The NFL lockout has had wide-ranging affects for all that are involved in professional football from the owners and teams that have seen season tickets slow due to the uncertainty of the upcoming season, to the players that have been forced to work out or rehab their injuries on their own this offseason, which could affect the quality of on-field play and the number of injuries in 2011.
The lockout has been especially hard for rookies like Tampa Bay’s third-round draft pick, linebacker Mason Foster, for a number of reasons. The first of which is that he has not signed a contract with the Buccaneers, which has forced Foster to stay in the state of Washington and train at his alma mater, the University of Washington.
In a non-lockout year, the Buccaneers will typically put rookies up in nearby hotels at the team’s expense for the rookie mini-camp and the duration of the team’s offseason workouts, OTAs (organized team activities) and mandatory mini-camp. Food will also be taken care of for the players, as breakfast, lunch and dinner are provided for them in the dining hall at One Buccaneer Place.
Without a signing bonus, Foster would have to shell out thousands of dollars out of his own pocket for airfare, lodging and meals to live in Tampa and wait for the workout to end, so he has opted to stay in Seattle and do his training there as he is technically unemployed due to the lockout.
“It’s been disappointing because you want to get in and meet all the older guys and get in there and learn,” Foster said. “I want to get as much knowledge from them as I can. It also hurts you financially because you really can’t do anything yet. But at the same time, I try not to worry about things I can’t control. I’m just working out as hard as I can so when the lockout is over I’m going to be on top of my game physically so I can be ready to go. I’m just trying to ignore it and work out. I’m in Seattle right now working out with a couple of guys like safety Nick Williams. I’m working out up here with my old strength coach. He’s got a great program and I’m working out as hard as I can. When the lockout is over, I’ll be on my way to Tampa.”
The second way in which the lockout has been detrimental to rookies is that with each passing day and OTA session that is lost this offseason, the uphill climb becomes higher and higher for players like Foster. The Bucs drafted Foster to play middle linebacker and possibly be an option to replace free agent linebacker Barrett Ruud as early as this year.
However, instead of learning the playbook and getting fundamentals work from Tampa Bay’s coaches over the past two months, Foster and other rookies will have to likely wait until training camp starts in August to get their first taste of the playbook, which will put them even further behind the veterans than usual.
“It’s definitely going to be tough for me and all rookies,” Foster said. “We have to wait for this lockout to be over so we can go in and really start learning the defense right away, especially as a middle linebacker because you have to make all the calls. At the same time, I feel like I’m prepared for this and I’m a quick learner. I feel like I’ll be able to come in and pick it up quickly, but at the same time it would be nice to be in OTAs and learn from the other guys that are there and have a playbook to read at night. You just have to do whatever you can in the weight room to get better every day.”
The lockout may indeed increase the chances of the team re-signing Ruud when free agency eventually happens because Foster may be less prepared because of not having the rookie mini-camp, the OTAs and the mandatory mini-camp to learn the system and the schemes. At the same time, he emphatically stated not to count him out of the mix to start in 2011.
“No, it’s not too late for me, although there are a lot of great linebackers there right now,” Foster said. “At the same time, I’m confident in my abilities. Even if I don’t get the chance to start this year I’m going to play as hard as I can and be a great backup and be a great special teams player. I’m going to do whatever it takes to help the team win. I’m a big team player. I’m definitely going to come in and try as hard as possible to win that starting spot, but if not, I’m going to be there in practice working every single day to get that spot or make the guy in front of me better. I want to win no matter what it takes. I just want to win.”
The Huskies standout helped turn the Washington program around during his tenure in Seattle. Last year, the 6-foot-1, 245-pounder was the second-leading tackler in the nation with 163 stops, 14 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one blocked kick. During his Huskies career, the playmaking Foster, recorded 378 tackles, 38.5 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, 11 pass breakups, eight forced fumbles, four interceptions, one blocked kick and one defensive touchdown.
One of Mason’s strengths is shedding blocks, which then allows him to use his superior instincts to find the ballcarrier and rack up the tackles.
“His instincts and his use of hands in terms of being able to get off blocks and shed [intrigued us the most]. He’s very physical,” said Bucs general manager Mark Dominik after drafting Mason in the third round. “He’s a powerful tackler. He has a lot of tackles for losses in his career. He’s had eight forced fumbles. He’s got [four] career interceptions. I think he was second in the country this year in total tackles. He was a captain on their football team. All of those things are what we’re looking for in Tampa Bay Buccaneers and we’re excited about this pick as well.”
Foster has used this offseason to continue to work on his hands and shedding blocks, which is something Tampa Bay’s linebackers did not well enough last season as the Buccaneers were 28th in the league in run defense.
“I’ve worked on my striking ability a lot over my four-year career at Washington,” Foster said. “My linebackers coach came in from the St. Louis Rams my junior year and that was a big thing that he stressed. It was a big focal point for him. He wanted us to really strike people and use your hat and your hands to get off blocks. That’s something I work on every single day, even up here. I work on shedding blocks. I’m up here working on my hands and working on pass rush moves. I’m trying to be as physical and as explosive as possible. That’s something you can always work on. If I can do that and use my instincts too, I’m going to be making a lot of plays for Tampa Bay.”
Although he is 2,500 miles from his fellow Buccaneers, Foster has been in contact with several of his new teammates.
“For the most part I’ve only talked to a few guys,” Foster said. “E.J. Biggers and Geno Hayes – I talk to those guys the most. A couple of the offensive linemen have hit me up and congratulated me on Twitter, but that’s it. It sounds like the team has a lot of hard-working guys.
“I’ve had guys call me after the draft and congratulate me. I’ve mostly talked to them through social media like Twitter. The guys seem really cool. I’m excited for this lockout to be over so I can get down there and get working. I can’t wait to get down there.”
And when Foster eventually makes it to Tampa he will see a handful of familiar faces.
“I played against Sammie Stroughter and he’s also from Northern California. I know him,” Foster said. “I played against him at Oregon State. I played against Brian Price at UCLA. He’s a big guy. I remember him. I went on my pre-draft trip to New Orleans with Adrian Clayborn, and he’s a great guy. I got to know him. I trained with Da’Quan Bowers in L.A. before the draft and got to spend a lot of time with him. He works really hard and he’s a great person to have around. I’m excited for our draft class. I met Ahmad [Black] and Luke Stocker at the Senior Bowl. We’ve got a great class of guys that work hard.
“I met [linebackers] Coach [Joe] Baker during the spring and he seems like a good guy. I’m ready to go. They are building a great defense down there in Tampa and I think I fit in pretty good. I’m excited to be a part of this and hopefully the lockout ends sooner rather than later.”
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