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Tampa Bay’s starting linebacking corps was quite productive in 2004. In fact, Derrick Brooks, Shelton Quarles and Ian Gold finished the season ranked in that order in terms of tackles.

The 6-foot, 235-pound Brooks, Tampa Bay’s starting weakside linebacker, earned his eighth trip to the Pro Bowl last season by notching a team-high 172 tackles, three sacks, one interception and six passes defensed. Although he’s still one of the league’s best linebackers, Brooks, who turns 32 later this month, isn’t getting any younger and the Bucs are searching for his successor, especially since his cap value goes from $9.6 million this year to $11.6 million in 2006, a circumstance that could very well lead to his release or trade next year.

Despite the fact that he beat out Dwayne Rudd for the starting strongside job in 2003, Ryan Nece (6-3, 224) is playing behind Brooks on the weak side and is not in the competition for the SLB job, which was left open when the Bucs released Gold in a salary-cap maneuver last month.

Second-year LB Marquis Cooper (6-3, 227) and Jeff Gooch (5-11, 226) are competing for the starting “SAM” spot, and according to Bucs coaches, it’s going to be a stiff competition.

Gooch, who started at the “SAM” spot back in 1998, is considered the leading candidate because of his experience, but the Bucs would love to see Cooper beat him out so that Gooch can serve as a backup middle linebacker to Shelton Quarles like he did last season.

Cooper, the team’s third-round pick in 2004, is expected to push Gooch to the point where even if he doesn’t win the job, he could earn some playing time during games. And if Cooper doesn’t win the starting job this season, he’ll likely get it in 2006, which is when Gooch, whose cap value goes from $715,000 this year to $2 million in ’06, will probably be released.

Quarles (6-1, 225) may be entering his last season with Tampa Bay as well. He turns 34 in September and his cap value is scheduled to go from $3.475 million this year to $4.475 million in 2006. Quarles is still a good player, especially when it comes to pass coverage, where he’s often responsible for covering the deep, middle part of the field in Cover 2, but all of Tampa Bay’s linebackers need to play much better again the run, where the Bucs finished last season ranked 19th.

Also on Tampa Bay’s current roster are Josh Buhl (6-0, 210), Byron Hardman (6-1, 232) and Jermaine Taylor (5-10, 215), all of whom will have to make a big impact on special teams to earn a roster spot next season.

Tampa Bay has one of the fastest groups of linebackers in the NFL, but it’s also becoming one of the oldest with Brooks, Quarles and Gooch each approaching their mid 30s. That said, look for the Bucs to draft at least one linebacker later this month.

Although they probably won’t use their first-round pick on Texas’ Derrick Johnson, who is the top-rated LB in this year’s draft, the Bucs will likely draft a linebacker in the middle rounds, where USC’s Lofa Tatupu and Southern Mississippi’s Michael Boley, San Diego State’s Matt McCoy and Kirk Morrison, and Clemson’s Leroy Hill and Alabama’s Cornelius Wortham, both of whom participated at Senior Bowl, are projected to go.

Don’t rule out the possibility of Tampa Bay signing another linebacker via free agency, where St. Louis Rams LB Tommy Polley, 27, is still available and has significant experience playing in the Cover 2 defense.

Current Position Grade: B

Bucs Update Publishing Schedule (Dates Subject To Change)
April 12 – Cornerbacks
April 14 – Safeties
April 16 – Kickers/Punters

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