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With linebackers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers must start in middle

TAMPA — The Bucs' plan to start rookie Mason Foster at middle linebacker last season might have been doomed from the start. The third-round pick often got lost in coverage and had too much responsibility calling the signals. But the Bucs have a new coaching staff, and Foster might have a new position.

"He could move," general manager Mark Dominik said of Foster. "But he's had a year with a lot of experience at the (middle linebacker) position. No one has made that decision in our organization yet.

"I think Mason will have an opportunity to show what he can do. We'll have to see how it plays out. We put a lot on his shoulders last year. Were there times when Mason didn't play very good? Yes, there was. And did it feel like he was playing a little slower at the end of the season? I thought so. But there was a lot going on for that young guy, and I'm sure he gained a lot of experience doing it."

New defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan first raised the possibility of Foster moving to the weakside or strongside. Regardless, the Bucs will have to address the linebacker position during free agency.

Geno Hayes, who was inconsistent as he replaced Derrick Brooks on the weakside, is an unrestricted free agent. Quincy Black, who signed a five-year, $29 million contract before last season, is an athletic specimen but lacked instincts while playing on the strongside. Once the Bucs solve their riddle in the middle, they will know which linebacker position to focus on during free agency.

Meanwhile, here are the top free agent linebackers.

Mario Williams, Texans (outside)

Williams might be better suited as a defensive end in the Bucs' 4-3 scheme (though Sheridan said he will have an occasional 3-4 component in the defense). And Tampa Bay already has invested heavily in the draft at that position with Adrian Clayborn (first round) and Da'Quan Bowers (second round), an opportunity to sign the top player in the 2012 free agent class (Peyton Manning excluded) and No. 1 overall pick in 2006 has to be considered. Williams recorded 53 sacks in six seasons, including five in five games last season before he tore a pectoral muscle and missed the rest of the season. There's still a chance the Texans re-sign the 27-year-old, but the Cowboys and Seahawks are lining up for his services.

Price tag: $$$$

Jarret Johnson, Ravens (outside)

At 6 feet 3, 260 pounds, Johnson is not the prototypical Bucs linebacker. And at 30 years old, he gives teams cause for pause. But his versatility will garner lots of attention, mostly from coaches with a background in the Ravens defense. That includes the Jets' Rex Ryan, Bengals' Marvin Lewis and Colts' Chuck Pagano. Johnson has nine forced fumbles and 20 sacks over nine seasons.

Price tag: $$$

Erin Henderson, Vikings (outside)

Henderson is an interesting player and someone the Bucs would have to consider. He was a reserve before injuries forced him into the lineup. He started 11 games and was productive, recording 70 tackles and 11/2 sacks. He would give the Bucs a solid run-stopper and a bigger body at 6 feet 3, 244 pounds. At 25, he could be in the fold for many years to come.

Price tag: $$$

Stephen Tulloch, Lions (inside/middle)

The 5-foot-11, 240-pounder played very well in his only season with Detroit. But the Lions hope to sign receiver Calvin Johnson (entering the final year of his contract) and defensive end Cliff Avril (franchise player) to long-term deals. Tulloch had career highs in sacks (three) and interceptions (two) while contributing 111 tackles. At 27, he is in his prime. The Bucs would have to commit to moving Foster before making a play for another middle linebacker. And they will have competition from, among others, the Eagles.

Price tag: $$$

Curtis Lofton, Falcons (inside/middle)

No better way to make gains in the NFC South than to weaken an opponent in the process. Lofton, 25, has been a very productive player since he was a second-round pick out of Oklahoma in 2008. The Falcons recently signed veteran middle linebacker Lofa Tatupu, and new defensive coordinator Mike Nolan might not see Lofton as an every-down linebacker. Lofton might relish a chance to stick it to the Falcons twice a year.

Price tag: $$$$



. Fast facts

The series

Friday: Running backs

Saturday: Offensive line

Sunday: Wide receivers

Today: Linebackers

Tuesday: Defensive backs

. Fast facts

Key

$$$$: More than $8 million per year or more

$$$: $5 million-$8 million per year

$$: $2 million-$5 million per year

$: Less than $2 million per year

With linebackers, Tampa Bay Buccaneers must start in middle 03/11/12 [Last modified: Sunday, March 11, 2012 7:56pm]

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