Bucs Set at Linebacker

Bucs have future Hall of Famer to anchor unit and plenty of depth behind

By Jeff Berlinicke

Of all the positions the Tampa Buccaneers have to worry about this season, they can rest assured that they are in fine hands at linebacker.

With three weeks remaining until the Bucs kick off the regular season at Minnesota against the Vikings, coach Jon Gruden has plenty to worry about, but if there is one place he has a depth of talent, it is linebacker. He has one of the league's best, two of the league's steadiest, and a rookie who might just turn out to be the steal of the draft.

Start with Derrick Brooks. After all, you have to look back to the orange and white Popsicle days before you discussed the Bucs defense without starting with Brooks. Even more than Lee Roy Selmon, Mike Alstott, or any other player in Bucs history, Brooks is the signature player. At 32 he hasn't lost a step and, unless the Bucs brass think he's worth too much against the salary cap, Brooks should end a potential Hall of fame career as a Buccaneer. He's the undisputed leader of one of the league's better defenses and hasn't lost a step.

Even when the Bucs season dragged to a merciful end last season, Brooks was the one Buc who could be counted on, both on and off the field. He's one of the most charitable players in the NFL and has never been involved in an off the field incident. Even when he and the Bucs were quarreling over salary negotiations last year, Brooks never let it become a Terrell Owens media circus.

On the field, Brooks is the unquestioned leader and plays both the run and pass equally well. After 10 seasons, he's still one of the NFL's finest.

Shelton Quarles is another no-brainer in the middle. He doesn't get the ink or the publicity of Brooks, but he goes about his business much like defensive end Greg Spires – quietly and efficiently. Quarles is terrific against the run and knows how to deal the punishment to anyone over the middle. He got a lot of calls last year after nose tackle Booger McFarland went down with a season-ending injury, and he came up big, often the last stop between a four-yard stop and a long gain.

With the departure of Ian Gold to free agency, the Bucs strong side linebacker job falls to Jeff Gooch. Gold was solid last year, but Gooch has been one of the Bucs most impressive players during training camp, taking command of the strong side position. He had better watch himself because second-round draft pick Barrett Ruud has amazed coaches with his athleticism and knack for picking up the Bucs defense. Assuming that Gooch, Quarles, and Brooks hold onto the starting jobs, Ruud will still get about 15 plays a game and you can already pencil him in for the 2006 season, even if it means cutting a contract.

With the Bucs being a traditional 4-3 defense, if Ruud continues to progress, and McFarland suffers another injury on the defensive line, it might be intriguing for the Bucs to look at a 3-4 defense so Ruud can get more snaps. Defensive end Simeon Rice is a natural linebacker and can drop into coverage, but Ruud provides just another option on the Bucs defense.

NEXT: CORNERBACKS

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