All-Pro linebacker, Lavonte David, is the featured player for Sunday's season opener vs. the Panthers.
Lavonte David had a marvelous season in 2013, just his second year as a pro, and in many ways was justly recognized for it. After becoming the first NFL linebacker to finish a season with at least six sacks and at least five interceptions, he was named to the Associated Press All-Pro first team, a very exclusive honor. Pro Football Focus identified David as one of the four best defenders at any position in the league and he debuted on the NFL Network's annual Top 100 Players list all the way up at #35 this past offseason.
All of which made the one omission from his postseason accolades all the more curious. How is a player with that resume not selected for the Pro Bowl?
Actually, it's not all that curious; "unfortunate" might be the better word. As was demonstrated again in 2014, the Pro Bowl selection process is simply stacked against David and any players of his particular ilk.
David is a traditional 4-3 outside linebacker, which means that his notable statistic is going to be the unglamorous tackle. Tackles for loss, run stuffs and the like can help his cause, and interceptions are certainly eye-catching, but in most seasons David is not going to put up big numbers in the category voters prefer: sacks. Derrick Brooks is one of the greatest 4-3 outside linebackers the game has ever seen but he finished his 14-year NFL career with just 13.5 sacks. Like Brooks before him, David is not often asked to rush the passer (though he obviously showed in 2013 that he could do so if needed).
"Lavonte's stats aren't exactly what [catches the eye]," said Buccaneers Head Coach Lovie Smith, who was Brooks' position coach from 1996-2000. "If you're going on stats you would say, 'Hmm.' But Lavonte is as good of a cover, all-around outside linebacker as there is. He can do it all. I get a chance to see him up close and personal. I've seen the linebackers that go to the Pro Bowl, I've had a chance to coach them, I know what they look like and that is definitely the case with him. If you just start [David and DT Gerald McCoy], I think it wouldn't be a shock if they're on the All-Pro team."
Brooks never saw his path to Hawaii blocked by his position on the field; he made 11 Pro Bowl teams and is now in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The matter is complicated for David, however, because more teams are running 3-4 base defenses, which take players who might be considered defensive ends and cast them as "linebackers" who rush the passer. These are very valuable players – Baltimore's Elvis Dumervil had 17 sacks this year, for instance, and is certainly deserving of a Pro Bowl nod – but they are not playing the same position as David.
The 3-4 was very common in the 1970s – even the Buccaneers ran it from 1977-90 – but the 4-3 gradually took over as the dominant front. In the last decade or so, however, the 3-4 has risen to prominence again, to the point that 17 of the league's 32 teams used it regularly in 2014. That means there are a lot of pass-rushing linebackers out there.
It seems unlikely that Lavonte David will forever be snubbed by the Pro Bowl voters, but his breakthrough did not come in 2014, even after another universally-acclaimed season. The Buccaneers' 2-14 record was probably a factor, but the poorly-defined positional voting proved to be the bigger hurdle.
The six outside linebackers chosen for the Pro Bowl were Dumervil, Philadelphia's Connor Barwin, Green Bay's Clay Matthews, Denver's Von Miller and the Kansas City duo of Justin Houston and Tamba Hali. The voting cast David as the third alternate, and while the NFL doesn't make a point of releasing the names of alternates, teams are allowed to do so with their own players if they wish. Thus, thanks to reporting on the Packers' and Ravens' web sites, we know that the two alternates ahead of David are Green Bay's Julius Peppers and Baltimore's Terrell Suggs.
All eight of the outside linebackers ahead of David spend a good amount of time rushing the passer, and all eight had at least six sacks this season. Six of the eight hit double digits in that category and they averaged roughly 13 sacks per player. All but Miller played in a 3-4 base defense, and in fact three teams account for six of those eight linebackers. Barwin, Dumervil, Hali, Peppers and Suggs were all considered defensive ends in their pre-draft scouting reports in the years they came into the league, and many of them have at times been referred to as ends by the NFL teams they were on.
And again, all of those players seem like worthy all-stars. The difficulty in casting any particular player as a Pro Bowl "snub" is that to claim he should be on the team you should be able to eliminate one of the players who did make it. It is certainly not the fault of any of those players listed above that they are considered linebackers in Pro Bowl voting.
Instead, perhaps, we can focus on the fact that Lavonte David could still make it to the Pro Bowl this year. The list of alternates takes the guesswork out of what will happen if any of the players currently tabbed to play in the game cannot participate. If three of the eight players ahead of David are unavailable on January 25, he will get the call.
Players sometimes miss the game if they are not fully healthy, but all eight of those linebackers played in Week 17 and hopefully none of them are dealing with significant injuries at the end of the year. The other, more likely thing that could keep some of those players out of the Pro Bowl is advancement in the playoffs.
Philadelphia and Kansas City failed to make the playoffs, so that won't be an issue for Barwin, Hali or Houston. However, Baltimore, Green Bay and Denver are all in the postseason picture, and in fact both the Packers and Broncos are #2 seeds in their respective conferences. A Green Bay-Denver Super Bowl would be no real shock, and that matchup would immediately eliminate three of the eight above David. Green Bay-Baltimore would be a more surprising Super Bowl matchup, but it would take out half of those eight in one fell swoop.
Once an alternate has gotten the call, he is considered every bit a Pro Bowler; there would be no asterisk by that entry in David's resume for the rest of his career. Nor should there be, as he is most definitely a deserving all-star in 2014. While David missed some action for the first time in his career, sitting out two games with a hamstring strain, he still made a huge impact in the Buccaneers' other 14 games. For instance, David…
…finished with 146 tackles, the third-best mark in the league and only seven behind leader Luke Kuechly, who played in all 16 of Carolina's games;
…led the league in tackles per game, at 10.4, ranking as the only player in the NFL to average 10 or more stops per game played;
…finished second in the NFL with 101 solo tackles;
…reached triple digits in solo tackles for the third time in three NFL seasons, making him the only player in the NFL with a current streak of at least three seasons;
…forced a career-high four fumbles, tied for the third-highest total in the NFL;
…led the Buccaneers and finished sixth in the NFL with 17 tackles for loss;
…and, according to Pro Football Focus, had 49 run stops this season, the most by any 4-3 outside linebacker in the NFL.
Lavonte David is simply as good as it gets at his position, and there is little doubt that he will continue racking up honors and postseason awards as his career progresses. How soon he gets that well-deserved first Pro Bowl berth could depend on how the upcoming playoffs unfold.