The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' inside linebacker position has mostly been a two-man show for the past three seasons, but while those two headliners remain in place for 2021 there is room for a considerable amount of change.
Those headliners are Lavonte David and Devin White, of course, the former long established as one of the best off-ball linebackers in the NFL and the latter a rising star at the position with the capability to create an overflowing stat line. Though they rarely come off the field on defense, they have been very ably backed up the past several seasons by veteran Kevin Minter, who also returns for 2021. Those three incumbents are balanced by three newcomers, including two from the most recent NFL draft. Therein lies the possibility of change, even if the two starting spots are in no doubt.
"It's going to be tough competition," said Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles specifically of the inside linebacker spot. "That's what you want. As you become good, you want the competition to be better and you want them to have you make difficult choices. It's not just going to be there – it's going to be outside [line]backer, safety and we've got a bunch of D-linemen fighting, so I'm looking forward to a spirited camp."
David and White face a different sort of competition, not with each other but with linebacker groups across the country as they want to be viewed as the best combination in the NFL. They had a legitimate claim on that title in 2020 and were particularly dominant in the playoffs; another step by White towards stardom could make them the obvious choice in 2021.
"Me and Devin obviously have a special relationship because we definitely have to be able to trust each other on the field and it has to transpire off the field, but we have to be able to get along off the field as well," said David, who signed a new contract before free agency to stay with the only NFL team he's known. "I'm definitely excited about for what he has to come – what Year Three is going to be like for him and also for the both of us trying to be the best duo in this league."
Like the rest of their teammates, David and White are enjoying a last stretch of down time before they continue on their dual quest of defending a Super Bowl title and earning that "best-in-the-business" respect. That will start up again in training camp, scheduled for late July. The Bucs will take 90 players into camp, and that roster is essentially set now, with the possibility of a tweak or two in the next five weeks. In the meantime, we are doing a position-by-position review of the Bucs' depth chart heading into that camp. We continue on defense, moving back from the front line to the men who patrol the middle of the field. Below is a full schedule of all the positional reviews, including the ones already completed:
- Tuesday, May 25: Quarterbacks
- Friday, May 28: Running Backs
- Tuesday, June 1: Wide Receivers
- Friday, June 4: Tight Ends
- Tuesday, June 8: Offensive Tackles
- Friday, June 11: Guards & Centers
- Tuesday, June 15: Defensive Linemen
- Friday, June 18: Outside Linebackers
- Tuesday, June 22: Inside Linebackers
- Friday, June 25: Cornerbacks
- Tuesday, June 29: Safeties
- Friday, July 2: Specialists
White was the first player drafted by the Buccaneers in the Bruce Arians era, coming off the board fifth-overall in the 2019 draft. With the Bucs changing their defensive identity under Bowles to a 3-4 base front, White joined David as the two off-ball linebackers that scheme calls for. As such, those two have essentially soaked up all the available ILB snaps over the past two seasons.
David, in fact, has started all 36 games in that span, including the playoffs, and has missed a grand total of 13 defensive snaps out of a possible 2,506. White lost most of four games to a knee injury as a rookie and spent two contests on the COVID list last year but has otherwise started 31 of 36. Since returning from his knee injury in 2019 he has missed only 12 defensive snaps besides the two games he was unavailable at the end of the 2020 regular season and the start of the playoffs.
With David still at the top of his game heading into his 10th season and White on an upward trajectory, the Buccaneers were eager to keep that pairing together for their attempted title defense. The complicating factor was that David was due to become an unrestricted free agent and, with so many other key contributors to re-sign, there was no guarantee the Bucs would be able to keep their six-time captain around. They made it a priority, however, and got David's signature on a new deal five days before the start of free agency.
"It would be extremely important," said General Manager Jason Licht in February of keeping David and White together. "I don't know if Devin would be the kind of player he's evolving into without Lavonte. Lavonte behind the scenes is a phenomenal leader. He's actually grown as a leader the last couple of years to be one the go-to guys for Bruce on that defensive side of the ball. He's a very important player. He was a very important part of our Super Bowl win and we'd love to have him back. We're going to try our damnedest to have him back."
· Lavonte David…Signed a new contract with the Buccaneers on March 12, agreeing to what is effectively a two-year deal with three automatically voiding years at the end; Started all 20 games in 2020, including the playoffs, and recorded 117 tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks, one interception, six passes defensed, three forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries during the regular season; Added 26 tackles, a sack and four passes defensed in the postseason.
· Kevin Minter…For the fourth straight year, signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay, this time on March 20; In addition to serving as a core special teams player, also started the regular-season finale and the Wild Card playoff game in place of Devin White, contributing a total of 19 tackles and two passes defensed.
