WHAT THE BUCS HAVE AT LINEBACKER In an attempt to cater their unit more to fit the Tampa 2 system, the Buccaneers made some significant moves along the linebacking corps this offseason. They released Mason Foster, who was deemed too slow to play the Mike linebacker spot, and subsequently replaced the former third-round pick with Cowboy’s free agent Bruce Carter, who signed a four-year, $20 million deal. The former Tar Heel has experience in Rod Marinelli’s system (one that’s virtually the same as Lovie Smith’s), as well as proven versatility, as he played multiple roles during his time in Dallas, including the strongside position last season. And like Brian Urlacher, Smith’s former Pro Bowl linebacker in Chicago, Carter was initially recruited to college to play safety, which speaks to his ability in coverage – the most important skill for a middle linebacker in the Tampa 2 scheme. Tampa Bay also re-signed Danny Lansanah, one of the few bright spots for the team last season, with a restricted free agent tender. The former practice squad journeyman saw time at all three linebacking positions in 2014, recording 81 tackles and three interceptions with two being returned for touchdowns, earning himself his first opportunity at a second season with an NFL team. The heart of the unit is, of course, Lavonte David. After another stellar season in 2014, the Bucs will likely offer the 2012 second-round pick an elite-level contract. PewterReport.com has written multiple times, and as recently as April 9, that re-signing David will be a priority for Licht and the front office. Expect the Buccaneers to lockup the Pro Bowler on a long-term deal following the draft. Tampa Bay will also return former Chiefs and Cowboys practice squad linebacker Orie Lemon. The Oklahoma State product came on strong for the injury-ridden team towards the end of the season, finishing the last five games with 18 tackles. A player who will be interesting to watch this offseason is Jason Williams. A third-round pick by the Cowboys in 2009, Williams was re-signed on a one-year deal worth $745,000 prior to the start of free agency. The former Western Illinois star signed late last season, playing on special teams while adjusting to the defensive scheme. He stepped in during the final few weeks in relief of an injured Lavonte David and, as Scott Reynolds wrote in the March 14 Fab 5 column, the Bucs are very high on Williams heading into the 2015 season. The last linebacker on the roster is Larry Dean, who signed in early April. Dean, 26, spent last season with the Bills as a core special teams player. Before that he played three seasons in Minnesota, two of them under Leslie Frazier. Backup middle linebacker Dane Fletcher was not re-signed this offseason.
WHAT THE BUCS NEED AT LINEBACKER Despite their biggest offseason addition being a middle linebacker in Bruce Carter, the Buccaneers could still look to upgrade that position via the draft, even as early as the second round if a player they graded high slips down. That move would allow them to shift Carter to the SAM spot, where he played all of last year. And when it comes to finding a talented inside linebacker, the Tampa 2 system gives the team an advantage, in a sense that they are looking for a unique skill-set that other teams might not value. Instead of looking for big, pass-rushing or run-stopping guys that plug the middle, Tampa Bay will put a heavier emphasis on speed and coverage ability, even if that means overlooking size. That said, there could be a prototype Tampa 2 Mike linebacker that falls to the second round, in which case his value might be too high for the Bucs to pass on. As far as weak side linebacker, Tampa Bay has an elite player in David and are solid at depth with Lansanah and Williams. The latter is also expected to contribute on special teams, along with Dean. So given that the outside position looks set, here are some inside linebacker prospects Tampa Bay could be keeping an eye on.
BUCS’ BEST BETS AT LB (EARLY 1-3) MLB Eric Kendricks – UCLA – Senior – 6-0, 232 – 4.61 UCLA’s stud linebacker capped off his outstanding collegiate career by earning the Butkus Award and Lott IMPACT Trophy in 2014, leading the country with 101 solo tackles to go with 149 total stops. He also recorded three interceptions, returning one for a touchdown. With his speed, instincts and coverage ability, Kendricks has the ideal skill set and style of play to fit the Tampa 2 system. Being that not many teams’ first need is linebacker, combined with Kendricks smaller stature and misplacement in a 3-4 system, it’s conceivable that he’ll slip to the second round. That said, Arizona at 24 and Green Bay at 31 are both potential landing spots for the former Bruin after losing Larry Foote and A.J. Hawk, respectively, this offseason. There have even been recent reports that Dallas, who lost Bruce Carter to the Bucs, could be targeting Kendricks at 27. However, if the versatile backer gets close to the 34th pick, Lovie Smith – a former linebacker coach – could make a move to pair the young stud with Lavonte David and create a Lance Briggs-Urlacher-type tandem in Tampa.
