The greatest battle of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2015 training camp may have been won during the offseason.
The Buccaneers felt as if they got a major steal in the fourth round of this year's NFL Draft when LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander fell into their laps. Alexander profiled as a classic 4-3 outside linebacker, and he was joining a team that had All-Pro Lavonte David holding down the weakside (or WILL) spot. That seemed to make it pretty clear that Alexander would compete for the starting strongside (or SAM) linebacker spot with nominal incumbent Danny Lansanah.
Instead, the rookie 'backer has played in the middle (or MIKE) since camp began, working on the second team behind starter Bruce Carter, a 2015 free agency addition. That move sprang from some good work Alexander did in the MIKE role in nickel packages in the spring, but one can't help but read it as a major vote of confidence for Lansanah. It was a vote well-earned after a phenomenal spring for the former journeyman.
"Danny had a great spring, great offseason," said Buccaneers Linebackers Coach Hardy Nickerson. "He's come into camp in great shape. He does everything the right way, and he also has a knack for making those big plays. It seemed like he was getting a pick a day during OTAs. He came into camp ready and he's getting better every day."
Indeed, Lansanah's turnover-causing proclivities during the offseason prompted Carter – who just happened to lead all NFL linebackers in interceptions in 2014 - to label his new teammate as the "interception master." As it turns out, those picks have eluded Lansanah since training camp began, but that hasn't done anything to slow his 2015 momentum.
"It's going pretty solid," said Lansanah of his second Buccaneers training camp, after he was signed off the New York Jets' practice squad late in 2013. "I haven't gotten any interceptions yet, but it's going well. I'm in the best shape of my life, I weigh 230, and I'm flying around. I think the whole defense is looking good, coming together well. We're starting to jell and pick up the scheme that Coach Lovie is teaching."
Lansanah was a reserve linebacker and special teamer after his first Buccaneers training camp, as the 2014 season began. Eventually, however, he found a significant amount of playing time thanks to unrest at the SAM position and a string of injuries throughout the linebacking corps. Before the 2014 season was all said and done, Lansanah had become the first player in team history to start at all three linebacker positions in a 4-3 front, and he had also picked off three passes, ranking second in the league to Carter in that category at his position.
The 29-year-old Lansanah had notably spent four seasons out of the NFL before the Jets brought him back to the league in 2013, so his 2014 campaign in Tampa was a major revelation. It was also part of a rather remarkable fall, as he also celebrated the birth of his first child, son Dillon, the day after a Bucs game in October. Lansanah decided that his evolving life off the field meant he couldn't change his underdog approach on it.
"I've always been the underdog so I come out here with the same approach, just working hard every day, trying to get better for myself and my teammates," he said. "At the end of the day, if I get better, I get better for my teammates, and my family. I've heard people say it all the time, that when you have kids your whole perspective on life changes. I didn't know that until I had my son; now I'm just out here grinding for him, trying to make a better life for him. My perspective has changed dramatically.
Photos of fans at training camp at One Buccaneer Place on August 7, 2015.
"I wouldn't say that I'm an underdog now, but I'm not someone to get complacent. I'm going to come out here and give my all every day and do what the coaches ask me to do. That's always been my character."
Buccaneer fans wondered if Lansanah was emphasizing his underdog status when he tweeted about career obstacles on the same day the Buccaneers drafted Alexander. In fact, Lansanah wasn't even watching the draft at the time; rather, he was enjoying a meal at Chipotle when he got to thinking about his career goals. He has since formed a bond with his rookie teammate, even feeling as if Alexander is something like a younger brother to him.
"People doubted me my whole life, especially being out of the league for four years," said Lansanah. "I went to interview for jobs and I told people that I was trying to get back into the league and they told me that people that have been out as long as me never get back. All of that is still in the back of my mind each and every day. Now I have this opportunity and I can't let it go like I did in the past."
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The versatility that Lansanah showed in 2014 might have made him the perfect backup linebacker for the Buccaneers in 2015, especially with the addition of a big young talent through the draft. Instead, Lansanah has fought hard to establish himself as a starter.
"He's probably more like a WILL linebacker playing SAM," said Nickerson. "I think he's a very good fit at SAM. He's good in coverage, has range, he's smart, he understands what we're trying to do. And he has a knack for taking the ball away."
Additional notes from Friday's practice:
- The Buccaneers had blessedly few injury woes during the first week of training camp, even though veteran safety Chris Conte (knee) went back to inactivity after getting a little work in on Thursday.
Two notable names joined the list of sidelined players on Saturday as the second week of camp began, but neither is a major concern going forward.
Starting left guard Logan Mankins was held out of action on Saturday, but that was simply a nod to his veteran status. He isn't injured, and he won't be the last veteran to get an occasional day off over the three weeks of camp. Starting left defensive end George Johnson also sat out with what Head Coach Lovie Smith called "general soreness."
"The good part about training camp, we haven't had any major injuries," said Smith, whose team will hold a morning workout on Sunday before a players' day off on Monday. "Hopefully tomorrow we will get some of the guys back. Throughout, we will give some of the different guys vet days off."
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy appeared to be in some pain after a play late in Saturday's practice, holding his left arm between spans but then getting right back into his three-point stance for the next rep. Smith immediately brushed off a question about McCoy possibly suffering a "stinger."
"I wouldn't say stinger," said Smith. "You ever have your elbow hit? No big deal at all. Not a stinger. He should be good to go."
Second-year man Kadeem Edwards played left guard with the first-team line in Mankins' absence. The team mixed its defensive ends around a little bit more during the two-plus hours of work on Saturday, but Larry English got the majority of first-line work in Johnson's stead.
- Lovie Smith teams don't engage in much live tackling in training camp, but the Bucs did have a pretty physical period just before the end of Saturday's practice, with the offense lining up inside its own one-yard line, trying to get out of that hole. This is usually referred to as a "backed-up" drill for the offense.
McCoy unsurprisingly made his mark on the first play of this drill, breaking immediately through the line to hit the running back just behind the goal line. The back eventually managed to get out of safety territory, but it's difficult to gauge how a play like this would really pan out if it was fully live. Two plays later, the outcome was a little more clear, as quarterback Jameis Winston hit fellow rookie Kenny Bell on a perfect out route near the left sideline for an apparent first down. McCoy was visibly displeased with that result as he came off the field.
- CB Sterling Moore had a strong practice, highlighted by a diving interception on a tipped pass. Moore also had a break-up in the end zone during a red zone period, as the team spent a lot of time in that part of the field on Saturday.
"We've seen that, him being able to make plays," said Smith. "He is a smart football player. He knows how to get in good position. A couple of times, Sterling and Mike [Evans] – of course Mike Evans, there is a little bit of a [height] difference there, but Sterling knows how to use his body. Again, as I said, he's a smart football player. We're noticing him every day."