A new league year begins, ushering in change. From free agency departures to re-signings to draft selections, the roster evolves. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win-now approach as Tom Brady returns for his 23rd season in the NFL, the organization is striving to remain atop the NFC hierarchy in 2022. Each position group will be evaluated during the offseason workout program as turnover shifts the depth chart. Next up in the series, let's take a look at the inside linebacker position.
At the heart of the Bucs' defense are incumbent starters Lavonte David and Devin White, who form arguably the best linebacker tandem in football. In 2021, both were cornerstones in a defense that finished third in rushing yards allowed, fourth in yards allowed per pass play and sixth in points allowed under the tutelage of Todd Bowles.
David has a knack for effortlessly punching out the ball and flies all over the field from sideline-to-sideline with rare athleticism. His understanding of schemes and dedication to film study on the opponent translates on Sunday. During the first eight years of his tenure in Tampa, the Bucs did not play in a single playoff game but despite the lack of notoriety placed on the team, David remained consistent. He is a tackling machine and a formidable run defender, leveling rushers near the line of scrimmage. David's play recognition elevates the Bucs' defense.
White is a complementary force in the middle of the defense. He led the Bucs' defense with 128 tackles last season, showcasing his 4.44 speed. He recognizes, then immediately reacts and aims to destroy. With explosion out of his stance, White can quickly get outside to disrupt quick passes and bubble screens. White is a lethal blitzer who has bolstered the club's pass rush the previous three years. With his speed, White can spy mobile quarterbacks and cover outside of the tackle box on pass plays.
On grooming White, pass game coordinator and inside linebacker's coach Larry Foote stated, "I always remind him, 'You've got the goods.' He's not a slow linebacker like I was. He's going to make his plays; he's just got to trust the defense."
White received his first pro bowl berth in 2021 and entering Year Four, the fierce competitor will aim to stack another standout campaign on top of last year's. White started in every game last season while David missed two games midseason due to an ankle injury, along with a three-week hiatus on injured reserve at the end of the regular season due to a foot injury. In the 12 games he played in (expanded 17-game regular season), David was on the gridiron for 95% of defensive snaps.
Kevin Minter became the next man up if either David or White missed time, providing steady production over the last three years. In five starts, Minter tallied 33 tackles, two tackles for loss, one sack and three quarterback hits. The Bucs have yet to re-sign Minter, although the organization still could opt to do so since they did not draft a linebacker in April. He has played the previous three seasons in Tampa Bay on one-year contracts and the perpetual cycle could continue in 2022.
Late-round picks last year including fifth rounder K.J. Britt and seventh-rounder Grant Stuard played nearly exclusively on special teams other than a couple brief, late-game appearances on defense. Stuard concluded the 2021 season as the Bucs leader on special teams in tackles with 11, and Britt added five to the mix. Both are under contract for three more seasons under their rookie contracts and although they have been primary special teams contributors, they have the developmental traits to grow in the future.
"I am thankful that those guys love ball, so now you know that you can work with them and they are going to improve," Foote described on Britt and Stuard." Everybody has seen Grant, he is a warrior on special teams, probably one of the best in the league last year. K.J. is a Mike linebacker and is a no nonsense guy. I am impressed so far because playing that position you have to be the quarterback of the defense, and he is accepting that challenge and I am excited to work with him."
Undrafted rookies Olakunle Fatukasi (Rutgers) and J.J. Russell (Memphis) will both compete for a spot on the 53. Both will have to show their ability to stick with running backs and tight ends in coverage, a challenging feat at the pro level.
As the 2022 season fast approaches with high expectations placed on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the dynamic duo of David and White in the middle of the defense will set the tone. The inside linebacker corps will be one to watch entering Phase III of the offseason workout program.