The signing of former Atlanta Falcon Curtis Lofton to a five-year deal by New Orleans on Saturday means that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers seem committed to keeping Mason Foster at middle linebacker for a second year.
The reason? Aside from Seattle’s David Hawthorne, who hasn’t conjured up much interest in free agency, there aren’t any more experienced middle linebackers available on the market that seem to interest Tampa Bay.
Lofton landed in New Orleans, while the Falcons replaced him with former Seahawk Lofa Tatupu, who was signed off the street. Philadelphia traded for Texans middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans. Denver re-signed its middle linebacker, Joe Mays. Detroit re-signed Stephen Tulloch, and Washington is expected to re-sign London Fletcher.
So that leaves Foster, who started at middle linebacker during his rookie season, as the Bucs’ current signal caller on defense, which was something general manager Mark Dominik hinted at a few weeks ago after the team signed wide receiver Vincent Jackson, guard Carl Nicks and cornerback Eric Wright.
“I know we’re talking to the team about Mason Foster being the Mike linebacker of this team,” Dominik said. “And I think the coaching staff that has been in here evaluating that tape feels like he has a great opportunity to keep the green dot and stay as the middle linebacker.”
Dominik’s encouraging words and the team’s lack of action at the middle linebacker position in free agency has thrilled Foster this offseason.
“It’s definitely exciting,” Foster said. “We have a new coaching staff and for me to have guys that already believe in me it’s great. I’m looking forward to getting in the office when we are able to start watching film and talking X’s and O’s. We really didn’t have an offseason last year and that proved to me last year just how far you can get during the season with only a few months of working with the coaches. I tried to learn everything I could and get better in every single way. I just wanted to help the team win any way I could. I just want to win.”
Despite leading the team with 126 tackles during his first season in the NFL, while contributing four tackles for loss, two sacks, two passes defensed, one interception, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery, Foster has his share of critics. Tampa Bay’s run defense was the worst in the league with Foster in the middle last year, and for every tackle and splash play he made there seemed to be a tackle that he missed or a big play in the passing game that he gave up.
“It was definitely challenging,” Foster said. “I tried to do everything I could by going down to Bradenton before the season started for the [unofficial] mini-camp, but even doing that it was tough to get a real good grasp on everything. I was able to show the physical part of my play by hitting people and making plays. It was tough as the season went on and more and more stuff was thrown in. I’m not making any excuses, but I definitely feel like there was a lot on my plate. With all that was going on I just tried to stay positive and get better each week. At the end of the day, I’ve been working to get better this offseason and keep everything going.”
Foster’s critics must realize that he only played outside linebacker in college, and the first time he ever looked at the Buccaneers’ playbook was the first day of training camp due to the NFL lockout last spring and summer that robbed every club of its offseason program, mini-camps and OTAs (organized team activities). That was an unenviable position for any rookie to be in. Not only would Foster have to learn how to play a new position and learn how to play on a different level of football, he would also have to learn all of the other positions on defense and their responsibilities so that he could make the audible calls for the Buccaneers.
As a result of having all of that on his plate during his rookie season, Foster admits to being too hesitant, which affected his play.
“When I look back at the film I see me playing hesitant at times and not really trusting my first instinct, which is something I typically don’t do,” Foster said. “Anybody that watched me play in college knows that my instincts and my ability to play sideline-to-sideline are good. But there were times when I would second-guess myself and end up a step too slow. Much of it goes back to trusting yourself and I feel like with a year under my belt and learning from the coaches that I can only get better.”
That’s what new Buccaneers defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan believes. Sheridan was very high on Foster coming out of the University of Washington last year when he was the linebackers coach of the Miami Dolphins and believes that the year's worth of experience he gained in 2011 will benefit Foster in his second year at the position.
“I met him last year coming in before the draft,” Foster said. “He was a great guy back then and then I had a chance to talk to him the other day at [One Buccaneer Place]. He’s just a good guy. He asked me how I was doing and how my family was doing. I’m excited. I can’t wait to get into talking X’s and O’s with him and getting everything going.
“I remember sitting down with him in Miami because my first visit was to Miami. I was sitting in his office talking football for a long while and we also talked about life. I’m really excited that he got hired here and is going to be a part of this staff. He can help me get better and take my game to the next level.”
While Foster’s play was not up to his standards last year, he did make some plays against the run and the pass, and the fact that he led the team in tackles despite missing the second halves of three contests due to a bad ankle sprain early in the season is something he can build on as he heads into the middle linebacker position once again with more experience.
“No matter what was going on I always played hard regardless,” Foster said. “No matter if your ankle is a little sore, if you aren’t feeling well or if you are dealing with stuff from home, football is football. You can come and play and forget about everything else. Something I prided myself on was doing whatever I could to help my team win, whether it was interceptions, fumbles, sacks, tipped passes or pressures. That’s what I tried to do. Stats don’t mean a thing. I’m just trying to help us win.
“At the same time, I felt like I was learning more at the end of the season, and leading the team in tackles is a good accomplishment. Just playing in the league is a big accomplishment, but actually coming in and making plays for the team and leading the team in tackles is something that’s positive. Yet I can’t look at that as a good goal or that’s what I wanted. I think it’s a great way to start and look back and say I was banged up and things didn’t go the way I wanted to go, but I was able to have some level of success. I can keep working and do a lot better than that, but it’s a good way to start my career.”
While the Bucs don’t appear likely to sign a veteran middle linebacker this year, you can bet that Tampa Bay will draft one in April to compete with Foster in case he doesn’t show enough improvement in his second season at the position. Boston College’s Luke Kuechly is a player Tampa Bay has to be considering in the first round if the team moves down in a trade, and Alabama’s Dont’a Hightower will be available in the second round and Mychal Kendricks will likely be a third-round pick.
If Foster somehow loses out on the starting Mike job this season, he is open to playing one of the outside linebacker positions. Quincy Black is the current starting strongside (Sam) linebacker, but is overpaid and under-productive. Geno Hayes was the starting (Will) weakside linebacker and is an unrestricted free agent that was not given a contract offer and is not expected to return to Tampa Bay in 2012.
“I wish Geno the best,” Foster said. “He was a great teammate. My sophomore year I played Will and then my junior year I moved to Sam, guarding the tight end and playing down the line of scrimmage in the Under front. My senior year I moved back to Will and became an All-American. You just get a feel for the defense as a whole. Even coming into the Bucs this year coming straight into camp they had me learn all three positions. Once you learn Mike you pretty much learn the other two linebacker roles because you have to know what they are doing. Whatever happens in free agency or the draft happens.
“I’m ready to help the team win, whether it’s at Mike or Will or Sam or running down on kickoffs. Winning is the best feeling in the world. Winning in Tampa would be even better. I just can’t wait to get started and help this team win.”
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