A year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were heading into a new offseason with big plans to upgrade on defense. The defensive line welcomed a wave of new players through free agency, the draft and even the trade market, while the secondary was given some new assets early in the draft. The linebacking corps, however, was largely left untouched, save for one sixth-round draft pick.
All of that was understandable. The Buccaneers were looking to pump life into a pass rush that produced a league-low 22 sacks in 2017, and the secondary had struggled in that season as well and was in need of an infusion of young talent. The linebackers, however, were led by two star-caliber starters in Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David and had Kendell Beckwith pegged as the third starter after a fine rookie campaign. There was even some experienced depth in the form of Adarius Taylor.
Alas, that rosy picture wouldn't last long – not even to training camp, in fact. Beckwith ran into some serious misfortune when he was involved in a car accident as a passenger and suffered an ankle injury that required surgery. Kwon Alexander, hoping to excel in a contract year, made it just six games in the season before he was shelved by a knee injury. Jack Cichy, that aforementioned sixth-round pick, sustained his own season-ending injury in the same game as Alexander. David missed two games due to injury, as well, and Taylor ended up starting 10 contests at three different positions.
Taylor's versatility helped hold the unit together, David had another very good season and some young players like Devante Bond and Riley Bullough logged some valuable experience on defense. Still, the Buccaneers' 2018 linebacker group never really got the chance to be the collective force the Bucs had envisioned them being a year ago.
Now Alexander is potentially headed to unrestricted free agency and there is still uncertainty surrounding Beckwith. In addition, new Head Coach Bruce Arians and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles are bringing in a new defense that could put players into new roles. Arians and Bowles have stressed that they will cater their schemes to the strengths of the players on the roster, but there will still be change, and probably some new additions to the linebacker room, as well.
As such, the Buccaneers' linebacker picture doesn't seem nearly as clear as it did a year ago. Individually, all of the linebackers on the current roster face some specific questions of their own. In the weeks leading up to the new league year, we are going position by position and proposing one burning questions for each player on the 2019 roster. We've already covered the secondary with questions for each safety and cornerback. That followed a run through the offensive positions in previous weeks: tight ends, wide receivers, running backs, offensive line and finally the quarterbacks. Now we move to the middle level of the defense and look at the issues surrounding the Bucs' cast of linebackers.
As will be the case at every position, we are only including players who are currently under contract for 2019, or could have tender offers as restricted and exclusive rights free agents. For the pending unrestricted free agents, obviously, the burning question that must be answered first is, 'Will they be back?'
One Burning Question for Each Buccaneer: Linebackers
Players under contract for 2019: 6 (Kendell Beckwith, Riley Bullough, Jack Cichy, Lavonte David, Corey Nelson, Emmanuel Smith)
Potential unrestricted free agents: 4 (Kwon Alexander, Cameron Lynch, Kevin Minter, Adarius Taylor)
Potential restricted free agents: 1 (Devante Bond)
Potential exclusive rights free agents: None.
Kendell Beckwith: Will he be able to hit the ground running in the 2019 offseason?
In the immediate aftermath of Beckwith's surgery, it wasn't completely clear how much the injury would affect his 2018 season. There was some optimism because just the year before he had come back from a college knee injury much more quickly than anticipated. Still, it didn't seem likely that he would be ready for the start of training camp and, indeed, he started camp on the active/non-football-injury list (NFI).
Beckwith didn't see the field at all in camp, which meant he was transferred to the reserve NFI list to start the regular season. That in turn meant that he wasn't eligible to return to the field until Week Seven, at which point a 21-day window began in which he could practice with the team without counting against the 53-man roster. Still, that the team chose this option rather than straight injured reserve at least kept alive the hopes that Beckwith would play in 2018.
It wasn't meant to be. Beckwith showed some progress during those 21 days, which was encouraging, but not enough to be cleared for game action and he had to remain on the reserve/NFI list for the rest of the year.
So, the obvious question for Beckwith, and the only one that matters until it is answered is when he will be back at full strength and practicing without limits. His return in 2019 could be a boon for a defense that might be looking for more help on the inside if Bowles utilizes some 3-4 looks. Beckwith demonstrated as a rookie that he could handle the MIKE role in a 4-3 front.
Devante Bond, Riley Bullough: Will the Bucs' new defensive scheme create new opportunities for them?
As noted in previous installments of this series, we sometimes group a couple players together if they are in a very similar situation. Bond and Bullough didn't arrive in Tampa the same way – Bond was a sixth-round draft pick in 2016 and Bullough was an undrafted free agent in 2017 – but they returned to the roster in virtually identical manners last year.
The Bucs started camp with an interesting competition for the fifth and possibly sixth spot in the linebacking corps between Bond, Bullough, Jack Cichy and Cameron Lynch. However, that battle essentially resolved itself as both Bond and Bullough were hurt by the end of the preseason. Both were waived with an injury settlement on the same day in September, which meant both had to miss a certain number of weeks before they could re-sign with the Buccaneers. In October, the Buccaneers brought back Bond on the 17th and Bullough five days later. They would end up needing both young linebackers to make it through the rest of the season, with Bond seeing 248 snaps on defense to 127 for Bullough.
