What happened in 2011:
Disaster, that's what happened. The linebacking corps wasn't overhauled, as the only addition to the team was third-round rookie Mason Foster, but boy did the play suck. It's quite possible that this was the worst performing unit on the entire team - and given the level of suck this team reached, that's quite an accomplishment.
Yet, after four games, I wouldn't have written any of this. Early on, the linebackers (and the entire front seven) played quite well. They were aggressive, played downhill football and managed to get good results. But the rest of the way this group just collapsed. Quincy Black may have been the biggest disappointment, as he clearly showed that he wasn't worth his massive contract. Formerly a two-down linebacker with some potential, he now turned into a disaster. Similarly, Geno Hayes didn't manage to convince in his contract year, as he was at one point benched in favor of Adam Hayward.
By midseason, none of the linebackers were playing well. Mason Foster showed some promise, especially as a blitzer, but injuries set him back and his play never again reached the level it did early in the season. Quincy Black was disastrous, while Geno Hayes couldn't even provide the splash plays he had provided earlier in his career.
The Bucs need to overhaul the linebacker position in a major way, as none of the three starters managed to reach an acceptable level of play this season. Geno Hayes was in the final year of his contract, and is likely done as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. Mason Foster will likely retain a starting role in 2012, as he showed plenty of promise, but it's not clear whether he'll remain at middle linebacker or move to the outside. Finally, Quincy Black had a horrendous 2011, but he did show some skills in previous years. That, combined with the significant financial commitment the Bucs made to Black likely guarantees his roster spot, if not his starting role.
In all, I'd expect the Bucs to add at least one starter at linebacker in free agency or in the draft, while also adding legitimate competition for the other two starters. The linebacking corps needs to look very different next season.
If anything, the Bucs have at least chosen a good year to need new linebackers. They should have plenty of options, both in the draft and in free agency. Curtis Lofton, Stephen Tulloch, Dan Connor, D'Qwell Jackson, Ahmad Brooks and David Hawthorne should all be real possibilities for the Buccaneers in free agency.
They could also add some starters in the draft. While they won't find any good value at linebacker with the fifth overall pick, a trade back could provide them with more realistic players to draft. Luke Kuechly is the top inside linebacker in the draft, while Zach Brown or Ronnell Lewis could be intriguing players at outside linebacker. The Bucs have also repeatedly been linked with Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David in the second round. David is a typical fast, instinctive but undersized linebacker - the kind of linebacker the Bucs usually love.
Projected 2012 depth chart:
New addition (OLB), Mason Foster (MLB), New addition (OLB), Quincy Black, Adam Hayward, Dekoda Watson