Devin White showed up for the second week of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' very voluntary OTA practices, and it's pretty clear why. Even after making his first Pro Bowl after the 2021 season, White has engaged in a campaign of self-examination, with the goal of taking his game to another level.
The Buccaneers need White to be at his playmaking best if they are going to optimize their inside linebacker position. It's a top-heavy group with White and Lavonte David, and it will likely only run five men deep. And as long as White and David are healthy, the other three will be focused almost completely on special teams assignments. David, the consummate professional, has been playing at an All-Pro level for most of a decade, and while he is still going strong he likely has put more than half of his career in the books by this point. White is four seasons and reasonably still ascending but he knows it's going to take at Lavonte-like level of professionalism to continue in that direction.
"For myself to tap into another level – I know what everything feels like, I know all the accolades – I think for myself it's just being consistent, with my diet, with my training, doing extra, making sure the fourth quarter still feels like the second quarter to me," said White. "As a young player, you kind of slack off in some of those areas because you're young [and] you can just go out there and run. I think I've got to be more consistent on just myself and do what's best for me."
White said he played last season at about 240 pounds but wants to keep it at 235 this season in order to maintain his speed and stamina late into games. He also admits that he's still learning and said after Wednesday's practice that for him at this point in his career it's more about brains than speed. White referenced former Panthers' star middle linebacker Luke Kuechly, who maximized his impressive talents with an ever-growing knowledge of the game and the defenses he was playing in.
"Coming from my background, just having a lot of man-to-man, chasing running backs type of background, all of the zone stuff, the route concepts, everything is still like a walking book," said White. "Like, I'm reading and I'm learning as I go. I still want to learn and I still want to play fast and at a high level."
White and David were healthy throughout the Buccaneers' 2020 Super Bowl season; White missed the regular-season finale and the first playoff contest while on the COVID list but otherwise the duo started every game. That season ended with White's star turn in the final three playoff games, when he made a series of big plays and takeaways to help the Bucs get past a murderer's row of quarterbacks. That kind of good injury fortune isn't guaranteed in the NFL, however, and last year David missed five games due to ankle and knee ailments. While David was out, White's role shifted a little bit to fill the void and it didn't put him in position to make as many big plays.
"At the end of the day, me and Lavonte are going to do our job," said White. "We want to be more consistent this year with our player, as far as linebackers and as a defense as a whole. [We want to] understand when a guy goes down we don't want to change the whole defense. Last year, we were trying to cover spots. We just want to keep it rolling, we want the train to keep rolling so everybody can stay comfortable."
In order for that to happen, the Buccaneers have to have a third man ready to go, one who can plausibly step in for either White in the 'Mike' position or David in the 'Mo' and perform the same assignments. It appears as if second-year man K.J. Britt, a fifth-round pick out of Auburn a year ago, is on track to be that man. The Bucs primary backup inside linebacker of the past three seasons, Kevin Minter, remains an unsigned free agent.
"He's a great player," said White of Britt. "He's somebody I could see myself playing by for a long time. Obviously, I want to play with Lavonte for more time, but everybody has their day. I think if me or Lavonte goes down, I think he's a great guy to step in. He took ownership of being here and learning and just getting his feet down and showing the coaches that if something ever happened I'm able to take over. I really appreciate that from him; I tell him every day. And we just had a great practice out there together. We flow together because I like to talk, he likes to talk. We're basically the same people – I'm way faster, though, let's not forget that. But, nah, it's fun playing with K.J."
With David not involved in OTAs and White just joining in this week, Britt has spent a lot of time at the top of the offseason depth chart already. That and a year's worth of behind-the-scenes work in the system are starting to show up in Britt's performance on the practice field.
"It's great for him going into his second year because he obviously has to learn 'Mike' and 'Mo,' said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "So he has to learn two spots. He's been here every day. He looks a lot faster than he did last year, so it's been great for him. I look for big things from him this year. Faster processing is a big thing. He could always play, but when he processes faster he plays faster."
If Britt is the clear third man in the unit, the Bucs need to fill at least two more spots. They've have generally run with five inside linebackers but could possibly go up to six if a number of them are making big contributions on special teams. Grant Stuard, a 2021 seventh-round pick, certainly did that last year, ending the season with a team-high 11 kick-coverage stops. Behind him, the only other inside linebackers on the current roster are undrafted rookies Olakunle Fatukasi and J.J. Russell, out of Rutgers and Memphis, respectively.
Like Britt, the two newcomers are seeing the benefits of the trend toward NFL offseason work focusing more on young players. Bowles has liked what he's seen from Fatukasi and Russell.
"They've been impressive, obviously, Fatukasi and J.J.," said the coach. "They've been getting all the reps. With a lot of guys out, they've been getting every rep, so they've been running some reps with the first team and they're learning from their mistakes. I think they're getting more out of this than the normal rookie because [the others] have vets in front of them. Because they had taken all the reps last week and most of them this week, they're getting valuable experience and they have a heck of a chance come training camp."
It would be helpful if one or both of those rookies proves to be a real NFL prospect. It would be reassuring if Britt continues to look like a good two-way backup and an eventual starter. It would be greatly appreciated by both David and the team if he can avoid injuries in his 11th NFL season. But the potential ascension of the Buccaneers' inside linebacker corps begins with the 24-year-old White. He's committed to that outcome.
"I need to stay consistently down (in weight) and just do the right things," he said. "I think I can do it…I'm going to do it because I'm taking it upon myself right now to [say], 'This is the person you need to be if this is the athlete you want to be.'"