Flynn's Focus

April 2 – The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are apparently content with Shelton Quarles and Nate Webster competing for the starting middle linebacker position this offseason, but here's a novel idea. What if Jacksonville middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson becomes a salary cap casualty on June 1? Is there an outside chance Nickerson could return to Tampa Bay? A closer look at the possibility of Nickerson suiting up in a red and pewter uniform again is in order for this installment of Flynn's Focus.

When Tampa Bay free agent middle linebacker Jamie Duncan signed with the St. Louis Rams via free agency, a question mark was immediately placed on his apparent successor—Nate Webster.

Then, Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and Co. decided to move strongside linebacker Shelton Quarles over to the middle linebacker position to compete with Nate Webster, and the move suggested Quarles would likely be the leading candidate for the starting position. When this happened, an even bigger question mark was placed at the middle linebacker position. Why? Because we have a good idea what Webster can do. We don't, however, know what Quarles can do at middle linebacker position.

That's where Jacksonville Jaguars MLB Hardy Nickerson comes in. This is strictly a novel idea, but if Nickerson becomes a salary cap casualty as expected on June 1, he will likely be looking for work, and Tampa Bay could possibly be searching for an experienced middle linebacker. Could Tampa Bay and Nickerson possibly be reunited?

Nickerson has two years remaining on the four-year, $16 million contract he signed in the 2000 offseason as an unrestricted free agent.

Nickerson (6-2, 237) played in Tampa Bay for six years (1993-99'), and the Bucs were interested in retaining his services when he became a free agent. But the four-time Pro Bowler left Tampa Bay's two-year contract offer on the table and accepted Jacksonville's, which included approximately $800,000 more per season and two more contract years.

If Nickerson is released, he may opt to retire. After all, he will turn 37 in September and he started to show his age during his first season with the Jaguars when he suffered injuries and was able to play in just six games. But the one thing Nickerson does not have is a Super Bowl ring, which could fuel his fire for another season or two.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers are counting on Quarles and Webster to protect the heart of Tampa Bay's defense. So, if Nickerson does become available and the price is right, why would Tampa Bay not seriously pursue him?

Sure, he's older, but he's experienced, and he knows Kiffin's defensive scheme. Even if Nickerson can't be signed until after June 1, he could step in and play immediately in Tampa Bay's defense.

Even if Nickerson doesn't have much left in the tank, he could rotate with Webster throughout the season, just as Kiffin elected to do with Duncan and Webster for the past two years. This would allow Webster to groom under one of the best middle linebackers linebackers to play the game. It would also allow Quarles to resume play at the strongside linebacker position, where he has started the last four seasons.

After Nickerson jolted for Jacksonville, some Tampa Bay defensive players said his leadership was missed in the locker room just as much as his playing ability on the field. Since Nickerson's departure, the Bucs' defense has slowly taken steps back from their dominant 1999 form. Duncan performed admirably, but was never quite able to fill Nickerson's shoes, and Tampa Bay's defense has never been the same.

Nickerson didn't leave Tampa Bay on the best terms with Bucs. After all, he stated at his Jacksonville press conference that the reason he wanted to play for the Jaguars instead of the Buccaneers was because he wanted to win a Super Bowl. These types of statements didn't sit well with Tampa Bay management.

Perhaps Nickerson will not be released from Jacksonville. Even if he is released, maybe he'll simply retire. But if Nickerson is released, and he's looking for work at a fairly cheap price, then the possibility of a reunion between Nickerson and Tampa Bay should not be ruled out.

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