The Tampa Bay Buccaneers made wholesale changes to their defensive line during the 2018 offseason and then funneled a lot of draft resources into reloading in the secondary. The Buccaneers hope they will be much more invasive up front and would like to get more big plays out of the back end of their defense. At the very least, we know those two units will be different in 2018.
The meat in that defensive sandwich, the middle level, is the linebackers, and in contrast that crew has seen very little change since the end of last season. And that makes sense, despite the Bucs' overall defensive struggles in 2017. Tampa Bay's starting trio of linebackers features two Pro Bowlers still very much in their prime and another young player that was an extremely pleasant surprise as a rookie. There is depth, too, which was demonstrated last year when both of those Pro Bowl performers, Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, missed significant time due to injury.
If anything, the biggest change this season for the Buccaneers' linebackers is who they will have playing in front of them. If that new-look D-Line is as productive and as stout as anticipated, life will be considerably easier for Alexander, David and company. They will have cleaner looks and more room to run, and that's the dream scenario for the Bucs' fast and rangy linebackers.
"These guys have been really productive players, they've been run-pluggers, if you will, and gap-stuffers," said Linebackers Coach Mark Duffner of such defensive line additions as Jason Pierre-Paul, Beau Allen, Vinny Curry, Vita Vea and Mitch Unrein. "Any time a defense has a line up front that's productive, you would hope the linebackers would correspond with that. That would be our objective. We're going to do our very best to fit our holes and do what we're supposed to do in coverage and play off the front, and that's why they go hand in hand. We can't be good without both of them working together. If the line's playing well, the dag-gone 'backers better be, and vice-versa."
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, a six-time Pro Bowler, is the most decorated and perhaps most talented player on Tampa Bay's defense, and he's a vocal leader to boot. He will surely remain at the center of what the Buccaneers do on that side of the ball. Still, Alexander and David could join McCoy as the heart and soul of this defense in 2018 if they are able to unlock their considerable playmaking ability for 16 games. That wouldn't represent a personnel change in the Bucs' linebacking corps, but it would definitely be a positive bit of evolution for that crew.
There are some changes to the linebacker depth chart, plus some injuries to consider, so we'll examine the part of the depth chart along with the rest. As Tampa Bay's offseason workout program nears its completion, we are taking a new position-by-position look at how the 90-man roster will stack up for the start of training camp in late July. With free agency essentially over and the draft in the rear-view mirror, that roster is essentially set, though there could be a few changes on the back end before camp opens. After running through the offense first (here are our breakdowns for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and the offensive line), we started on the defense last week, beginning up front with a wildly redesigned defensive line. Now we look at the next level of the Bucs' 'D.'
Today's position: Linebackers
Addition(s): Jack Cichy (sixth-round draft pick), Cameron Lynch (free agent), Shaheed Salmon (undrafted free agent)
Returning Players: Kwon Alexander, Kendell Beckwith, Devante Bond, Riley Bullough, Lavonte David, Nigel Harris, Eric Nzeocha, Adarius Taylor
There wasn't a lot of offseason work needed to shape and/or retain the shape of the Buccaneers linebacking corps. That's true for the capologists at One Buc Place, at least; the trainers were plenty busy. David still has three years remaining on the very big and very deserved contract he signed in 2016. Alexander is still playing on his rookie deal after he was drafted in the fourth round in 2015 (though this could became a targeted issue soon). Beckwith is that "pleasant rookie surprise" mentioned above, so there is no pending contract issue for him.
Bond, Bullough and Harris are all still very young, and Nzeocha is with the team as part of an international practice squad program. Of all the linebackers who finished the 2017 season with the Buccaneers, only Taylor (who was known as Adarius Glanton before legally changing his last name earlier this year), required any sort of contract work. Before he was due to become a restricted free agent, the Buccaneers re-signed him to a one-year deal for 2018.
Even the one outside addition the Buccaneers made since the end of 2017 felt more like a retention. Lynch was with the Buccaneers for much of last season but was released in early December when a rash of injuries to the offensive line forced the team to shift some of their numbers around. There's a good chance the Buccaneers would have brought Lynch back, perhaps after Taylor subsequently suffered a broken leg, but he had already signed with the Rams. When Los Angeles then decided in March not to give Lynch the qualifying offer to make him a restricted free agent, the Bucs swept in and signed him back.
"Cameron's a very versatile player," said Duffner. "He's got the ability to play a couple of positions at linebacker – he's more of an outside-linebacker guy – and then he's been a real productive four-core special-teamer. When you're a linebacker, you've got to be more than just a one-phase guy. You've got to have duality in how you can play linebacker, meaning a couple positions, and you've got to be a special-teams phenom or a guy that can play a lot of spots."
As it is, there are only two real newcomers among the Bucs' current group of linebackers: Cichy, the sixth-round pick, and Salmon, the local product who starred at Samford and then impressed on a tryout contract during Tampa Bay's rookie mini-camp. Cichy was a productive linebacker with some pass-rushing ability at Wisconsin before missing his entire senior season due to a knee injury. He has recovered now and has not missed any of the team's offseason workouts since the draft.
“Jack Cichy coming in as a rookie, so far I’ve been impressed with first, his awareness as a player," said Duffner. "He’s been very good in the classroom. He’s a bright guy. Then what we’ve done in shorts practice, his movements skills are coming along, so I’ve been pleased that he’s been able to come back from that and get on the field and really pleased with his awareness and attention in the classroom."
