The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a new coach, a new GM, and have spread a new sense of optimism with a lot of fans, who believe the team is better now than it was under Greg Schiano. And while a change in coaching will certainly help the Bucs take a step forward in the upcoming season, is the roster in better shape than it was under Schiano, Mark Dominik and company?
This series will take a position-by-position look at the roster in Tampa Bay, and consider if the Bucs are better off now than they were just under a year ago at this time. (For consistency purposes, I have used the OurLads 2013 depth chart from June 1st, 2013 as a basis for last year's roster.)
We continue the series with a look at the linebacker position.
Then Versus Now
Here's what the Bucs depth chart looked like at linebacker at this time last season:
David was a rising star known well to Bucs fans, but not to others at this time last year. He led the way on the depth chart, with known quantity Foster looking to improve as he grew comfortable at the MLB position. The SAM position was in flux following the departure of Quincy Black, but both Watson and Casillas figured to see time on the field at that spot.
(Edit: Adam Hayward was also on the depth chart at this time last year. He was missed in my original depth chart, but the remaining points are the same. Hayward was a special teams ace, but not the best linebacker.)
Here's what the depth chart looks like now:
Things look much the same now, but without Watson, who has moved to Jacksonville to play a role more suited to his talents. Casillas replaces him as the starter, which likely fits better with Lovie Smith's ideals for what a SAM linebacker should be.
Dane Fletcher is the important addition, as he brings a special teams replacement for Watson along with true competition for both Foster and Casillas. Lansanah and Munoz are relative unknowns, but both figure to be special teams players who could eventually see the field if needed.
The biggest question about the linebackers heading into 2013 has less to do with personnel changes, and more to do with scheme changes. Is Mason Foster the long-term answer at MIKE for the Bucs given Lovie Smith's history of middle linebackers?
That is the question that kicks off the "Looking Ahead" section of this preview, because Foster's ability to play well enough to impress his linebacker guru head coach determines the health of this position moving forward.
Fletcher and Casillas are role players, and David is a superstar. Foster is the question mark, and he has a wide range of outcomes. Can he overcome his relative lack of athleticism and coverage skills to be the MLB Lovie wants for his defense? Or will he struggle to handle his responsibilities in the middle of the field in the new-look defense and need a replacement sooner rather than later?
Foster doesn't seem to be the type of player to thrive like Brian Urlacher did for Lovie Smith, but he's certainly capable of doing enough to keep his place in the short-term. He's proven to be very good when he's getting downhill in pursuit of runners or quarterbacks, and he has a knack for making a big play over the middle of the field. He's going to be beaten athletically by many receivers, tight ends and backs over the middle, but can he limit the damage and take advantage of opponents' mistakes?
His ability to capitalize on misplaced passes and fumbled footballs will likely appeal to his new coaching staff and save his current position on the depth chart for 2014. Whether he gets a second contract depends on how he, and the Tampa defense, evolve over the next two seasons.
As for the SAM position, don't look for any major moves at this spot in the near future. Lovie Smith has already stated that nickel back is a starting position in his defense, meaning the SAM backer will be off the field more often than not as the player making way for the "starting" nickel DB. Casillas, Fletcher, or even a displaced Foster kicking to the outside could be as "long-term" of an answer the Bucs need at that spot.
The addition of Fletcher and the added experience for Foster and David mean the Bucs are marginally better at linebacker than they were at this time last season. Foster's development will dictate the long-term strength of the position, but for now, things look pretty good for Lovie Smith's backers.