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Bucs likely to tinker at linebacker

Linebacker Quincy Black, left, damaged a nerve last season and is unlikely to return, and it’s possible middle linebacker Mason Foster, right, might have to move as a result.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Linebacker Quincy Black, left, damaged a nerve last season and is unlikely to return, and it’s possible middle linebacker Mason Foster, right, might have to move as a result.

TAMPA — Quincy Black still hopes to have complete use of his left arm, which sustained nerve damage in a collision with Chargers running back Ryan Mathews during a game Nov. 11. Whether he can play football next season — or ever — would seem to be secondary at this point.

Black, 29, a third-round pick in 2007, was the Bucs' starting strongside linebacker. Though he came off the field on passing downs, he provided experience to an otherwise inexperienced position that included rookie Lavonte David and second-year pro Mason Foster.

Black had nerve graft surgery in January and doctors hope for a full recovery. But because of the uncertainty, and his $5.5 million salary for 2013, Black most likely will be released before the season. He will be eligible for up to $1 million in injury protection.

David, a second-round pick from Nebraska, was sensational as a rookie and led the team with 139 tackles, including 19 for loss. He never came off the field, wore the helmet communicator and played with tremendous energy.

Foster may be more suited for strongside. But he rededicated himself and is working on the holes in his pass breakup game.

If the Bucs move Foster to the strongside, and there has been speculation that they would, it would create a riddle in the middle of the defense.

If Foster remains at middle linebacker, which seems likely, there are players that could take over Black's spot — Adam Hayward and Dekoda Watson. The Bucs could use one more linebacker who excels in coverage and can remain on the field with David during passing downs. But it wouldn't seem to be a priority in free agency.

Top of the class

Dannell Ellerbe, Ravens

The Super Bowl champions made re-signing Ellerbe a priority, especially considering the retirement of Ray Lewis. He is coming off his best season with 91 tackles and 41/2 sacks.

Price: $$$$

Paul Kruger, Ravens

The 6-4, 270-pounder had nine sacks in five starts at outside linebacker last season. The Cleveland Browns, among a host of other teams, will try to sign Kruger.

Price: $$$$

Philip Wheeler, Raiders

At 28, Wheeler is in the prime of his career and appeared to have settled in last season when he had 109 tackles, three sacks and two forced fumbles.

Price: $$$$

Rest of the field

Daryl Smith, Jaguars $$$

Ray Maualuga, Bengals $$

Erin Henderson, Vikings $$

Justin Durant, Jaguars $$

Leroy Hill, Seahawks $

Bucs: Best guess

The Bucs have too many needs at other positions to commit big money to top-tier free agents, but they need depth and a possible starting strongside linebacker before the signing period and the draft are over.

Key

$ = Less than $2M/year

$$ = $2M to $5M/year

$$$ = $5M to $7M/year

$$$$ = $7M to $10M/year

$$$$$ = More than $10M/year

Bucs likely to tinker at linebacker 03/09/13 [Last modified: Saturday, March 9, 2013 9:26pm]

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