Last fall, Danny Lansanah became the first player in Tampa Bay Buccaneers history to start a game at all three linebacker positions in the same season. That's a nice addendum to what was already a feel-good story about a player who spent four years out of the league and nearly gave up on his dream along the way.
It is also an indication that the Buccaneers ran into some injury trouble in the middle of their defense last year. This is not a terribly unusual occurrence; most teams get hit hard at one position or another during the course of a typical NFL season. When that happens, your depth is tested, and if you come up short you may find it difficult to win games.
Lansanah was a one-man band aid last year, but this season his position coach, Hardy Nickerson, would like to give him the opportunity to focus on one specific position: SAM, or strongside linebacker. If injuries strike that position again in 2015 (knock on wood that they do not) Nickerson doesn't think they'll need to lean so heavily on Lansanah's versatility again. That's because his group looks significantly deeper in May of 2015 than it did just one year ago.
"I think our depth this year is much better than it was last year, just looking at the whole group," said Nickerson. "We're pretty tight throughout the whole group. Where there could be some falloff from the fourth spot to the ninth spot, now we're pretty tight all the way through. It's going to be exciting to watch the guys compete and see how this thing shakes out."
So Lansanah can focus on protecting one specific spot in the lineup, most likely fending off a challenge from rookie linebacker Kwon Alexander on the strong side. The weakside (or WILL) position is in good hands with Lavonte David, perhaps the best 4-3 outside 'backer in the game, and the first crack at middle linebacker (or MIKE) is likely to go to key free agent acquisition Bruce Carter, though Nickerson cautions that there is no depth chart at this point in the offseason.
"We tell the guys to focus in one spot, because that's the optimal thing, to have a guy focusing [on one]," said Nickerson. "It's hard to learn one position, two on top of that is even more difficult, and trying to learn all three is just a lot. That's something that kind of fell on Danny's shoulders last year, and he operated pretty well with it, but we'd like for the guys to focus in on one position. Even though they're learning one position, it's taught so that they understand the big picture around them."
The Buccaneers' current linebacking corps runs 11 men deep, though Nickerson hasn't had much time yet to evaluate undrafted rookies Quinton Alston, Josh Keyes and Jared Koster. That is probably the number the team will take to training camp, plus or minus one or two. In the regular season, depending upon how many of the linebackers become core special teamers, that group could stand anywhere between five and eight, though six or seven is more likely. Trimming that crew down at the end of the preseason may be difficult because the Bucs have steadily added linebackers they like over the last six months.
It started in the middle of last season, when Tampa Bay plucked Orie Lemon off of Kansas City's practice squad in a response to that aforementioned run of linebacker injuries. Lemon was already familiar with the Buccaneers' defensive scheme thanks to the several years he spent with the Dallas Cowboys, and he was expected to contribute right away on special teams. In December, the Bucs put Brandon Magee on injured reserve and replaced him by picking up former Carolina Panther Jason Williams, who had been released a week earlier. Williams quickly made a very positive impression with a string of notable plays on special teams.
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The 2015 free agency period yielded Carter as well as Larry Dean, a smaller, quicker linebacker in the Buccaneers' mold. Nickerson was also the only defensive coach on the Bucs' staff to get some help in the draft, as Alexander was snapped up in the fourth round. Then, just last week, Tampa Bay took advantage of the pole position it will maintain in the waiver order until well into September by claiming Khaseem Greene after he was let go by the Chicago Bears.
Now Nickerson gets to have all of those players on the field together, and while there won't be any jobs won in May, the offseason work sets the groundwork for what will eventually be a very deep competition.
"Everybody's working," said Nickerson. "We're getting everybody up to speed, getting them ready to go, so when it's time for us to get going everybody's out there in a position where they can show their best."
Carter and Alexander are the headline additions to Nickerson's group, given the sizeable contract the team gave to the former and the Bucs' belief that they got a fourth-round steal in the former LSU standout. However, the team is high on the potential of players like Williams and Greene, and Lansanah's emergence in 2014 is a reminder that starters can come from anywhere.
"You just never know," said Nickerson. "Danny's a prime example of a guy who has a lot of talent, has some playmaking ability. Maybe he didn't have the opportunities early on in his career but he stuck with it and kept fighting and his opportunity came up and he made the most of it."
Nickerson is pleased with the Bucs' linebacker depth not just because it gives him some pleasantly difficult decisions to make but because it can positively impact special teams outcomes as well. If the Bucs do choose to let their linebacking corps run deep on the 53-man roster – which necessarily will come at the expense of another position on the depth chart – it will be because many of them are important to the kick-and-coverage game.
"The more the guys can do is just going to help us, and it's going to help them in terms of where they stand on the team," said Nickerson. "Special teams are big, especially for our group. I tell the guys all the time that we have a definite impact on two-thirds of the game, and that's special teams and what we do on defense as a corps."