The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' linebacker roster has undergone a series of changes in the past two weeks – some of it unwelcome – and now, by necessity, so has the depth chart.
The Buccaneers lost starting middle linebacker Kwon Alexander to a season-ending knee injury on Sunday, robbing the team of what several players referred to as the "heart and soul" of the defense on Monday. Rookie linebacker Jack Cichy also suffered a season-ending injury in Sunday's win over Cleveland, eliminating one possible option to replace Alexander in the starting lineup.
Tampa Bay has also made two additions to its linebacking corps over the past two weeks, re-signing Devante Bond prior to the Cleveland game and Riley Bullough on Monday. Both Bond and Bullough were with the Buccaneers in 2017 and throughout this year's training camp before a pair of foot injuries led to the being waived with an injury settlement before the start of the season. That experience will be helpful, as at least one of those two will play an immediate role on defense.
On Tuesday, the Buccaneers released a new depth chart, giving an idea of how the starting lineup will look in Alexander's absence. Lavonte David will remain in his usual weakside (WILL) linebacker spot, where he ranks among the NFL's very best at his position. As he did on Sunday after Alexander's departure, Adarius Taylor will take over as the middle linebacker. And Bond has returned just in time to take over for Taylor as the strongside linebacker. Here's how the new linebacker depth chart is arranged:
· WLB: Lavonte David, Cameron Lynch
· MLB: Adarius Taylor
· SLB: Devante Bond, Riley Bullough
David is the team's leading tackler with 47 stops, and he also has seven tackles for loss (tied with Jason Pierre-Paul for the team high), two quarterback hits, one pass defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. Since he entered the NFL as a second-round draft pick in 2012, David has recorded 100 tackles for loss, second among all NFL players to Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt. David's 18 forced fumbles in that same span is tied for sixth among all players.
Taylor's playing time will increase considerably as he slides over from the strong side (SAM) to the middle (MIKE). Since the SAM linebacker generally comes off the field in nickel packages, which are particularly prevalent in today's NFL, Taylor only played 39% of the team's defensive snaps through the first six games. Assuming that he also now joins David as one of the two linebackers in the nickel package, Taylor will begin playing virtually every defensive snap. Alternately, the Buccaneers could employ a variety of sub packages to involve Bond, Bullough or Lynch.
Taylor has recorded 12 tackles so far this season, including one tackle for a loss, one sack, one quarterback hit and one pass defensed. The Bucs have always valued his versatility; once Taylor plays his first game at MIKE he will have started at all three linebacker positions for the team, having opened three games at SAM and one at WILL in 2017.
Bond also started two games at WILL last year while Alexander and David were sidelined with injuries at the same time. Heading into the 2017 season, the former sixth-round pick out of Oklahoma was considered a candidate to start at strongside linebacker, though that spot eventually went to Kendell Beckwith. Beckwith is currently on the team's reserve/non-football-injury list, though he is eligible to begin practicing this week or next week if he has recovered from his April ankle injury sufficiently.
Bond was the team's leading tackler on special teams last season, with 10, and he also made four stops and had one quarterback hit on defense. Some of that came late in the season when the Bucs were using Bond and Beckwith as stand-up edge rushers to help a defensive end group thinned by injuries.
Lynch remains where he was before the shakeup, as the backup to David on the weak side. He was with the Buccaneers for 11 games last year but only played one defensive snap while serving as a core member of the special teams unit. He has played four snaps on defense this year. Lynch also played three games with the Los Angeles Rams last year and contributed four tackles.
Bullough spent most of last year, his rookie season, on the Bucs' practice squad before a late promotion to the active roster, after which he appeared in three games and had one tackle. He had 10 tackles in three preseason games this year before sustaining his foot injury. The Buccaneers have him listed as the backup to Bond on the strong side; he could also be an option in the middle if Taylor is unavailable. The Bucs don't have a backup MIKE listed on the depth chart but they obviously have a contingency plan ready there if needed.