Bullough and Harris both finished their rookie campaigns on the active roster after seeing practice squad time. They will join Taylor, Lynch, Cichy, Salmon and Bond in the battle for reserve spots, which means they will also have to be core special teams players, as Duffner mentioned. Taylor and Bond would seem to have the early edge because they have already played in the Bucs' defense; Taylor, in particular, saw a lot of action in the starting lineup when Alexander and David were sidelined. The Bucs still might think they can get some pass-rush work out of Bond.
"We feel good that we have Adarius," said Duffner. "Bond who was playing well, was starting to come along last year. Adarius was playing really well when he had to fill in and he’s a very versatile guy as well. There could be some guys out there in this year’s draft too. We feel good about those guys which is why we signed Adarius back, for situations like these."
The complicating factor for Taylor is he has yet to resume practicing, though Duffner said that he was "on schedule" in his recovery. Duffner said the same thing about Beckwith, who wasn't injured last season but was involved in an auto accident in the spring that left him with a fractured ankle. That situation, in particular, complicates the linebacker competition in training camp, because Beckwith would be the presumptive starter on the strong side if he is healthy. If he can't go by the start of the season, that not only would open up a starting spot but might also prompt the team to devote one more roster spot to the position.
Notable 2017 Numbers:** The most significant number for the Bucs' linebackers, in particular, last season was seven. That's the combined number of games that Alexander and David missed due to injury, including several at the same time. Even with the surprising amount of production provided by Beckwith as a rookie, and some good relief work from Taylor, those absences gave the Bucs' defense far less to work with when it came to generating big plays.
When David was on the field, he was indeed a provider of such splash plays. He was the only defender in the entire NFL who both forced five fumbles and recovered five fumbles. For the first time in his six NFL seasons, however, David did not record a single sack, nor did Alexander. And while David had three games with double-digit tackles, which the Bucs have seen many times through the years, he also had two games in which he had just three stops and two others with only six.
Duffner explained that lower tackle totals for David didn't necessarily mean he was any less effective in his play. And, as noted above, a stouter defensive line should provide him, and the rest of the Bucs' linebackers, with far more opportunities for takedowns.
"Sometimes he can be having a heck of a game and he may only have five or six hits," said Duffner of David. "We'd like him to have double-digit hits all the time, but I want him to be a productive player based on what his job is, and also lead the rest of the team by his actions and his energy into following suit with him."
Alexander, meanwhile, produced enough after returning from injury to earn his first Pro Bowl invitation. In addition to making 97 tackles in what was essentially 11 games, he also tied for the team lead with three interceptions and had seven tackles for loss, one fewer than David. Alexander has emerged as an emotional leader on the Bucs' defense and he likely has more Pro Bowl visits in his future.
From a team standpoint, the Buccaneers' rush defense wasn't nearly as good as the team wanted, as it allowed 117.5 yards per game to rank 23rd in the NFL. Tampa Bay also allowed 4.27 yards per carry, good for 24th in the league. That can't all be placed at the feet of the linebackers, given the struggles up front, but neither can the position be totally absolved from blame. The Bucs' main starting trio of Alexander, Beckwith and David did account for 22 tackles for loss, eight quarterback pressures, seven passes defensed and seven forced fumbles, so they did make a significant impact. Still, with rankings of 32nd in total yards allowed and 22nd in points allowed, the entire defense has room for improvement, linebackers included.
Key Question: When will Kendell Beckwith return?
There's little reason to question the production that Alexander and David will provide, presuming they avoid injuries this year, and in fact they are likely in position to do even more with a better line in front of them. The depth is good, too, and Cichy could be an interesting addition. The Bucs didn't have to do a whole lot to this crew in the offseason because it was already in pretty good shape.
However, Beckwith's availability for the start of the season for the second year in a row. The Buccaneers drafted him in the third round in 2017 despite the fact that he had suffered a torn ACL in November of his final year at LSU. They did so not knowing if the rookie would be ready to go for the 2017 regular-season, figuring it was a good move for the long run, regardless. Beckwith surprised everyone by being ready for the start of training camp and never slowing down from there. He played in all 16 games, made nine starts and was the team's fourth-leading tackler.
The Buccaneers will hope that Beckwith just happens to be a quick healer, because now they have his ankle to worry about. So far, so good.
"Everything that we hear from our trainers is that he is on schedule and he is doing well," said Duffner. "He’s in every meeting, he’s just following through the rehab program that they’ve put together for him, prescribed for him and so far, everything is going so far as planned."
Still, there has been no specific timetable publicly suggested for Beckwith's return to action, so there is no guarantee he'll be ready for Week One this time around. The eventual result will have an impact on the final roster cut before the start of the regular season. If Beckwith is fully ready to go, the team will simply pick its best five or six-man group of linebackers. If Beckwith is not ready but also not that far off, then the linebackers could get one extra roster spot at the expense of another position. If Beckwith is deemed not particularly close to returning to action when the season starts, he could end up on PUP or some other list, which would not cost the Bucs an immediate spot on the 53-man roster.
Obviously, the Buccaneers are hoping that Beckwith is full-go in Week One, as the potential starting trio of him Alexander and David would likely be among the best in the entire NFL.