The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have signed four linebackers since the start of free agency — Antonie Cash, Leon Joe, Teddy Lehman and Matt McCoy. Naturally, the assumption is that the Bucs are building depth for the 2008 season behind starters Cato June, Barrett Ruud and Derrick Brooks.
But are they also planning for life without Brooks?
Brooks, who will enter his 14th NFL season in 2008, is showing no signs of slowing down. But his contract expires after the 2009 season and it's widely assumed that if he doesn't retire before then, that he'll retire after that season. He'll be 36 by then and will have played 15 years.
It's also been widely assumed that June, the sixth-year pro signed to a three-year deal in 2007, was Brooks' heir apparent. He plays on the strong side right now, though he's a bit undersized for the position, but had a solid season in 2007. It looks simple enough. Brooks retires. June slides over.
But is that really the case? Our Scout.com Senior NFL reporter Adam Caplan filed this blog entry on Wednesday, after the signing of McCoy, whom Caplan reported will be the backup to Brooks:
"It's believed Tampa Bay will keep Cato June on the strong-side even when Brooks decides to retire, which is a surprise because some consider him a bit undersized for that position."
Now that's an interesting note. Caplan is one of the most connected football reporters around, and if he has a source, it's usually a good one (naturally, the source will remain nameless).
To some, Caplan's blog entry will likely be bunk. But there are two things to consider.
First, June's contract ends the same year as Brooks' — 2009. Let's say Brooks retires after the 2009 season. Well, now June is unsigned and an unrestricted free agent. June could well command a big contract (he'll be 29 when free agency begins that March) because he'll still be in the prime of his career. The Bucs might not want to match that offer.
The second consideration is a statement I heard from an agent during the Senior Bowl in January. I was talking to him about his client, Xavier Adibi from Virginia Tech, and I asked if Adibi and the Bucs had met yet.
"Yeah, they have," the agent said. "They told him he's a Derrick Brooks clone."
Adibi was a bit undersized at the Senior Bowl — he was listed at 219 pounds. NFLdraftscout.com now lists him at 6-2, 232 pounds and has him as a second-round pick.
In case you're wondering, Brooks is 6-foot, 235 pounds. Sounds like a clone to me.
Now the meaning of this is open to speculation, which is one of the great things about the offseason. Some have assumed that Quincy Black, the speedy linebacker the Bucs drafted in the third round last year, might be Brooks' heir. But when the season started Adam Hayward, another rookie, was his immediate backup. At times in pass coverage June actually took Brooks' place on the field, fueling the fire that the Bucs were out to replace Brooks.
One thing is clear. The Bucs have never been afraid to pull the trigger on a player if they feel that player is talented enough to play for them, even if it creates a logjam at a position (witness the Brian Griese trade earlier this week). With Adibi, at the moment, a second-round value, and the Bucs' apparent interest in the linebacker, a scenario could emerge where the Bucs select Adibi and prepare him to replace Brooks.
Or it could be June. Or Black. Or Hayward.
The Bucs will eventually have to replace this Hall of Famer, and that's a daunting task that requires options.
Even with all their signings this week, the Bucs may be seeking more.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. An award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers Association, he appears frequently on Scot Brantley Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.