Thursday, April 19, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers draft preview: Linebackers

The situation

The Bucs gambled by going with rookie Mason Foster in the middle last season, particularly on the heels of the lockout and no offseason. Foster struggled with play-calling and coverage, sprained both ankles early in the season, and his legs went dead during the final month.

The day Bill Sheridan became defensive coordinator, he suggested Foster might play on the outside. Quincy Black returns on the strongside and called plays during last week's first minicamp. Dekoda Watson could become a starter but is best suited as an edge pass rusher.

Tampa Bay was 32nd against the run last season, and it could be argued linebacker is its second-biggest need behind cornerback. The Bucs have not addressed the position in free agency, perhaps a clue they will do so in the draft.

What they're looking for

The Bucs have flexibility. Foster is prepared to remain in the middle, so they can find an outside linebacker in the later rounds. Ideally, the Bucs' middle linebacker would be a three-down player who is as comfortable in coverage as against the run. More important, they need some attitude on defense and more instinctive players.

Fitting the bill

Boston College middle linebacker Luke Kuechly makes a lot of sense for the Bucs if Alabama running back Trent Richardson and LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne are gone. Kuechly is projected by some to be a top-10 pick, so it wouldn't be much of a reach. He's a no-nonsense player known for his preparation and work ethic who fits perfectly what coach Greg Schiano is trying to build on defense.

The top 10

1. Luke Kuechly, ILB, 6-3, 242, Boston CollegeKuechly made 14 tackles per game, an NCAA record. He is the only player to lead the ACC in tackles three consecutive seasons. Would allow Mason Foster to move to the weakside.
2. Melvin Ingram, OLB, 6-1, 264, South CarolinaMany project Ingram as an end in a 4-3 scheme and an outside linebacker in a 3-4 because of his ability to rush the quarterback. Would not be a great fit for the Bucs because he is not strong in coverage.
3. Shea McClellin, OLB, 6-3, 260, Boise StateMcClellin had 161/2 sacks in two seasons in Division I-A, and many see him as a pass-rushing end. That's likely what he would be in the Bucs' scheme. But he was used primarily as a strongside linebacker during Senior Bowl practices.
4. Lavonte David, OLB, 6-1, 233, NebraskaDavid recorded 152 tackles and six sacks last season. A little undersized for some schemes but the prototypical Tampa Bay weakside linebacker. Some teams project him as a strong safety.
5. Dont'a Hightower, MLB, 6-2, 265, AlabamaCaptain of the BCS national champions has great speed and power. Might be a better 3-4 linebacker because he could struggle in coverage.
6. Mychal Kendricks, ILB, 5-11, 239, CaliforniaPac-12 defensive player of the year has exceptional speed (4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash) and instincts. But he might struggle getting off blocks in the NFL.
7. Ronnell Lewis, OLB, 6-1, 253, OklahomaThe ultimate tweener who might struggle to find a position in the NFL. Nicknamed "The Hammer" for the way he hits, Lewis played nearly every front seven position for the Sooners.
8. Zach Brown, OLB, 6-1, 244, North CarolinaRecruited by Butch Davis, now the Bucs' special assistant to the head coach. Has a lot of measurables, but you have to wonder if he lacks instincts and would struggle like Quincy Black.
9. Demario Davis, ILB, 6-2, 235, Arkansas StateIncredible physical specimen who can provide big hits, particularly in the running game. He is a raw talent in many other areas who needs time to develop.
10. Bobby Wagner, OLB, 6-0, 235, Utah StateFour-year starter can play strong and weakside linebacker. A little on the small side, but quickness is there. Coverage responsibilities will be an adjustment.

Best guess

If Richardson and Claiborne are gone and the Bucs pass on Southern Cal offensive tackle Matt Kalil, Kuechly would be a solid pick at No. 5 and improve the defense.

Rick Stroud, Times staff writer

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