TAMPA — It's been quite some time since anyone around here devoted this much time and thought to the linebacker position.
It just never seemed as if it was near the top of the Bucs' shopping list for one very simple reason: Derrick Brooks.
Tampa Bay hasn't selected a linebacker in the first round of the NFL draft in 13 seasons. Its last such draft choice (Brooks) turned out so well there seemed little reason to repeat, what with an 11-time Pro Bowl selection anchoring the unit on the weak side.
But Brooks is gone, released in February. So, too, is two-year strongside starter Cato June.
Now, the Bucs are reshaping their linebacker position from a personnel and strategic standpoint.
So, with the draft upon us, let's take a look at why the Bucs might consider linebacker with the 19th overall pick.
How did they get here?
The Bucs' exposure at linebacker has been brought about largely by their own doing, with general manager Mark Dominik and coach Raheem Morris making the unpopular and daring choice to release Brooks and June. Now the unit consists of budding superstar Barrett Ruud and several others the team says have potential. Also not to be overlooked is the team's unspectacular history in drafting depth at linebacker. Before picking up Quincy Black, Adam Hayward and Geno Hayes in the past two drafts, the Bucs hit only on Ruud in the previous eight.
As for the above-mentioned trio, no verdict has been reached on their effectiveness.
Who's manning the fort?
Ruud is the man in the middle and likely will be for years to come. He's become a tackling machine and perhaps will be in position to make even more plays given the style of defense the Bucs will employ.
But after Ruud, there is much less certainty.
Former safety Jermaine Phillips, left, has been installed on the weak side and will be given every opportunity to earn that starting job. It's a radical move that isn't attempted often, but the Bucs think he has the physicality to make the switch.
Though he won't gain medical clearance to take the field until next month, Angelo Crowell, signed as a free agent from the Bills, looks to make an impact in his first season with the Bucs. Crowell, one of the Bills' primary playmakers, seems an ideal fit for coordinator Jim Bates' defense: He's bigger and stouter than the outside linebackers used in former coordinator Monte Kiffin's Tampa 2 scheme. The one caveat is that he's coming off season-ending knee surgery.
Black, Hayes and Hayward will be factors, too, as they finally will get legitimate opportunities at consistent playing time.
Who are they looking for?
The profile of a Bucs linebacker has changed. Whereas speed and athleticism were the chief characteristics in the past, the Bucs now are seeking a more well-rounded linebacker because the job description has changed.
Because the Bucs will de-emphasize zone pass coverage, linebackers will be more involved in getting after the quarterback, in some cases through blitzes. And with the defensive tackles theoretically occupying blockers rather than shooting through gaps, the linebackers instead will be asked to burst through those gaps and into the backfield.
All this makes the prototypical Tampa Bay linebacker bigger and more physical. Think more D.J. Williams than Cato June. Different players, different games. Ruud, for example, said he doesn't anticipate being 40 yards down the field in pass coverage as he frequently was under Kiffin.
Who fits the bill?
Unless the Bucs make a blockbuster trade, they're not getting their hands on Wake Forest's Aaron Curry, the draft's best defender. This isn't a stellar linebacker class at the top of the draft, but there are other options that also suit their needs, such as USC's Brian Cushing. Capable of playing inside or out, Cushing can navigate through traffic, one of the responsibilities that will be required of Tampa Bay's linebackers. Cushing spent a season as a stand-up defensive end, so he has a repertoire of pass-rush moves and experience handling blockers off the edge. Though not predicted to be a first-rounder, USC's Clay Matthews could be an attractive option. He, too, is an accomplished pass rusher and all-around playmaker.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org