The Buccaneers defense hasn’t ranked higher than 17th in the league in total yards allowed since 2008, which was the last year with Jon Gruden as the head coach and Monte Kiffin as Tampa Bay’s defensive coordinator. The Bucs had the ninth-ranked total defense that year and finished with a 9-7 record.
It’s also the last year the Bucs had outstanding middle linebacker play, as Barrett Ruud totaled 137 tackles in 2008 while in his prime. As important as the three-technique defensive tackle and the weakside linebacker are to the Tampa 2 defense, the middle linebacker position is just as critical.
In Tampa Bay’s heyday of playoff revelry and Super Bowl contention in the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Bucs had the likes of Pro Bowlers Hardy Nickerson and Shelton Quarles patrolling the middle of the defense. Over the past four years, the Bucs converted Mason Foster, an outside linebacker at the University of Washington, to the role of middle linebacker with less than stellar results.
After the Bucs defense ranked 25th last year – down from ranking 17th in 2013 – Tampa Bay will be making a change at middle linebacker, signing former Dallas outside linebacker Bruce Carter to a four-year deal worth a reported $17 million with only the first year base salary of $4.25 million guaranteed, according to USA Today’s Pelissero. Carter has some experience in the middle, playing inside linebacker when the Cowboys ran a 3-4 defense in 2011 and ’12 before moving to weakside linebacker when Kiffin came to Dallas and switched the defense to a 4-3 Tampa 2 scheme.
Last year, Carter had his best season as a playmaker in the NFL as the Cowboys’ strongside linebacker where he recorded 68 tackles, broke up eight passes, picked off a career-high five passes, returning one for a touchdown, and notched one sack. Carter posted a career-high 96 tackles and two sacks in 2013 on the weak side of the defense, but he has yet to play middle linebacker in the Tampa 2 scheme.
That’s a bit of a concern because it took Foster a while to grasp it, and one could argue he never really mastered it or reached a Pro Bowl level. During his time in Tampa Bay, Foster tallied 343 tackles, 13 passes defensed, six sacks, five interceptions, including two that were returned for touchdowns, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
But Foster was seen as a liability in pass coverage at times, and he didn’t have the speed to keep up with elite tight ends down the middle of the field in pass coverage. Injuries limited him to just 10 games last year during Lovie Smith’s first season in Tampa Bay, and the conclusion that the front office and coaching staff reached was that Foster, the Bucs’ third-round pick in 2011, would not be re-signed and allowed to hit free agency.
Tampa Bay wanted to replace Foster with a faster, more athletic linebacker and got one in the muscle-bound, 6-foot-2, 230-pound Carter. The former second-round pick ran a 4.57 coming out of North Carolina. By comparison, Foster’s time in the 40-yard dash four years ago was 4.75.
This isn’t the first time the Bucs have had a stellar athlete in the Mike linebacker role. Quincy Black was a fast, chiseled athlete that looked the part and was named the starting middle linebacker in 2009 by head coach Raheem Morris, but he lacked the football I.Q. and instincts to play the position. Tampa Bay has to hope that’s not the case with Carter, but chances are that Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who is good friends with Smith, gave a good recommendation to the Bucs organization.
Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has always been fond of Carter, and would have liked to have re-signed him if not for more pressing salary cap issues surrounding the retaining of wide receiver Dez Bryant, who received the franchise tag, the re-signing of right tackle Doug Free and the pursuit of Pro Bowl running back DeMarco Murray. Last offseason, Jones said he believed Carter could be an “outstanding” linebacker in the NFL.
“We saw things, there’s an old adage, if you’ve seen him do it a few times, you know they can do it at least and you go from there,” Jones told the Dallas Morning News. “We know he can do what this defense calls for and be outstanding. We have some real reasons to be excited about him and certainly he’d be the first to say that he had some things that he’d like to take back.
“He’s going to become more of a pro and [have] more understanding about the kind of commitment and the kind of detail and preparation it takes and he’ll be a lot better for it. He’s got the other stuff that nobody can coach, and that is speed and physical assets.”
