As we noted in our countdown of the top player ever to wear jersey numbers 51-60 last week, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a long history of outstanding off-the-ball linebackers. Since some of those middle-of-the-field greats have overlapped, Tampa Bay has also fielded some very memorable linebacking duos.
David Lewis and Richard Wood. Wood and Cecil Johnson. Scot Brantley and Hugh Green. Those were some of the great pairings of the franchise's earliest era. The free agency signing of Hardy Nickerson followed by the drafting of Derrick Brooks created another amazing duo, and then Brooks teamed up with Shelton Quarles at the heart of the Super Bowl defense. More recently, Lavonte David had a great running mate in Kwon Alexander for four years.
Though it may be hard to ever top one of those Brooks pairings, the Buccaneers think they have another duo destined for greatness in 2020 with David now running with Devin White, the fifth-overall pick in the 2019 draft. Many would argue that David has already achieved greatness, even if he remains criminally underrated, while White's strong finish to his rookie campaign portends even greater heights for him.
Barring injury to David or White, that's all the Bucs' defense needs in 2020. The team's base 3-4 defense includes three down lineman, two outside linebackers who rush the passer on a majority of opposing dropbacks, and two inside linebackers who are not usually on the line of scrimmage. When the team goes to a nickel look, which is the majority of the time, a defensive back generally replaces either a down lineman or an outside linebacker, with David and White staying on the field. Those two can do it all – tackle, cover, rush the passer and generally range over a huge portion of the field. David played all but six of the Bucs' defensive snaps in 2019 and White only missed 15 plays in the games in which he was not injured or out due to injury.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 53-man roster.
As such, the Buccaneers' only move regarding the inside linebacker position during the 2020 offseason was one of continuity. Veteran Kevin Minter, who started during White's injury absence early last year, was re-signed and seems likely to reprise his role as the top inside linebacker reserve while also contributing a lot on special teams.
Over a six-week span in May and June, we have been going through the Buccaneers depth chart to see where each position stands now that the draft and most of free agency are in the rear view mirror. Some positions needed more attention in the offseason than others after the 2019 season, but almost every spot on the depth chart has already seen some turnover. Today we look at the one exception to that.
Roster Review Schedule:
· Monday, May 18: Quarterbacks
· Wednesday, May 20: Running Backs
· Monday, May 25: Wide Receivers
· Wednesday, May 27: Tight Ends
· Monday, June 1: Offensive Tackles
· Wednesday, June 3: Guards & Centers
· Monday, June 8: Defensive Linemen
· Wednesday, June 10: Outside Linebackers
· Monday, June 15: Inside Linebackers
· Wednesday, June 17: Cornerbacks
· Monday, June 22: Safeties
· Wednesday, June 24: Specialists
With the offseason program essentially wiped out by quarantine efforts, the Buccaneers are fortunate to have a seasoned veteran in the middle of their defense, especially one who is still in his prime and playing at a high level. There really are no questions surrounding David, other than what he and the team will do about a contract that expires after this season. He has missed only seven games out of a possible 128 since arriving in the second round in 2012 and has produced at a steady-to-spectacular level every fall.
David is one of only three players, along with fellow stars Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, to have at least 1,000 tackles since 2012, and no others have even reached 900. He's also fourth in that span with 116 tackles for loss and the only player over 100 who is not an edge rusher. His robust career stat line also includes 11 interceptions, 45 passes defensed, 22.5 sacks, 21 forced fumbles and 14 fumble recoveries.
Meanwhile, White was slowed by a Week Two knee injury that cost him roughly a month of action and left him a little rusty upon his immediate return. However, the former LSU star hit his stride in the season's second half and won NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors in both November and December. White is a supremely confident player but that doesn't mean he expects things to come easy. Fortunately for the Buccaneers he's a hard-worker and a perfectionist, as well.
"I always have confidence in myself," he said. "The thing is, I can just never get complacent. That's one thing about me – I study the game, I reach out to a lot of people. I'm always trying to find ways to get better because I know as far as my game there's no ceiling. I can keep getting better and better. Somebody's going to have to find my weakness and I'll have to get better, so I might as well find my own weakness and try to [exploit] my own weakness before somebody else does it on Sunday."
The forced separation of this offseason makes that process harder for all players. However, White feels like the biggest step he needed to take in Year Two was a mental one anyway.
