General manager Mark Dominik and the Buccaneers took a gamble letting former middle linebacker Barrett Ruud walk in free agency in August, choosing not to re-sign Tampa Bay’s leading tackler over the last four seasons at the start of training camp. After selecting Mason Foster in the third round of the 2011 NFL Draft, the torch was essentially passed. Through four games not many people can honestly say they knew Foster would play this well -- including Foster.
“I was concerned, anybody who says they wouldn’t be concerned is lying,” Foster said. “But I knew the one thing I could control was my effort. I wanted to come in here and try and be physical and things would click later on. When I first came in here I just wanted to show the coaches I was physical.
“I knew I would have to come in and compete regardless, even if Barrett stayed. With Tyrone [McKenzie], I knew I would have to compete. And it just came down to digging deep and just never giving up. That is something I pride myself on. Perseverance. I knew things weren’t always going to go right.
“I approached it that if I wasn’t going to start, I wanted to be the best backup linebacker in the league, the best kickoff cover man in the league or whatever. And I still have that same attitude today.”
Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris has liked what he has seen from his rookie middle linebacker.
“He came in here and we all knew he was a good player based on our draft evaluation,” Morris said. “We all knew he was smart based on our interview and everything he was able to do in our interview evaluation. We all knew he had the makeup of a Mike (middle linebacker). We all knew he can come in here and handle the base Mike and then he got here and showed us he can handle that. He has just taken it to a whole new level.
“I didn’t know about his cool, calm, collected demeanor. He is kind of like Free (quarterback Josh Freeman) when it comes to that. He is a hard kid to yell at. Even when he makes a mistake it is, ‘How are you supposed to know that?’ You get teachable moments with him and he is a joy and a pleasure to work with.
“I don’t even know if I have ever seen him raise his voice other than on the football field. He has a lot of hand movements and I am not sure what his mouth is saying out there, but I never hear him say it in practice. I never hear him say it off the field, but I love the way he plays. He plays with a nasty temperament that his head coach loves and I am sure his organization does, too. He certainly fits the billing of the Mike linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.”
Foster has improved dramatically from the first preseason game up until now. Through the first four games Foster leads the Buccaneers with 34 tackles, is tied for first on the team with two sacks and has a forced fumble. Arguably, Foster is already an upgrade at the middle linebacker position, and he has already taken away the middle linebacker duties in nickel defense from veteran and team captain Quincy Black.
“I feel like I have progressed a lot personally, “ Foster said. “Things are still tough out there. Every game is a big challenge. But as far as being able to control my emotions, not being too nervous or not being too down on certain plays, I’m starting to understand to just keep a level head. Things are starting to flow a little easier for me.”
Morris already knows he can trust Foster.
“I don’t know if I can be any higher at this point as far as confidence,” Morris said. “I don’t know what he can’t do right now. I'm searching because I'm putting him in to do different levels every week. I'm blitzing him, I'm dropping him in coverage, I'm letting him check defenses. He's checking things back from the defense that I might have said on the sideline. He just handles everything with a nice, cool, calm, [and] collected demeanor. He has always asked you the question of, 'What do you want here coach?' Then he tries to give it to me. If he makes a mistake at that he is easily able to correct it. I've got all the faith and confidence in the world when you are talking to a guy like that. It's the guys who get erratic and just make stuff up that bother you and he has none of that in him.”
Foster and the Buccaneers are young and the former Washington Husky was smart to find himself someone he could confide in while facing the ups and downs of being a rookie.
“Adam (Hayward) is definitely like a big brother to me,” Foster said. “You know he plays all positions and can talk to me about anything. I know if I have any problems I can go to him and talk about whatever. So he's there to help me with new defenses, what to look for against this team … that is definitely the person I am leaning on. Geno [Hayes] and Quincy [Black], but mainly Adam.”
Growing up in California, Foster had his share of professional role models but said he can't be those players.
“I watch all the linebackers,” Foster said. “For the most part I just try and be the best I can be. Growing up I loved watching Junior Seau and Derrick Brooks. All the guys in the league try and bring something different to the game, but for the most part I just try and do me and play as hard as possible and let my motor speak for itself."