When Lavonte David reported for his first training camp with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, in late July of 2012, he was considered a candidate to start for the team at weakside linebacker. The starters at middle and strongside linebacker appeared to be set in Mason Foster and Quincy Black, but the starting WILL from the season before, Geno Hayes, had left for Chicago in free agency. The Buccaneers drafted David in the second round (after a trade up) with an idea that he might be able to start right away, but nothing was promised to him. Adam Hayward and Najee Goode were also in the mix, and the team also had the option of moving Foster to an outside spot, where he had seen plenty of action in college.
In hindsight, it probably wasn't much of a battle. David demonstrated rather quickly that he was special, and a decade later he's regarded as one of the best linebackers in franchise history…and the Buccaneers have a rich tradition at that particular position. David started every game in his rookie season and has in fact started all 149 games in which he has played since. He ranks fourth in team annals in games started.
Regardless, David had to go into that first camp with the attitude that he would have to fight to get that starting spot, and there's little doubt he did so. Next week, David will report for his 11th Buccaneers training camp, and like many veterans he'll likely treat this one as if he is once again fighting for a job. Of course, it would be stunning if he was anywhere but smack dab in the middle of the Bucs' defense when the regular season starts in September. Still, every player has individual goals to chase as another training camp kicks into gear.
Those goals, in fact, are what we have been studying in the final two weeks leading up to the start of training camp. We're going down the entire 90-man roster, in chunks of 10 jersey numbers at a time, and guessing at what each players motivations and goals may be as the first practice approaches. Today we're looking at those players in the jerseys from 50 to 59, a group that includes two 2021 Pro Bowlers, a quartet of undrafted rookies and, of course, Lavonte David.
#50 DL Vita Vea: Last season, the Buccaneers' fourth-year nose tackle was on the field for 56% of the defensive snaps in the 16 games that he played, which was actually the lowest percentage of his career. That didn't stop him from making the Pro Bowl or posting career highs in sacks (4.0), QB hits (12) and passes defensed (three). The Buccaneers did not re-sign either Ndamukong Suh or Steve McLendon in the offseason, so there are quite a few additional snaps available on the interior line. The Buccaneers did draft Logan Hall and sign veteran Akiem Hicks, so Vea will have help in the middle, but there still could be an opportunity for him to work towards being more of a three-down player. That could lead to an even greater sack total and a repeat run to the Pro Bowl. Regardless of how the snaps are eventually divvied out, Vea will also be working to build a chemistry with both Hall and Hicks after three years of running with Suh.
#51 ILB J.J. Russell: Russell was very productive at Memphis, leading the ACC in tackles last year, and he has the size typical for a Buccaneers' off-ball pursuit linebacker. However, it was probably a 4.70 40-yard dash time that kept him on the board through the end of the draft, after which he signed with the Bucs as an undrafted free agent. The good news for Russell (and one other player we'll discuss in a moment) is that his particular part of the depth chart isn't particularly crowded. After the dynamic starting duo of David and Devin White, the Buccaneers have a pair of 2021 Day Three draftees and two undrafted rookies. Those four have very little combined NFL experience playing defense but at least two, probably three and potentially even all four will form the depth behind David and White. That could prove critical if either of the starters is forced to miss time during the 2022 season. Like any rookie, Russell will be prioritizing learning his job and trying to make a mark on special teams, but he can set a realistic goal of making the 53-man roster or at least the practice squad to start the season.
#52 ILB K.J. Britt: This is a big training camp for Britt, who got a lot of "first-team" reps during the offseason program with David and White mostly absent, and impressed the coaching staff in the process with the progress he has made since last season. A fifth-round pick out of Auburn, Britt is considered a very strong downhill run defender but will be looking to prove that he can hold up in coverage, as well. With veteran Kevin Minter no longer in the mix, Britt is probably first in line among the young off-ball linebackers to grab the role of primary backup to David and White. Britt's overarching goal for this year's training camp is likely to demonstrate to the coaching staff that he is more than ready for that role, as he works on eventually developing into a starter for the Buccaneers. Actually, Britt will be trying to demonstrate that he is ready for two roles, as he will be trying to learn the different jobs that White and David fulfill in the Bucs' defense.
