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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Lavonte David, Tristan Wirfs Kept Bucs from Collapsing in 2023

When a 1-6 slide put the Bucs on the fringes of the playoff race last season, it was the guidance of long-time team captain Lavonte David and emerging leader Tristan Wirfs that kept a young roster from falling apart


On Tuesday at the NFL Scouting Combine, Tampa Bay Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht gave a quick update about how the team's pre-free agency efforts were going. Among the potential free agents with whom the Bucs have opened new-contract talks are quarterback Baker Mayfield, wide receiver Mike Evans, safety Antoine Winfield Jr and linebacker Lavonte David.

That's quite a lineup. Mayfield was in the running for NFL Comeback Player of the Year after throwing for 4,044 yards and 28 touchdown passes while also captivating every heart in the Bucs' locker room. Evans is the greatest offensive player in franchise history and he's coming off his best season in years. Winfield stirred together an intoxicating cocktail of stats and big plays in 2023 on the way to being named first-team Associated Press All-Pro.

And then there's David. Where would he rank among those four players if the Buccaneers brass was making a list of their top priorities? It's a difficult question to answer because David means so much to his team in so many different ways. Yes, he's going into his age 34 season in 2024, but like Evans he just put together a season that defied any notions of decline.

First, David is simply one of the best players in franchise history, full stop. If we use Pro Football Reference's catch-all AV metric, David has amassed more AV as a Buccaneer than every player except Derrick Brooks, Ronde Barber and Warren Sapp, all now Hall of Famers. He also seems to be motivated to join the likes of Brooks and Barber as lifelong Buccaneers.

More than that, however, David has been named a team captain for 10 straight years, and there is not a more respected voice in the Bucs' locker room. If Licht had any doubts about whether he wanted David back in 2024 (which he certainly does not), he would simply have to look at what happened one year ago.

In March of 2023, the 33-year-old David was coming off his 11th NFL season and had just hit the free agency market. He was definitely drawing outside interest. However, about a week into free agency David returned to the Buccaneers on a new one-year deal. The Bucs had also managed to retain standout cornerback Jamel Dean and, critically, had landed Mayfield to compete for their starting job. Otherwise, with a very restrictive cap situation to navigate, the Buccaneers knew they were going to have to rely on a lot of young and green players in 2023 as they moved on from the Tom Brady era.

"You always want good young players for depth, for the future," said Licht on Tuesday, after a team that gave significant roles to about a dozen rookies made it to the Divisional Round of the playoffs. "It's not that easy finding them but it's not that hard to want to add them to the roster. We've got a great blend right now. In just a few years we've changed it from the oldest roster in the league to now a very young roster with some good, very high-end veterans. We want to keep that going."

The Bucs won their third straight division title with a 9-8 record in 2023, then dismantled the Philadelphia Eagles in the opening round of the playoffs for a 10th victory, far exceeding outside expectations for the club. Would that have happened if David hadn't signed a new deal in March?

Perhaps not. After an encouraging 3-1 start to the season the Bucs hit a 1-6 skid that included a number of close and frustrating losses. At 4-7 as the calendar flipped to December, it seemed like the preseason naysayers could be right. A playoff berth seemed a long way off, and the Bucs knew they might have to run the table to get there.

According to Head Coach Todd Bowles, it was David, along with fourth-year tackle Tristan Wirfs, who played the most critical roles in keeping the 2023 Bucs from sliding all the way out of relevancy. Tampa Bay didn't run the table to end the regular season, but they did finish 5-1 and needed every one of those wins to hold off the New Orleans Saints.

"Other than the coaches, Lavonte and Tristan come to mind," said Bowles of the players who stepped up when a guiding hand was needed most. "The fact that we were 4-7 and we were losing games off one or two plays…we lost to Atlanta in the two-minute, we lost to Houston in the two-minute. We were right there, we were winning ballgames. We could have easily had 10 or 11 wins, and we understood that so we didn't try to tear it apart. We knew as a team we had to get ourselves together, and we knew where we were sitting in the division.

"But the leaders were Lavonte, the leaders were Tristan. Baker stood up and led some. Luke Goedeke stood up, Vita stood up, Winfield always stood up, and those came together. They never lost faith and we went on a run."

Wirfs is not a pending free agent this year, but as a former first-round pick going into the option year of his initial contract, he is another priority for the Bucs this offseason. Wirfs was selected as a team captain by his teammates for the first time in 2023 and he took the role seriously. He also knew from experience how mentally daunting the NFL can be for even the best young players as they try to gain their footing. According to Bowles, it was the leadership shown by David and Wirfs, among others, who allowed the team's host of young contributors to adjust to the league's rigors quickly enough to keep the Bucs in contention.

"Once they got better mentally, they got mentally tougher," said the coach. "We had some mistakes in the middle of the season that cost us some ballgames. They came out the other side on that and they started playing consistent football. They started playing technique and fundamentals and they got better and better, and they got better together, so I'm very excited about that."

The 2024 season will surely bring a new set of challenges as the Bucs gun for a fourth straight division crown. If the Buccaneers and David are able to stay together for a 13th season, the team will surely appreciate how their veteran leader helps his teammates pass those tests.

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