Take a look at the Tampa Bay roster and you won't find too many veterans. Head coach Raheem Morris took care of that last year when he took over, jettisoning players like Derrick Brooks and Joey Galloway in the name of getting younger.
As the Bucs begin this new era, they need a leader, someone they can look to so they know the "Buc Way" of playing football. You can see it in a player like Ronde Barber, but he is in the twilight of his career. He won't be in that locker room forever. There are players on offense that could fit the bill, like a Davin Joseph or a Jeff Faine. But their chances to lead are muted by the non-glamorous nature of their position.
But there is one player that fits the bill. He's a tireless worker who has been a productive NFL starter for three years. He's already viewed in some quarters as the leader of this team, and given several more seasons in Tampa Bay, he could be held in as high a regard as players like Brooks, John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Warrick Dunn.
But there's a problem. He could be a free agent – unrestricted or restricted – this offseason. If the Bucs play their cards wrong, they could lose him. And that, frankly, would be inexcusable. This player must stay.
The Bucs must keep MLB Barrett Ruud. There may be no offseason priority greater than getting the fifth-year pro a new contract.
First, there's his production. Just in case you missed it, Ruud had 202 tackles in 2009, the first time a Bucs linebacker had 200 or more tackles since Hardy Nickerson did it several years ago. Ruud was a tackling machine. And it's not like he's just emerging, either. He took over as starter in the middle in 2007, when the Bucs released Shelton Quarles. Ruud led the team in tackles in 2007 (169) and 2008 (178).
This guy is heading into the prime of his career. He's the perfect middle linebacker for a Cover 2 scheme because of his speed, willingness to track plays sideline to sideline, pass coverage skills and toughness. Remember that 2005 Draft, the one that produced Carnell Williams? Five years later, there is absolutely no argument about the best player the Bucs drafted that year. It's the linebacker they took in the second round out of Nebraska.
There's a reason Ruud is a captain and is universally respected by his teammates and players around the league. He comes to work every day and does the best job possible, and on gameday that usually means playing at a Pro Bowl level. He'll get one of those bids one of these days, once the Bucs are better again and word spreads about Ruud's ability beyond the bay.
All of these assets would be invaluable to the Bucs as they break in younger players who need to understand how the NFL works. Pro football is now their job, and they need to have the dedication of players like Ruud. If you're a youngster, if you can't see it, you can't emulate it.
That's why the fact that the Bucs haven't signed him to a contract extension yet is just disturbing.
Ruud tried to get one out of the Bucs last offseason, but they wouldn't budge. No reason was given by the team at the time, and it defies logic that they wanted to give Ruud any reason to believe that he was not wanted in Tampa Bay. Perhaps they were waiting to see if he could be the middle linebacker in Jim Bates' new scheme. That's no longer an issue. The Cover 2 is back and Ruud is the perfect fit.
Ruud's original 5-year deal ends this offseason. If the CBA is renegotiated and approved by March 1, then Ruud would be an unrestricted free agent. If the CBA is not, he would be a restricted free agent. Either way, Ruud gets to test the market. Ruud is ranked by our Adam Caplan as the No. 2 free agent middle linebacker behind Houston's DeMeco Ryans. He'll have suitors.
Letting Ruud go would be a total mistake.
It's time for the Bucs – starting with GM Mark Dominik and head coach Raheem Morris – to knock on the door of Ruud's Tampa-area home and make him an offer, an offer Ruud simply cannot refuse. Money is not an excuse. The Bucs have plenty of cap space.
If this team is going to get better, the players need to see commitment to keeping players that matter, that make the franchise great and can make the overall product on the field better. Ruud fills all of those bills.
The Bucs need to step up and make this happen. And they need to do it now.
It's something they'll live to regret, if they don't.