The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made the largest splash in NFL free agency during week one but still have holes to fill. We know the Bucs will get stronger at either running back or defensive back in the draft, but pickings can get slim when it comes to other positions. There is no guarantee drafting a rookie linebacker is going to make the team better. Mason Foster stepped in year one and played very well, but his production level declined as the season wore on. The defense as a whole spiraled as injuries took their toll, leaving critics and fans believing a major re-haul is needed.
The Buccaneers do need a linebacker, if for nothing more than depth. The unit is now looking for someone to replace Geno Hayes and Quincy Black has been one of the most criticized players on the team this off-season. However, players do not forget how to play the game and it is very possible the new coaching regime will bring out dormant talent. Consider the following numbers for Black in 2011; 59 tackles, 2 passes defended, 1 interception and 1 forced fumble.
Those numbers are actually comparable to Jonathan Vilma, Manny Lawson, Barrett Ruud and DeMeco Ryans. In fact, Black outperformed all except for Ryans, who totaled only five more tackles but did not have the pass play numbers of Black. Every one of the names above have been mentioned by the Bucs faithful, yet on paper, they were weaker performers. If the Bucs defense can stay healthy up front this season, a bigger jump in performance would not be a stretch for Black and Foster.
Still, it does not erase the need for the last piece of the puzzle. Depth is sorely lacking at the position and it needs to be addressed.
Though most of the bigger names are gone, there is still value to be had. Here is a look at potential Linebacker fits within the Buccaneers projected schemes.
David Hawthorne (MLB, Seattle Seahawks): Hawthorne provides the best fit for the direction which the Buccaneers would like to pursue. His signing would move Mason Foster back to his natural outside role while providing the Bucs with one of the more consistent players in the middle. At only 26 years of age, Hawthorne would provide great value with long term security. Like Curtis Lofton, Hawthorne visited several teams, including the New Orleans Saints who passed on him. The Bucs are still in good salary cap position despite the big signings and could offer Hawthorne a deal he can’t refuse. The market for linebackers has been soft, Stephen Tulloch signing for $5 million in base salary per year. Curtis Lofton is likely to have signed for close to the same price, so Hawthorne would be a very reasonable contract for the Bucs to take on given the market compared to his talents. The only real concern with Hawthorne is not his talent, but if he can stay on the field and avoid injury.
London Fletcher (ILB, Washington Redskins): He will be 37 years old once the season starts, but much like Ronde Barber, age does not seem to be an issue. He is among the most disciplined linebackers in the league and would bring leadership to the position not had since Derrick Brooks. The only problem here is he would only be a temporary solution and that does not fit with the Bucs desire to build. He will come with a decent price tag as well, so if he were to get injured, the Bucs would be back to square one with lost money. The Washington Redskins have been unable to sign him due to the league imposed penalty for “overspending” in 2010 and a lawsuit is not likely to result in their favor. Though Fletcher would be as good an addition as any, there are other younger values for much cheaper.
Manny Lawson (OLB, Cincinnati Bengals): The Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders and Indianapolis Colts seem to all have the inside track on Lawson, but the run stuffing specialist could provide a need the Bucs have lacked in recent years. While he is a possibility, he is a long shot and would not provide the multi-dimensional tools the Bucs are looking for.
E.J. Henderson (MLB, Minnesota Vikings): He’s had over 100 tackles in four of his eight seasons but his upside ends there. Henderson has never been a “splash” play type of player so signing him might lack the edge the Bucs are looking for. It is very possible coach Greg Schiano could get Quincy Black to the level of consistent tackler, something Black should have been doing last year given his massive contract. Henderson would not be enough of an upgrade to warrant sliding Foster over while spending the extra money.
Channing Crowder (LB, Miami Dolphins): Crowder has played every position at linebacker but is a bit of a wildcard when it comes to his psyche. He did not play last season after his contract was terminated and claimed it was due to his wife being pregnant. Crowder has never been considered a game changer despite great athleticism. After a year off to renew his passion for the game, Crowder could be a low risk, high reward play should he pan out.
Chase Blackburn (LB, New York Giants): Blackburn was a hero after intercepting Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. Before that, he had only played 5 games during the season, but those five games were as productive as he’s seen in such a short stretch. Aside from the interception, he also recovered a fumble against the Green Bay Packers in the divisional playoff game. Blackburn seems intent on resurrecting his career, one which has been mostly as a reserve. The Giants have reportedly only offered him the league minimum so he would come at a very low price. He has shown ability to play in coverage and against the run, with a nose for the ball. He has very high upside in the right system and is reminiscent of a young Barrett Ruud with more upside. If nothing else, the Bucs could add him as a warm body who has more playoff experience than the whole linebacker unit combined. Of all the potential small name free agents still available, Blackburn could be a steal.
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