All of the NFL's decision-makers will gather in Indianapolis for the Scouting Combine next week as the calendar flips from February into March. Shortly after those general managers and coaches return to their respective teams' headquarters, a different calendar will turn over, as the NFL's 2020 season officially begins on March 18.
That is also the kickoff of the league's free agency period, as all expiring contracts run out at 4 p.m. ET on that Wednesday. Whether or not the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dive into that market remains to be seen, but the team's own list of 19 potential unrestricted free agents means there are many important decisions to be made regardless.
One month remains before free agency – and it's a short month even in the leap year – which means time is winding down for the Buccaneers and their 31 fellow NFL teams to deal with their own free agent lists and identify potential targets on other rosters. As free agency approaches we're taking a position-by-position look at what the Bucs have, who they could lose and who they could look at from other teams on the open market. Our 2020 Free Agency Primers continues this week with the inside linebacker position.
January 15: Offensive Line
January 22: Safety
January 29: Running Back
February 5: Cornerback
February 12: Tight End
February 19: Inside Linebacker
February 26: Wide Receiver
March 4: Defensive Line
March 11: Quarterback
March 18: Outside Linebacker
2019 Output: The inside linebackers have their hands in all facets of the Bucs' defense, so it's fair to consider the overall results of that crew as part of their output. In that regard, Tampa Bay ranked 15th in yards allowed per game (343.9), seventh in yards allowed per play (5.13) and first in rushing yards per game (73.8). Tampa Bay's 449 points allowed was the fourth-highest in the league but that included seven touchdowns and a safety scored while the Bucs' offense was on the field and a league-high 128 points allowed off turnovers overall. In addition, Tampa Bay's defense was clearly much improved in the season's second half and Football Outsiders had it as the fifth-best unit in the league in terms of DVOA by the end of the campaign.
There were only two spots for inside linebackers in the Bucs' new "3-4" defense under Todd Bowles, but those snaps were mostly split between three players because rookie Devin White missed most of the action from Weeks 2-5 with a knee injury. Veteran Kevin Minterfilled in well during that time and contributed 29 tackles, two tackles for loss, one quarterback hit and two passes defensed.
For most of the season, though, this duo was comprised of White and perpetually-underrated veteran Lavonte David. Those were the team's two leading tacklers, with David reaching 122 and White still getting to 91 despite his missed time. White's outsized production during the second half of the season earned him NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month in both November and December. David also had 10 tackles for loss despite only one of those being a sack, and he hit the quarterback seven times. White logged 2.5 sacks and also scored twice on fumble returns, including a team-record 91-yarder in the season finale against Atlanta.
White and David combined for six forced fumbles, five fumble recoveries, two interceptions and 10 passes defensed. As a duo, they were a big play waiting to happen, which should be true again in 2020.
Under Contract for 2020: Fortunately, this list starts with David and White.
David is actually entering the final year of the five-year deal he signed in 2016, but there is sure to be motivation to help one of the franchise's all-time greats spend his entire NFL career in Tampa. White, of course, has only played the first year of the four-years-plus-an-option contract he got as a first-round pick in 2019.
For depth, the Buccaneers also have young players Jack Cichy and Noah Dawkins, the former a sixth-round draft pick in 2018 and the latter a midseason pickup after the release of veteran Deone Bucannon. Cichy's run of injury misfortune, which extends back into his college run at Wisconsin, continued last year with a fluky elbow injury that limited him to four games in 2019. A torn ACL kept him out of the last 10 contests in his rookie season. Dawkins, an undrafted rookie from The Citadel, was signed off the Bengals' practice squad and immediately became a big contributor on special teams.
Buccaneers' Pending Free Agents: This list is short, too. The only name on it, in fact, is Minter.
Minter reunited with his former Arizona coach, Bruce Arians, when he signed with the Bucs last offseason. Like most of the deals Tampa Bay handed out last spring, though, it was only for one season, which means the 29-year-old veteran is due to become an unrestricted free agent again in March. Of course, the Buccaneers could head that off by signing him again before the start of free agency, and they are likely motivated to keep Minter around if possible.
