TAMPA — Jermaine Phillips already tackled the unenviable job of taking over from John Lynch. Incredibly, he now could be the man to replace Derrick Brooks.
The Bucs safety has been asked by coach Raheem Morris to attempt to make a switch to weakside linebacker this offseason, a position manned the last 14 years by Brooks, the 11-time Pro Bowl player who was released on Feb. 25.
"Oh, man, it crossed my mind," Phillips said. "When they asked me, I was like first Lynch, now Brooks. Who's going to be next?'
"But I look at it like this: Nobody can ever replace a John Lynch, nobody can ever replace a Derrick Brooks. What they've done for the game of football is unmatched. All I can do is go out there and play the linebacker position the best way I can. Hopefully, everybody will learn to love me the way they loved them."
Phillips, who turns 30 this month, was an unrestricted free agent until a few weeks ago when he signed a one-year contract worth $1.25 million.
There were several factors in the decision to move Phillips to linebacker. The Bucs are committed to playing third-year pro Sabby Piscitelli at strong safety. Linebacker Geno Hayes tore the medial collateral ligament in his knee last season and may not be ready to compete at full speed until at least May.
"Two weeks ago, (Phillips) was still on the market. He wasn't even here," linebackers coach Joe Barry said. "I think it's been a bunch of things, with us not signing a guy, with us signing (Phillips) back, with a guy or two being banged up.
"But the bottom line with moving Jermaine is that Jermaine Phillips is a hell of a football player. He's a physical presence. … There are guys who have the tag of being a physical presence in the secondary and a hitter and all that stuff. Jermaine Phillips is a load. He will knock you out. Those are the reasons we felt comfortable even thinking about this."
Because Phillips played in a lot of eight-man fronts at safety, just 4 yards from the line of scrimmage, he is comfortable shedding blocks and playing in a confined space.
Phillips said Morris did not have to sell him on the move.
"He knows me and knows I'm a team guy and I want to win," Phillips said. "He said, 'This is your choice, your decision.' I said, 'Well, the only way I'm going to know if I'm going to like it is if I try it so I'm willing to give it a try and see how it goes and we'll go from there.'
"It's still an experiment, it's still early on in the phases of me becoming a linebacker. I just want to be as effective as I was as a safety and make the team better."
The Bucs said they were committed to getting younger when they released five veterans last month, including Brooks and starting strongside linebacker Cato June.
The Bucs on Wednesday signed Bills free-agent linebacker Angelo Crowell, 27, for one year, $3 million. He will compete with third-year pro Quincy Black, 25, and Adam Hayward, 24, on the strong side for the position held by June. That leaves Hayes, 21, competing with Phillips for the weakside spot that's been anchored by Brooks.
Hayward said the release of Brooks and June shocked everyone.
"Like coach said, they're going in a different direction and in order to do that, you have to let key players — great players — go,'' he said. "We were able to learn a lot of things and hopefully we can keep what they taught us.
"It's definitely an opportunity for me to do my thing and have a chance to shine.''
Hayes drew comparisons to Brooks when he played at Florida State, but he will not try to imitate him.
"It's very different because Derrick Brooks is Derrick Brooks," Hayes said. "It was an honor. We all had the time to learn from him and get everything we could from him. You still have to be yourself. They're some big shoes to fill, but to be your own man, you have to wear your own shoes."
At 6 feet 2, 230 pounds, Phillips is small by NFL standards to play linebacker but roughly the same size or bigger than Brooks and June. Durability is a concern. He broke both forearms last season and has fractured his arms four times throughout his career. Phillips said he will wear pads on both arms.
"We'll pad it up no matter how it looks. Call me Ironman," Phillips said.
Barry said the plan is to leave Phillips at linebacker, not to have him play both positions during minicamps and offseason workouts.
"We'll see where it goes,'' Barry said. "Maybe a month from now, we'll re-evaluate the situation.
"I'm excited about it. The thing Jermaine brings to the table is the physical presence, he's a guy who can get down there and mix it up. I think that's why when we started talking about it, we felt comfortable about it and the fact we did so much before in our old package with having the safeties in the box and (Phillips) has played such a big role in that the last five or six years.
"With it being in the middle of March, if you're going to experiment with something, now is the time to do it."
Phillips has only one reservation.
"Somehow, someway, they've got to make it so I don't have to switch my number," Phillips said. "I've been 23 for too long."