Quincy Black’s career threatening injury left the Tampa Bay Buccaneers without a starting strongside linebacker in the middle of last season, and his release means the Buccaneers are still in search of a starter at the position. Considering the relative value of the strongside (or SAM) linebacker position, the search for a replacement was never given top priority. The SAM is the first position to be subbed out for an extra defensive back, and in today’s NFL with 3, 4, and 5 wide receiver sets quite common, that means the SAM will see the field less than any other starter on defense.
To be honest, letting go of Black’s expensive contract may have been a blessing in disguise, as the team can focus on finding a more affordable option for the position. However, despite the lack of playing time, the SAM position does have an important role on a defense, especially in run defense, and the loss of Black means the Bucs are without one of their surest tacklers.
So who is going to fill the void at the linebacker position opposite Lavonte David? The best option is also the option least likely to play a snap outside, because Mason Foster is the best suited SAM linebacker on the roster. Foster is a versatile linebacker who is strong and sturdy and would do well on the strongside, but his role as starting middle linebacker will mean he’s not in contention. That leaves newly signed Jonathan Casillas to compete with Adam Hayward, Najee Goode, Dekoda Watson, and potential free agent signings still to come for the spot.
The most intriguing and most talked-about prospect is Casillas, and I frankly don’t see the fit. Casillas played mainly in nickel situations in New Orleans, and while he may have been listed as a SAM linebacker on certain plays, he was almost never called upon to line up against multiple tight ends, or against a power rushing game. He’s undersized to play the SAM position, and while he’s talented enough to play a role in the Buccaneers’ defense, it will be interesting to see if he can handle being the blocking target of tackles, H-backs, and tight ends rather than being on the field against multiple wide receivers and having more room to work. I think Casillas will be great in passing situations, I just doubt his run stuffing ability, and he may not be as sure of a tackler as Quincy was.
Watson is an intriguing prospect who may also lack the strength to matchup every down against run blockers, but his speed is unquestioned. He could also be an interesting option for the SAM position on passing downs as a blitzing linebacker, but he has a lot to prove about his ability to stand up against bigger, stronger blockers in the run game.
Adam Hayward may be the best run defense option of the group, and his contributions to the special teams are second to none. That means he’s a lock to make the roster, and because of that he may carve out a role as the run situation SAM linebacker, allowing Casillas to play in passing situations. Hayward plays bigger and stronger than his 6 foot, 1 inch, 240 pounds measurements would suggest, and lacks skill as a pass coverage linebacker. He’ll be in the mix for snaps at SAM linebacker, but lacks the versatility to play there full-time.
Goode is similar to Hayward, in that he’s better suited to playing against the run. He’s never played in the NFL, but in college at West Virginia he demonstrated the ability to get up the field and disrupt the running game. He’s quick, he’s strong, and he sheds blockers well. But he didn’t catch on last season, so it will be interesting to see if he is able to take a step forward and earn a roster spot, and some snaps, after Quincy Black‘s departure opened the door for his potential arrival as an NFL player.
There are plenty of potential solutions amongst these players, and the option of adding another player to the mix is still floating out there. We may see one player emerge as the clear starter, or may see rotations and changes through the year. Either way, the Buccaneers’ top-ranked run defense will need solid contributions from the strongside linebacker position to repeat their top-of-the-rankings performance.
Who do you think will be the Bucs starting SAM linebacker (or at least the player who plays most often)? Let us know in the comment section below.