#53 ILB Olakunle Fatukasi: The former Rutgers team captain is the other undrafted inside linebacker the Buccaneers recruited to Tampa, and like Russell he was a very productive college player who lacks ideal speed. He's a bit bigger than Russell and was also a good run defender but likewise will need to demonstrate he can hold up on passing downs. Otherwise just cut-and-paste here what we noted about Russell's goals and roster potential: With relatively few competitors for a two to three reserve spots and no veteran to come in as a near-lock to earn one of them, Russell can come into camp and with a reasonable goal of sticking around past August, even if that ends up being on the practice squad at first.
#54 ILB Lavonte David: David is already the Buccaneers' unquestioned leader on defense, having been chosen as a team captain in each of the past eight seasons. So when David sets a goal for training camp, he is likely setting it not just for himself but for the whole group. And earlier this spring, while explaining that the last-minute playoff loss to the Rams in January was a huge motivating factor for him and his teammates, he said that the defense is "definitely going to have to take another huge leap this year." That could come through increased production from the likes of Vea, White, Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and a handful of defensive backs, but as a whole it's going to be David who is leading the way.
#56 DL Rakeem Nunez-Roches: In this series we're mainly focusing on individual player development goals, like learning the defense or honing certain aspects of a player's game. Nunez-Roches will surely be working on things in those categories as well, but in his case we're going to focus on a different kind of goal. Namely, Nunez-Roches may be looking to duplicate exactly what he did last summer, when he became one of the most popular figures in camp due to his approach to practice. Not only did "Nacho" bring full effort to every practice, but he also talked a lot. Nunez-Roches' constant chatter – and the way he backed it up with his effort – was a motivating factor for a lot of his teammates during the grueling days of camp. It's not going to be any less hot or humid this summer when camp begins, and the daily grind can affect some players. Nunez-Roches will likely look to be a leader by example once again to help the team get through the hardest days of camp.
#57 OLB Jordan Young: The Buccaneers are always looking for hidden pass-rushing talent to develop, often from players at smaller schools who have shown some usable traits. Think Wagner's Cam Gill, Charleston's Kahzin Daniels or Prairie View A&M's Quinton Bell (Bell was actually a late draft pick by the Raiders). The Bucs plucked Young from Old Dominion, where he had 104 tackles and 4.0 sacks last year but subsequently went undrafted in part due to an unimpressive 40-time. The Buccaneers have a bit more depth at outside linebacker than they do at inside linebacker, but there could still be pretty good competition for the fourth and fifth spots. A good goal for Young would be to try to follow in Gill's footsteps. Gill showed enough promise in camp in 2020 to make the active roster as a rookie, and he's held onto that spot for two years, slowly moving up the pecking order. Gill got a little bit more playing time in 2021 than he did as a rookie and may be in line for even more now that Jason Pierre-Paul has departed. Young's goal could be to get his foot in the door so that he is given time to develop like Gill did.
#58 OLB Shaquil Barrett: We haven't talked much about statistical goals in this series because most players enter camp just wanting to produce the best versions of themselves, with the eventual numbers falling as they may. Barrett may have the same approach, but in this case we'd like to suggest a specific goal, one that if he reaches it the Buccaneers' defense will have a much better chance to dominate. That goal: double-digit sacks. Barrett has reached that goal in two of his three Buccaneers seasons – blew the doors off it with 19.5 sacks in 2019, in fact – and only fell short by two in the other year. His 37.5 sacks in that span overall are more than every other NFL player except recent Defensive Players of the Year T.J. Watt and Aaron Donald and future DPOTY candidate Myles Garrett. With his running mate, Pierre-Paul, no longer around and the Bucs relying on some younger players to provide a complementary pass rush, it is Barrett who is most likely to lead the way in sacks and pressures for the Bucs this year. He may also come into his fourth Buccaneers camp with the idea of becoming even more of a leader in his group with JPP gone.
#59 OLB JoJo Ozougwu: Ozougwu had 7.5 sacks at Arkansas State last year but is a bit undersized (6-2, 236) for an NFL edge rusher. That means the undrafted rookie will be looking to demonstrate that he can hold his ground against such big men on the other side as Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs. Like Young, Ozougwu has a chance to catch on – either on the active roster and the practice squad – given the Bucs' relative youth and lack of experience at the outside linebacker position. One advantage that both Ozougwu and Young will have this summer that Gill did not have when he was trying to make the team as a rookie in 2020 is a preseason slate of three games. Because there is a limit on contact in practice and an obvious ban on hitting the quarterback, it's not always easy to tell how well an edge rusher is faring in training camp. When the action goes live in the preseason games, those players have a much better opportunity to show what they can do.