Position Group: Inside Linebacker
Players: Lavonte David, Devin White, K.J. Britt, J.J. Russell, Ulysees Gilbert
2022 Evaluation: Both Lavonte David and Devin White set the tone in the middle of the Bucs' defense in 2022. The starting tandem played 95% of the team's defensive snaps, with David recording 1075 snaps and White, 1076. This past season, White had the most quarterback hits with 16 and David had the most tackles for loss with 10. As arguably the best linebacker duo in the NFL, both spearheaded Tampa Bay's defense down the stretch.
David, who has been a team captain in Tampa Bay for nine consecutive seasons and is the longest-tenured player on the Bucs' roster, accumulated 124 combined tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and five passes defensed in 2022. In the Wild Card Round against the Cowboys, David led the team with 14 tackles. Throughout his lengthy tenure, David has established himself as one of the best off-ball linebackers in the NFL with instinctual play. Whether wrapping up a tackle, blitzing, outpacing rushers to the flat on screens/jet sweeps/dump-offs or covering running backs and tight ends out of the flat, David is effective.
White, David's counterpart, had another impressive campaign in 2022, posting five passes defensed (career-high), two forced fumbles, 5.5 sacks, 124 combined tackles, eight tackles for loss and 16 quarterback hits. With rare closing speed, White is the centerpiece of Todd Bowles' pressure packages. Opposing teams had to account for his prowess as a blitzer, creating opportunities for teammates on disguised stunts. White routinely generated splash plays with explosion out of his stance. He stacked up against the run in the tackle box, blew up quick passes, spied mobile quarterbacks and harassed opposing quarterbacks with his downhill range through the A and B-gaps.
Both reserve players K.J. Britt and J.J. Russell provided reliable production when White or David were not on the field - albeit seldom - mostly contributing on special teams. Britt and Russell played 45 defensive snaps in 2022, which predominately came in the regular-season finale against the Falcons with the NFC South already locked up. In the mop-up appearance against Atlanta, Britt totaled seven combined tackles and Russell posted five tackles.
Ulysees Gilbert joined the Bucs on October 11, signing with the practice squad. He was elevated for game day action against the Seattle Seahawks in Munich, and after the subsequent bye week, against the Cleveland Browns and New Orleans Saints in Weeks 12 and 13, respectively. He played 64 special teams snaps over those three contests and posted four kick-coverage tackles. A sixth-round draft pick by the Steelers out of Akron in 2019, Gilbert played in 28 games over three seasons in Pittsburgh, recording four stops on defense and 21 on special teams.
2023 Outlook: In April, the Buccaneers unsurprisingly exercised the fifth-year option on Devin White's original NFL contract, so he will not be a free agent until 2024. White, Tampa Bay's first-round draft pick in 2019, has already achieved a Pro Bowl berth, All-Pro status and a Super Bowl ring during his first three seasons. The question marks lies with Lavonte David, who is set to become an unrestricted free agent in March, along with backup J.J. Russell.
At the age of 32, David is still playing at a high level. In 2022, David's 88.5 coverage grade per PFF ranked second among off-ball linebackers. Both Saints' Demario Davis and Rams' Bobby Wagner were granted recently signed contracts in their 30s, potentially benefiting David's case. Whatever No. 54 may lack in age, he makes up for with elite play recognition. He certainly provides intrigue as a hot commodity set to hit the open market. The Bucs are projected to be $49 million over the cap according to Spotrac, meaning several tough decisions on key veterans loom for Tampa Bay. Whether David decides to retire, re-sign with the Bucs on a mutual beneficial deal or play elsewhere in 2023, time will tell.
Russell entered the league as a college free agent with the Bucs on May 13. He spent the 2022 season between Tampa Bay's active roster and the practice squad. The Bucs elevated Russell from the practice squad for Weeks Eight, 15 and 16, appearing primarily on special teams. In total, Russell played in four games with the Buccaneers in 2022. The Bucs will likely look for veteran depth or a value signing in free agency at inside linebacker to bolster the position group for 2023.