If any one thing sticks out from the release of linebacker Shelton Quarles, it's this — there's no closure.
I went to One Buc Place expecting to talk about the NFL Draft, or at least watch general manager Bruce Allen tap dance around touchy questions. But instead he opened by dropping the Quarles bomb.
This came without warning. I mean everyone knew Quarles was contemplating retirement, based on an interview earlier this month. But there was no indication that the Bucs were even contemplating releasing Quarles until Tuesday.
So why now? I came up with three reasons.
1. It really is the injury.
It's difficult to know exactly what's going on when neither the general manager nor the player will comment on exactly what the injury is. Speculation is centered on Quarles' knee, but he also had groin and ankle injuries last year. So who knows for sure? Allen said the Bucs were releasing Quarles based on his failing a physical, but we don't know why. We may not know until Quarles tells us. But in this scenario, maybe the injury truly is so severe that the Bucs believe Quarles will never play again.
2. It's the money.
Quarles is scheduled to get $3 million this year, or close to it. Allen did say that releasing Quarles did save them some cap room, but didn't say how much. It's likely most of that amount, given that Quarles was in the last year of his contract. When asked about the salary cap situation entering the draft, Allen said the Bucs were "fine."
Given that the Bucs haven't spent a great deal of money in free agency, I'd buy that. But perhaps the Bucs are positioning themselves for something else either during the draft or after the draft that requires more cap room than they have. Consider this offering from Allen when asked about how much the defensive line is a priority in this draft, given the fact that the Bucs don't appear to have fully addressed their needs there.
"I don't think we're done improving the team the first day the draft is over or the weekend day the draft is over," Allen said.
One could infer that the Bucs may be seeking a different route to improving the line, such as a draft-day trade that would involve taking on a player making considerably more money than Quarles. One could infer.
3. It's the age.
Quarles is 35. He turns 36 on Sept. 11. He's logged 10 years in the NFL, and considering what Quarles had to do to break into the league — play two years in the CFL and fight for a roster spot as a training camp invitee — he's had a pretty darn good career. But this defense must, at some point, get younger. And maybe it's time for Quarles to exit.
I'm less inclined to believe age is the biggest issue. Quarles has been incredibly productive the past five years in the middle. Even last year, despite missing four games, he had the team's second-most tackles. There were games when he was the best defensive player on the field. And many of those times he was hurt.
Yes, his production will drop off at some point, perhaps it would this year if he played. But considering that Barrett Ruud — Quarles' likely replacement — has just four NFL starts and the jury's still out on his effectiveness, wouldn't it make more sense to keep Quarles and his track record and let Ruud and Quarles duke it out for the starting job? That is, if money isn't an issue.
Of course, that brings us to the injury. My biggest question mark is why didn't the Bucs just give Quarles the spring and summer to see if he could rehab the injury, and if he wasn't ready just put him on the physically unable to perform list? The New York Jets afforded Curtis Martin that courtesy last year, and while he'll retire soon, at least he wasn't released with less dignity than a back of his caliber deserved. Given what Quarles has meant to the franchise — and if money wasn't an issue — the Bucs could have done that.
That's why I'm pretty certain this comes down to money. The Bucs need that extra cap room for something, perhaps something on draft day or beyond.
So what now?
With Quarles gone, Ruud, as mentioned earlier, is the likely starter. Ruud started four times for Quarles last year and registered 59 tackles and one tackle for loss. He didn't, however, show that big-play ability Tampa Bay linebackers are known for. That may be something Ruud will show us this year.
Tampa Bay has eight linebackers on the roster, and most teams carry six. Along with Ruud are Derrick Brooks, Antoine Cash, Cato June, Ryan Nece, Evan Benjamin, Jamie Winborn and Patrick Chukwurah (who's also listed as an end). Allen said that it's likely that five or six more players may be released before the draft. Among this group, Benjamin and Winborn would be the most likely suspects.
Brooks, naturally, is the starter on the weak side. The strong side competition between Nece and June was intriguing until Quarles retired. Now I strongly believe that June will move inside to challenge Ruud for the starting job. One of many things the Bucs need is a speedy linebacker to cover the deep middle, an area where they were clobbered last year. While Quarles produced tackles, his speed seemed to be diminishing last year. That's one area where June could be a big upgrade. In fact, I think June's signing hastened Quarles' departure, or at least made it easier for the Bucs to justify his release. June has to play, and this release opens the door.
By opening day, I envision a starting lineup of Brooks on the weak side, Nece on the strong side and June in the middle. June's speed, I believe, will trump Ruud's overall skill. I could even see the Bucs moving Ruud to the strong side to challenge Nece, as the two are similarly built (Ruud is 6-foot-2, 241 pounds, while Nece is 6-foot-3, 241 pounds).
I don't think Quarles will play again. I don't think he'll get the recognition he surely deserves, but he will retire a Buc.
And that's probably as it should be.