BUCS’ BEST BETS AT LB (LATE 4-7) MLB Ben Heeney – Kansas – Senior – 6-0, 231 – 4.59 Heeney was the NCAA’s second leading tackler in 2014, with 88 solo stops among 127 total while leading the Jayhawks in each of the past three seasons. He’s been described as a high-motor player who has strong instincts and reacts well in any given situation. His ability in coverage is best exemplified by his eight career deflections and four interceptions, as Kansas relied heavily on him even in man coverage situations. Like Kendricks, Heeney lacks size, but again, that’s something that Tampa Bay could overlook if he makes up for it through other facets of his game. There have also been concerns about his natural athleticism and block-shedding technique that could ultimately drop him into the fourth round. Still, a player to keep an eye on for the Buccaneers later in the draft.
TOP TEN LINEBACKERS 1. OLB Vic Beasley – Clemson – Senior – 6-3, 246 – 4.53 Beasley’s four-years at Clemson is perhaps the most decorated collegiate career of any defensive player entering the 2015 draft. The 2014 ACC Defensive Player of the Year is known best for his pass-rushing ability, exemplified through his incredible 33 sacks over his final 39 games at Clemson. Beasley is explosive off the edge, with quick hands and the ability to get around the corner. He’ll undoubtably be a first-round pick, likely to a team looking for a 3-4 outside linebacker.
2. MLB Eric Kendricks – UCLA – Senior – 6-0, 232 – 4.61 Kendricks is the prototype fit for the Tampa 2. While he’s not the best run-stopping or blitzing linebacker, he’s quick to diagnose plays and is always around the action. A two-time team captain, the former Bruin could step in right away along side David at the Will spot, Carter at Sam, and Lansanah as a rotational player, to form a great linebacking corps next season. He’s likely a second-round pick.
3. MLB Paul Dawson – TCU – Senior – 6-0, 235 – 4.93 Some scouts see Dawson as one of the most talented players in the draft, even drawing comparisons to David. However, questions about his maturity along with his poor combine performance could cause him to fall in the draft. Dawson is flexible and has great ability in coverage, as he’s been called a “second-level” ghost who’s a nightmare for offensive lineman to engage. In 2014, he led TCU with 136 tackles, including an impressive 20 for losses along with four interceptions. The 2014 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year will likely be taken in the second round.
4. OLB Shaq Thompson – Washington – Junior – 6-0, 228 – 4.64 Recognized with the Paul Hornung Trophy as the nation’s most versatile player in 2014 after rushing for 456 yards on 61 carries, Thompson has proved himself as a tremendous athlete. Although he excelled at Washington primarily as a 4-3 outside linebacker, some feel he’s better suited for safety at the next level. While that can reflect negatively on the former Huskie, claiming that he lacks in size and strength, it can also be viewed as a positive in a sense that he has natural ability in coverage and great ball skills to make the transition. Thompson is likely a late first- or early second-round pick.
5. MLB Benardrik McKinley –Mississippi State – Junior – 6-4, 246 – 4.66 McKinley, who’s started every game the past two seasons while leading Miss St. in tackles, was selected first-team All-SEC and second-team All-American in 2014. At 6-foot-4, 246 pounds, he’s been described as a true take-on linebacker who can meet lineman head-on. McKinley is able to use his power to shed blockers, and is quick to meet running backs at the line of scrimmage. Where he struggles is in pass coverage, as he’s stiff and lacks great footwork. He’ll fit in with a team who’s looking for a giant run-stopping linebacker, probably somewhere in Round 2.
6. MLB Stephone Anthony – Clemson – Senior – 6-3, 243 – 4.56 While he’s not known for being a big, play-making linebacker like his teammate Vic Beasley, Anthony is a consistent, sure-tackling inside linebacker. After losing his job during his junior campaign, he quickly regained it, proving his versatile ability and great work ethic. Anthony also impressed a lot of people at the Senior Bowl in January as a solid run-stopping linebacker, who can cover a lot of ground. He’s been said to struggle at diagnosing plays, recovering off play-action and keeping up with running backs. Anthony will likely be a Round 2 selection.
