Barrett Ruud is the one sure thing in the Buccaneers' linebacking corps this season
As in previous years, Buccaneers.com will use the weeks leading up to the NFL draft to take stock of each position on the team. We will look at the team's draft history at that position, recent additions, current depth and potential starters and what players might be available to the Buccaneers through free agency and the draft. As usual, this analysis is not intended to reflect the intentions or strategies of the team's personnel decision-makers. Today we focus on the linebacker position, where the Buccaneers have intriguing depth but several decisions to make in the starting lineup.
Whether or not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers choose to address their corps of linebackers in the upcoming draft, that position may just be the most extensively altered one on the depth chart by the time the regular season rolls around.
Two-thirds of the starting lineup at that spot will be new in 2009; that's a guarantee, and something the Bucs have only had to contemplate once in the last 15 years. One of the starters being replaced may just be the greatest player ever to wear a Buccaneer uniform. One of his possible replacements has never played the position before. Three other candidates have two or fewer years of NFL service and zero career starts. Two of the four free agents the Bucs have signed from other teams so far are linebackers.
Yes, the Buccaneers have a serious anchor in the middle of that unit in Barrett Ruud, the fifth-year star-in-the-making who will be entering his third full year as the starting middle linebacker. Ruud, in fact, is one of a handful of young players around which the team is clearly building its defense as it charts a new direction under first-year Head Coach Raheem Morris and first-year General Manager Mark Dominik. Who will be joining Ruud on defense and how the rest of the depth chart will look, however, is something that could take the next five months to shake out.
Linebacker has long been a position of strength for a Tampa Bay franchise that is in the early part of its fourth decade of play. The 1979 team that reached the NFC Championship Game in just the Bucs' fourth year of existence had an excellent starting foursome of David Lewis, Dewey Selmon, Richard Wood and Cecil Johnson. Some of the team's most successful draft picks through the years have been linebackers, from Scot Brantley to Hugh Green to Ervin Randle to Derrick Brooks and Ruud. Tampa Bay's first big foray into free agency in 1993 might still be its best signing ever: linebacker Hardy Nickerson.
With the collection of talent on hand in 2009, there is a good chance the Buccaneers will continue that strong tradition in the middle of their defense. But that will require several new contributors to step up, and that's what makes linebacker such an intriguing position in 2009. That departed all-time great is, of course, Brooks, the 11-time Pro Bowler who is undoubtedly headed to the Hall of Fame. His possible replacement is Jermaine Phillips, the team's starting strong safety but now perhaps a fast, hard-hitting linebacker much in mold of a Brooks or Nickerson. The three young hopefuls are 2007 and 2008 draftees Quincy Black, Adam Hayward and Geno Hayes. All of them have legitimate reason to believe they can win their first NFL starting gigs. And the free agent additions are former Buffalo Bill Angelo Crowell and former Denver Bronco Niko Koutouvides.
And perhaps there will be more names added to the group. The Bucs carried 11 linebackers on their expanded roster through much of last offseason, though that number was shaved to nine in time for training camp. They have nine at the moment, not counting Phillips. Even with the draft adding a handful of players, the Bucs will still have several roster spaces to fill in order to reach the 80-man offseason limit.
Before we delve further into other linebackers the Bucs could be looking to add, here's a look at who the team already has under contract (again, not including Phillips):
|**Linebackers Currently Under Contract**|
|**Player**||**Exp.**||**2008 (Tackles-Sacks-Ints.)**||**Career (Tackles-Sacks-Ints.)**|
|Quincy Black||3||2-0-0 (22)*||11-0-0 (39)*|
|Geno Hayes||2||8-0-0 (7)*||8-0-0 (7)*|
|Adam Hayward||3||5-0-0 (12)*||11-0-0 (23)*|
|Niko Koutouvides||6||2-0-0 (9)*||54-1.0-0 (69)*|
|Matt McCoy||5||3-0-0 (7)*||88-2.0-0 (43)*|
Numbers in parentheses are special teams tacklesSpent the 2008 season on injured reserve; career statistics compiled with the Buffalo Bills ^ - Johnson signed with the Buccaneers as a free agent on January 8, 2009. Joe's 2008 and career stats were accrued with the B.C. Lions of the Canadian Football League. + - Wilson signed with the Buccaneers on December 17, 2008 and was inactive for the last two games. His career stats were accrued with Chicago.*
None of the Buccaneers' unrestricted free agents entering the 2009 offseason were linebackers, but the Bucs did release Brooks and Cato June just before free agency. That essentially makes the two veteran linebackers unrestricted free agents, as they are free to sign with any team; the Buccaneers have said neither player will return to Tampa Bay's roster in 2009.
|**Free Agent Linebackers from the 2008 Buccaneers**|
|**Player**||**Exp.**||**2008 (Tackles-Sacks-Int)**||**Career (Tackles-Sacks-Int)**|
The Buccaneers finished in the top 10 in the NFL's defensive ranking for the 11th time in 12 years in 2008. Team management obviously felt that an overhaul was needed at the linebacker position, but it's safe to say that Ruud's play was one of the bright spots on another successful defense.
Here's a breakdown of some numbers relating to the linebacker position:
Linebacker Position Numbers: