The Buccaneers need a lot of help and one position that gets overlooked is the linebacking corps. Last year the Bucs started out with a lot of promise at the position with Mason Foster playing very well. But much like the rest of the season that all fell apart.
Moving into 2012 the Bucs will be in rebuilding mode but they have a young corps of linebackers that they can develop. But just like all aspects of this team they need a veteran presence to help guide them on their way. The 2012 free agent class of linebackers can offer that very thing. Not only can they offer experience to pas down to the younger group, they can challenge them and keep them on their toes by stealing their jobs away from them and holding it above their heads. It’s a deeper the deep class of interior and exterior linebackers, the only question is how deep the Glazer’s pockets will be.
Tulloch is going to be the highest profile signing at the position and by that I mean he’ll most likely get top dollar. I’m still perplexed as to how the Lions stole him last year for just over $3 million for the year. If they want to re-sign him they’ll have to outbid every other team in the league looking for a solid inside linebacker to anchor their corps. If the Buccaneers somehow signed Tulloch, which will be a hard sell, he will instantly make the defense better. But the thing is Tulloch is a winner and will want to continue that streak, not have to endure growing pains that will come with a contract in Tampa. It will be a surprise if he ends in Tampa but it will be a pleasant one. Don’t expect him to take a pay cut to come here though.
Like the Bucs can significantly weaken the Falcons by stealing away Brent Grimes, even more and severe damage and disruption can be had if the Bucs snag Curtis Lofton away from Atlanta. Lofton is arguably the heart and soul of one of the better defense in the league last year and if he can port that over to a growing and impressionable Bucs squad it’s safe to say it will do beyond wonders. He was one of the premier run stoppers in the league last year, an area that killed the Bucs. If the defensive line fails at any point like it did last year, having a guy like Lofton to serve as a safety net will not only help stop the run but it will take some heat off the front line. If the Bucs want a leader in the locker room who backs up his talk with production on the field, Lofton is the guy to get.
The Buccaneers need help all over the linebacking corps even though they have depth on the outside, with Dekoda Watson and Geno Hayes likely to be filling the starting roles. Now I don’t know about you, but that’s not a terrifying attack. Adding Johnson, one of the most underrated players in all of football would immediately add a sharpness to the defense. Johnson is an instant improvement at strong side over Watson and can complement a run stuffing middle linebacker with ease. He’s done it for years with Ray Lewis, but this time if he comes to Tampa he’ll be the anchor, not the other way around.
The double whammy of weakening a divisional foe while also upgrading the defense continues with the chance to score Dan Connor from the Panthers. Connor has seen some time with Jon Beason being injured in the recent past which will result in a nice paycheck with another team. Connor won’t return to the Panthers, not unless he wants to play behind Beason and the chances Beason misses another season to an injury is slim. Connor has gotten a lot of reps and has really shown himself to be able to hold his own. He won’t be the veteran anchor the Bucs want but he does fit the youth movement Greg Schiano is installing. Young and talented will be the view Tampa wants to have, especially after the Youngry debacle. Connor is a level headed player with sharp talent that can easily start for the Buccaneers next year. He seems like the type of name the Glazers will want to go after.
A very impressive 2010 campaign put Hawthorne on the map but a down 2011 year sort of took him off. He’s no doubt one of the better linebackers at his position in the league and if he can get past the knee injury that threw his 2011 season off, he may turn into an elite linebacker. That’s amazing news if the Bucs can sign him away from Seattle and his other suitors. One thing that should put him high on the Bucs list is his ability to play both inside and outside linebacker. Tampa’s whole linebacking corps needs improvement and if Hawthorne can fill gaps all over the secondary he can double his value. Playing in Tampa sure beats the harsh weather of the Pacific Northwest but the lack of fanfare surrounding the team and the rebuilding may keep him away. If he choses to leave the Seahawks, Hawthorne has plenty of options all over the NFL that will pay him what Tampa will and can offer a much more livable situation.
The Bucs may want to look at some outside linebacker help and Manny Lawson is a guy they need to check out. He was amazing in a 4-3 defense in Cincinnati and was a ferocious run stopper in the process. The Bucs, as mentioned, were horrible at stopping the run in so many places last year. Lawson has seen time in San Francisco and in Cincinnati and knows how to play a versatile form of defense. The Bucs need to give him a look, even if they don’t sign him because no part of the linebacking corps is safe from retooling.
Like Hawthorne, it’s been injuries that have stunted Jackson’s growth as an elite NFL linebacker throughout his short career. He played six games in two seasons but last year he was a monster, demonstrating that if he’s healthy he’s one of the best linebackers in the league. Tampa isn’t far off from Cleveland’s urgent rebuilding situation so unless he really loves the Tampa climate, he may take a deal elsewhere. But if the Glazer’s waves the right amount of Benjamin’s his way Jackson may see an opportunity to rebuild himself in a place where his growing pains wouldn’t be highlighted too much. His injury proneness may scare some teams off and Tampa may be able to convince him it’s a good idea to sign. Jackson’s a great signing if Tampa can get him but don’t beat yourself up if they don’t get him.
Another outside linebacker the Bucs need to make a hardcore play for is Erin Henderson. If the Bucs sign one of the Henderson brothers, it needs to be Erin, not E.J. It was the elder Henderson who shined in Minnesota but injuries kept him from being all he could be. Erin hadn’t taken a snap before last season, routinely being deactivated moments before game time in season prior. But he saw his chance and sunk his teeth into the starting role in Minnesota. The Bucs may get a tremendous steal with the younger Henderson as nothing from the 2011 Vikings defense not named Jared Allen is known to the greater NFL crowd. But Erin quietly had an impressive first year effort displaying the skill set to become a quality weak side linebacker. The Bucs would be very much in the market for a weak side linebacker if they let Geno Hayes walk and even though some front office snobs are knocking Henderson’s inexperience, he fits this growing nature of the defense is Tampa and already has enough to start next season. Tampa needs to take a serious look at Henderson and give him what he wants to bring him to Tampa.
The Bucs won’t get London Fletcher. As great as a signing as it would be, Fletcher is 37 and could be signing the last contract of his illustrious NFL career. He wants to win, he’s earned the right to demand that and he won’t get that in Tampa, at least not in the short time he has left. However, the Glazer’s would be semi-brilliant if they convinced Fletcher to come out and play for them. He fills the veteran role to a tee. He can really guide these young’s guys in the right direction and can rub off his deep and plentiful NFL knowledge on them in the process. Fletcher is level headed an may be able to assist Ronde Barber (if he returns) in straightening out some of the more out of the box characters in the lockerroom. However the chances are fairly low he comes to Tampa, given his age and the fact he will want to be on an established team, not one in the beginning stages of rebuilding their rebuilding mode.
Signing Henderson is a double edged sword for the Bucs. It can turn out to be a brilliant signing if Henderson really picks up his game and channels the few good years he had with the Vikings. But he’s well past his prime which was rushed due to injuries. He’s now dealing with the aging effects of being a injury riddled linebacker in the NFL. However, that being said, he still possesses the ability to be extremely versatile and can shred offensive linemen like their cheese (that’s a double pun too). He won’t be an every down linebacker which could be a good thing or an inconvenient one. It could work out perfect as Greg Schiano will want to test out and utilize the guys already on roster, but it could backfire as Henderson ends up being another one of many in the revolving door of linebackers in Tampa.
McClain is a fierce run stopper as proven in Baltimore. However his coverage skills aren’t something to write home about which may prove to be an issue. But as weak and questionable this linebacking corps is, adding the towel boy from the Baltimore Ravens defense would be an improvement. He has been playing in the shadows of Ray Lewis which could mean the Bucs can get a real steal by signing McClain. He can only go up and he’s already learned behind the best to play the position, so that knowledge alone can make him worth signing.