Three-time Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks has continued the Bucs' strong tradition at linebacker
As any longtime Buccaneer fan knows, linebackers have often been the heart of Tampa Bay's team. That has certainly been true in recent seasons, with Pro Bowlers Derrick Brooks and Hardy Nickerson leading one of the NFL's best defenses of the late '90s. The Bucs' linebacking lineage continues back quite a bit from those two, through such recent standouts as Lonnie Marts and Broderick Thomas and on to the likes of Hugh Green, David Lewis, Richard Wood, Jeff Davis, Scot Brantley and Cecil Johnson.
Clearly, the Buccaneers have had good fortune drafting and acquiring talent at the linebacker position. Whether they will test their abilities at that spot again this April 15 and 16, when the NFL conducts its 64th annual draft, remains to be seen. Tampa Bay's player personnel department understandably keeps its pre-draft opinions and strategies close to the vest, and Buccaneers.com will not speculate on those issues. However, we can take this time before the draft to analyze what the Buccaneers have at each position to lay a framework for that eventual mid-April news.
The second in a series of position-by-position analyses, this article will focus on the team's linebacking corps. First, some numbers that we will apply to each position (contract situations as of 3/13):
Starting spots/Returning starters currently under contract: 3/2
Total players under contract: 9
Unrestricted/Restricted free agents: 1/0
Relevant 1999 NFL rankings: Tampa Bay ranked 3rd in overall defense, 5th in rushing defense, 1st in first downs allowed
1999 Pro Bowlers/AP All Pros: 2/1
First-round draft picks spent on the position in team history: 4
Overall draft picks spent on the position in the last five years: 4
Obviously, the player not returning to his starting spot in 2000 will be middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, who signed with the Jacksonville Jaguars as an unrestricted free agent. Even with Nickerson's departure, the team still has a deep linebacking corps, with nine players under contract, not including long-snapper Mitch Palmer. Five of those players have NFL starting experience, including third-year Vanderbilt grad Jamie Duncan, who will take over for Nickerson. Duncan started the final six games of his 1998 rookie season as Nickerson was battling pericarditis, a period in which the Bucs' defense improved from sixth in the league to second.
The Bucs other two starters are firmly entrenched after fine 1999 seasons. Brooks was voted to his third consecutive Pro Bowl, where he started at weakside linebacker for the NFC, and was a first-team AP All-Pro selection. He is in the absolute upper echelon of NFL linebackers, as evidenced by the votes he garnered for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award, which went to teammate Warren Sapp. Strongside backer Shelton Quarles earned a surprise elevation to that role over incumbent Jeff Gooch in training camp, then produced an outstanding season, starting all 16 games and posting 57 tackles. Gooch also remains with the team, as does fourth-year player Alshermond Singleton, a top-notch athlete who shared some of Quarles strongside duties last year. The only 1999 linebacker other than Nickerson whose contract expired at the end of the season is unrestricted free agent Don Davis, a special teams standout.
Despite their good results at that position, or perhaps because of them, the Buccaneers have drafted just one linebacker – Duncan – in the last two years and just two in the last four. Duncan was chosen in the third round in 1998 while Singleton came in as a fourth-rounder in '97. The last linebacker taken by Tampa Bay in the first round was, of course, Brooks, who came in as a dual package with Sapp in 1995. The only other linebacker drafted by the Bucs in the last five years was Clemson's Wardell Rouse in the sixth round in 1995. Rouse played just one season, appearing in 16 games with one start.
In the past, the Bucs also exercised first-round picks on linebackers Hugh Green (1981), Broderick Thomas (1989) and Keith McCants (1990), with mixed results. Green appeared in two Pro Bowls for the Bucs and went on to a long NFL career. Thomas had several outstanding seasons in Tampa Bay but McCants, who moved between linebacker and defensive end, never found a permanent position to call his own.
Only two linebackers were selected in the first round of last year's draft – Chris Claiborne by Detroit and Al Wilson by Denver – but both were starters by season's end. It is not often a dominant position in the first round; only four linebackers were taken that high in '98 and three in '97.
Again, Buccaneers.com offers no speculation on which players or positions the team is actually considering. Among the names often indicated as likely early-round picks are Penn State's Lavar Arrington, New Mexico's Brian Urlacher, Michigan State's Julian Peterson, Tennessee's Raynoch Thompson, Syracuse's Keith Bulluck and California's Matt Beck.
The Buccaneers have also had good success in recent years with undrafted linebackers, such as Quarles, who came to the team from the Canadian League, and Gooch, who was picked up out of Austin Peay in 1996. The depth that such players have provided leaves the Buccaneers in a good position heading into this year's draft; linebacker may not appear to be the team's number one need in April, but the Bucs can still keep their eye on that 'best available player'.