When Mark Dominik spoke at the introductory press conference for his big three free agent signings of 2012, most assumed he was performing some media wrangling when he said that the franchise was essentially done with free agency and turning to the draft.
He apparently was telling the truth, folks. It reminds me a bit of Jack Sparrow in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies saying, "You'd be surprised how often I do that (tell the truth)."
When Curtis Lofton signed with the New Orleans Saints for his chance at a championship (apparently Mr. Lofton hasn't been keeping up with current events), it signaled more clearly that the Bucs are ready to enter the draft process with essentially the same defense intact.
I'll wait until you're done shivering...
As many of our dedicated readers know, I wasn't Lofton's biggest supporter - leaving him off my 10 NFL Free Agents on Defense Who'd Look Great in Pewter list (for the record, Eric Wright wasn't on the list either). Still, his signing with the Saints depleted the already shrinking pool of middle linebackers who could step in today and immediately start for the Bucs.
Instead, it appears more and more likely that Mason Foster will continue to man the middle of the Buccaneers defense. Foster, as you already know, was the "quarterback of the defense" for statistically the worst defensive squad in team history. It goes without saying that you'd expect the Bucs to look for upgrades.
In the end, the outrageous demands of the linebacker market brought about by the overpaying of D'Qwell Jackson in Cleveland made the Bucs take a second look at Foster's play.
While his numbers and amount of splash plays certainly do not provide anyone with the "Wow" factor, you have to understand the extreme circumstances that the Bucs forced on to Foster. He was playing a position he never played in college, had no benefit of working with the coaches in the off-season due to the lockout, was asked to call all the adjustments on defense as a rookie and let's face it - Raheem and company are no longer patrolling the Tampa Bay sidelines for a reason.
"It was definitely challenging," Foster told the Pewter Report, "I tried to do everything I could by going down to Bradenton before the season started for the [unofficial] mini-camp, but even doing that it was tough to get a real good grasp on everything. I was able to show the physical part of my play by hitting people and making plays. It was tough as the season went on and more and more stuff was thrown in. I’m not making any excuses, but I definitely feel like there was a lot on my plate."
While images of the diminutive Jacquizz Rodgers bowling Foster at the goal-line in the season finale certainly provide no level of confidence in his abilities, Foster came out of college highly regarded. I was certainly one who was very pleased when his name was called.
Greg Schiano, Bill Sheridan and Butch Davis have studied this defense intently over the past couple months. As defensive minded guys, you have to imagine the only conclusion is they believe there's something there they can work with.
So going on the premise that Foster is going to continue to be MIKE, there's the little issue of replacing Geno Hayes at the WILL and giving some competition to Quincy Black at SAM. If Tampa Bay decides to stay in house, Dekota Watson may finally get his opportunity to see extended playing time. Used primarily as a pass rush specialist his first couple seasons, Tampa Bay, there's definitely some belief that he could be an option at either outside backer positions.
The Bucs also still need to address the secondary. While it appears they definitely overpaid for CB Eric Wright, the Bucs can feel comfortable that Wright should at least be more solid than what was currently on the roster (although there are definitely some varying opinions on his capabilities). If Aquib Talib escapes prison-time and/or a suspension from King Goodell and with Ronde Barber returning for his 16th NFL season, Tampa Bay does have some building blocks at corner.
Most have the Bucs married to LSU CB Morris Claiborne for their first round pick and he would indeed strengthen a shaky secondary. If the Bucs decide to go in another direction with their top pick, it can be expected a corner will be added at some point, just as Talib insurance (Tampa Bay may not know Talib's fate until after the draft - depending on how long the court case runs).
With the Bucs saying sayonara to greatness that was Sean Jones, they'll need to find a new starter there as well. Larry Asante, Ahmad Black and Cody Grimm - you're on the clock.
Once the draft is completed, Tampa Bay will dip back into the second tier free agency market to fill whatever other perceived holes they have left.
One of the major weaknesses of the Bucs' defense last season was the lack of veteran leadership. While Ronde is certainly a veteran, he's not a "Rah Rah Shish Boom Bah" kind of guy. He leads by example. Unfortunately, today's baby NFLers usually don't pay attention.
One of the appealing aspects of bringing in a Lofton or Tulloch or even David Hawthorne (who is still out there, Mr. Dominik) is to bring that authoritative voice in the huddle that can snap the kids to attention and get them to focus when the stuff hits the fan. The void is still there. Can Foster grow into that voice? Perhaps with a full off-season of mini-camps and OTA's he will have the confidence to be able to assert himself.
One thing is certain - this defense didn't need to get younger - yet that's the direction the Bucs seem to be headed. Mark Dominik is banking his reputation (and perhaps his job) on the belief that the young defenders are brimming with talent and just need a competent coaching staff to pull it out of them.
We'll find out soon if he was right.