The strongside linebacker spot is not important in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense. That shouldn't be a surprising statement, but JoeBucsFan thinks differently. Apparently the fact that the Bucs pursued Cato June at one point and then gave Quincy Black a big contract they consider the position very important. Talking about those two players in the context of this defense is a little beside the point, but okay.
The Cato June point is interesting, and pursuing him hard never did make much sense to me. The Bucs got by changing their strongside linebacker almost every year under Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin, with such luminaries as Ryan Nece and Al Singleton. Kiffin had seven different starters at strongside linebacker from 1996 through 2008. That doesn't happen at an important position: you create stability there.
So what about Quincy Black, then? Well, he wasn't seen as "just" a strongside linebacker, who traditionally comes off the field on passing downs. Instead, Black was seen as a versatile, athletic defender who could play 100% of the snaps and play them well. Raheem Morris nearly seemed to want to design his defense around Black with the number of three-man lines he ran in passing downs. It's just that the Bucs were wrong about Black's ability to play that much.
That said, the strongside linebacker position isn't necessarily a low-value position in a 4-3 defense. But it is a low-value position in every defense where he doesn't stay on the field on passing downs. Last season the strongside linebacker played just 51% of the snaps, divided between Quincy Black, Dekoda Watson and Adam Hayward. By comparison, Mason Foster was on the field 69% of the time and Lavonte David spent a whopping 98% of all snaps on the field.
Here's a common sense statement: the more snaps a player plays, the more important he is to the team. The strongside linebacker is on the field less than every other defensive position, and even less than the fifth defensive back. It's just not as important a position as all those other positions.
And then there's the economic viewpoint. You cannot pay every position in today's NFL. You just can't. There's not enough room under the salary cap. When I looked at the team's distribution of cap space, they had 58% of all their cap spend locked up in just 8 players. And that was before they added Darrelle Revis and his $16 million cap hit. In a team built like that, some positions have to be less important than others. And for the Bucs, strongside linebacker is one of those positions.
So is strongside linebacker not important? Not really. You're not going trot out
some random bum me out there. You'll get killed. But when you compare him to every other starter on defense, is he important? That's a consequence of economics, where you have to skimp on some positions, and a consequence of snap counts. When you're on the field 50% of the time and primarily defending the run, you are not as important as the players that play 70% to 100% of the snaps.
The Buccaneers realize this, too. It's why they have Dekoda Watson still on his seventh-round rookie contract and Jonathan Casillas on a $2 million contract competing for the starting job, instead of using a high draft pick on the position or bringing in an expensive veteran. They are clearly skimping on the position. And this makes all kinds of sense.