The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wrapped up another round of OTAs this week, and several players have been vying for a spot that hasn’t been up for grabs since 2009 – the starting strong-side linebacker.
It become Quincy Black’s spot in 2009 after the departure of Cato June, and is vacant once again after Black sustained what was likely a career-ending injury last season against the Chargers.
Now several players could challenge for that spot, including Dekoda Watson, Jonathan Casillas, and Adam Hayward. Watson, who enters his fourth season with the team, has been lining up with the first-team defense in practice and appears to be the front-runner for now.
In terms of sheer athleticism, Watson has he biggest advantage, possessing incredible quickness coming off the ball and excellent skills as a pass-rusher. You saw some of translate into big plays on special teams those skills last year.
But Watson struggles to diagnose what he sees on the field and is still trying to master the cerebral aspects of the game. A second year in Schiano’s defense may improve his confidence and help him overcome a tendency to over-think things.
This is where Casillas, who has been playing with the second-team in practice and is still learning Greg Schiano’s defense, may be able to earn the job later on down the road.
Casillas signed as a free agent this offseason after four seasons with the New Orleans Saints. Like Watson, Casillas has made some spectacular plays on special teams during his young career, including a fumble recovery of the Saints’ onside kick in Super Bowl XLIV.
His greatest asset is instinct. He doesn’t have the size or strength of Watson, but he excels in coverage and plays a lot better in space.
He can also play nickel and has been doing so in practice, which the Bucs didn’t have from their SAM last year.
Then there’s Hayward, who has given the team a lot of ‘bang for its buck’ over the years, backing up every linebacker position and being a captain on special teams.
Hayward took over for Black for the final six weeks of the season last year.
Now entering his seventh season, Hayward’s greatest strength, aside from his versatility, is his experience. He can also play downhill, which is likely why he got the job over Watson last year.
Hayward doesn’t necessarily jump out on tape or in practice, but he gets the job done because he’s rarely out of position and is consistent.
Bucs Position Battles: Strong-Side Linebacker by Jenna Laine