Today's analysis is on Buccaneers linebacker Cato June. First, Scout.com NFL writer and Colts team expert Ed Thompson provides his in-depth analysis of June.
Ed Thompson: The Indianapolis Colts generally treat their outside linebackers as spare parts, replaceable as each one hits unrestricted free agency. And since the team was cap-strapped, there was no way they were going to be able to engage in any serious bids for the services of Cato June.
A converted safety out of Michigan, June had some experience as a nickel linebacker. Undersized by most standards to even be considered as a linebacker, the outgoing and outspoken player was a perfect fit for the Colts' Cover 2 defense and even drew comparisons by head coach Tony Dungy to a player that he and Buccaneers fans are very familiar with – Derrick Brooks.
June is clearly at his best at the weakside position, as he excels at seeing gaps develop and timing his burst to the hole to disrupt plays. He uses angles well and usually wraps up the ball carrier capably. But he's not a linebacker who is going to win many battles head-on if he gets caught in traffic. And he's not going to put many hits on an opponent that will draw gasps from the crowd -- even though he possesses respectable strength. June's got a real knack for sensing the flow of the play, but he has to be free to roam to use his speed and timing to have an impact.
And that what confounds me about Tampa Bay's reported plan to use him as a strongside linebacker. If that's what they needed the most, they might have picked the wrong guy, unless that's just a short-term plan for him. June's best talents are likely to be wasted, except for when he's counted on to cover the tight end in short pass coverage. If he spends most of his time as a containment player, taking on the tight end and holding his ground to funnel runners inside, Buccaneers fans will likely wonder by the end of the season what all the fuss was about in signing the former Colt.
June's a strong, talkative leader on the field who will go all-out every Sunday and will earn the respect of his new teammates quickly with his work ethic and spirit. But the biggest question will be whether or not anyone will notice if Tampa Bay wastes him in the relative obscurity of the strongside spot. The Colts had a crying need for someone to step up and play that position last season after the departure of David Thornton, but Indy kept June at weakside and tried three different players there during the season before former middle linebacker Rob Morris stepped up to claim the job. If Indianapolis had any thoughts that strongside was a good fit for June, they could have left Gilbert Gardner -- who was June's backup -- play weakside while moving June over. But it was Gardner who was bumped, and who failed to successfully make the transition.
Fans and the media will love him. June is a classy guy with style, a good heart, a warm smile and a great sense of humor. He will be a good addition to the roster in Tampa Bay, but a great one if they find a way to use his talents by turning him loose.
Matthew Postins: Tampa Bay must prepare for life without Derrick Brooks. At 34, he isn't over the hill. But his skills are obviously in decline. Problem is, Brooks is such an icon in Tampa Bay that any attempt to simply cut or trade him might lead to downright revolt. Brooks is one of those rare players who will be allowed to retire on his own terms, and that will be somewhere between now and 2009, when his contract expires.
Tampa Bay must think that day is coming sooner than the end of Brooks' deal, or else they would not have spent the reported $12 million on June this offseason.
Having already asked Brooks to take a pay cut (which he did in 2006), there's only so much more he can be asked to do. An athlete that prideful isn't simply going to step aside. And, besides, Brooks can still play.
So, then, what is June? Well, he can be a lot of things in this defense. Strongside linebacker is probably a mismatch for a player that is only 6-foot and 227 pounds. So I agree with Ed — he's miscast there, even though it appears at this moment the Bucs are intent on starting him there in training camp.
If June was an offensive player and he didn't fit Jon Gruden's system, June wouldn't be here. But while I sometimes think Gruden is simply to rigid to adjust his system for his talent, the same cannot be said for defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. In the two years I've been covering the Bucs I've seen Kiffin tinker with personnel and formations. Nothing mind-blowing, mind you, but Kiffin seems more able to adjust and put his players in positions to succeed, even if it flies in the face of his overall defensive philosophy.
And in mini-camp I've seen those adjustments, at least in the genesis stage. I saw the Bucs run a little 3-4, with June working at the inside weak linebacker position, right next to Brooks. I also saw June working the left side of the field in a nickel package that features just two linebackers — Barrett Ruud was the other — which takes advantage of June's coverage skills.
The reason June is in Tampa is because he addresses two of the Bucs' chief deficiencies at linebacker last year — speed and pass coverage. If the Bucs do play June at strong side, then they obviously believe June's speed in coverage on tight ends will make up for his lack of size (He's three inches shorter than last year's strong side starter, Ryan Nece).
But I don't believe June will play just on the strong side this year.
I believe Kiffin will find a way to get the most out of June, which includes that potential 3-4 alignment and the nickel packages. I think there's also a chance that, in some situations, Kiffin might switch Brooks with June on the weak side. This signing actually has the potential to extend Brooks' career a bit — or at the least keep him fresh for November and December.
I think June's greatest value to Tampa Bay is down the line as Brooks' replacement. Right now, I think June can be a valuable part of the defense as a sort of "utility linebacker," with the offense never knowing where June will line up or what his assignment might be. That may start on the strong side, but I don't think that's where June will see the majority of his time.