This is the time of year when versatility becomes highly prized by NFL teams. Versatility saves roster spots, and it can save a player's job, as well. Or, as is often the case, one player's ability to fill several roles can keep a different player employed.
This year, one such player for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers is fifth-year linebacker Adam Hayward. Hayward's ever-growing repertoire on the Buccaneers' depth chart could very well impact how many linebackers the team needs to keep through Saturday's cut-down to 53 players. Hypothetically, if Tampa Bay had to devote one fewer of the those 53 spots to a linebacker, it could use it to keep a player who's on the bubble at a different position.
The Buccaneers won't announce or confirm any of their roster decisions until the league deadline on Saturday evening. Head Coach Raheem Morris stuck to that policy on Friday, speaking to the media a day after his team's preseason finale in Washington, in an effort to treat all of the young men involved fairly. However, Morris did discuss some of the players whose strong August performances are likely to impact how the regular-season roster is shaped.
Hayward plays significantly into the Bucs' roster strategy because the team now feels comfortable relying on him as depth at all three linebacker spots. In fact, Morris is so confident in Hayward's ability to handle just about any role in the defense that he paid him the ultimate "versatility" compliment on Friday, calling him the Buccaneers' defensive version of Earnest Graham.
That comparison, of course, is to the do-everything running back who Morris refers to almost exclusively as "Insurance Graham" at this point. Because Graham has, at one point or another in his career, proved fully competent as a starting tailback, a starting fullback, a short-yardage back, a third-down back and a player who could combine several of those roles on any given afternoon, he allows the team to go lighter in the offensive backfield if necessary. Hayward, too, keeps adding roles.
One need only look at the Buccaneers' season-ending depth charts for each of Hayward's four seasons in the league to know the type of cross-training he has done. As a rookie in 2007, he was listed as the primary backup to Derrick Brooks at weakside, or WILL, linebacker. In 2008, he was listed as the primary backup to Barrett Ruud at middle, or MIKE, linebacker. In 2009, he was listed as the primary backup to Quincy Black at strongside, or SAM, linebacker.
In 2010, Hayward spent much of the offseason working at middle linebacker, but in training camp moved back to SAM. This year, the team wants Hayward to know that MIKE job well, no matter where he is on the depth chart. That has been evident in the preseason, as Hayward has seen time in the middle in every game. In the finale on Thursday night, he started at MIKE despite being listed as the primary SAM backup, and contributed four tackles as the Bucs' kept the Redskins' rushing game in check during the first half.
"We developed Hayward here at the end as a backup MIKE," said Morris on Friday. "He also is a SAM, and he also plays WILL for us. Hayward is kind of Mr. Reliable. He's kind of that guy for us where he can just do just about anything. He can dominate special teams for me and then go out and play any position out there that we need him to play to get us out of a game or to start a game like he did last year at points and times."
As Morris points out, it's also worth noting that Hayward was the Buccaneers' special teams captain in 2010 and would be a great choice to fill that role again in 2011. He sets the tone for the Buccaneers' coverage units and takes that part of his job very seriously. Earlier in the week, as the team's greenest players prepared for their last opportunity to impress the coaches in the Washington game, Hayward put in extra time working with his young teammates on special teams, hoping he could help them secure their own roster spots.
The Buccaneers came out of the preseason feeling very good about their linebacking corps. The starting threesome is set, with rookie Mason Foster coming on strong to take the MIKE job. Black, the starter on the strong side once again, was impressive in August, too, and is now the team's defensive signal-caller. Black has taken on that role in large part because he stays on the field as the team's MIKE 'backer when they go to a nickel package, joining weakside starter Geno Hayes as the two linebackers on the field. Morris experimented with that dynamic early in camp and is pleased with how it has worked.
Furthermore, second-year player Dekoda Watson has emerged as a player that Morris essentially considers another starting linebacker. Watson backs up Black on the strong side but his primary role during the preseason has been as a stand-up pass-rusher in a formation the team calls its "Redskin" defense. Watson didn't play in Thursday's game but still finished the preseason with 2.5 sacks.
The Buccaneers were high on undrafted rookie Derrell Smith upon his arrival and, despite a minor injury suffered on Thursday, the coaches still like what he was able to do, meaning he could stick around as added depth. However the linebacking corps shapes up after final roster cuts on Saturday night, the team feels like it will come out of it with a strong group.
"D. Smith came in here and did a nice job of learning the position, having a serious demeanor over at MIKE and going out there and really competing to be his very best self," said Morris. "That position is one of the ones still up in question for what we're going to do, but I'm certainly happy with that top line, that top group of guys and what they've done this preseason and what they're going to be able to give us."
Of course, as good as Morris may feel about his starting trio of Black, Foster and Hayes, he knows the team must be prepared for any of the three being unavailable at some point during the season. That's why Hayward has developed into such a valuable player for the Bucs, and why he quietly plays a big role in his team's decision-making come cut-down time. This year, it is Hayward's newly-developed middle linebacker skills that are making a big difference.
"This year he's a lot more comfortable than he was last year," said Morris. "Playing MIKE is a big responsibility. It's a different type of a guy. It's a guy that can communicate, talk to his guys and still execute his job. That may take some time to grow on some things that you need to do. He's certainly has become a lot more comfortable in his role when he goes in to MIKE, being able to play that position."