Bond, in particular, has also been a big part of the Bucs' special teams in recent seasons, which will help him in the effort to retain his roster spot. That assumes that the Buccaneers will extend him a qualifying offer in the coming weeks to make him a restricted free agent. Bullough, alternately, is under contract for 2019. Both players have done well from modest beginnings to become depth players, but there's a chance that the Bucs' new defensive scheme will open up new opportunities for linebackers, which could give both young players another avenue towards increased playing time.
Jack Cichy: How big of a factor could the second-year player be in the Bucs' linebacker picture if he finds some better fortune on the injury front?
Cichy put himself on the map with a defensive MVP performance in the 2015 Holiday Bowl, racking up three sacks in just one half of play to help Wisconsin shut down USC. Unfortunately, he has had nothing but bad luck since when it comes to injuries.
He played a strong first half of the season in 2016 only to miss the second half with a pectoral injury. Even worse, he tore an ACL just before the start of the 2017 campaign and missed that entire season, after which he chose to go straight to the NFL. It's a testament to his talents that the Buccaneers still took him in the sixth round despite him having missed the last 20 games of his college career.
He made the Bucs' active roster as a rookie last year but was playing almost exclusively on special teams through the first five games. Just when it looked like the Bucs might have an opening for him on defense with Alexander going down, the injury bug bit him yet again, as he suffered another ACL tear and was done for the year.
Clearly, Cichy is due for some better fortune in that regard. If he gets it, he will be an intriguing piece in the puzzle the Bucs will be trying to put together at linebacker. As noted earlier, the new defense being designed by Bowles could include some new roles for the team's linebackers. For instance, Cichy showed a good amount of pass-rushing skill at Wisconsin and that could be enticing to a coordinator like Bowles who prefers aggression and is never afraid to bring extra blitzers or disguise a four-man rush as something else. Given that he sustained his knee injury in October, Cichy very well could be full-go by the start of training camp. It will be interesting to see what sort of niche he can carve out in the new defense.
Lavonte David: How similar will his role in Todd Bowles' defense be to what he has played throughout his stellar career in Tampa?
Arians and Bowles might as well have been talking specifically about David when they separately said that they would design their schemes around the strengths of the players on the roster. David has played his whole NFL career as a weakside linebacker in a 4-3 base defense, and he's done it well enough to be a Pro Bowler and an All-Pro. Bowles is likely to use 4-3 and 3-4 concepts, and when it's the latter, David would presumably be one of the two "inside" 'backers. Will that suit his talents?
One way or another, the answer will be yes. David is fast, instinctive and rangy, and that will work in any scheme. He's also shown that he can rush the passer when asked to do so, with 21.5 sacks in seven seasons, including two years of five or more. His 10 interceptions and 38 passes defensed attest to his coverage skills, and he's one of the league's best, period, at forcing and recovering fumbles.
In essence, there's no reason to worry about David remaining a productive player in a new scheme. Rather, it's the opposite: It is exciting to think about new ways in which Bowles may utilize David's many talents.
Corey Nelson: Can he rekindle a career that began with a four-year run in Denver before a 2018 campaign in which he played in just one game?
Nelson, who was selected 14 picks from the end of the 2014 draft by the Broncos, has already returned more than could be expected from that draft spot. He played out his entire initial four-year deal and hit unrestricted free agency last spring, signing with Philadelphia. In his four seasons in Denver he played in 53 games with six starts, with all of those starts and most of his 95 career tackles coming in 2016. He played in 53 straight games before his 2017 season was cut short by a biceps tear.
Of course, just because four productive seasons is already a great return on a late seventh-rounder, that doesn't mean Nelson has to be satisfied personally with that as a career. He signed with the Buccaneers to a futures contract a few days after the 2018 season and will surely be looking to kick his career back into gear in Tampa in 2019.
Though he got signed by the Eagles last spring, Nelson was released late in the preseason. He hooked on with Atlanta fairly quickly after that and saw action in one game but was released two weeks later. Before and after his time in Atlanta, Nelson had tryouts for 12 different NFL teams. There was clearly plenty of interest in the 26-year-old linebacker, who at the least has shown that he can be productive on special teams. He had seven kick-coverage stops in 2015 alone.
The Buccaneers have three linebackers headed towards unrestricted free agency, another one who could be a restricted free agent if tendered and three others returning from significant injury. There is clearly opportunity at the position and Nelson might be able to take advantage of it to get his foot back in the NFL's door.
Emmanuel Smith: Will he emerge as a consideration for the active roster in his first camp with the Buccaneers?
As for Smith, he's still looking for that first foot in the door. An undrafted free agent out of Vanderbilt last spring, he signed on with Atlanta and made it to the end of the preseason before being waived in the final cuts. Five NFL teams gave him tryouts during the fall before he finally connected with the Bucs' practice squad in early January. He showed enough during a month on that crew to get a futures contract for 2019 as soon as the season was over.
Practice squads can be a good way for talented players who might be quite ready to play in the NFL to develop their skills, and it's fair to say that Smith is still a work in progress as a linebacker. He started his career at Vanderbilt as a safety and a nickel back before gradually transitioning to a new position as he filled out to 6-2 and 240 pounds. Smith didn't really extensively play at linebacker until his senior season, when he put together a nice campaign with 10 games, six starts at inside linebacker, 57 tackles, four tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks.
Again, Smith obviously made a decent enough impression in his month on the practice squad. A full training camp would give him a much better opportunity to show that he could be a consideration for the active roster, or at least a longer stint on the practice squad.