If Minter did re-sign with the Bucs, he would immediately return to his status as the first man in if something happens to David or White. Minter was also one of the team's top kick-coverage tacklers in 2019 and he remained a very willing special-teamer even when he was starting for the injured White.
Potentially Available Free Agents: There isn't an extensive market for off-the-ball linebackers this spring but there are several players who are hitting the market at the right time as they are ascending and just entering into their primes. Top on the list is the Rams' Cory Littleton.
Littleton originally joined the Rams as an undrafted free agent but he showed enough promise in the team's new 3-4 defense under Wade Phillips in 2017 that the Rams were willing to trade Alec Ogletree to the Giants the next offseason. Littleton stepped into the lineup and has been extremely productive the past two seasons, with 259 tackles, 7.5 sacks and five interceptions. Given what similar all-around production netted Kwon Alexander with the 49ers last year, Littleton is likely headed towards a very lucrative long-term deal after coming back to the Rams on a one-year contract as a restricted free agent last year.
Chicago's Nick Kwiatkowski isn't quite in Littleton's league yet but he performed well in place of injured veteran Danny Trevathan last year and now has a chance to earn a bigger job in free agency. The former fourth-round pick had 68 tackles, three sacks, four passes defensed and an interception in eight starts. Oh, and Trevathan is a pending free agent, too, though he is four years older than Kwiatkowski and has a lot more mileage on his tires. It seems likely that the Bears will only bring one of those two back.
If you have a very specific affinity for players like Kwiatkowski who were drafted in the fourth round in 2016, then prepare for a potential feast. Other pending free agents in that particular fraternity include Green Bay's Blake Martinez, Cleveland's Joe Schobert and Atlanta's De'Vondre Campbell, and all three could prove to be very useful additions. Both Schobert and Martinez are strong coverage linebackers and Martinez has been a tackling machine in Green Bay with a whopping 443 tackles over the last three years. Campbell can also do it all and he added two interceptions and three fumbles to his 129 tackles in 2019.
New England's Kyle Van Noy is probably approaching a big payday, too, but he might not fall into this inside linebacker category. He definitely has played off the ball in his career with the Lions and Patriots, but last year he was primarily an edge rusher and he put up a career-high 6.5 sacks. Van Noy's 2019 teammate, Jamie Collins, could also hit free agency and is also a player who can play all over the defense. Collins had a very strong year in his return to the Patriots this past fall.
A couple of veterans of more advanced age could still have some appeal to teams looking for linebacker depth, including the Cowboys' Sean Lee and the Titans' Wesley Woodyard. Lee, of course, has struggled with injuries in recent years while Woodyard has already played in 180 NFL games over 12 seasons. Josh Bynes is a little younger, at 30, and he did play one season under Arians in Arizona in 2017. He was a productive rotational player for the Ravens last year. An even younger option is Tennessee's almost-26-year-old Kamalai Correa, a former second-round pick who might be seen as more of a pass-rusher but who has some versatility.
Bucs' Interest Level: Low to Moderate
Obviously, the Buccaneers don't have a need to compete with other teams at the top of the inside linebacker market because they have both of their starting spots completely nailed down in 2020 with David and White. Any high-profile linebacker additions this spring would more likely be edge rushers, and of course the Buccaneers have a list of their own free agents in that category to worry about.
That said, there isn't a lot of depth at the position on the current roster, particularly if Minter does not return. The Buccaneers might be thinking about contingency plans for David or White missing time with injuries or – heaven forbid – David moving on when his current contract is up after the 2020 campaign. Of course, that issue could be resolved before the season begins.
Last year, in his first season at the Bucs' helm, Arians clearly saw a need for some depth at the position and turned to two familiar faces in Minter and Bucannon. There may not be a similar option this spring – apart from Minter himself – but there are some veteran depth pieces available as well as some ascending players who could be assets for the long run
View Gregg Rosenthal's top 25 NFL free agents and see which two Bucs make the list.