Transitioning to the responsibilities that come with playing the middle linebacker role will not be Carter’s only challenge. So will staying healthy for a full 16-game season, which he has yet to do in his career.
Carter, who was PewterReport.com’s top-ranked Bucs’ Best Bet at linebacker this offseason, missed six games his rookie season and five the following year. His healthiest season came in 2013 when he played in 15 games, but he missed three games last year with a quadriceps injury.
If he struggles as the team’s Mike linebacker the Bucs have some options. Weakside linebacker Lavonte David has called the plays before and operated as the quarterback of the defense. So has starting strongside linebacker Danny Lansanah, who got a few starts in the middle last year when Foster went down.
If Carter’s transition to Mike linebacker isn’t smooth the Bucs could use Lansanah in the middle on base defense with Carter as the Sam linebacker, and then have David and Carter as the linebackers in the nickel package.
But the plan heading into the offseason and training camp is that Nickerson, the team’s linebackers coach, get Carter prepared to be the man in the middle of the Bucs’ defense – and the middle linebacker that can bring Tampa Bay’s defense back to prominence as a top 10 unit.
Scott Reynolds is in his 23rd year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds enjoys giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: [email protected]
A word of warning folks- we need to chase Lovie out of town- sooner than later. reports are that Gholston is getting the boot and we are going to sign Conte – yet another failed Bear product…Lovies idea of success is to surround himself with his guys who are usually below average players- and he is now doing it with our roster. I believe guys aren’t wanting to come play in Tampa- not because our team sucks but because the coach does. I say this now- we will win no more than 6 games this season- regardless of who we draft and how good or bad he is…Lovie needs to get the boot- wish we could do it now and not at the end of another wasted season…The Conte signing is the writing on the wall folks- mark my words…
I think you are referring to Goldson – FS Dashon Goldson. I do however, feel your pain!
Sorry for the botched spelling- I’m just freakin spitting mad that our so called head coach continues to try and turn us into the bears south…He blows up the OL and leaves it in shambles- he brings in his chump QB,pays him a butt load to eat turf all season.HIS guys are all average to below average guys and he want to bring em to Tampa for what? A charity check? Our team needs a strong leader and someone who can build a winning team- Lovie is not the guy for the job.There was a reason he was out of football and that’s where the Glazers should have left him…if this is his idea of how to build a successful franchise,we are doomed…Maybe the reason Cole and others aren’t signing with Tampa isn’t because we suck but our coach does and he has a long history of it…say hello to a 6 win season and a draft pick in the top 5 again next year…wondering now how many of his other loser players will make their way onto our roster?
How great has Goldson looked while getting top safety pay? He isn’t leading the league or teams in anything but illegal hits. I thought when we signed him a few years ago he would lock it down, I am not satisfied. He deserves to go.
I can’t say that I’m all too thrilled with the way this FA is going. And I don’t mean the signing of LB Bruce Carter. He mat turn out to be a good LB.
I’m talking about the process – it feels strained and laborious. Almost like it’s difficult to get players to come here and when we get even a marginal player like Conte, who should be begging for a contract, it’s takes all day and I’m not sure it’s even done yet. Maybe he’s comatose from all those concussions and they can’t wake him up to sign the contract.
I won’t complain yet but going into FA I thought this would be easy – Get an experienced OT or OG , some D-Line help and someone in the secondary. Piece of cake!
I’m exhausted from sitting by my laptop following Twitter waiting for us to sign someone.
Maybe it’s once bitten, twice shy. They say a scalded cat is afraid of cold water. Or maybe the word is out and everybody wants a Michael Johnson deal – 7mil to just go away….not bad!
Or maybe it’s me! I haven’t seen a winning season in so long, that my patience has grown thin. Oh well, tomorrow may bring good news all my jitters will be for naught!
Go Bucs or something like that! lol.
You people keep referring to Conte as a marginal player…compare his stats and pay for the past 2 seasons against Hawk Goldson’s and THEN call him that with a str8 face…He’s no second coming of Lynch, but he knows his position and is fearless.
