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Tossing aside linebacker Barrett Ruud would be risky move for Tampa Bay Buccaneers

TAMPA

Cutting Derrick Brooks in 2009? Heartbreaking. Releasing Shelton Quarles in '07? Painful. Letting Hardy Nickerson go to Jacksonville in 2000? Infinitely sad.

But, in retrospect, you could make an argument that none of those moves were risky.

And that may not be the case with Barrett Ruud going into 2011.

Please, do not misunderstand that point. I'm not saying Ruud is close to being the linebacker Brooks or Nickerson were. Or even Quarles, for that matter.

This is an argument of specific place and time. Nickerson, Quarles and Brooks were all 35 or older at the time of their departures. In Brooks' case specifically, the Bucs were in a rebuilding mode, and the risk was inconsequential for a team about to go 3-13.

The situation is different for Tampa Bay in 2011. This team sees itself as a contender for the NFC South title. Ruud, at 28, is the unquestioned leader of an emerging defense.

And his potential replacements — third-round pick Mason Foster and USF product Tyrone McKenzie — have a combined total of five tackles on their NFL resumes going into a season where they've been locked out of the team facility all summer.

So the Bucs are essentially taking a known and turning it into an unknown. And that's a risk for a team that already has a handful of other unknowns on defense.

Of course, there's a chance this could all be moot. Ruud has not come to terms with any other team, and the Bucs have not ruled out the possibility that he returns to Tampa Bay.

There's also a chance Foster or McKenzie could make you forget about Ruud by season's end. Sort of the way Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn turned Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton into distant memories a year ago.

Because, let's face it, Bucs general manager Mark Dominik is on a pretty good hot streak when it comes to identifying and securing young talent.

Still, I can't help but wonder if this potential move isn't premature by a year or two.

Now, you might disagree. You might shout that Ruud's impact in recent seasons has been minimal. There is certainly a case to be made for that argument.

Ruud has never been a spectacular player. He does not ring helmets. He does not blow up running backs with regularity. He is a solid player who rarely makes mistakes.

He might even be derisively written off as a JAG — Just Another Guy, in scouting parlance.

But it could be costly to dismiss the importance of a veteran player who understands the defense, does not get caught out of position, and helps a huddle full of younger players make the correct reads and adjustments.

It's interesting that people have gotten caught up in the notion that Ruud does not make a lot of impact plays. He doesn't. But the middle linebacker in the Tampa 2 defense is not necessarily set up for that role.

The disruptive positions in this defense are the under tackle and the weakside linebacker. The middle linebacker is more of a monitor than an enforcer.

You say you don't buy that?

Then let's consider the two most acclaimed middle linebackers in recent Bucs history. Quarles manned the position from 2002-06. He averaged 1.6 sacks per season. Nickerson played here from 1993-99. He averaged 1.28 sacks per season. In Ruud's four seasons as a starter, he has averaged 1.25. Not much of a difference, right?

In pass coverage, Nickerson averaged 1.0 interception per season. Quarles averaged 0.4 interceptions and 2.2 passes defensed. Ruud has 1.5 interceptions and 5.0 passes defensed. Again, not a tremendous difference but Ruud does come out ahead.

Tackle totals are trickier because of differences in the way they have been counted over the years, but Quarles led the team in tackles once in five years at middle linebacker. Nickerson led the team four times in seven years. Ruud has led the team in all four years as a starter.

Again, this is not an argument that Ruud is a better player than Quarles or Nicker­son were. It is simply pointing out that his production has been in line with other players at the same position in this particular defense.

To be fair, there is another important component to the story.

Ruud is a free agent and, presumably, looking for a contract that will be the centerpiece of his career. It could be that he has priced himself out of the marketplace. After all, no other team swooped in to sign him when the moratorium on free agents passed Friday.

But, the truth is, Ruud's value should be higher in Tampa Bay than anywhere else.

He is a known commodity in the locker room, on the field and in the community. And he has patiently waited his turn for free agency. He did not stage a holdout last season, as Donald Penn threatened to do before getting his contract extension.

I'm not saying Ruud is a Pro Bowl linebacker. And I'm not saying the Bucs should hand him a blank check.

I just think it's a risk to let him walk away from this team, at this moment, with so much at stake.

Tossing aside linebacker Barrett Ruud would be risky move for Tampa Bay Buccaneers 07/29/11 [Last modified: Friday, July 29, 2011 11:43pm]

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