LBs Quincy Black (58) and Adam Hayward (57) hope to add to their roles on special teams in 2009
Last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers revealed that veteran safety Jermaine Phillips is learning some new tricks, potentially joining the competition for the starting spot at weakside linebacker.
The same day, the Buccaneers announced the signing of former Buffalo Bills linebacker Angelo Crowell, who will compete for the open job on the strong side.
And make no mistake, there is a competition.
The Buccaneers created two openings in the starting defensive 11 when they released linebackers Derrick Brooks and Cato June in February. But even before the new assignment for Phillips or the new address for Crowell, the team had intriguing options for the starting lineup at One Buccaneer Place; in fact, that was a major factor in the very difficult decision to let Brooks and June go.
Chief among those options are a trio of young linebackers who were drafted by the Buccaneers in 2007 and 2008. Tampa Bay added Quincy Black and Adam Hayward in the third and sixth rounds in '07, respectively, and then nabbed Geno Hayes in the sixth round last April. All three quickly became key special teams players and all three have athletic potential that intrigues the team's coaching staff.
All three also had a valuable opportunity to learn from Brooks for either one season or two, and they are excited about the possibility of upholding the great tradition of excellence at linebacker that Brooks helped establish in Tampa.
"It's exciting," Hayward admitted. "Quincy and I talk about it all the time. The way it happened was shocking, but in this business it happens. We couldn't have asked for a better time, because we both grinded for two years, special teams, doing everything they asked. Finally, we're going to get a chance. We're going to go out there and do the best we can with the chance we're given and let the coaches decide what they want to do.
Hayward has seen time at weakside and middle linebacker in training camp and on the practice field. Black has been slotted on the strong side on the Bucs' depth chart but is probably capable of playing either outside spot. Hayes was Brooks' primary backup on the weak side on last year's depth chart before he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
With the middle level of Tampa Bay's defense currently in a more serious state of flux than it has been in a long time, those three young 'backers know that anything is possible where the 2009 depth chart is concerned.
"It's a big thing right now," said Hayes. "It's a very good opportunity for all of us. We're going to have to have a lot of young guys step up into some big shoes right now, but we're not going to try to be anybody else. We'll remain in ourselves and just go out and compete and help our team win. That's what we're working on right now, learning the new system that we have and keeping everything kind of simple so we don't have any problems."
As Hayes attests, the Bucs' linebackers have a bigger issue at hand before they can worry about sorting out the starting lineup. For the first time since 1996, the team has a new base defense, as long-time coordinator Monte Kiffin has departed. Jim Bates, he of the very successful and aggressive systems in Miami and Green Bay, has taken his place and all of Tampa Bay's defenders are working hard to absorb the new defense.
"We're just learning right now," said Black. "We sit around and go over our assignments. Right now, we have to learn what we're doing on each play. We're drilling it in, trying to get that down. You want to make sure you have your assignments down."
The new coaches and new system doesn't exactly wipe the slate clean; for example, it's safe to say that Barrett Ruud's experience as an NFL starter the last two years makes him more of a sure thing, for instance. Still, this is obviously a time of transition for the defense, and the young linebackers know that increases the scope of their opportunity.
"The whole experience thing does play some part, but it all comes down to knowing your job," said Hayes. "You have to make plays and know what you're doing out there.
"I have to be more accountable. I can't have missed assignments, anything like that. I have to be more responsible for my position and know my job. That's one of the biggest things I have to work on."
Black, Hayward and Hayes, as mentioned, were three of the Bucs' most productive special teams players in 2008, not surprising given the impressive size/speed traits that they share. At the very least, they are likely to remain at the core of the kicking game units. But things are a little different at One Buc Place these days, and the three young linebackers are excited by what they see.
"It changes everything; your whole mentality is different," said Hayes. "You're that much hungrier because you're that close to getting the job. I just want to do everything right that the coaches want so I can lock that job down and go out there and play."