When it comes to re-signing free agents, much of the offseason buzz has surrounded linebacker Barrett Ruud in Tampa Bay. The Buccaneers linebacker wants a long-term deal, and he'll likely go elsewhere to get it if he and the Buccaneers cannot agree to terms during what will surely be a brief, but frenetic free-agency period.
But another linebacker may be joining him in the free-agency fire drill.
Guard Davin Joseph is the team's top priority. Cadillac Williams is likely close behind, as he would provide a veteran presence on a young offense and value as a third-down back if re-signed. And, of course, there's Ruud.
But Quincy Black may be climbing that priority ladder as well.
According to the Pewter Report, Black is on the Detroit Lions' short list of outside linebackers to target in free agency. The Chargers and Bears are also rumored to be interested. And while the Buccaneers have expressed interest in re-signing the linebacker and Black has said he'd like to remain in Tampa, the Buccaneers will likely not overpay.
But if the Buccaneers cannot come to terms with Ruud on either the long-term deal he seeks or a one-year deal to buy time to get a long-term deal ironed out, he'll hit the open market, where he may get the deal he's looking for.
If he does, Black will be a much higher priority in Tampa Bay.
The Buccaneers drafted Mason Foster in the third round of the 2011 draft, and some have him pegged as Ruud's replacement. Tyrone McKenzie has stepped up as a leader this offseason, helping quarterback Josh Freeman organize player workouts, and after an admirable showing in minimal time at the end of the 2010 season, he'll likely get a close look for some time in 2011 as well.
Both Foster and McKenzie are middle linebackers who can play all three linebacker positions, so if Ruud is out, the Buccaneers have options.
But if Ruud leaves and the Buccaneers can't re-sign Black, the Buccaneers could struggle with an inexperienced linebacking corps in 2011.
Without Ruud and with Black re-signed for 2011, the Buccaneers would likely have Foster in the middle with Geno Hayes and Black on the outside and Watson and Adam Hayward (an inexpensive free agent who is likely to be re-signed) in the rotation at OLB and McKenzie backing up at MLB.
Experience on the outside, youth and promise in the middle. Not a bad combination.
With Ruud returning and no Black, Foster would be in the rotation, but not necessarily as a starter, spelling Ruud at MLB and working in at OLB behind Hayes and Hayward along with the other youngsters.
Who is more likely to be back, Barrett Ruud or Quincy Black?
Experience at all three starting positions, veteran intelligence and leadership in Ruud and no pressure on Foster to contribute immediately. Also a solid combination.
Black, 27, was on pace to have a career year in 2010 before he was sidelined with a broken forearm. He tallied 61 tackles and a pair of sacks to go with an interception, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in just 11 games.
If youngsters progress and the Buccaneers can bring back either Ruud or Black, the linebacker position could boast one of the deepest rotations on the team.
However, without either of their veteran free agents back to anchor the young unit, the burden will likely fall on either fourth-year linebacker Hayes (82 tackles, four sacks, a forced fumble and an interception in 2010) and/or the rookie, Foster, who is unsigned and hasn't had the benefit of any official team activities to this point due to the ongoing lockout.
While Foster has the potential to be a mainstay for years to come, he's yet to play a down in the NFL and will likely need an adjustment period before he's equipped to captain the defense. And there's also the reality that he may not realize his potential and fizzle out, leaving the Buccaneers still seeking the future at linebacker.
When the lockout is finally lifted, teams will have a short window to re-sign their own free agents before everyone hits the open market and all hell breaks loose. For the Buccaneers, a team historically inactive in free agency, that window will likely be more crucial than the frenzy that is sure to follow, and the linebackers may take center stage among the Buccaneers' priorities.
Black will likely be cheaper, but Ruud would allow Foster to rotate and develop. Black is more versatile, but Ruud is a proven leader and the Buccaneers love his intelligence.
Re-signing one or the other is possible. Bringing both back is unlikely.
Letting both walk is out of the question.