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Jimmy Wilkerson got the fresh start he was looking for when he signed with Tampa Bay as a free agent during the 2008 offseason.
One year later, Wilkerson has a fresh start again, but it might not be one he was looking for.
After failing to record a single sack himself, and combining for just one sack in his first five seasons in Kansas City, Wilkerson had an impressive debut as a Buccaneer, recording five sacks, which was just 1.5 behind team sack leader and former first-round pick Gaines Adams.
But much has changed since the end of the Bucs' season. Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is gone, and so is his Tampa 2 scheme, which Wilkerson thrived in.
Now Wilkerson and his teammates are learning the new defensive scheme Jim Bates is in the process of implementing in Tampa Bay. It's still a 4-3 system, but gone are the under and nose tackle positions, which the 6-foot-2, 290-pound Wilkerson played at times during the '08 season.
But Wilkerson is choosing to view the changes to Tampa Bay's defense as positive ones.
"I look at it as a good thing," said Wilkerson. "Everybody that comes in here now is on a level playing field. We're all learning together right now."
Wilkerson's point is a good one. He also proved that he is a quick learner by becoming one of Tampa Bay's better and more consistent pass rushers in his first year with the Bucs.
"I think , and it also goes back to experience," said Wilkerson. "You understand how to learn a new system and digest the different words and relate it to things you've learned before."
In addition to his five sacks, Wilkerson, who is competing with Stylez G. White for the starting left defensive end job, also notched 28 tackles and one forced fumble in 2008. Bates has been impressed with what he has seen from the 2003 sixth-round draft pick out of Oklahoma on tape and the practice field.
"Yes very much so," Bates said when asked if he was intrigued by Wilkerson. "Just watching the tape from the season he is a very good football player for us. He can play defensive end, he can play inside and be an excellent rusher. There is a lot of versatility that Jimmy brings to the table."
Wilkerson likes what he's seen from Bates and his new defensive scheme, which puts extra emphasis on rushing the passer with defensive ends.
"He's full of energy," Wilkerson said of Bates. "I told him that I'm very excited about this defensive scheme and I'm ready to go. I'm just looking forward to showing him what I can do."
Wilkerson, 28, could be called on to play defensive tackle or end, and said Bates will implement a new game plan with different player responsibilities each week. His role and production will help dictate his future in Tampa Bay. Wilkerson signed a two-year contract with the Bucs. He is in the final year of his deal, which will pay him $1.75 million.
"I'm not worried about the contract right now," said Wilkerson. "I'll let that play itself out. If I perform the way I know I can perform the contract will take care of itself. My job is to focus on learning the scheme and compete for the starting job."
Politics could also determine Wilkerson's role this year and future beyond this season. The Bucs are believed to be in the market for defensive line help, and head coach Raheem Morris confirmed what PewterReport.com has suggested this offseason, which is that the Bucs likely will use their first-round draft pick on a defensive lineman, possibly Georgia Tech DE Michael Johnson or Northern Illinois DE Larry English.
"We have some obvious needs," said Morris. "We need some defensive tackles. We addressed a lot our needs during the offseason in terms of offense, and we feel good about those positions. We want to add defensive line, cornerbacks and some players to those positions. But you've got to get the best player at the time, man."
Some veteran players take it personally when a team selects a player at their position high in the NFL Draft. But if the Bucs do in fact select a defensive end with the 19th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, which at this point is a good possibility, Wilkerson would welcome the challenge.
"It's all about competition," said Wilkerson. "Each year somebody will be brought in to try and replace you. That's just how it works. There will always be somebody young and somebody fresh to try to take your job. It's up to you, or in this case, me, to keep my job by going out there and focusing on what we have to do and not worrying about who they bring in.
"It's all about getting a chance. As long as you give me a chance, and you decide you don't like what I can do, then I'm okay with that. If that guy you brought in is better than me than by all means put him in front of me. You play to win championships, but at the same time you play to make the team, not to just get by, but to get better."