Jeff Gooch (50) knows it's a good thing to be on the same starting linebacker crew as Derrick Brooks
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers know that Ian Gold left some big shoes to fill at the starting strongside linebacker spot, but at least there is no shortage of candidates.
If the season started today…well, it doesn't, and that's a good thing because the Bucs might need five months to sort out the battle between Jeff Gooch, Ryan Nece and Marquis Cooper. Any one of those three could conceivably win the job, and that's discounting any possible competition from the draft or the next few months of free agency.
"That will be competitive," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "I think all three of those guys are in the running for the outside linebacker position, although Ian Gold is a pretty tough guy to replace. He's a hell of a player."
In Gold's one season as a Buccaneer, he produced 120 tackles, 0.5 sacks, one interception and two passes defensed from the strongside spot. His tackle total, third-best on the team, is impressive on its own, and doubly so when you consider that he probably played only 50-60% of the team's defensive snaps in 2004. When the Bucs brought in an extra defensive back in the nickel package, Gold came off the field while Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles stayed in their usual nickel roles.
Between the three starters, the Bucs' linebacking corps recorded 455 tackles, seven sacks, two interceptions, three forced fumbles and 12 passes defensed. Brooks earned yet another Pro Bowl bid and Quarles performed as well as he had in his 2002 Pro Bowl campaign. As it has been for years, Tampa Bay's group of linebackers was one of the most productive position units in the NFL.
Thus, that strongside spot alongside Brooks and Quarles is a coveted position, and one that Gooch, Nece and Cooper are sure to pursue fiercely. Since all three are also very good special teamers and thus good candidates to make the 53-man roster, the Bucs' roster depth will be the ultimate winner of the competition.
Both Gooch and Nece have started at that position for the Buccaneers. Gooch, heading into his 10th NFL year, is the most seasoned of the three; he started at SLB in 1998, during his first stint with the team. After leaving for Detroit in 2002 and spending two years as one of the Lions' best special teamers, he returned to Tampa in 2004 and immediately impressed with his work in the Bucs' defense. Though Gold held onto the job, Gooch had the coaches' confidence at both outside positions.
Nece started at SLB in 2003, his second year with the team after making the roster as an undrafted free agent in 2002. Though the Buccaneers liked Nece's promise heading into 2003, they were worried about a knee injury and eventually signed Dwayne Rudd to be the strongside frontrunner. Instead, Nece won the job with an impressive training camp and filled it nicely with a 70-tackle, one-interception season while remaining a productive special teams player.
"[Nece] has proven he can play," said Gruden. "We like both those guys. And Marquis Cooper is a guy we drafted in the third round and has some versatility to play either side."
Walker is the wild card, the one player in the group who hasn't had the opportunity to show what he can do with the starting defense. Tall and rangy, the second-year player could end up as the primary backup to Brooks on the weak side or he could force his way into the starting group on the other end.
The competition will begin soon when the Bucs hold a series of non-mandatory practices in early April. A mini-camp and several weeks of 'organized team activity' days will follow before the battle really heats up in training camp.
At the moment, it's tough to call a winner. If the season started today…well, the Bucs would have a tough decision on their hands.
Walker Gives Back
Fifth-year tackle Kenyatta Walker recently did his part to help an organization that positively influenced him during his childhood. Growing up in Meridian, Mississippi, Walker was a member of the Boys & Girls Club of East Mississippi. He eventually graduated from being a member of the club to devoting his time as a volunteer.
Last month, the Kenyatta Walker Foundation gave the Boys & Girls Club of East Mississippi $10,000 to use towards operation of the club.
The gift wasn't surprising. In 2003, Walker was recognized by the Mississippi House of Legislators for the support he continuously provides to the citizens of his home state.
The team will begin its 14-week offseason strength and conditioning program on Monday. The program is voluntary but the Buccaneers have always had a high level of participation, thanks in part to the favorable training weather in Florida.
The program includes weightlifting sessions and running days, with some players working to recover from minor injuries or surgeries. Organized practices are not permitted by the NFL, but players are allowed to work one-on-one with their position coaches in the classroom or on the field.
The program runs through April and May and will conclude in the week of June 20-24.