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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

K.J. Britt Looking to Build on 2023 Late-Season Opportunity

Bucs Head Coach Todd Bowles says K.J. Britt has the ability to play on all three downs, and the fourth-year linebacker learned what he can build on and what he wants to improve during a series of starts late last season

For most of his five-season tenure with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 2019 first-round pick Devin White was an every-down linebacker, a fixture in essentially every personnel package Todd Bowles deployed on defense. White's running mate in the middle of the field, Lavonte David, similarly never came off the field when the Buccaneers' defense was in action.

For any other off-ball linebacker on the Bucs' depth chart during those five seasons, that meant playing time was limited to special teams except for those rare weeks when White or David was dealing with injury. For instance, in the Bucs' 2020 Super Bowl-winning defense, David played all but seven of a possible 1,346 snaps, while White was on the field for 100% of the plays except for two games he spent on the COVID list. In 2022, White and David each started every game, playoffs included, and accounted for 96% of the defensive snaps.

A break in that pattern finally came in the latter stages of the 2023 season for K.J. Britt, a former Auburn linebacker drafted by the Bucs in the fifth round in 2021. David missed two games in the second half due to a groin strain and White was knocked out for three contests by a foot ailment. Those two absences even overlapped in one game, against Carolina in Week 13. Unfortunately for Britt, he was himself sidelined by a back injury just seven snaps into that Panthers game, forcing the Bucs to press safety Ryan Neal into service at linebacker.

However, Britt returned the next week to full participation and, in all, started three games while White was inactive. White returned to the active list and initially an every-down role in Week 16 against Jacksonville, but down the stretch the Buccaneers began splitting time between those two, with White primarily on the field in likely passing situations. Britt started both playoff games and logged 92 defensive snaps against the Eagles and Lions, to 40 for White.

As Britt started to finally get some real work on defense in his third NFL season, he prayed each day about the situation and vowed to be receptive to any role he was given from week to week. And when he did get a chance to play, he just let his years of football experience take over.

"I just went out there and played ball," said Britt. "I didn't let the game be too big. It's big to everybody else, but when you're lined up, you just play the game. I was prepping all week, moving like I need to move, so when I got out there it was kind of like a byproduct, just kind of flying around.

"I had games where I played, and I had games I didn't play – I was cool with whatever. However the team needs me, that's what I'm going to step up as. I'm not going to try to get too big and do whatever – however the team needs me, that's what I'm going to do."

Now White has moved on Philadelphia as a free agent and Britt is first in line to grab the main role in the middle of the defense next to David. Which means it's now his chance to show he can be an every-down back like his past and current teammates. Can he be just as effective in clear passing downs as when he gets to run downhill and be a thumper in the box? Head Coach Todd Bowles says Britt has the tools to do it all, if that's what the team needs from him in the end.

View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers taking part in the first week of 2024 offseason OTAs.

"It was never his coverage skills, really," said Bowles. "It was always his eyes. He's gotten a lot calmer, he's settled down, he knows what's going on and he understands where he needs to be on the field. I think he's doing a lot better at that."

The Bucs have other off-ball linebacker options on the depth chart, including 2023 fifth-round pick SirVocea Dennis, former undrafted rookie J.J. Russell and 2024 college free agent Kalen DeLoach. Both Dennis and Russell got some useful exposure on defense last year, and the Bucs drafted Dennis with the idea that his coverage and blitzing skills could come in happy in certain packages. In fact, Bowles anticipates the Bucs having quite a few different ways of arranging their linebackers and could at any given time have one, two or even three of them on the field at once. Still, they are comfortable with Britt in any situation.

"Obviously, he can play all three downs but we have so many packages and guys to move around," said Bowles. "It's a little early to determine who will be on what [package]. In one week he could be, in one week he may not be. It depends on who we're playing and what we have available. But he's ready to play all three downs. I love the maturity. He's grasping the mental part of the game and becoming a leader of that defense along with Lavonte and [Antoine Winfield Jr.] and Vita [Vea]. We're kind of happy where he's progressing right now."

Britt said his increased playing time late last season helped him identify good things in his game he can build on and other areas where he would like to improve. As the Bucs start putting their defensive plans together for 2024, Britt is eager to put in the work in both areas.

"It's fun, just diving into the playbook," he said. "Wanting to learn – that's the main thing. I wanted to learn, I wanted to get better. I'm letting the byproduct of what I do out here spill over into what happens on Sundays."

Of course, it helps that, while White has moved on, David is back for his 13th season in Tampa, as he adds to his legacy as one of the best players in franchise history. Britt says David "sets the standard" for the rest of the team and gives him plenty to learn from on his game tape. But Britt doesn't just study David's tape; he has looked for inspiration from linebacker greats all the way back into the 1960s. That includes Willie Lanier, Harry Carson, Mike Singletary, Sam Mills, Rickey Jackson, Ray Lewis, Takeo Spikes and Fred Warner.

"Like Mike Singletary said, 'Every play, somebody's telling you something, you've just got to see it.' You can just watch as you go back – it's still the same game. It's a team game. It ain't golf, it's a team game."

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