Picking up carter made sense- then it’s followed by conte- which is a head scratcher…he is a reckless player and is often injured- I don’t care what his stats were for the last two years in Chicago – I worry about his durability and his ability to contribute for a whole season . Dinged up players for the most part remain dinged up players. Goldson isn’t what he was in SF but don’t cut and then replace him with another player with issues.we might have saved some money but for what? To sign the Contes and other fallen bears? There aren’t enough draft picks to fill all the holes on our roster and we can’t continue to make lateral ( at best) moves and expect to turn the ship around.this team strikes out with big name FAs and leaves us scratching our heads with most others( stocker,really?!) for every Carter we sign ( who is good but no savior) we have several blah signings- and so it continues with yet another regime…
There is a reason we are constantly at the bottom of the barrel and it starts with the leadership of this team.our owners can fund and field a dominant soccer team but can’t build a football team to save their lives…they went and got one of the best coaches in the business for Man U then go out and grab a hyped up defensive coordinator( at best) who was out of football and gave him the keys to their football team..We are on the verge of making one of the most important draft picks for the most important position on the field and we are leaving it in the hands of a defensive coordinator who has zero track record with developing or finding any offensive talent…
We could trade the pick and add more picks that would likely pan out the same way the majority of his picks have…so stoked for next season !
Last yr we spent. This year were not. Were sitting out the first wave unlike last year When we plunged in. Blind for the most part. Both lovie and Licht have a much better understanding of what we need. I mean seriously, we had fa’s out the a** Lst yr. WInning the fa super bowl doesn’t always translate to super bowls In February. WAiting for the market to settle is the best choice this year. So let’s allow the dust to settle, pick up another fa or two, then draft our ads off. Get Winston, draft ol early and often, then continue to do homework after the draft and find those overlooked players That we will look at and say how wasn’t he drafted? We wanna see our ol get better, but throwing tons of cash cash at these guys hasn’t paid off. So I’d rather get players that are solid and reliable, then draft the faces of this team. Steelers do it, packers do it, patriots do it, Seahawks do it. See the trend?
I’m guessing here, of course, but I imagine that it must be a tough sell to get quality FA players to come to Tampa this year. More than usual, I’d say, and not just because the Bucs haven’t done much since Gruden got the boot.
I think the reason it’s so hard this year in particular is that everyone knows we’ll be taking a QB with the #1 overall draft pick. Whether it’s Winston (not my preference) or Mariota (my choice, but I doubt they’ll shock the world and take him), when you pick a guy that high, you’re going to probably start him by mid-season at the latest.
Now, if you’re a free agent player at this time of year, you’re at least on your second contract. That means that time is (in all probability) running out on your career. If I’m a player at the level where I get to actually choose where I want to play (versus a guy with few or maybe one option), I doubt I’d want to spend my last years in the league waiting for a rookie to develop. Sure, maybe that draft pick turns out to be the next Marino or Roethlisberger or Andrew Luck, but the odds are against that. More likely, with either QB, it takes at least a few years for him to flourish, by which time my career is pretty much over. I can understand why a lot of the UFA guys would rather try to sign with a team that’s a contender now. They may never get the chance otherwise.
None of these guys have made the final 53 so relax, we have a long way to go. Scott, does this signing change your draft board, since you had us taking a MLB with our second pick? If Carter is our new MIKE we can spend that pick on a Cam Erving, instead of someone elses garbage free agent.
Yes, with Carter in the fold, if the Bucs draft a MLB now it will be on Day 3 as a backup/insurance policy to groom behind Carter.
As far as Lovie bringing in his former players, what coach doesn’t do that? Remember who Schiano brought in? Chip Kelly now has 11 former Ducks on his team. Hell he just traded away one of the best R.B.’s in the league, for a former Duck who was injured last year!! Imagine if Lovie did that.
Exactly Surferdudes. Bringing in familiar faces is little more than acquiring 90 players for Training Camp and nothing to do with anointing any of them starters or, as you said, even taking a spot on the 53. Leonard Johnson and the like, still have to earn it.
