NFL free agency begins on March 7 when teams are allowed to talk to agents prior to March 10 when players can actually be signed to contracts. PewterReport.com examines the Buccaneers’ 2015 free agency plans and previews some of the positions that are the biggest area of need in Tampa Bay. Today we take a look at the linebackers.
BUCS’ PENDING FREE AGENT LINEBACKERS Tampa Bay has two linebackers who are unrestricted free agents. Mason Foster, drafted by the Bucs in 2011, has been the starting middle linebacker since his rookie year. The former Huskie has been a productive player for Tampa Bay but doesn’t excel in pass coverage, and the thought is the Bucs will allow Foster to leave. Dane Fletcher, a free agent from last season, filled in for Foster at times in 2014, but like Foster, isn’t great in coverage. The Bucs could bring Fletcher back as strictly a depth player and special teams player, depending on what he finds on the open market.
WHAT THE BUCS HAVE AT LINEBACKER
Lavonte David has ben everything the Bucs wanted and more since being drafted in 2012. And now, this offseason, he will be rewarded with a new contract. David had another excellent year last season, but some of the splash plays from 2013 were missing. But like most of the defense, the transition to the Cover 2 took a little longer than most expected. Still David was by and far the best linebacker on the field for the Bucs and one of the best in all the NFC.
Danny Lansanah’s story of bouncing around the NFL for years to scoring two touchdowns for the Bucs as a linebacker in 2014 was one of the best stories of 2014 for the Bucs. Of course after a 2014 season, there weren’t many great stories to be witnessed. Lansanah, who started 11 games for the Bucs last year, played all three linebacker positions at some point in 2014 but ultimately the Bucs view him as a valuable backup, capable of filling in when needed. Lansanah most likely goes into camp with the first opportunity to start at the strongside position but will have competition from Orie Lemon who started three games for Tampa Bay in 2014 and collected 23 tackles.
Jason Williams was re-signed by the Bucs on Saturday after playing in three games for the Bucs in 2014. Williams was a special teams standout for the Bucs and the Panthers last season, and Tampa Bay feels he will continue to excel in that capacity in 2015 while also providing depth. Williams has limited starting experience at weakside linebacker and could be in the mix to backup David at the Will spot.
Brandon Magee will compete for a roster spot in 2015 after seeing action in nine games for the Bucs in 2014.
WHAT THE BUCS NEED AT LINEBACKER The Buccaneers are very much in need of a starting middle linebacker that has the ability to cover the deep middle in Lovie Smith and Leslie Frazier’s zone-based Cover 2 defense. The Buccaneers also need to add depth to all three linebacker positions. Lansanah proved to be a decent strongside linebacker in 2014 and also filled in well for Mason Foster in the middle, but like Foster and Fletcher, pass coverage isn’t his strong suit. Overall the Bucs need some bodies at the position with only a handful of players under contract currently.
BUCS’ BEST BETS 1. Cowboys LB Bruce Carter
Carter is one of the fastest linebacker in the NFL and was timed at 4.39 at his pro day at North Carolina in 2011, and Bucs head coach Lovie Smith and general manager Jason Licht are looking to add speed to the linebackers this offseason. Even after missing three games in 2014, Carter still had 75 tackles and led Dallas with five interceptions. Carter was also a special teams standout in Dallas, blocking a punt in 2014. Carter will get some looks from other teams but isnt’t expected to be asking for top tier money in free agency.
2. Cleveland LB Craig Robertson Robertson is a restricted free agent but it is still not known what Cleveland’s plans are as far as his future with the team. Robertson was an undrafted free agent who has went from bubble player to starter since joining the Browns full time in 2012. As an inside linebacker, a position the Bucs will look to improve on this offseason, Robertson’s production (99 tackles and two interceptions) and age (27) could make Robertson an attractive option next week.
3. Denver LB NateIrving
Irving is far from a star NFL linebacker and has only started 12 games in his four year NFL career, but part of that was due to injuries including missing eight games in 2014 with a partially torn medial collateral ligament. Irving had good size (6-1, 245 pounds) and speed and prior to coming to the NFL, scouting services raved about his speed, athleticism and coverage ability. The Cardinals are rumored to be interested in Irving, but the Bucs could also be considering the former North Carolina star as well.
4. Atlanta LB Sean Weatherspoon Weatherspoon, when healthy is one of the most talented linebackers in the NFC, but is coming off an Achilles injury that cost him all of 2014. As of a month ago, the Falcons said keeping Weatherspoon was a priority but their tune has since changed and will he be allowed to test the open market. Overall Weatherspoon’s health has been an issue and in four seasons, the former Missouri Tiger has only started 16 games just once.When healthy Weatherspoon has collected 290 tackles, eight sacks and two interceptions. The question is, can Weatherspoon come back from a major injury and stay healthy for whatever team he plays for in 2015?
5. Dallas LB Rolando McCain
McClain would be the perfect fit in the Bucs defense after coming off a solid season with the Cowboys which was coordinated by Rod Marinelli, who runs virtually the same base defensive scheme as Smith. Unfortunately McClain is facing a possible four-game suspension for a violating the league’s substance abuse policy, is coming off two concussions in the playoffs and a mysterious fire that burned down his Alabama home and has been ruled as arson. The talented linebacker may be not be worth the potential headaches and future issues and no team, particularly the Bucs, want to start the season off without a starting linebacker for the first four games.
TOP 5 LINEBACKERS IN 2015 FREE AGENCY
1. Pittsburgh LB Jason Worilds Worilds has notched 15.5 sacks over the last two seasons and also excels against the run. The former second round pick is expected to draw a ton of interest in free agency with the Patriots, Eagles and Colts reportedly interested in signing him. Worilds has been a 3-4 outside linebacker but at 262 pounds but could possibly play defensive end for a 4-3 team. Tampa Bay is not expected to show interest, partly due to the fact Worilds is expected to ask for top dollar once free agency starts on Tuesday.
2. Cowboys LB Rolando McClain
McClain had a great story going after sitting out a year of football only to come back and star for the Cowboys the last two seasons. McClain may be the most talented linebacker in free agency but numerous off the field issues in his career will limit the teams who will be bidding for his services. McClain is facing a four-game suspension and that will limit the money he was set to earn as a free agent.
3. Cowboys LB Bruce Carter
Young and athletic, Carter will attract some suitors in free agency, despite and up and down career in Dallas. Carter led the Cowboys interceptions in 2014 with five, proving to be valuable in coverage and having a nose for the football.
4. Falcons LB Sean Weatherspoon
No one questions Weatherspoon’s athletic talent, but the ability to stay healthy is something that will have teams concerned and most likely limiting the money that will be available in free agency. Still, Weatherspoon could pay off nicely for a team that scores the pending former Falcon at a good value if he is fully recovered from an Achilles injury that cost him all of 2014.
5. Buffalo LB Brandon Spikes
Spikes signed a one-year deal with the Bills after spending the first part of his career in New England, and played well for Buffalo in 2014. Strictly a two-down linebacker, it is doubtful the Bucs would have interest in the former Florida Gator standout.
Mark Cook currently is the director of editorial content and Bucs beat writer and has written for PewterReport.com since 2011. Cook has followed the Buccaneers since 1977 when he first began watching football with his Dad and is fond of the 1979 Bucs team that came within 10 points of going to a Super Bowl. His favorite Bucs game is still the 1979 divisional playoff win 24-17 over the Eagles. In his spare time Cook enjoys playing guitar, fishing, the beach and family time.Cook is a native of Pinecrest in Eastern Hillsborough County and has written for numerous publications including the Tampa Tribune, In the Field and Ya'll Magazine. Cook can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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