The Lowdown On The Linebackers

March 22 - The Buccaneers have targeted four free agent linebackers in their quest to find a replacement for Al Singleton at strongside linebacker. Pewter Report breaks down the quartet, which includes Charlie Clemons, Chris Claiborne, Dwayne Rudd and Wali Rainer, who visited the Bucs on Friday.

The Buccaneers have targeted four free agent linebackers to fill the void on the strongside that was created when Alshermond Singleton left Tampa Bay for greener pastures in Dallas. Literally. Singleton's deal with the Cowboys totalled $8 million over four years, with a $2 million signing bonus, which was too rich for the Buccaneers. The Bucs are interested in linebackers Dwayne Rudd, Charlie Clemons, Chris Claiborne and Wali Rainer, who visited Tampa Bay on Friday, but only for the right price.

Tampa Bay already has big money invested in linebackers Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles, and only wants to pay the starting strongside linebacker position no more than $1 million per year. The Buccaneers don't want to pay more than a million because the strongside linebacker is essentially a two-down linebacker who comes off the field in nickel situations while Brooks and Quarles stay on the field.

Singleton, who rarely played in nickel defense, had a salary cap value of approximately $870,000 in 2002.

If there are two positions that have been constantly devalued in the Bucs defense throughout recent years in terms of personnel and salary it is the strongside linebacker and the free safety, which coincidentaly, are the only two holes in Tampa Bay's defense heading into next season. When the 2003 campaign begins, the Bucs will be starting their sixth new free safety and strongside linebacker since 1995.

Due to salary cap concerns, the Bucs have let several of the big name free agent linebackers sign with other teams. What's left is a crop of good -- not great -- linebackers headlined by Claiborne, Detroit's first-round draft pick in 1999, and Clemons, who had 13.5 sacks in 2001 before having a year void of big plays last season for New Orleans.

The Bucs would be interested in signing Claiborne, but feel that is unlikely due to the fact that he was a former first-rounder who had a productive four-year career in Detroit. The upside on Claiborne is that he is only 25 years old and has big-play potential. The downside is that he's out of shape at 265 pounds and there are concerns about how he would make the transition from middle linebacker to the strong side.

Clemons is an intriguing athlete who can be a very effective blitzer and is good enough in coverage to play in the Bucs' scheme. However, he will be 31 in July and there is some concern by the Tampa Bay front office that he may already be on the downside of his career. The Bucs might want to invest money in a younger linebacker.

Third on the Bucs' wish list is Rudd, who would bring great athleticism and versatility to Tampa Bay. In stops in Minnesota and Cleveland, Rudd has played all three positions. After being a big-play machine for the Vikings, who selected him in the bottom half of the first round in 1997, Rudd didn't make much of an impact with the Browns over the past two years except for a costly 15-yard unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on the last play of the season opener against Kansas City when he threw his helmet in celebration. The Chiefs moved into field goal range because of Rudd's gaffe and kicked the game-winner.

Rainer ranks fourth out of this group and may be the least athletically gifted. He's a heady middle linebacker who played three years with Cleveland before spending the 2002 campaign with Jacksonville, but Rainer is a slow-footed middle linebacker who is much better stuffing the run as opposed to dropping into coverage. At 247 pounds, he may not be agile enough to cover tight ends downfield from the strong side.

The Bucs are patiently waiting for the right player to come along for the right price and won't rush to find Singleton's replacement in free agency, especially with the NFL Draft looming on April 26-27, and a fresh round of free agents coming after June 1 when teams usually cut players to realize salary cap savings this year.

Tampa Bay won't be able to sign anyone until the Bucs finish restructuring wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson. The team is approximately $500,000 under the NFL-mandated salary cap of $75 million, and Johnson's restructuring is supposed to free up an additional $2.5 million.

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