"I put in the time and I know it started paying off when I came back from my injury," said White. "As far as the offseason, I just became closer with my inside linebackers coach [Mike Caldwell] and I'm becoming more of a student of the game so I can be able to control stuff to a high magnitude when I'm on the field. Guys can lean on me in certain situations and know, 'Hey, I can go to Devin for the answer,' or 'Devin is going to have us in the right call if the play breaks down or the headset's not working.' If anything's going on, I can be the one to fix it. I know the guys that usually tend to play the best ball usually are the smarter guys on the field, so I'm trying to make sure I establish myself as one of the smartest guys on the field when I'm playing ball."
· Jack Cichy…Heading into third season of initial four-year contract after being drafted in the sixth round in 2018; Limited by knee and elbow injuries to 10 games in first two seasons
· Lavonte David…Entering final year of five-year contract extension signed in 2015 and covering 2016-20; Led team with 122 tackles in 2019, adding 10 tackles for loss, seven QB hits, one interception, seven passes defensed, three forced fumbles and one fumble recovery
· Noah Dawkins…Signed off Cincinnati's practice squad in October to a deal that covers 2020; Played in 10 games for Bucs and primarily worked on special teams
· Kevin Minter…Signed another one-year deal shortly after hitting unrestricted free agency in March; Stood out on special teams but also filled in well for an injured Devin White for most of five games early in the season, recording 29 tackles
· Devin White…Entering second year of initial rookie contract; Recorded 91 tackles, 2.5 sacks, one interception, three forced fumbles and four fumble recoveries, two returned for touchdowns
(* As of June, Kendell Beckwith also remains on the team's90-man roster, but he has not played since suffering an ankle injury in a car accident in the 2018 offseason and is not expected to be on the active roster in 2020.)
The Bucs' inside linebacker corps might look a little light in advance of the 2020 training camp. In Bruce Arians' first year at the helm in 2019, the team took seven players to camp who were classified as inside linebackers on the roster. Two of those, Corey Nelson and Emmanuel Smith, did not make the team, while a third, Devante Bond, was on the roster for the first seven weeks before being released. During his Bucs tenure, Bond alternately worked with the inside and outside linebackers. If one replaces him with Noah Dawkins, a mid-season replacement for Jack Cichy last fall, the Bucs have largely the same group of 'backers they took into camp a year ago, though down a couple of back-of-the-depth-chart players.
It's possible the Buccaneers will add to this position before they take the field again. The roster currently stands at 87 players, and would be 86 if Beckwith is eventually reclassified. While the team has generally stayed at the maximum of 90 players in previous offseasons, the unusual circumstances of 2020 prompted Arians and General Manager Jason Licht to stop a little short this May when they were signing undrafted free agents.
"I think [we could add] veteran players who can be role players, that also can help special teams, that understand how pros practice, with all this in this time," said Arians. "Jason and I made a concerted effort to save some roster spots for that, to see if this really happened the way it is happening, so that we could find maybe whoever's available under the cap and find some veteran guys who know how to practice, know how to play game, instead of bringing in undrafted free agent rookies."
Because the Buccaneers almost never have more than two inside linebackers on defense at the same time, the reserves at that position have to be contributors in the kick-and-cover phase of the game to be active on game day. Minter and Dawkins were perfect examples last year, as was Cichy before he was injured in Week Four. Minter didn't even stop taking his special teams snaps during the month he was filling for white. As such, the linebacker position is one that the Bucs could definitely address when filling up those last three or four roster spots.
"[It's] probably more so special teams guys – inside linebacker, outside linebacker, a defensive lineman or a safety who can play special teams," said Arians. "A running back who can play special teams, maybe. It's more guys you can plug in and play because they're smart but they can help us on special teams right away."
And it's possible that there are some more inside linebacker candidates on the roster at the moment. The Bucs drafted one linebacker and added three more rookies after the drafted but have initially labeled all of them as outside linebackers on the roster. Temple's Chapelle Russell was the seventh-round pick and he as joined in free agency by fellow rookies Michael Divinity, Cam Gill and Nasir Player. While Player is 6-5 and 271 pounds, and thus in the mold of an edge rusher, none of the other three is taller than 6-3 or weighs more than 242 pounds. Russell, for instance, stands 6-2 and 236 pounds, which is almost identical to what Cichy is listed at.
