During the offseason leading up to the 2002 campaign, the Buccaneers’ coaching staff made the unexpected decision to shift Shelton Quarles, previously the team’s starting strongside linebacker, into the middle. The idea proved brilliant, as Quarles immediately responded with a Pro Bowl season as the MIKE ‘backer and helped the Buccaneers win Super Bowl XXXVII.
Quarles move into the middle set up a friendly ongoing competition between him and his fellow Pro Bowl linebacker, Derrick Brooks. With Brooks patrolling the weakside and both he and Quarles proving capable of making plays from sideline to sideline, each season turned into a battle between the two as to who would lead the team in tackles. Brooks edged Quarles in ’02, 170 to 159, and again in ’04, 172-163. Quarles finally topped his teammate in 2005, 196-174, but Brooks took it back over the next year, 150-136.
Well, don’t look now, but the Buccaneers may have a new version of Brooks and Quarles at the center of their defense. Seven weeks into the 2012 campaign, rookie Lavonte David has 49 tackles while second-year man Mason Foster has 48. David plays the weak side, Foster patrols the middle.
David, the former Cornhusker that the Bucs hurriedly traded up to get in the second round this past April, has obviously hit the ground running in his NFL career. But it’s not going to be easy to shake his only marginally more experienced teammate. You see, Foster not only led the Buccaneers in stops in his rookie campaign, but he might just be the most productive tackler to come out of the entire 2011 draft class.
Of all the players to enter the NFL in 2011, Foster ranks second in tackles though last year and the first seven weeks of this season. He trails only Tennessee linebacker Akeem Ayers in that department but has also had one fewer opportunity to play this year than Ayers, thanks to the Bucs’ early bye week. Foster will get his seventh game of the season Thursday night and, with at least five tackles, would sore back ahead of his fellow 2011 draftee. Here are the top five tacklers from among those players who entered the NFL in 2011*:
|1. Akeem Ayers||Tennessee||136|
|2. Mason Foster||Tampa Bay||132|
|3. K.J. Wright||Seattle||119|
|4. Kelvin Sheppard||Buffalo||105|
|5. Chris Harris||Chicago||95|
* All tackle stats are from NFL.com.
Like defensive tackle Roy Miller, who is excelling in a new “tilt-nose” position in Greg Schiano and Bill Sheridan’s defense, Foster is seeing better results in the Bucs’ new scheme. In addition to his 48 tackles, the former Washington star also has eight tackles for loss to rank among league leaders.
“It’s a great scheme,” said Foster. “It’s attacking, letting linebackers play downhill and run through gaps and make plays in the backfield. I feel like it fits me perfectly and my style of play, being physical and being able to run and hit. It makes things easier for me and I’m getting real comfortable and I’m excited to keep progressing in this defense.”
The Buccaneers are excited to see Foster progress, as well. They thrust him right into the difficult middle linebacker position as a rookie and he performed well, though his production faded somewhat over the course of the season. This year, he is repeatedly making plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Bucs couldn’t ask for more from their third-round pick of a year ago.