· Devin White…Entering the third season of his original rookie deal signed after he was selected fifth overall in the 2019 draft; Spent two weeks on the COVID-19 list but otherwise started all 18 games and led the team in tackles in both the regular season (140) and the postseason (38); Also racked up 15 tackles for loss, 9.0 sacks, 16 QB hits, four passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery in the regular season and two interceptions and two fumble recoveries in the postseason.
· Deone Bucannon…Finished the season on the active roster and played in all four postseason games but was not re-signed after becoming an unrestricted free agent; Saw action on special teams only.
· Jack Cichy…Played in six regular-season games and two playoff contests but finished the season on injured reserve and was not re-signed after becoming an unrestricted free agent; Played almost exclusively on special teams and had two kick-coverage tackles.
· Joe Jones…Signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay on May 5; Originally an undrafted free agent with Dallas in 2017, Jones ended up in Denver as a rookie and appeared in 49 games over four seasons and recording 31 tackles on defense and extensive playing time on special teams.
· K.J. Britt…Selected in the fifth round (176th overall) by the Buccaneers out of Auburn in the 2021 draft; Had 2020 season cut short by injury but racked up 68 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in his first year as a starter in 2019.
· Grant Stuard…Chosen with the final pick of the 2021 draft (259th overall) by the Buccaneers out of Houston; Played in 33 games for the Cougars and compiled 191 tackles, 16.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, four passes defensed and a fumble recovery for a touchdown.
The Buccaneers mostly ran with four inside linebackers on the depth chart during the 2020 season, though the fourth spot changed hands from Jack Cichy to rookie Chapelle Russell to returning veteran Deone Bucannon. That spot was clearly designated for a special teams contributor, however, as none were called on to play defense at any point. And none are back for 2021.
Minter is back but the Buccaneers have a little bit more intriguing depth to sort out than they've had the last two years. That includes a pair of Day Three draft picks in Auburn's K.J. Britt and Houston's Grant Stuard. Both were drafted with special teams in mind – Stuard, in particular – but they also have a chance to develop into depth pieces on defense, as well. Britt was known as a hard hitter and a natural leader on a good Auburn defense and both players are sharp, as they showed when they quickly picked up Bowles' playbook in rookie mini-camp and OTAs.
With most veterans staying away for OTAs, Britt and Stuard got to do their best David and White impression as the two off-ball linebackers in the middle of the defense.
"It's been fantastic," said Arians of his first impression of Britt and Stuard. "Those two guys are running the whole show already and it's been really, really impressive."
Stuard was the very last player picked in the draft, earning him the tongue-in-cheek title of "Mr. Irrelevant." Seventh-round draft picks generally have to impress on special teams to make it, and that won't be any different for Stuard but the young defender might have a future on defense, as well.
"He's obviously really, really smart," said Arians. "He has picked up about three positions already and he is full speed as soon as that whistle blows. That's how he was on tape and where he was in college, so it's exactly what we thought we were getting."
The final player to be added to the Bucs' ILB depth chart for training camp was fifth-year veteran Joe Jones, who was a reserve and special teams ace for four seasons in Denver. The Buccaneers had enormous success the last time they picked up a former Bronco backup and gave him a larger role. There likely isn't the kind of playing time available for Jones that outside linebacker Shaq Barrett found in Tampa, but he definitely has a chance to beat out one of the rookies for a spot. He has already shown he can make an impact in the kick and return game.
Disappointingly, neither David nor White was chosen for the 2021 Pro Bowl, though both got enough Associated Press All-Pro votes to register as second-team choices. That's relatively faint praise for a pair of players who were the core of one of the NFL's best defenses.
White finished fifth in the NFL with 140 tackles during the regular season despite missing the final game. His 9.0 sacks were second on the team and were the most by any player in the NFL with at least 90 tackles. His 16 quarterback hits were the most by any player in the league with at least 70 stops and he also broke up four passes, forced one fumble and recovered another.
White then turned it up another notch in the playoffs. Despite missing the Wild Card game he still led the team with 38 tackles, the third-highest total by any player in a single postseason since at least 1987. He was also a turnover machine, needing just three games to come up with four takeaways, split evenly between two interceptions and two fumble recoveries. His fumble recovery and interception in the second half of the Divisional Round game in New Orleans turned the tide in a comeback win. After sitting out the Wild Card win in Washington, White was eager to make an impact and wasn't shy about what he expected to do.
"Basically missing those two games with COVID, it made me realize how much that I can help my team even more," he said. "Just watching the Atlanta game – we won that game. Watching the Washington game – we won that game, but I was like, 'I can help my team in another way. I can do more. I can bring more.' I just put a lot of pressure on myself by coming out publicly and saying that to the media even though that's how I had been feeling. Once I had said it that just makes you go to a whole new level because now you put it out there publicly like, 'This is what I need to do. Now I have to go back on the field and do it.'"
