Jackson suspension a hurdle for Bucs

The undefeated Tampa Bay Buccaneers just suffered their first loss of the season and it’s a really big one.

The team just announced that safety Tanard Jackson has been suspended for at least a year for violating the NFL’s substance abuse policy. Jackson will miss the rest of this season and will not be eligible to apply for reinstatement until Sept. 22, 2011. He will not be paid during that time.

Jackson also was suspended for the first four games of the 2009 season for violating the same policy and the length of this suspension suggests he has had at least three positive tests for banned substances.

This is a particularly crushing blow to a team that is off to a fast start and has been relatively controversy free after a tumultuous 2009 season. Along with cornerback Aqib Talib, Jackson formed the core of a secondary that was developing into a team strength.

Jackson, 25, has been viewed as one of the league’s better young free safeties and some members of the organization have said they thought he had Pro Bowl potential. There likely will be a big dropoff from Jackson to whoever replaces him and the options aren’t many.

Rookie Cody Grimm, a seventh-round pick, is listed as the top backup on Tampa Bay’s depth chart. Corey Lynch, a third-year player, is listed as the third-team free safety. Lynch has never been much more than a special-teams player. Grimm lacks experience, but had an impressive training camp and preseason.

Some teams like to say the safety positions are interchangeable, but neither of Tampa Bay’s strong safeties appear likely candidates for a move. Veteran Sean Jones is the starter at strong safety, but he might be the best bet for a move. Jones has some ball skills as evidenced by his 16 career interceptions.

Jones replaced Sabby Piscitelli, last year’s starting strong safety. Piscitelli is not known for being especially good in coverage and he lacks ball skills. It’s also possible the Bucs could bring in a safety from somewhere else, but there aren’t a lot of starting-caliber safeties sitting out there that could step right into the lineup.

One other long-shot scenario would be moving veteran cornerback Ronde Barber to safety. It’s not uncommon for cornerbacks to move to safety late in their careers. But it would be unusual and difficult to make the transition in the middle of a season. At 5-foot-10 and 184 pounds, Barber doesn’t have the size of most safeties, but the Bucs do have some depth at cornerback with E.J. Biggers, Elbert Mack and Myron Lewis currently in backup roles.