As the lockout wears on, rookies are less and less likely to make an impact this year. They aren't going through an offseason program with the team, and they can't be coached. That's unfortunate for Mason Foster, the linebacker the Bucs drafted in the third round this year. Foster would be a perfect candidate to take over as middle linebacker if Ruud were to leave, but he would also be the one to take over many of Ruud's playcalling responsibilities. But it's impossible for the Bucs to rely on him to do that if they can't get an offseason to work with him.
The Bucs need a reliable middle linebacker who knows the system, and Barrett Ruud is exactly that. Whether he will be back with Tampa Bay is likely to rely on his price, which no one knows, but very little points to him getting a long-term deal. The Bucs could try to pin him down with a one-year deal to transition to a younger player at the position, but a long-term deal? I don't think the Bucs want to commit that kind of money to him.
Here's the thing, too: Ruud is very unlikely to accept a one-year deal. He spent most of the 2009 offseason clamoring for a new deal, and when he was tendered with a one-year deal in 2010 he balked at that as well. Barrett Ruud wants a long-term commitment from a team, and I can't blame him. I also think he'll find exactly that on the free agent market - but not from the Bucs.
Here's what Tyrone McKenzie has been doing this offseason: studying, working and doing everything he can to be a starting linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers next season. The former USF standout came to the Buccaneers late last season after he was released from the Patriots' practice squad on his own request. He had been drafted in the third round by the Patriots the year before, but a knee injury kept him out of his rookie season, and he had little chance of getting on the field in New England with Brandon Spikes, Jerod Mayo and Gary Guyton ahead of him. But the Bucs had little linebacker depth and liked him well enough. The Bucs have even less linebacker depth now that Quincy Black, Barrett Ruud and Adam Hayward are all scheduled to be free agents, so McKenzie's chances of making an impact this season have gone up.
And when he talked to Pewter Report, he claimed to know the defensive audibles:
"Since Day One when I got here I grabbed on to Coach Baker and was like a sponge. If it weren’t for the lockout I would probably be at Coach Baker’s house right now. I love the game of football and I want to be accountable to my teammates. If they want me to play middle linebacker, I’ll play it. I can play it. I’ll do whatever I can to help the team. I’ll put the work in and be there until midnight every night to make sure I’m on top of my game so I can make sure everyone else is on top of their game."
If so, the Bucs may have found their starting middle linebacker of the season. If they can rely on McKenzie to call the defense, they're likely to let Ruud walk away and keep the cheaper and younger USF product.