Moving Mason Foster could make sense for Bucs

Published: February 29th, 2012
By Bucs Beat Feed

While the Bucs’ new staff is working tirelessly to examine prospects for the upcoming draft while fine-tuning the free-agency wish list, it’s easy to forget that their impressions of the team’s current players will ultimately shape offseason personnel decisions.

So, though it’s too early to presume what roles the team’s returning players will have in 2012, it’s not too early to suggest a position change could be in the works for middle linebacker Mason Foster.

There are no firm plans yet to move Foster from middle linebacker to outside linebacker, but defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan and general manager Mark Dominik have already conceded it’s a real possibility.

“I can’t speak to that yet until we first of all address free agency and the draft and look at our overall package,” Sheridan said recently. “But I will say this, to give you a roundabout answer: He’s a linebacker. And, to me, if you’re a good linebacker, you should be able to play (strong-side) or (middle) or (weak-side). You’re off the ball in a two-point stance, you have very similar key progressions and very similar coverage responsibilities. I’m not caught up on pigeonholing guys into positions. You’re a linebacker. And he definitely has NFL talent.”

At the NFL Combine last week, Dominik offered similar sentiments, saying the team intends to take a look at Foster at middle linebacker during offseason workouts, but the staff is open to moving him outside.

It’s pretty clear a position change can’t be dismissed. But let’s get into why moving Foster makes sense.

Foster was thrust into a difficult scenario as a rookie last season by the team’s decision to plant him in the middle of its defense. That was brought about by Dominik’s decision not to re-sign veteran Barrett Ruud. It meant that Foster, considered a solid tackler and playmaker at the University of Washington, had to communicate with coaches on the sideline, relay the defensive calls in the huddle and read ever-changing keys from the offense before the snap.

The result? Foster had only moderate success as a rookie, something former coaches admitted was, at least in part, brought about by his numerous responsibilities. Another unintended consequence: Foster’s frequent inability to switch to different coverages when the offense made pre-snap adjustments.

Sheridan, in his first days on the job, watched film of the biggest gains the Bucs gave up on defense in 2011. He noticed that Foster struggled on many of the longer pass completions. That wasn’t something he recalled when scouting Foster when Sheridan was a member of the Dolphins’ staff in 2011, when he lobbied the front office to draft Foster. And here’s a key point: Most of Foster’s college tape likely featured Foster at outside linebacker.

“I loved Mason coming out (of college),” Sheridan said. “When I was in Miami, I gave him a very high draft grade. I pushed for him in the Dolphins draft. I just thought he made a ton of tackles at Washington. I can’t speak to exactly how he looked last year. I know on the cut-ups we’ve been watching, not too good.”

There’s evidence Foster could thrive at outside linebacker, perhaps even at the critical weak-side linebacker spot. Some of his most memorable plays at Washington came when he was able to come off the edge and chase quarterbacks and ballcarriers. And remember, last year’s weak-side starter, Geno Hayes, is a free agent and is not among the team’s priorities in free agency. Still, the decision to move Foster can’t be made in a vacuum. There are other considerations, most important, who would replace him at middle linebacker.

Free agency provides some intriguing options. And with the Bucs looking to upgrade at linebacker anyway, moving Foster to a position at which he’s more comfortable, while acquiring a veteran middle linebacker should raise the overall level of play at the position. In fact, that point might be the most compelling reason to go this route.

Among the free agents available are the Lions’ Stephen Tulloch and the Falcons’ Curtis Lofton. The draft provides some options, too, but we already know the challenges of having a rookie play middle linebacker.

Time will tell, but this is something that bears watching over the next few weeks and months. We know there are going to be extensive changes on the field this fall, and it’s starting to look like Foster’s position could be among them.

Frankly, it makes a whole lot of sense.