7. MLB Denzel Perryman – Miami – Senior – 5-11, 236 – 4.78 Perryman was a Butkus Award finalist in 2014, as he led the Canes 110 tackles on his way to first-team All ACC. The stocky linebacker plays low with good leverage, and can deliver a punishing blow while shedding blocks and making stops. He’s been praised by scouts for his toughness and love for the game, but there’s concern that he has a low ceiling. Perryman also performed well in coverage last season, but he showed up to the Senior Bowl in January slightly overweight, which could hinder that ability at the next level. Nevertheless, he could prove to be a player who can step in and contribute right away in a 4-3 scheme. Perryman’s projected as a second- or third-round pick.
8. OLB Kwon Alexander – LSU – Junior – 6-1, 227 – 4.55 With his chiseled, athletic build, Alexander is especially agile and light on his feet. He’s aggressive during pursuit and seems to enjoy the physicality of the game. In 2014, the former Tiger led his team with 90 tackles, including 10 against Alabama and Notre Dame, showing his knack for big-time performances. Primarily used as a 4-3 linebacker, he’s also showed an ability to blitz. Although extremely athletic, Alexander doesn’t have the greatest of instincts. In an assignment-based defense, scouts fear that he could be a liability and give up big plays. He’s been described as an immediate special teams contributor and a work-in-progress linebacker, even drawing comparisons to former Buccaneer Dekota Watson. Alexander is projected as a third- or fourth-rounder.
9. OLB Lorenzo Mauldin – Louisville – Senior – 6-4, 259 – 4.85 Mauldin is another player who is listed as a linebacker, but he’ll likely translate into a 3-4 outside edge rusher at the next level. The Louisville product was selected first-team All ACC in 2014, and received a Senior Bowl nod in January. At 6-foot-4, he uses his size to his advantage, constantly getting his arms in the way of throwing lanes and throwing left tackles aside while getting to the edge. Some scouts say he plays too upright, however, and is stiff at times. He’s also a bit skinny for someone who expects to used as a pass rusher. Mauldin is likely a Round 3 selection.
10. OLB Hau’oli Kikaha – Washington – Senior – 6-2, 253 – 4.93 Kikaha’s production as an edge rushing outside linebacker resulted in a first-team All American selection in 2014. The versatile outside linebacker and defensive end (sometimes plays with his hand on the ground) recorded a sack in 14 consecutive games, displaying his great hand techniques and ability to change direction. However, Kikaha’s tape shows weakness in defending the run, which means he’s probably more suited for a 3-4 outside linebacker than a 4-3 edge rusher despite notching 19 sacks last year. The former Huskie is projected as a third-round selection.
BEST OF THE REST 11. MLB Ben Heeney – Kansas – Senior – 6-0, 231 – 4.59 Heeney is an aggressive linebacker, who’s always around the ball. The Jayhawks’ three-time season leading tackler was first-team All-Big 12 after starting every game during his senior year. His aggressive style also comes at the expense of missed tackles, a category in which he led all of college football in 2014. Scouts don’t deny his ability and upside, however, some believe that he’s caught “guessing” too much and is undersized for the NFL. Heeney is projected as a Day 3 selection.
12. MLB Taiwan Jones – Michigan State – Senior – 6-3, 245 – 4.95 Jones, an East-West Shrine standout and 2014 second-team All Big Ten player, is a strong and powerful down-field runner when attacking the line. He also has long arms to keep blockers off, along with good closing speed while chasing down players in open space. However, his tenacity can sometimes lead to problems, as he’s been known to overrun plays due to a lack of patience. In a defense like the Tampa 2, it’s particularly important to stay with your keys and hit your marks, therefore patience and understanding is a necessity. Many scouts see Jones as a better fit as a 3-4 inside linebacker rather than a 4-3 outside. The Michigan State product is likely a fourth- or fifth-round pick.
13. OLB Jordan Hicks – Texas – Senior – 6-1, 236 – 4.68 Hicks led the Longhorns in tackles in 2014, recording 147 on his way to a Senior Bowl invite. A smart and dedicated player, scouts say the Texas staff raves about his weekly preparation, both in the gym and in the meeting rooms. While he’s not a hard hitter, he rarely misses and shows good ability in space, however, he’s not the most instinctive player. He’s been described as a “line dancer” due to the fact that he rarely takes chances. He also needs to improve in zone coverage, in order to make it as a 4-3 outside or inside linebacker in the NFL. Hicks carries a late round grade, most likely Round 4 or 5.