White even tied the final bow on the Bucs' championship by intercepting Patrick Mahomes' final pass in Tampa Bay's 31-9 victory over Kansas City.
Meanwhile, David simply did what he has done throughout his nine-year career, though perhaps the spotlight of the playoffs might have finally gained him the level of appreciation he deserves outside of Tampa. David was second on the team with 117 tackles and 12 tackles for loss, both behind White, and he also had 1.5 sacks, an interception and three passes defensed. Unsurprisingly, he posted another three forced fumbles and two more fumble recoveries to his amazing career totals in those categories. He also had another 26 tackles, a sack and four passes defensed in the postseason.
Kevin Minter was the only other inside linebacker to see playing time on defense, most of it in the two games that White missed, and he was as solid and dependable as ever. He had 13 tackles and a pass defensed in the regular season plus another six stops and a key pass breakup in the Wild Card win at Washington.
As a team, the Buccaneers ranked first in the NFL in run defense and seventh in overall defense, and much of the credit goes to the David-White duo.
Three Key Questions:
· Will the Bucs be able to keep five inside linebackers after running very thin at the position through most of 2020?
As noted above, the Bucs mostly kept just four inside linebackers on the active roster last season, and occasionally went down to three with another one on the practice squad and eligible to be elevated. With David and White so durable and dependable, they could easily choose to do so again, which would allow for a deeper group of, say, edge rushers.
On the other hand, it will likely be tempting to keep at least five from the team's current group of six. The Bucs would obviously like their two rookie draft picks to show enough to be retained. If one assumes that Minter is a lock to remain the first man up behind David and White (more on that below), then the ILB group is already five deep if Britt and Stuard make the roster.
And that's before one considers Jones who, while not added to the roster until after the draft, certainly looks like a strong depth signing. Jones not only excelled on special teams in Denver but he got a brief stretch of playing time on defense in 2018. That at least gives him a bit of NFL experience that the two rookies can't claim.
And, of course, special teams is likely to be the deciding factor in this equation. Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong liked what he saw from the two rookies during spring practices.
"They have their own particular assets," said Armstrong. "One is really fast and can run in Stuard. Then K.J. will hit you dead in the mouth. They both play with a lot of energy, tough kids. I like what I see there. They're doing a really good job."
· Can Devin White continue to be an impact player in the Bucs' pass rush and potentially even hit double digits in sacks?
The combination of 140 tackles and 9.0 sacks is not a common one for any player in the NFL. According to Pro Football Reference, since the sack became an official statistic in 1982 the only other player to have at least 140 tackles and at least nine sacks in a single season was former Buccaneers outside linebacker Broderick Thomas (174 and 11.0 in 1991).
White got his sacks in bunches in 2020. He had a pair of three-sack games (at Las Vegas and at Atlanta) and had a burst of five sacks in a three-game span at midseason. Still, nine sacks is nine sacks and he also had 2.5 QB takedowns as a rookie. When the Buccaneers drafted White fifth-overall in 2019 it was an unusually high spot for an off-ball linebacker to come up the board. Tampa Bay's argument was that White would help the defense in a wide variety of ways, including with his speed and well-established blitzing ability. White got most of his sacks last year on well-timed dashes directly up the middle of the offense, as he showed off amazing closing ability when he found an open seam.
White also happens to play for a very aggressive defensive coordinator in Bowles, one who is always looking for more ways to unlock the young linebacker's talents. David saw that process unfold last year and expects his fellow linebacker to do even more in his third NFL season.
"Devin, his rookie year he had some tough moments with injuries and not being able to play as much as he wanted to, and then last year he just took off," said David. "That was something that I was expecting. I told him that he's got to keep up that standard. Now he has to keep playing that same way, keep having that intensity – just be him out there on the field."
· Will anyone unseat Kevin Minter as the first man in whenever David or White are unavailable?
Minter was one of the first players that Arians drafted after becoming the head coach in Arizona in 2013 and he started 37 games over the next four years. He then played one season in Cincinnati before being released by the Bengals at the end of their 2018 training camp. He had to wait until November of that year to get another shot, and that's when the Buccaneers came calling.
Arians was not yet in Tampa then as Minter appeared in five games down the stretch. But when the new coach arrived in January of 2019, he was more than happy to retain his former Cardinals linebacker. That began a run of three straight one-year deals, most recently one signed this past March. Given that Minter has been the one Arians has called on when White missed time the last two years, he would seem like the obvious choice to fill that role again in 2021.
That said, he is once again working on just a one-year commitment and is heading into his age-30 season. Though the transition might be gradual, the Buccaneers could be looking for a more long-term answer as their ILB reserve (or reserves). That's where Britt in particular, and perhaps Stuard, could figure in. In addition, the Bucs may find that Jones can handle some playing time on defense if needed. Minter is the clear favorite to be the third man behind David and White but he'll have more competition this year.