This signing is a heartbreaker. Mason Foster’s days in Tampa will be remembered- no one has ever accused him of shying away from contact or not playing through the whistle. I’m not sold on carter as our MLB…he’s never played it before. I would like to see him play SAM and have LVD take over MLB in the dime and nickel so Lansanah or S. Anthony could play base defense MLB. This news of Conte signing is borderline disrepectful to the Tampa fan base. We go from bonecrushing Barron/goldson (who are not used right in lovie’s scheme) to Wright, McDougald and Conte the next year ???(Tandy is also in Lovie’s doghouse w/ half the team from the last regime b/c lovie didnt draft him). Did anyone watch the Greenbay vs Chicago game in week17 two years ago? Rodgers threw a 4Q game winning TD 60+ yards straight down the middle of the field to knock chicago out of the playoffs….conte was playing safety for the bears who blew the coverage (he didnt cover the seam). Here is the link http://www.nfl.com/videos/nfl-cant-miss-plays/0ap2000000306047/WK-17-Can-t-Miss-Play-Rodgers-stuns-Soldier-Field
I think I get what’s happening…L&L saw The Longest Yard over the winter and decided on a new strategy…bring in Winston (sounds like our pick), Hardy (the only thing that makes sense with releasing Johnson and not signing another DE), Rice (rumor is they are looking at RB), and AP too (why not double down on RBs), Incognito got a hard look last year so look for him to be coming to Tampa…and then we’ll unveil our new uniforms “more orange” to build on the movement back to orange last year…it sounds brilliant L&L, can’t imagine what could go wrong…
EastEndBoy, pretty funny. Looks like the Bucs might be trying to build an old fashioned CHAIN GANG. There is a rumor going around that the Bucs are looking to trade for AP.
No, Crem, we don’t need to chase Lovie out of town. This coach, his staff, and the front office need time to put everything together. This team needs stability and a bit of patience. Obviously, we’re all ready to see a strong, relevant Bucs squad back in the playoffs, but constantly swapping out different coaches with different philosophies is killing us. I’d like to think Marinelli gave us the green light on Carter, and Melton gives us a DT rotation with marginal drop-off after GMC. I know plenty of Bears fans – and they all hate Conte. Whatever. Safety is one of the LEAST valuable positions in a Tampa 2. When it’s working, the safeties make easy plays. That’s how a no name like Dexter Jackson became Super Bowl MVP in 2002 – the awesomeness of the D in front of him made his job a walk in the park. Let’s relax and see where we’re at in September.
Oh, and the Glazers struck out on their first choice to replace Sir Alex when they hired Moyes. They appear to have the guy they want now in Van Gaal. Sometimes these things take time.
I understand your point about Dexter…but a guy named John Lynch is going to the HoF having been a safety in our Tampa 2, so not sure it’s the LEAST valuable position…but I do agree having Sapp and Brooks made all the difference and hopefully McCoy and David will be the same.
I’m okay with all of these signings so far. I don’t like Carter as a MLB, but I do like him and he was a great blitzer at North Carolina. If he doesn’t work out at MLB he’ll provide great depth at both OLB spots. I don’t know why everyone is so down on the Conte signing. He’s a high former draft pick who knows the defense and has created turnovers in it. Specializing in making plays in the middle of the field is music to my ears with Greg Olsen over in Carolina. It he doesn’t work out it’s only a one year deal so who cares? I see Conte, Carter and Melton if nothing else as great depth and we haven’t had depth at any position in a long time.
@pewterpose- I see where you are coming from…I guess my post came at the knee jerk emotional period and I’m now at more of the acceptance phase,though I’m not a big fan of Lovie and his decision making…We will just have to wait until the season is underway to see if we are looking at a year of growth or another year of crap…I’m just so freak in tired of the crap- it takes a lot of the fun out of following a team sport…
When will we stop hearing about a linebacker covering the deep middle? I think it is the reason why we are last in defense every year. Keep Foster!
After our FA last year, L&L are doing exactly what they need to do. Avoid all the big money FAs and get some value guys that know the scheme. Worst case, Carter provides depth at LB. Conte and Melton are on 1 year contracts so if they don’t pan out they’re gone next year. We need to use our draft picks on the OL so these signings give us the flexibility to save picks and use our later picks on guys we can develop.
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