On Tuesday, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers conducted their eighth organized team activity (OTA) workout of the offseason, and opened it to the media, there was a particular set of linebackers that took most of the first-team snaps. Veteran Quincy Black was on the strong side, second-year man Mason Foster was in the middle and rookie Lavonte David was on the weak side.
It's possible that this trio will be the starting unit when the 2012 regular season opens in September, but that's not the only combination that will get first-team looks between now and then. Head Coach Greg Schiano says the Bucs' coaching staff will continue to "mix and match" the linebacking crew in the coming weeks, and for one very good reason: They need comparable evidence to make the right decision in the end.
"Right now we're just kind of mixing and matching and seeing how the best combination [turns out]," said Schiano, who can also consider such LB assets as Adam Hayward, Najee Goode, Dekoda Watson and Rennie Curran, among others. "So much of the game is played in nickel, too, so now you only have two linebackers. We're just trying to figure out who the best three are, and if we go two who the best two are. To do that, you have to move guys around because you want to make sure they get opportunities so you're comparing apples to apples."
Black started the last three seasons at strongside linebacker for the Buccaneers but has always been considered a candidate on the weak side, where incumbent Geno Hayes has departed. And, of course, the team has a new defensive scheme under Schiano and company that likely has different definitions for the positions. More fluid, however, are the plans for Foster and David, young and versatile players who are capable of playing multiple positions.
Foster started at middle linebacker as a rookie but did see action on the outside at the University of Washington. He did not have the luxury of an offseason last year thanks to the league's labor discord, and thus his debut campaign was a trial by fire. Not only do the Bucs have a new coaching staff, but this is the first opportunity for any Tampa Bay coaches to work with Foster in the offseason to determine where he fits best.
Schiano says he has come into that particular process with an open mind and has resisted assuming that Foster would be better at one spot or another. There was quite a bit of post-2011 speculation that the team would shift Foster to the outside and find a new starter for the middle, but none of that has affected Schiano's thinking.
"I really didn't have a preconceived notion either way," said the coach. "I know he played the WILL linebacker in college in a similar scheme, not identical. But I still don't know where he'll end up, to be frank with you. He's been taking his reps at the MIKE, but I think we'll just wait and see on that. But I think he's a good football player, so that's going to help. You can't have enough of those."
Foster agrees that he missed a lot during last year's inactive offseason, and he's trying to make up for lost time. Right now, that means absorbing a new defense from several different perspectives.
"I've been playing in the middle, but at the same time, [Linebackers] Coach [Bob] Fraser is telling me to learn all three," he said. "You never know; everything's interchangeable. I feel like we've got a great group of guys, and whatever is the best group is what the coaches want.
"I'm very comfortable playing middle linebacker, but at the same time, I feel like we're all learning all the positions. If it was better the team for me to move somewhere else or do something else, I would do whatever I can to help the team. You pretty much have to learn all three. Playing MIKE, you have to know all three, so it goes hand-in-hand."
Schiano cautions that he can't really make a solid decision on the linebacker lineup until he sees his players put on pads and play some actual games in the preseason. Offseason rules under the new CBA rule out all contact on the practice field, so Foster and company aren't getting a chance to prove how good their tackling skills are. Still, the coach is definitely seeing progress from Foster this spring and summer.
"I think he's getting better every day, I really do," said Schiano. "I've been pleased. I was watching the tape last night, and he seems to be getting more comfortable in our defensive scheme, which is important. Again, we don't have pads on. One of the key elements of being a good linebacker is how good you can tackle."
At least there's NFL tape on Foster to study. For David, Schiano has to rely on his tape from the University of Nebraska and what he's seeing on the One Buc Place practice fields. The second-round pick has looked impressive on the field but is obviously still in the early stages of grasping the new defense.
"He has great acceleration and he's got a feel for the game of football," said Schiano. "What he needs to do is continue to learn our defensive scheme. And so does everybody else. Everybody's new, but he's a little newer than the other guys. He's working extremely hard. The rookies as a group, are working incredibly hard."
The exact makeup of the Buccaneers' linebacking corps for opening day is still undetermined. Every day, however, the situation gets closer to resolution.
"We've made a great deal of progress," said Foster. "From coming in when we were first allowed to start until now, you see guys [improving] physically, mentally and all around. We've got a great group of coaches and this is a great program, so I feel like we're going to keep progressing through camp."