While not closing the door on free agent Barrett Ruud's return, Bucs head coach and defensive coordinator Raheem Morris heaped lots of praise on rookie Mason Foster and Tyrone McKenzie, who are battling for Tampa Bay's starting middle linebacker job.
While it appears Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik has turned the corner on bringing linebacker Barrett Rudd back, head coach Raheem Morris left the door slightly cracked open, while addressing the media for the first time in training camp on Friday.
“You never close the door on anything,’’ Morris said. “All those guys are always in negotiations, that’s truly a Mark [Dominik] thing. With everything being so close together (free agency and training camp overlapping), it is a little bit different than it has been [in past seasons]. I’m optimistic. I’m a coach, though. Whoever is sitting in those seats (in the classroom) are the guys I’m going to coach.”
Ruud, who is entering his seventh NFL season, expressed his desire for a contract extension over the last two training camps, but the Bucs held firm and denied him a new deal. With his contract expired at the end of the 2010 season, Ruud’s situation has been a hot topic with fans on sports talk radio and on Internet forums.
With the selection of Mason Foster out of Washington in the third-round of the 2011 NFL Draft, it appears the team is prepared to move on. Morris refused to compare Ruud with Foster, or Tyrone McKenzie, who was brought in midway through the 2010 season and started off on the practice squad.
“Unfair question. Barrett has a bunch of games under his belt,” said Morris, when asked what skills Foster and McKenzie may have over Ruud. “[McKenzie and Foster] bring a wealth of inexperience. They bring youth and they bring eagerness to go out there and win football games. It’s hard to say what they bring that Barrett doesn’t [have]. I can tell you what Foster does well and I can tell you what McKenzie does well, but to word it like that and make it come out to say what Barrett can’t do, would be wrong, and an inaccurate statement.
“Obviously, I would not try to make either one of those players Barrett Ruud. That would be foolish on my part. Barrett Ruud has a unique talent and ability to do certain things. I wouldn’t ask those guys to do that right away. We didn’t ask Barrett to do that right away, to be fair. To get those guys out there, when they play, they will have the proper plan for the individual. It’s no different than a quarterback.”
Ruud has led Tampa Bay in tackles the last four seasons, and in 2010, the 6-foot-1, 242-pounder topped all Buccaneers defenders with 161 stops, two sacks, two forced fumbles and one interception. Ruud’s strengths have been his toughness and dependability, along with his ability to drop into coverage. His perceived weaknesses, which are constant complaint by fans on local talk radio shows, are the lack of splash plays, and lack of physicality at the point of attack.
While many assume Foster is the heir apparent to Ruud and the middle linebacker spot, Morris made it clear McKenzie is in the mix. Morris spoke about both young players.
“Tyrone was always interesting,” Morris said. “He came here in the middle of last year. He’s a serious, young individual that is a local, homegrown talent that we liked a lot. He chose to come here from New England. You know his story.”
In his first season with the Buccaneers, McKenzie tallied three tackles on defense in spot duty during the last two games of the season, in addition to five stops on special teams.
Originally a third-round pick in the 2009 NFL Draft by New England, McKenzie tore his anterior cruciate ligament during the training camp of his rookie season and was placed on injured reserve. When the Patriots drafted Brandon Spikes in the second round in 2010 to pair with Jerod Mayo as McKenzie was coming off his ACL tear, the future of the former Riverview, Fla. product was in doubt in New England.
McKenzie made it through training camp after rehabbing his knee in 2010, but was placed on the Patriots practice squad last year. Sensing that his opportunity to start in New England had vanished with the drafting of Spikes, McKenzie asked head coach Bill Belichick to release him from the practice squad with the hope that he could sign with his hometown Buccaneers after starring at Raymond James Stadium for two years as a member of the South Florida Bulls.
Following one year each at Michigan State and Iowa State before transferring back to Tampa Bay to finish his collegiate career on an NCAA hardship waiver and working to support his widowed mother, who had been in a serious car accident, McKenzie starred for the Bulls immediately. He became one of the most productive players in the program’s history, leading the team in tackles in each of his two seasons, and totaling 237 stops, which is the most tackles ever by a USF player over a two-year period, and was a first-team All-Big East performer as a senior in 2008.
Morris also heaped praise on Foster, who was the first rookie to be signed from Tampa Bay’s 2011 draft class.
“To bring in a guy like Foster, who is another serious demeanor kid and has the ability to play a lot of positions and really has the mental capacity to play the Mike linebacker position, is exciting,” said Morris.
In 2010, Foster was the nation’s second-leading tackler during his senior season, recording 163 stops, 14 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, three passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one blocked kick for the University of Washington. During his Huskies career, Foster amassed 378 tackles, 36.5 tackles for loss, 11 passes defensed, 10.5 sacks, eight interceptions and one blocked kick.
“It’s no different than [undrafted free agent linebacker from Syracuse] Derrell Smith and some of those other guys that we may have in that room,” Morris said. “It’s a great challenge to me as a defensive coordinator and head coach. I look at it more as exciting and a challenge for these young men to go out there and compete. I think they look at it the same way. I think they look at it as an opportunity to go out there and play.”– Scott Reynolds contributed to this report
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