On Tuesday, Kwon Alexander learned that he had been selected as an alternate for the 2017 Pro Bowl, which means there's a decent chance he'll end up playing the league's all-star game at the end of his second season. As Head Coach Dirk Koetter has noted on several occasions this year, that's the product of an extra level of dedication that Alexander has put into his craft this year.
That's not likely to change anytime soon, because the Pro Bowl is just the beginning of where Alexander wants to take his NFL career.
VIEW: THURSDAY'S INJURY REPORT
"I've put in a lot of hard work to get to where I am now," said the 2015 fourth-round pick out of LSU. "When you put in hard work, it pays off. If you want to be the greatest, you've got to do whatever it is to be the greatest. That's what I'm trying to head to."
Alexander may not be the greatest yet, but he's been turning heads all season. His 21-tackle performance in Dallas on Sunday night, the most any player in the NFL has had in a single game this year, actually came too late to impact the Pro Bowl voting but it furthered the notion that he is having a breakout campaign after a promising 2015 rookie season.
"I think you're seeing a player that's really coming into his own," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "You go on a team like the Dallas Cowboys and you're in on  tackles, you're playing some football. He did a nice job, he was all over the field and I think he's really going through a maturation process through the season. I've been very pleased and I think the arrow is definitely going up, he's learning the game."
Alexander grabbed the Bucs' starting middle linebacker job as a rookie, which was something of a surprise given his draft status and the fact that he was originally expected to slot in on the strong side. He had 93 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, nine passes defensed and two forced fumbles in his debut campaign despite missing the last four contests, but there were certainly some growing pains along the way. In 2016, Alexander has discovered the joy of extra film study, and it has transformed him into a more dependable player, and a leader on the field.
"He's had all the talent necessary, that's why he was able to step up and be put into a starting role early," said team captain Gerald McCoy. "Well now he's actually learning about the game and what he needs to be looking at and reading his keys and reacting a lot faster. So, Kwon's only going to get better. [He's] another one of those guys that is going to be good in this league for a long time and he's only going to get better."
Added Smith: "I think you have to have [leaders] in each room. Gerald does a great job. Because [the players] are going to get tired of hearing the same voice, so we've got to have guys that are going to be able to step up and step up at the appropriate time. But Kwon's done a very good job, he's a very emotional player, he plays with a lot of passion and runs extremely well. I think that's probably his best trait, is his ability to run."
Alexander's big night in Dallas also included a forced fumble near midfield that gave the Buccaneers a premium opportunity to come back in the fourth quarter after a 20-17 lead had turned into a 23-20 deficit. His 21 stops moved him into fourth place in the NFL with 25 on the season, and he leads all players with 97 solo stops. Alexander also has three sacks and 11 tackles for loss on the season, making him one of only three players in the NFL with at least 100 tackles, three sacks and 10 tackles for loss (along with Buffalo's Zach Brown and Seattle's K.J. Wright).
Pictures of the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday, December 21st.
Basically, Alexander is making plays all over the field thanks to a better understanding of the game and the Buccaneers' defense.
"I'm just getting…wiser. Can I say wiser? Yeah, wiser," he said. "I know a lot more than I knew [before]. It's really slowing down to me. At the beginning of the season it was moving too fast but now it's slowing down and it's all working out for me."
- The Buccaneers practiced on Tuesday to begin a short week of preparation for Saturday's game but were not required to submit anofficial injury report. The first report came after Wednesday's workout and was made up entirely of linemen.
Three-fourths of Tampa Bay's starting defensive line was on the list, though that's a bit less dramatic than it sounds. Defensive end Will Gholston, who suffered an elbow injury in Sunday's game, has not practiced this week and is a significant question mark for Saturday's game. However, McCoy practiced fully through a foot injury that has had him on the injury report for weeks and defensive end Robert Ayers was only out due to an illness.
If Gholston can't play in New Orleans the Buccaneers will distribute his anticipated snaps throughout the D-Line rotation but it seems likely that rookie end Noah Spence would see an uptick in his participation. Spence's progression this season from situational pass-rusher to more complete end has been one of the more promising stories on the Bucs' defense, and now that's going to be even more important than ever.
"I think he's light years ahead of where he was at the beginning of the season," said Smith. "I think his role is changing, just like some other guys' roles are going to have to change. I don't think you're going to replace Will with one guy, I think we're going to have to do it with multiple guys because we still want to have Noah in our sub package and be fresh and be prepared to rush the passer when the down and distance allows us to get after him.
Pictures of players in the NFL who have accumulated 100 tackles or more so far this season.
"He's come a long way, I think he's got a very good understanding of what we're trying to get done. Again, he's going to have his moments, we all are. But I have complete confidence that if we put him out there in our base package, he's going to be able to hold up."
The rest of the injury report is comprised of starting right tackle Demar Dotson and his replacement the past two weeks, Gosder Cherilus. Dotson has missed those two games due to a concussion but has taken a step towards returning this week by getting back on the practice field. He was limited on Wednesday; Cherilus did not practice due to groin and ankle injuries.
If either or both is unavailable on Saturday, that would mean a bigger role for rookie Leonard Wester, who saw a bit of action at right tackle near the end of Sunday's game. Wester has also been filling the role of the extra lineman in jumbo packages while Dotson has been out, and that introduction to game action will help him if he's called on for a bigger role.
"He's a guy we've – Leonard and Caleb Benenoch, two young offensive linemen – that we've brought along slowly this year," said Koetter. "But we have high hopes for the future and that is a way to get them a few snaps before they have to get to play every snap."
- McCoy and wide receiver Mike Evans were the two Buccaneers named to the Pro Bowl on Tuesday, while Alexander was joined by three teammates as alternates: cornerback Brent Grimes, punter Bryan Anger and linebacker Lavonte David.
As is almost certainly the case in every locker room in the NFL, there is a belief at One Buc Place that the team had several more Pro Bowl-worthy players. The Bucs' 8-6 record surely helped the six players who were either selected or named alternates, but it wasn't quite enough for two more teammates McCoy would like to see join him in the all-star game.
"Yeah, I think [we're] starting to get a little notice, but I think there's a person missing on that list – a couple people missing," said the five-time Pro Bowler. "I think [guard] Ali [Marpet] could've been on the list. I think [tight end] Cam [Brate] is leading the league in touchdowns for tight ends, that should be something, right? I can name a couple more, but those two should've [been selected]."
As McCoy noted on Tuesday evening, Evans made his Pro Bowl breakthrough in his third year, just like McCoy. Evans had consecutive 1,000-yard campaigns to open his career but needed a third to get the nod, as he has 84 grabs for 1,159 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2016. Brate is the Bucs' second leading receiver, with 56 catches for 648 yards, and he's tied for the NFL lead among tight ends with seven touchdowns. Brate was a 2014 undrafted free agent who saw just a bit of action as a rookie but is essentially in his second full season. Marpet was a second-round draft pick in 2015.
Chances are, Brate and Marpet have drawn the attention of their NFL peers this year, which could lead to all-star recognition down the road.
"People usually say it's the year after that you make it," said McCoy. "So Cam is well on his way. I think Ali is well on his way. I said in training camp that I thought Ali could have a Pro Bowl year; I think he actually has. Those guys are going to keep working, but if you talk to both of those guys or any of the alternates or any of the people who made it, our focus is on New Orleans and playoffs. So, this is great, you never want to overlook it or take it for granted, but onto New Orleans."
"Usually at this point, this is the most exciting thing we've got going. For the past so many years, seeing who makes the Pro Bowl is the most exciting thing the Bucs [have] going at this point, but we have a real opportunity here and we need to take advantage of it."