David led the team with 122 tackles, which is pretty much exactly his per-season average over eight years. White was second with 91, a fine total given his missed time. White, whose draft scouting report highlighted his ability to rush the passer, also had 2.5 sacks and five quarterback hits. Both linebackers forced three fumbles and White recovered four of them, returning two for touchdowns. His 92-yard score in the season finale against Atlanta was the longest fumble return in franchise history.
When we reviewed the defensive line position last week, we highlighted that group's key role in producing the NFL's top-ranked rush defense. Obviously, the inside linebackers deserve a lot of credit for that, as well they had to be sure tacklers and they had to be in the correct run fits when the down linemen locked up other lanes. With virtually all of that upfront personnel returning the Bucs could expect to be stout against the run again in 2020 but White says they will have to work even harder to get the same results.
"We want to just build off that and we want to keep striving," he said. "We're not just going to say, 'Hey, we were the number-one rush defense.' Nah, that's out of the way. We've got to go prove that, even times 10 next year, because people are going to know that, 'Hey, they've got a good front,' so we've got to still hold up because they're going to try to hit us with different things."
Both David and White also excel in coverage and they contributed to a drastic turnaround by the Bucs' pass defense in the second half of the season. Tampa Bay led the NFL in passes defensed over the final eight weeks of the campaign, and the linebackers contributed, with those two notching six of their 10 passes defensed in the last six games.
Three Key Questions:
· Will Todd Bowles send his inside linebackers after the quarterback more in 2020?
Bowles arrived in Tampa with a reputation for being an aggressive defensive playcaller, and he did not disappoint. In 11 of 16 games, the Bucs' defense sent five or more players after the quarterback on 40% or more of their opponents' dropbacks. Twice that percentage topped 60% and only once was it below 20%. In their base defense, the Buccaneers can send five just by using their three down linemen and two outside linebackers, but the defense is in sub packages much more commonly, and that generally takes one of those five players off the field. To blitz in those situations, which are usually dropbacks, the Bucs need to send a defensive back or one of their two inside linebackers. Now, it's not always a "blitz" when White or David head into the backfield; sometimes they're merely reacting to what the running back does. Still, David has shown the ability to blitz in his career, with one seven-sack season and another five-sack season, and he hasn't slowed down heading into his ninth season. White recorded 2.5 sacks, as noted above, which is a good start in three-quarters of a rookie season. As the Bucs' young players continue to learn the wrinkles of Bowles' defense, he will be able to get even more creative with his playcalling, and that include more time chasing the passer for David and White.
· Will the arrivals of Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski really lead to more attention being paid to some underappreciated Buccaneers, like David?
The Buccaneers signed the G.O.A.T. in March and in May they found out that they would be playing the maximum five primetime games for the first time in team history. Those two things are obviously connected. Tampa Bay will have a much brighter spotlight on it with Brady at the helm, and many believe that light will allow more fans and members of the media to appreciate what players like David have been doing for years. Despite the widespread belief that David has been one of the best off-the-ball linebackers in the league his entire career, he has lagged behind the likes of Wagner and Kuechly in terms of postseason accolades. David has been selected to just one Pro Bowl in eight years, and somehow that was not after the season in which he combined five interceptions with seven sacks and was named first-team Associated Press All-Pro (for the only time). The timing could be better for White. If he emerges as a superstar in 2020 under the shared Brady spotlight he might have to wait as long as David has for proper recognition.
· Do the Buccaneers need some more depth at inside linebacker?
Since they only carried either four or five inside linebackers in any given week during the 2019 regular season, they already have sufficient numbers to meet that mark again in 2020. However, a roster of five inside 'backers might leave them a little thin for training camp reps, particularly if any of those five end up with minor injuries here and there. The Buccaneers also don't have much in the way of veteran presence among their reserves after Minter. As noted earlier, Tampa Bay took seven players it had listed as inside linebackers on the roster to training camp a year ago. If there are going to be a couple additions to the roster to get it up to 90 for this year's camp, it's reasonable to believe one or two spots could go to linebackers, particularly if they are proven special teamers. Former Bucs Mark Barron, Adarius Taylor and Alec Ogletree are all still waiting to be signed, as are Alec Ogletree and Darron Lee.