The acquisition of Pro Bowl-caliber linebacker Cato June means several things to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers defense. The Bucs appear fortunate to have landed one of the top-ranked free agents available this season with the acquisition of June, who is fresh off a Super Bowl victory with Indianapolis.
Here are 10 things a speedy, athletic playmaker like June could bring to Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 defense this year:
VERSATILITY TO PLAY MULTIPLE POSITIONS June will initially start at strongside linebacker (Sam), while having the ability of playing on the weak side should Derrick Brooks retire at the end of the 2007 season. June is also a former college safety and could play there in a pinch or a specific defense designed by Kiffin to throw a new wrinkle at opponents. June or linebacker Jamie Winborn figures to be the heir apparent to Brooks on the weak side when Brooks hangs up the cleats. The fact that the Bucs have a player or two that is capable of filling Brooks’ shoes down the road gives the franchise great comfort.
FLEXIBILITY FOR KIFFIN TO SCHEME The acquisition of an athlete like June gives Kiffin the ability to be very creative when scheming his defense for certain opponents. With talented linebackers like Brooks, June, Winborn and Barrett Ruud on the team, Kiffin can deploy a 3-4 scheme like he did at times last year in order to get Winborn on the field. Kiffin always likes to stay one step ahead of the NFL in terms of scheming and adding new wrinkles to his defense. And with the prevalence of the Tampa 2 in the NFL these days, the defense is becoming easier to prepare for. A versatile athlete like June, combined with players like Patrick Chukwurah, who can play linebacker and defensive end, and Kevin Carter, who can play defensive end and under tackle, offers Kiffin the ability to be flexible and creative this offseason when designing new plays.
EXPERIENCE IN THE TAMPA 2 June spent four years in Indianapolis playing in virtually the same style of defense that Kiffin uses with the Buccaneers – the Tampa 2. June’s learning curve should be greatly accelerated since he already knows the scheme. There may be some different terminologies, blitz calls and coverage calls to learn, but he should be 100 percent knowledgeable with Kiffin’s scheme once September rolls around.
BETTER PASS DEFENSE Tampa Bay gave up way too many third-and-long situations in 2006, and both general manager Bruce Allen and head coach Jon Gruden said in their season-ending press conferences that the Bucs’ ability to defend the pass must improve greatly in 2007. June’s specialty is pass coverage, evidenced by his 10 career interceptions. He was a safety at Michigan before making the move to weakside linebacker in the pros. June has the speed and the coverage experience to cover running backs and tight ends in man coverage, and he’s quite experienced in covering backs, tight ends and receivers in zone coverage. Part of the Bucs’ decline in pass coverage last year can be attributed to sub-standard play from Tampa Bay’s corners and poor play from its safeties. But Brooks and middle linebacker Shelton Quarles also contributed to the less than stellar coverage in the underneath zones, too. Brooks, who will be 34 this year, and Quarles, who will turn 36 at the start of the season, aren’t nearly as quick or fast as they once were.
ADDS YOUTH TO LB CORPS The Buccaneers needed to get younger at the linebacker positions due to the age of Brooks and Quarles, who are in their 30s. June is six years younger than Brooks, and is just now entering the prime of his career. The fact that he signed a three-year contract ensures that the Bucs will have a young, impact player for the foreseeable future at the linebacker position alongside middle linebacker Barrett Rudd and possibly Winborn.
ADDS SPEED TO THE DEFENSE June possesses 4.6 speed and plays faster than incumbent Sam linebacker Ryan Nece, Brooks and Quarles, who were faster in their youth. With the spread offense finding its way into the NFL with more three receiver sets and even some spread running game in Atlanta (a la West Virginia University) last year, Tampa Bay’s defense has to get faster. The Bucs will be playing several teams this year who deploy three wide receivers on a regular basis – Seattle, Arizona, Indianapolis, Detroit, Atlanta (twice) and New Orleans (twice). That’s eight games where the Bucs figure to be in nickel defense for the majority of the game. Even though June may be playing the Sam linebacker role in Tampa Bay, he still could be one of the two linebackers the Bucs leave on the field when they go to nickel.
REMOVES THE NEED TO DRAFT A LB THIS YEAR There is some talk that Tampa Bay will draft a linebacker this year to add youth and depth to the position despite the fact that Winborn remained a Buccaneer and the team added June. The reason is because Marquis Cooper, a third-round pick in 2004, never panned out and was released at the end of training camp last year. There is a good chance Quarles retires this season and Brooks could follow suit in 2008. That would leave Tampa Bay with June, Rudd, Nece and also Patrick Chukwurah, who is expected to play more defensive end for the Bucs in 2007. Winborn’s contract expires after the 2007 campaign. The addition of June doesn’t mean the Bucs have to draft a linebacker this year, but they probably will.
PIDGEON-HOLES CHUKWURAH TO RUSH THE QB Tampa Bay’s first free agent acquisition this offseason was Chukwurah. Although he is listed as a linebacker and has linebacker size at 6-foot-1, 250 pounds, the Bucs plan on using Chukwurah as a pass-rushing specialist and a situational linebacker. Chukwurah has decent coverage ability, but not as good as June’s. With Brooks, Rudd, June, Nece, Winborn, Antoine Cash, and Chukwurah – the linebacking corps is a bit crowded in 2007. Chukwurah may play linebacker with the Bucs in the future, but he seems destined to play more as a rush end this year.
PUTS NECE’S JOB IN DANGER The one player who gets hurt the worst in the acquisition of June is Nece. Not only will Nece, who was Tampa Bay’s starting Sam linebacker last year, have to compete with Winborn in training camp, he’ll also have to compete with June. Nece just doesn’t have the athleticism and speed that June and Winborn possess. If he did, the Bucs wouldn’t have pursued June. Due to his contract, which has been reported to be a three-year deal worth $12 million, June appears to have the inside track to starting at Sam this season. Brooks needs to rise to the occasion too and prove that he can still play at a high level to keep his starting assignment, as June and Winborn could also be challenging for playing time on the weak side.
QUESTIONABLE TACKLING ABILITY The signing of June should not be lauded blindly, though. While he was one of the more big-name free agents available this offseason, June’s game is not without holes. If June were a bulletproof free agent with a perfect game, he would have been signed on the first day of free agency. Instead, he saw very little interest at the start of free agency, likely due to contract demands that were too high. At 6-foot, 227 pounds, June is not the biggest or most physical linebacker in the league. Although Brooks entered the NFL at roughly the same size in 1995, he was much more physical and a better tackler than June is. June has a tendency to stray from using proper technique and gap assignment. That often puts him in poor position to make tackles. Perhaps exposure to Brooks, who was once the game’s most sure tackler, will help shore up his tackling ability. Indianapolis was terrible against the run last year and June played a role in that poor showing. Tampa Bay’s tackling was sub-par last year and hopefully the acquisition of June doesn’t make it worse.
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Scott Reynolds is in his 25th 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 spent six years 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]