The second-longest tenured Buccaneer is undergoing a radical change this offseason. Jermaine Phillips has played seven seasons for the Bucs at safety and is now moving to outside linebacker. Phillips talked about the position change on Wednesday.
"Initially I told them I don't know if I'll like it until I try it," Phillips said. "I love the game of football. I love playing safety, but if I can go and help the team at Will linebacker, and help the team win I'm going to be up for it.
"At this point right now I'm looking at the switch as a switch. There is still a lot for me to learn. A lot to know even if I know what I'm doing at this position, right now I'm a linebacker and that is where I'm staying for the time being."
For the first time since 1995, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have a new starting weakside linebacker, a position that was occupied by 11-time Pro Bowler Derrick Brooks, who was released in February. Linebackers coach Joe Barry talked about the Bucs plans with Phillips.
"This is kind of a unique deal for me in the sense that I'm new being back here, but I remember Flip when we drafted him in 2002 and him being a little snot-nosed rookie during our Super Bowl year. I have a great relationship with him and a lot of history with him," Barry said. "I'm excited about it. I really am. I think the things that Jermaine brings to the table are being a physical presence. He's a guy that can get down there and mix it up, and when we started talking about it, we felt comfortable with it in the fact that we did so much before with our old package with having the safeties in the box. Flip has played such a big role in that the last five or six years. He's done it from a safety standpoint, let's see if he can – instead of dropping down into the box – do it four yards off the ball and see if he can play linebacker. With it being the middle of March and if you're going to experiment with something, now is the time to do it."
Barry said the evaluation of Phillips at linebacker would be ongoing.
"We have time in the sense that the players just came back for the offseason on Monday," Barry said. "We were on the field for the first time today with the guys for about half an hour. The nice thing with us having a new coaching staff is that we have an early mini-camp. We have a mini-camp the last day of March and the first two days of April. I'll be able to have in the classroom and get him out on the individual stuff. But in two weeks, we'll have a team setting in the mini-camp where we'll actually get a good look at him. We'll take it day by day. He's excited about. I know he can do it because we've asked him to do it at times playing safety.
"In Jermaine's defense, I think it's too hard to part-time anything in this league. Very rarely do you ever have guys that are part-time safeties and part-time linebackers. I don't think that would be fair to him. Right now, he's a linebacker. We'll see where it goes. Maybe a month from now we'll re-evaluate the situation and we'll see if we want to keep him there or move him back. He's a linebacker as far as he's concerned and we're concerned."
Phillips, who turns 30 later this month, said he was open to the idea of switching positions when head coach Raheem Morris, who coached Phillips for all but one of his years in Tampa Bay, approached him with the recommendation. Phillips was asked if he was surprised about the position change.
"I was," said Phillips. "All that joking back in the day with Brooks, Barber, and Brian Kelly about me becoming a linebacker came true.
"It has really been about two weeks old for me now. I'm definitely excited about it. Change is always good. It is keeping me on my toes. I feel like a rookie all over again at a different spot. I feel like I'm the young cat in the room but I'm the oldest. I'm going to embrace. I'm a person that is always optimistic and looking for the best in everything."
Phillips measures at 6-foot-2, 220-pound, and was asked if he was going to add weight to hold up as a linebacker.
"No I'm going to stay at the weight that I've been playing at," said Phillips. "Around 225 or 230, and play the way I've been playing. That is the reason that they wanted me to move after seeing the way I play in the box at the weight that I was."
After testing free agency, Phillips re-signed with Tampa Bay for one year. His deal is worth $1.25 million. Many thought that Phillips would not be back with Bucs after he hit the open market.
"I was yeah," Phillips said. "I didn't know if I was going to be back here or not. I had cleaned out my locker and taken everything home. I wasn't sure I'd be back here at all. There weren't really a lot of talks going on. I went out there and tested the market. I just didn't like what I saw. There were some places that I thought could have been a good fit, but it just didn't feel like Tampa. Tampa came up with the best offer for me and my family.
"I'm glad to be here. How many people can say they have been with one team for eight years. This is where I started and this where I hope to finish. I want to be a Buc for life."
Phillips' willingness to compete with second-year LB Geno Hayes at the weakside linebacker spot will allow the Bucs to start 2007 second-round draft pick Sabby Piscitelli at strong safety. But the Bucs are also counting on Phillips to add a physical force to their group of linebackers under new defensive coordinator Jim Bates. Phillips said he did not know of another safety making this move in the middle of their NFL career.
"I'm not aware of it but I'm not going to worry about what other people have done because this is me and what I bring to the table might be totally different," Phillips said. "It is definitely different, and it has crossed my mind if anybody has done it before. My uncle was a great utility player in the majors (Major League Baseball). I think he played every position except pitcher and catcher. Maybe I can do that. Play both safety positions, move to linebacker, and then move to D-line next."
Phillips has started 72 of the 94 games he's played in during his Buccaneer career. He has registered 535 tackles, 11 interceptions, three sacks, 10 forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. Phillips talked about the biggest difference that he will encounter with the move.
"I think it is that you are at that second level all game," Phillips said. "In the past I'd come up in the box in every so often, or come from 10 yards away and blow people up, but now I'm at four or five yards. Dealing with the linemen is something that is going to be new to me."
While Phillips, a 2002 fifth-round draft pick out of Georgia, will compete at linebacker, there is still a chance he will return to safety. It all depends how the competition plays out. Not only is Phillips changing positions, but he is also learning a new defensive system for the first time since his rookie season. Phillips talked about the new scheme and his impressions of Bates' system.
"It is definitely different, and I'm at a whole different position so it is really hard for me to compare from one to the other," Phillips said. "It seems like it is going to be fun. I think the big thing for us and the team is everybody just has to buy in. That's what everybody is doing now. Where out here working hard and trying our best.
"Everybody who knows Coach Bates knows that he is a quarters guy. We still are a Tampa 2 team, but it is not our staple and not our stamp anymore. It is just different, his philosophy, his coaching style, but the fundamentals are still the same."