14. MLB Hayes Pullard – USC – Senior – 6-0, 240 – 4.78 Pullard is another player who led his team, USC, in tackles last season with 95, playing in all 13 games with 12 starts. The former Trojan has been described as a patient linebacker, which can be interpreted as a positive and negative trait. It’s good in a sense that he’s not over aggressive (like Taiwan Jones can be) and can diagnose a play, however, it also shows lack of toughness on tape and an inability to shed blocks. As far as coverage goes he’s a fluid mover and instinctive in space, which bodes well for the Tampa 2. Scouts have also praised his leadership. Aggressive, run stopping linebackers are generally valued higher, thus, Pullard could slip all the way to the seventh-round. The smart and productive Senior Bowl invitee could be a nice Day 3 steal for Tampa Bay.
15. OLB Davis Tull – Tennessee-Chattanooga – Senior – 6-2, 246 – 4.57 A three-time Southern Conference Defensive Player of the Year, the Tenn-Chatt product recorded 10.5 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in 2014. Although he primarily played defensive end in college, scouts believe Tull has the athleticism and natural awareness to play as a 4-3 outside linebacker at the next level. He’s a high-motor guy with solid technique, but his size and marginal burst will keep him out of the first few rounds. Tull is projected as a fourth-rounder.
16. MLB Ramik Wilson – Georgia – Senior – 6-2, 237 – 4.77 A three-year starter at Georgia, Wilson finished 2014 with the SEC’s highest tackle-quality grade among starting linebackers. His ability to play laterally makes him best fit for the 4-3 system as a Sam or Will, however, there’s questions about how effective he can be in coverage. Scouts believe his zone awareness needs work, and that his instincts are below average. Wilson, a Tampa native, can also be inconsistent, seemingly dragging his feet during plays occasionally. His impressive college career and ideal size will likely have him selected in the fourth round.
17. MLB Mike Hull – Penn State – Senior – 6-0, 237 – 4.68 Hull was the Big Ten linebacker of the year in 2014 and is the picture of a dependable linebacker. A form tackler who’s patient against the run, Hull also reads play-action well and is able to find consistent depth in the Tampa 2 while covering the over the middle. He’s small for an inside linebacker and lacks athleticism, but his intelligence and work ethic could make him a good depth linebacker. The former Nittany Lion is slated for the fifth or sixth round.
18. OLB Martrell Spaight – Arkansas – Senior – 6-0, 236 – 4.88 Spaight started all 13 games at Arkansas last season, earning first team All-SEC. He’s physical at the line, recording several tackles for loss, and is aggressive in man coverage towards the sidelines. However, he doesn’t possess elite speed to be a sideline to sideline player, and scouts say he has tight hips in coverage. Spaight is physical between the tackles, but limited in other areas, making him a late sixth-round selection.
19. MLB Bryce Hager – Baylor – Senior – 6-1, 234 – 4.60 A former running back, Hager possesses great speed and natural awareness. He shows good range in coverage, playing man or zone effectively. Where he struggles is against the run, as he’s not a downhill linebacker who can take on offensive lineman. Scouts see him more fit as a 4-3 outside linebacker, however, in the Tampa 2 his coverage skills would better suited for the Mike position. The former Bear, who is the son of Britt Hager, a nine-year NFL veteran and Texas Longhorns all-time leading tackler, will likely be taken in the seventh round.
20. OLB Zack Hodges – Harvard – Senior – 6-2, 250 – 4.68 Harvard’s leading tackler for losses (10) and sacks (8) in 2014, is known for his speed and ability to change direction. Hodges has natural athleticism and great technique as a pass-rushing linebacker. The Ivy League star even received an invitation to the Senior Bowl. The concern surrounding him is that he played weaker competition, and that the majority of his big plays came uncontested. He also showed some tightness in his hips during the combine, which can be detrimental in coverage. The Harvard product has upside, but will likely be a seventh-rounder, if not a priority free agent.
Zach is entering his 3rd year covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a writer for PewterReport.com. Since 2014, he's handled a large part of the beat reporting responsibilities at PR, attending all media gatherings and publishing and promoting content daily. Zach is a native of Sarasota, FL, and a graduate of the University of Tampa. He has also covered high school football for the Tampa Tribune and the NFL for Pro Player Insiders.
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