In 2012, the Carolina Panthers drafted Boston College linebacker Luke Kuechly with the ninth-overall pick. Almost 50 picks later, in the back third of the second round, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers landed Nebraska linebacker Lavonte David after a small trade up.
Both Kuechly and David were immediate starters on their respective NFC South squads and both had excellent rookie campaigns. They had comparable statistics, though Kuechly notably led the NFL in tackles. He finished with 165 stops, 12 tackles for loss, one sack, one quarterback hit, two interceptions and seven passes defensed. David countered with 139 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, two sacks, five quarterback hits, one interception and four passes defensed.
Both Kuechly and David have also continued to excel, season after season. They've played nearly the same number of games – 105 for David to 102 for Kuechly – and have filled up their stat lines impressively. Kuechly has more tackles, interceptions and passes defensed; David has more sacks, tackles for loss and quarterback hits. Set a minimum of 800 tackles, 50 tackles for loss, 10 interceptions and 10 sacks, and you'll find only David and Kuechly qualify over the past seven years.
But Kuechly has at least one thing David does not: an Associated Press NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year award. The Panther 'backer deservedly won it in 2012, becoming the second Carolina player to earn that honor after defensive end Julius Peppers did so in 2002. David was obviously a deserving candidate, as well, but there can be only one winner.
Regardless of how much hardware he has – including a first-team AP All-Pro selection in 2013 – David remains a star and cornerstone player for the Bucs' defense. But this year he gets a new running mate in the middle of that defense, and that new Buccaneer could be the one who ends this specific franchise drought.
That's what we're examining all this week: Possible first-time occurrences in franchise history. We've already discussed the possibility of a regular-season win outside of the United States, as well as an AP First-Team All-Pro selection at wide receiver. Now we suggest a possible first-time achievement on the defensive side of the ball.
POTENTIAL BUCCANEER FIRST: ASSOCIATED PRESS NFL DEFENSIVE ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
David was, in fact, one of five players to receive votes for this award in 2012, though he got just two to Kuechly's 28. It's difficult to track voting for this award back through the decades, but it seems a bit surprising a Buccaneer has never won it, given how many truly great defensive stars dot their history.
Tampa Bay drafted two future Hall-of-Famers in the same round in 1995, but neither Warren Sapp nor Derrick Brooks was judged the league's best that first year. The award went instead to Jets' defensive end Hugh Douglas and his 10 sacks. Sapp and Brook had perfectly fine rookie seasons, but it wasn't until next year, when Tony Dungy and Monte Kiffin arrived with the Tampa Two defense, that their careers really took off.
Like Douglas, Santana Dotson had 10 sacks as a rookie, for the Buccaneers in 1992, and must surely have been in the discussion for Defensive Rookie of the Year. In fact, Dotson did get that award from Football Digest and College & Pro Football Newsweekly. However, the more prestigious AP honor went to Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Dale Carter.
Lee Roy Selmon arrived in the league as a fully formed superstar in 1976, but he was limited to eight games by injury as a rookie. Simeon Rice won the AP award in 1996, but he was still an Arizona Cardinal then, five years shy of joining the Buccaneers. The Buccaneers recently signed another former winner of this award: Ndamukong Suh, the choice in 2010. Tampa Bay has produced two Associated Press Rookies of the Year on the offensive side of the ball – Warrick Dunn in 1997 and Cadillac Williams in 2005.
The good news for the Buccaneers is that there has been a lot more positional variety in the ROTY winners on defense than on offense. All but two of the last 20 winners on offense have been either a quarterback or a running back. In contrast, here are the positions of the last 10 winners on defense: LB, CB, DE, CB, DT, DT, LB, OLB, DT, LB.
The Buccaneers' potential candidate for the award in 2019 happens to be a linebacker: fifth-overall pick Devin White. Though the Bucs may also get a lot of playing time out of fellow rookies Sean Murphy-Bunting, Jamel Dean and Mike Edwards in the secondary, White is the one who appears to have the clearest path to every-down playing time.
Assuming White takes his spot next to David as the two inside linebackers in Tampa Bay's new 3-4 defense, and assuming he enjoys good health fortune in his debut season, White is likely to produce numbers that will catch the voters' eyes. His top-notch speed allows him to track ballcarriers from sideline to sideline, and he has the skills to excel in coverage as well. He's a high-motor player and a leader who shows good form in his tackling and is driven to succeed. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him crack 100 tackles in his rookie season, and that would be the first step toward consideration for the award.
White would probably need to add a few other noteworthy stats to be a top vote-getter, though. For consideration, let's look again at Kuechly, the last inside linebacker to win the award, and what got him the votes. Kuechly led the NFL in tackles (with 165), added good pass coverage numbers (two picks and seven pass breakups) and had 12 tackles for loss, though only one sack.
It may be a tall order for White to lead the league in tackles or get to 150 or so since, again, he'll be playing next to David. There are only so many tackles to go around. Kuechly was the lone middle linebacker in Carolina's 4-3 defense the year he won the award. For comparison's sake, let's look at the Pittsburgh Steelers, who have long mastered the 3-4 defense. Their two starting inside linebackers last year were Vince Williams and Jon Bostic. Williams finished with 76 tackles, Bostic with 73. Both started 14 games, so you could bump those up a bit, but they still were more likely to get to 100 tackles than 150.
So if David's presence does limit White's tackle ceiling, White will likely need to add a decent number of some combination of sacks, interceptions, tackles for loss and forced fumbles. He may just have a shot at those sacks, as the Buccaneers have lauded his pass-rush potential and are certain to play an aggressive style of defense. New Coordinator Todd Bowles has known to be creative with his pass rush and likes to keep opposing offenses guessing as to where the blitzers are coming from.
Or perhaps White will make his secondary mark in pass coverage, as Kuechly did in 2012. He had just one pick over his two seasons as a starter at LSU, but did break up 10 passes in that time. White is joining an NFL division that has some very good pass-catching backs, including the Saints' Alvin Kamara and the Panthers' Ed McCaffrey, so he will get a lot of work in coverage if he proves up to the task. The Buccaneers think he will be.
White has the pedigree, the expected playing time and the rare talent to be a reasonable choice as one of a handful of favorites to win the 2019 Associated Press NFL Rookie of the Year award. If he can do so, and become the first Buccaneer ever to take that honor, it will likely hinge on his ability to make big plays.