are eager to see what they have in recent draft picks Quincy Black (2007 third round) and Geno Hayes (2008 sixth round) and both could figure into the competition. Hayes almost certainly will; he spent the spring running second-team at the weakside spot behind Phillips and was in that spot behind Brooks last year before Hayes' midseason injury. Black has figured in mostly on the strong side over the last several years, and this spring, but he could eventually be a consideration at the other outside spot, too. Black appears to have the speed and quickness that would make him a fit on the weak side.
Adam Hayward, a sixth-round pick in 2007 and another good special teams player, may start camp on the strong side but is versatile enough to play any of the three linebacking spots if the Bucs decide to take a look at that option. Fifth-year veteran Matt McCoy also figures into the mix on the weak side.
While Phillips has been running with the first-team linebacking corps, and spending all of his practice time at that position, third-year man Sabby Piscitelli has taken over at strong safety with the starting group. The Bucs have not been shy about their desire to get the young, playmaking safety on the field more and may look for ways to do so even if Phillips does not stay at linebacker.
Piscitelli looks like a very strong bet to replace Phillips in the starting lineup if that becomes necessary. Though much of his rookie season was lost to an injury in 2007, Piscitelli played extensively at strong safety during the second half of the 2008 campaign. He finished with 59 tackles, two interceptions and eight passes defensed, and the Buccaneers see the makings of a big-play producer in the third-year man. Though the final conclusion on Phillips' position switch won't be known for weeks, Piscitelli has prepared all offseason as if he'll be in the starting lineup.
He'll get competition, however, from Will Allen and Donte Nicholson, both of whom have been with the Buccaneers for a relatively long time. Allen was a starter in 2007 and for half of 2006, and while 21 of his 24 starts in that span came at free safety, he has long cross-trained at both spots. Nicholson, a fifth-round pick in 2005, has played mostly on special teams in his several stints with the Buccaneers.
Whoever replaces Phillips, if it comes to that, will also need to produce at a high level to keep the Buccaneers from losing ground at the position. Phillips has 320 tackles, nine interceptions, six forced fumbles and 23 passes defensed over the past three years, despite missing six games and large chunks of several others in that span. That's essentially five turnovers forced per season, a total Tampa Bay's defense can't afford to lose.
Of course, this is part of the new management's plan for the team's near future: Find out if young players like Piscitelli and Black and Hayes can produce in that manner. Piscitelli could get his chance right away; perhaps the other young players will, too.