Like Groundhog Day, Organized Team Activities (OTAs) provide a repetitive structure during the offseason as players undergo meetings, install implementation and on-field drills. During this period, teams look to set the tone for training camp in late July. Coaching and scouting staffs utilize OTAs to evaluate and shift the roster based on what they glean from the instruction. The window provides the first opportunity for staff members to take what has been taught in the classroom and communicate directly with players and the operation staff on the field. Finding the coaching style that works best for each individual is imperative. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, there will be an open competition at many spots. One of the position groups with the starting lineup already intact is inside linebacker. Both Lavonte David and Devin White have their roles solidified in the middle of the Bucs' defense, but the reserve roles are up for grabs.
David and White have cemented their place as one of the top linebacker tandems in the NFL. Both played 95% of the team's defensive snaps last season, with David recording 1075 snaps and White, 1076. In 2022, White had the most quarterback hits with 16 and David had the most tackles for loss with 10. The duo set the tone on defense for Tampa Bay, patrolling the second level.
The Bucs re-signed Lavonte David in March, the undisputed leader of the defense. At the age of 33, he is back for his 12th season in Tampa Bay. David has been one of the most well-rounded linebackers in the NFL during the duration of his stellar 11-year tenure. A former second-round draft pick (2012) out of Nebraska, David has evolved with the league. He adapted as the NFL shifted from a run-first philosophy to a pass-centric approach. David is the longest-tenured player on the Bucs' roster and accumulated 124 combined tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and five passes defensed in 2022. He has established himself as one of the best off-ball linebackers in the NFL with instinctual play and elite change-of-direction skills. He is adept at blowing up screens and covering tight ends over the middle of the field, erasing the opposition's zone-buster. In 2022, David's 88.5 coverage grade per PFF ranked second among off-ball linebackers.
White, one of the club's primary blitzers, produced another impressive campaign in 2022, registering 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/downhill range, White is a focal point of Todd Bowles' pressure packages. Opposing teams have to account for White pressuring the quarterback, which can generate opportunities for teammates on disguised looks. The quick-twitch athlete consistently shoots gaps to make plays in the backfield and can track bouncing runners with effective pursuit. Entering his fifth year in Tampa Bay, White will stive to make his mark on the gridiron.
Both reserve players K.J. Britt and J.J. Russell provided production when White or David were not on the field (a rarity). Both primarily contributed on special teams. Britt and Russell played 45 defensive snaps in 2022, which predominately came in the regular-season finale at Atlanta with the NFC South already locked up. In the matchup against Atlanta, Britt totaled seven combined tackles and Russell posted five tackles. Ulysees Gilbert signed with the Bucs' practice squad last October. He was elevated for game day action against the Seahawks in Munich, and after the subsequent bye week, against the Browns (12) and Saints (13). 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.
"[They're] all good athletes," Pass Game Coordinator and Inside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote described on Britt, Russell and Gilbert. "It's going to be a lot of competition and that's how you like it. Those guys definitely have to play a big role. They are not only competing in the linebacker room but on special teams, and you have to impress. Everyday you have to come to work. Those guys are physical, they love the game, their mentality. You love coaching guys like that – they're hungry. We have lot of rules in the offseason and they want to meet all the time, but due to the rules and CBA they can't. Those guys are excited to be back on the grass and I can't wait to see how it all unfolds."
The Bucs selected Pittsburgh linebacker SirVocea Dennis with the 153rd overall pick in the fifth round of the 2023 NFL Draft. He racked up 36.0 tackles for loss over his last 35 games at Pitt and accumulated 94 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss, 7.0 sacks and four passes defensed in 2022, earning first team All-ACC honors. The Butkus Award semifinalist is an explosive A-gap blitzer and makes plays up and down the line of scrimmage. The rangy athlete only recorded four missed tackles last season, showcasing his textbook tackling technique. He made all of the defensive calls in 2022 for the Panthers and will vie to carve out a role on the Bucs' defense.
"SirVocea played a lot of what we play here, he played in college," Todd Bowles stated. "He's very bright, he can play multiple spots, he can cover, he can blitz, he can scrape, he can do a lot of things and he's a very heady football player. You don't usually get that later on in the draft, so we felt good about that when we took him."
With Dennis' athletic skillset, the Bucs could create packages in 2023 to put White, David and Dennis on the field at the same time to keep offenses off-balance. Dennis is another weapon Bowles can send to collapse the pocket. As he continues to develop in man-to-man coverage, Dennis' stock will rise.
"I love blitzing, you know that's a part of the game but as an inside linebacker you also have to cover," Dennis said. "That's something you have to work on and that's something you have to do. So, I've done it, I have but that blitzing just gives you another rush, [and] another chance of excitement. Like I said, I've done both but that blitzing is definitely another level."
Position Group: Inside Linebacker
- Jeremy Banks
- K.J. Britt
- Lavonte David
- SirVocea Dennis
- Ulysees Gilbert
- J.J. Russell
- Devin White