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Prior to the 2007 season, the Buccaneers revamped their linebacking corps. Longtime Buc Shelton Quarles retired and was replaced in the starting lineup by understudy Barrett Ruud. Tampa Bay also brought in a new strongside linebacker in Cato June. The new starters teamed with Derrick Brooks to form a very effective linebacking trio.
All members of the trio finished in the top three tacklers on the Buccaneers. Ruud led with 169, Brooks was second with 162, and June was tied with safety Jermaine Phillips with 120 tackles.
The improved play from the Tampa Bay's linebackers was critical in the Buccaneers jumping from the 17th ranked defense in the league in 2006, to the second-ranked defense in the league in 2007. The Bucs linebackers set the tone early for an excellent defensive season.
Ruud was selected as the NFC Defensive Player of the Month in September. In his 20 career starts, Ruud has averaged 10.8 tackles per start (215 tackles in those starts). Aside from his big tackle total, Ruud had three tackles for a loss, two interceptions, three forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, and four passes defensed. Ruud set a career high with 18 tackles against Tennessee on Oct. 14. Tampa Bay appears to be set for years to come with the 24-year-old Ruud.
Brooks, a Buccaneers great, stayed in the lineup and extended his consecutive games started streak to 192. Despite the fact that Brooks had his Pro Bowl streak snapped at 10, Brooks looked better in the 2007 season then he did in 2006. A look at his tackle numbers indicate that he was more productive with 12 more stops in 2007 (162-150). At times, the Buccaneers rotated Brooks out in favor of June on passing downs. This was done in order to keep him fresh throughout the game and over the course of the season. Brooks, 35, will be back in 2008 but at his age he is on a year-to-year basis with the team.
June was the most productive strongside Buccaneer linebacker since Ian Gold made 120 tackles in 2004. With his experience as a weakside linebacker for Indianapolis, June was rotated with Brooks in nickel situations and they formed an effective platoon. One interception and one forced fumble along with two passes defensed rounded out June's year for Tampa Bay. In the regular season finale against Carolina, June broke his foot, which forced him to miss the playoff game. June is viewed as Brooks successor at the Will (weakside) linebacker.
In the 2006 draft, Tampa Bay drafted linebackers Quincy Black and Adam Hayward in the third and sixth round, respectively. Both players contributed on special teams. Black was third on the team with 17 special teams tackles and a forced fumble (Kalvin Pearson was first with 21 and Maurice Stovall was second with 18). Hayward finished sixth with 11 special teams tackles.
Black seems to have a more secure future with Tampa Bay because he was a third-round draft pick last year. He could easily replace June on the strongside when June moves to replace Brooks. Currently, it is believed that Black is rehabbing an injury, because he was just observing organized team activities in the first week of April. Hayward is going to have to battle for a roster spot for a second straight training camp.
One player that Hayward will be battling is veteran linebacker Ryan Nece. Last year, Nece was valuable on special teams making 16 tackles, but he was not noticeable when he replaced the injured June or when he received other snaps. Nece will be in for a tough competition and it will be a challenge to earn a roster spot.
With the departure of backup linebacker Jeremiah Trotter, the Buccaneers sought to add to their depth by signing Matt McCoy from the New Orleans Saints, and Teddy Lehman from the Detroit Lions. Both players were second-round picks, and they both have the speed and athleticism that the Buccaneers look for in linebackers.
Interestingly, the Buccaneers switched their positions. McCoy had been an outside linebacker in Philadelphia and New Orleans, and now Tampa Bay is playing him as a middle linebacker. Lehman was a middle linebacker for Detroit and is now playing on the outside. At the OTAs, Pewter Report noticed Lehman filling in with the defense's starting unit at the strongside linebacker position for the injured June and Black.
Antoine Cash, Sam Olajubutu, and Leon Joe appear to be on the outside looking in. The training camp battle for the backup linebacker spots will make for the most heated competition on the team.
With the depth that Tampa Bay has at linebacker, if the Buccaneers select a linebacker in next weekend's draft it would most likely be with one of their later picks.
The Buccaneers would not draft a middle linebacker on the first day. Georgia Tech's Philip Wheeler and Miami's Tavares Gooden are two first-day linebackers that Tampa Bay likes, though. In the later rounds, a candidate would be Vanderbilt's Jonathan Goff. He has good athleticism, size, and made a ton of tackles (287).
For outside linebackers, the Buccaneers would consider Virginia Tech's Xavier Adibi in the second round. Adibi has great speed, which led him to make 291 career tackles. If Tampa Bay selects Adibi, he could be an eventual replacement for Brooks.
Late-round options include Colorado's Jordon Dizon, Kentucky's Wesley Woodyard, and Iowa State's Alvin Bowen. With 162 tackles, Dizon was named the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year. He's a leader with a non-stop motor. Woodyard is undersized, but was the leading tackler in the SEC over the past two seasons. Many analysts view him as a ‘tweener between linebacker and safety. Bowen is a leader with a high motor that lacks size and ideal speed.
Given the players coming back and the depth the Buccaneers have at linebacker, it would be surprising to see them select a linebacker in the draft.
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