TAMPA — Yes, it's only June, and opening day in the NFL is still three months away.
But a picture of the Bucs' linebackers unit already is emerging.
Tight-lipped coach Greg Schiano continues to say things are very much subject to change.
"It would be premature to make any kind of assumption there," he said.
Still, the roles at linebacker are beginning to take shape. The position has been a focus this offseason given the lack of consistent playmaking from the unit in 2011 when the Bucs defense ranked 30th among 32 clubs.
As the team caps its offseason with a mandatory, three-day minicamp that began Tuesday, here's what we know:
• Mason Foster, who coaches had considered using as an outside linebacker, has played middle linebacker almost exclusively during offseason practices and is likely to remain there.
• Rookie Lavonte David, the second-round pick from Nebraska, continues to run with the first-team defense at weak-side linebacker. It's the position he's long been projected to play as a pro.
• Veteran Quincy Black occupies the strong-side position, though others — former FSU standout Dekoda Watson among them — could earn snaps there.
In the base defense, this is the group that has most often been on the field.
Foster is the biggest piece of the puzzle. When the offseason began, coaches hadn't committed to a specific position for him. He was a productive college outside linebacker at Washington but was perhaps prematurely forced into playing middle linebacker as a rookie last season, when he played hesitantly.
But after a full season and, now, his first NFL offseason — he missed last year's because of the lockout — Foster might have found a home.
"I'm very comfortable playing middle linebacker," he said
Tuesday, Schiano said Mason has impressed him even more in the past 10 days to two weeks: "He's getting it."
After two months of learning the defense, Foster believes the scheme suits him.
"It's a more aggressive defense," Foster said. "I love it."
David is progressing and living up to the high expectations. Billed as a sideline-to-sideline playmaker with elite coverage skills, David has shown some of those traits.
"If you were just playing five-on-five backyard tackle, I'd bet he'd make a ton of tackles, and that's what we're counting on him doing out here.'' defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan said. "He's got to learn all the intricacies of the defense and coverage, but he's instinctive. I'll bet he makes 10 tackles in the first preseason game. Not to put any pressure on him."
David has progressed to the first team ahead of Rennie Curran. He appears likely to be the weak-side opening-day starter.
Black, entering his sixth season and the second of a $29 million contract, is the most experienced linebacker. But he hasn't had the most impact.
"He is a talent and I expect him to be a playmaker," Sheridan said. "… I anticipate him having an excellent year."
Among the other things coaches will examine during this camp and into training camp is which two linebackers are best suited to play in the nickel defense. That oft-used personnel grouping employed in passing situations requires just two linebackers. Foster is almost certain to remain on the field — he wears the coach-to-defense helmet transmitter — but the outside linebackers are interchangeable in passing situations. David's coverage ability makes him a good nickel candidate.
There's much more to be squared away, like backups and other reserves who might push for playing time.
But it's not too early to draw preliminary conclusions about a unit that is key to the defense.