There wasn't much question that the middle of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense was its strength in 2017. While the front line failed to create consistent pressure on the quarterback and the secondary had an injury-plagued up-and-down campaign, the linebacking corps sent one player to the Pro Bowl and probably should have sent two.
As such, as a unit, the Buccaneers linebackers are about the most certain thing going on the team's depth chart heading into 2018. The three starters seem fairly easy to predict and there are no pending unrestricted free agents in the group. After re-signing Jeff Knox earlier this month, the Buccaneers already have eight linebackers under contract for 2018; they took 10 to training camp last summer, so they don't even need too many additions in the months ahead.
Still, as we noted on Monday while launching our "Burning Questions" series with a look at the Bucs' defensive backs, nothing ever stays exactly the same from season to season, for a team or its individual players. There will always be questions in need of answers. Lavonte David will almost certainly be one of Tampa Bay's best players again in 2018, but will he make an impact in the same way he did in 2017? Riley Bullough was a nice story last August; can he be a good story in September this year?
Every Buccaneer has questions to answer in 2018. In the weeks ahead, we're going to pinpoint one of those burning questions for each player on the roster, going position by position. After running down the secondary on Monday, we now turn to the linebackers, where we find that one Pro Bowler (Kwon Alexander) and that one who should have been there (David), as well as eight other mostly young players.
As will be the case at every position, we are only including players who are currently under contract for 2018, or will likely have tender offers as restricted and exclusive rights free agents. For the pending unrestricted free agents, obviously, the burning question that must be answered first is, 'Will they be back?'
One Burning Question for Each Buccaneer: Linebackers
(Potential unrestricted free agents: None. The Buccaneers do have a ninth linebacker on the roster in Eric Nzeocha, who spent the 2017 season on the team's practice squad as part of the International Player Pathway program. He is returning in 2018 in the same capacity.)
Kwon Alexander: Will he make it two Pro Bowl trips in a row?
Alexander has proven adept at being noticed rather quickly. It started locally, in Tampa after the Buccaneers drafted him out of LSU in the fourth round. Originally thought to be a competitor for the strongside linebacker spot as a rookie, he looked so good on the practice field playing middle linebacker that he quickly took that job away from free agent acquisition Bruce Carter.
Alexander's penchant for splash plays and his emotional style of play got him noticed by Buccaneer fans and media, too, as he rapidly became viewed as one of the team's best young players. And, just three seasons into his NFL career, he found himself in his first Pro Bowl this past year, despite missing about a third of the season due to a hamstring injury.
So, now that Alexander has cleared that hurdle and gained all-star recognition from his peers and his fans, can he make that postseason trip to Orlando (or wherever the Pro Bowl ends up in the future) on multiple occasions? The Buccaneers have one player, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who is on a six-year run of Pro Bowl selections, but otherwise their invitees in recent years have (so far) been one-offs. Mike Evans in 2016. Jameis Winston and Lavonte David in 2015. Vincent Jackson, Donald Penn, Clifton Smith, etc.
Now, some of those players were probably worthy of more Pro Bowl invitations, and the likes of David, Evans and Winston could easily go back in the years to come. But at the moment it's Alexander who has the chance to make it a multi-year streak. To do so, he will probably need to follow up his 2017 campaign with something even better. Obviously, playing 16 games would help, but Alexander's path back to Orlando probably involves a rash of sacks and/or turnovers. The Buccaneers certainly intend to field a better defense overall in 2018, and if that happens Alexander will likely be in position to make more big plays.
Kendell Beckwith: Will he get to focus on one specific position in 2018?
It's not as if the Buccaneers' coaching staff planned to move Beckwith from one job to another during his rookie season? Heck, the Bucs weren't even sure the former LSU star was going to be ready to play at all at the start of the year thanks to the knee injury he suffered late in 2016 with the Tigers. But the linebacking corps sprung some leaks early due to injuries and the same thing happened later to the defensive line, and Beckwith was frequently used to plug them.
Beckwith surprised many by opening training camp without limitations and soon won the starting strongside linebacker job next to Alexander and David. That didn't even last one full regular-season game, however, as Alexander was hurt in the opener and Beckwith slid into the middle. When David followed Alexander to the sideline in Game Three, Beckwith took over as the play-caller and the de facto leader of the linebackers. The return of his two veteran teammates put Beckwith back into the SAM slot later in the campaign, but he spent a good portion of the last third of the season going after the quarterback as a stand-up edge rusher in nickel packages.
Assuming better injury fortune for Alexander and David, Beckwith should get to focus on his strongside job. And if the team manages to load up at defensive end a bit, he may be needed as a pass-rusher less often. Beckwith's versatility is a fabulous asset, but he might really thrive if he stays in one role the entire season.
Devante Bond: After emerging as a strong special-teamer in 2017, will he carve out a niche on defense?
Bond was a sixth-round draft pick in 2016 but he lost his whole rookie campaign to a preseason injury. Heading into 2017, he was considered a potential candidate, along with Beckwith, for the strongside job vacated by Daryl Smith. As it turned out, Beckwith's surprisingly good health coupled with another injury that forced Bond to miss most of the preseason kept that competition from really materializing.
Bond was close enough to being healthy when the regular-season arrived that he was kept on the 53-man roster. He missed just one game and actually started two in the season's first month when David was injured. After David returned, Bond didn't see much action on defense other than a few games at the end of the year, but he proved to have value on special teams. He led the team with 10 kick-coverage tackles, in fact. When Bond did get some time on defense in December it was as an occasional pass-rusher, and that has been considered one of his possible ways to contribute since he arrived two years ago. Bond is a good bet to make the roster again based solely on special teams, but he could find some work on defense, too, even if the team's three presumptive starters are all healthy at the same time.
Riley Bullough: Can he break with the 53-man roster in his second time around?
The Hard Knocks cameras helped make Bullough a household name in Tampa just a week into training camp, thanks to clips of him drawing praise from Head Coach Dirk Koetter. And, indeed, the Buccaneers saw promise in Bullough, keeping him on the practice squad for almost the entire season. The only part of the campaign he did not spend with that crew was the last three games, after his promotion to the active roster.
Bullough helped out on special teams in those games but played a total of seven snaps on defense, mostly when the team was hit by a rash of in-game injuries. That obviously was not enough evidence to determine Bullough's future as a defender in Tampa and, as noted above, the team's three starters seem pretty easy to predict. Still, with a full offseason to develop his game, Bullough could battle with the likes of Bond, Adarius Glanton, Nigel Harris and Jeff Knox for the two or three reserve spots. Perhaps in his second year he'll get his spot on the 53-man roster early in the season instead of late.
Lavonte David: Which statistical category will he dominate in 2018?
In just six NFL seasons, David has somewhat quietly put up ridiculous numbers. He already has a seven-sack season, a five-interception season, a 140-tackle season, a campaign with five forced fumbles, one with five fumble recoveries and another with 13 passes defensed. Do you know how many other players in the entire NFL have done all of those things at least once in a single season in that span? None.
David got his seven sacks in 2013 (and had another five in 2016), his five picks that same year (and another three in 2015) and his 13 passes defensed in 2015. He topped 140 tackles in 2013, 2014 and 2015 (and had another 139 in 2014). His five forced fumbles and five fumble recoveries – an incredible combination in one season, came last year but he also had four forced fumbles in both 2014 and 2016.
Some way or another, David finds a way to dominate at least one and usually several statistical categories every year. Sometimes the combination of his achievements earn him first-team All-Pro honors, as in 2013, and sometimes they send him to the Pro Bowl, as in 2015. They always make him one of the most impactful linebackers in the NFL.
So which stat line will David fill up in 2018? That will likely be determined by how the coaching staff chooses to utilize him. He likely will always be making tackles and breaking up passes, but if he is sent more frequently into the backfield on blitzes he may see his sack and forced fumble numbers rise. One way or another, it will be fun to watch.
Adarius Glanton (potential restricted free agent): Will he be the first choice when and if the Buccaneers have to go to the "next man up?"
Beckwith was the Bucs' linebacker Band-Aid in 2017, as noted above, but Glanton was next up and he played a lot in the first month, then again in December before his own trip to injured reserve. Grabbed off Carolina's practice squad late in 2015, Glanton has proved to be a worthwhile addition, playing in 35 games and contributing on special teams while also being ready to step in on defense.
Again, if we assume that Beckwith joins Alexander and David in the starting lineup, that would seem to make Glanton the first reserve off the bench, at least early in 2018. There are some other young linebackers on the roster, however, such as Bond, so there will likely be plenty of competition for that role. Glanton, who is a pending restricted free agent likely to receive a qualifying offer, will be fighting to maintain his spot.
Nigel Harris: Can he continue his hometown run?
Harris played his prep football at Hillsborough High School, less than three miles from Buccaneers headquarters. He then graduated to the University of South Florida, the Tampa school that plays its home games at Raymond James Stadium, the Bucs' home. His Bay area run was interrupted, however, when he went undrafted last spring and chose to sign with the Los Angeles Chargers.
It didn't take long for Harris to find his way back to his hometown, however. He actually made the active roster for the Chargers, and later ended up with the New York Giants, playing in a total of seven regular-season games for those two teams. After the Giants let Harris go in December, the Buccaneers lured him back home with a practice-squad contract, which eventually led to a promotion to the active roster for the final game of the season. Harris played in that game on special teams.
Assuming he's still on the roster in July, Harris will get a chance to go to camp with his hometown team this time. Can he continue his all-Tampa upward trajectory and make the regular-season roster again?
Jeff Knox: Can he take another step forward in the "Shelton Quarles Path?"
After Knox went undrafted in 2015, he chose to head to Canada and ended up racking up big numbers for the Saskatchewan Roughriders. When he got a chance to head to the NFL last January, he had tryouts with three teams and ended up signing with the Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers have had success in the past finding a linebacker standout in the Canadian ranks. Shelton Quarles, a Pro Bowl middle linebacker in Tampa Bay's 2002 Super Bowl season, played in the CFL in 1995 and 1996 after initially failing to make the Miami Dolphins roster as an undrafted free agent in 1994. The Bucs gave him another shot at the NFL in 1997 and he instantly emerged as the team's best special teams player. A few years later he was starting on the strongside, and the 2002 switch to the middle really launched his career to a new level.
It's not necessarily fair to expect Knox's career path to reach those same heights, but he could still take the first step as Quarles by proving to be an impact player on special teams. Knox never made it back to the Bucs' roster or practice squad last season after being cut at the end preseason, but he did re-sign with the team two weeks ago, so he's going to get another shot to be the next Shelton Quarles…at the least the 1997 version.