The Tampa Bay Buccaneers used much of last offseason to address the front and back ends of their defense. They focused on the defensive line in free agency (plus one very big trade) and then three draft picks to restock the secondary. Meanwhile, the team mostly stood pat in the middle.
That made sense at the time, as the Buccaneers were returning a trio of proven and/or promising starters at linebacker. Kwon Alexander was coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, Lavonte David was well established as one of the best 4-3 outside linebackers in the league and Kendell Beckwith had done enough in his rookie season to look like a third-round steal. There was even quality returning depth in Adarius Taylor and Devante Bond.
The Buccaneers didn't have the luxury of holding steady at linebacker this year. Though he missed two-thirds of last season with a torn ACL, Alexander had no trouble finding a deep-pocketed suitor in free agency, signing a big deal with the San Francisco 49ers. Beckwith didn't play at all last year after sustaining an ankle injury in a car accident last spring, and he's now on the reserve/non-football-injury for all of 2019 as well. Even Taylor, who played a lot last fall thanks to the Beckwith and Alexander injuries, used free agency to jump to Cleveland.
On top of that player movement, there is also the matter of a new coaching staff and it's new defensive scheme, which lines up in a 3-4 front in its base package. All of the returning players referred to as linebackers on last year's team are now grouped as "inside linebackers," with "outside linebacker" referring to the stand-up edge-rushers, many of whom were previously called defensive ends. As such, there are only two spots in the starting 11 for inside linebackers, though NFL teams are generally in sub packages about two-thirds of the time now, and that generally includes two off-ball linebackers. Still, there are sure to be some new responsibilities and demands for Buccaneer linebackers in the new defense.
So the Bucs did a little bit of restocking, using a first-round pick on a linebacker for the first time in nearly a quarter-century and bringing in an experienced hand in the Todd Bowles defense from Arizona. The moves weren't plentiful, but they were significant, and the team appears to be set at the position in advance of training camp. Let's see where they stand now. As we've done with all the positions, we'll provide an overview of the assets at the position, discuss what some of the numbers from last season indicate about its strengths and weaknesses and then finish with one burning question for 2019.
We started this series on the offensive side of the ball and examined, in order, quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, offensive tackles and interior linemen. Last week we started in on the front seven of the defense, hitting the defensive linemen and the outside linebackers. Now we begin moving back through the defense, first with the important men in the middle: Inside Linebackers.
Addition(s): Deone Bucannon (unrestricted free agent), Corey Nelson (free agent), Devin White (first-round draft pick)
Subtraction(s): Kwon Alexander* (unrestricted free agent, signed with San Francisco), Riley Bullough (waived), Cameron Lynch (unrestricted free agent, remains unsigned), Adarius Taylor (unrestricted free agent, signed with Cleveland)
Returning Players: Devante Bond, Jack Cichy, Lavonte David, Kevin Minter, Emmanuel Smith
(* Alexander, Cichy and Minter were on injured reserve and Smith was on the practice squad at the end of the 2018 season.)
That list of subtractions does not include Beckwith because he technically remains under contract with the team after being moved to the NFI list though, again, he won't play this season. Since he didn't take the field last year, the effect really isn't one of subtraction in 2019 anyway.
The list of additions also has one tricky entry in Deone Bucannon, who is the one player on the Buccaneers' defensive roster who is listed at two positions. His designation is "LB/S," and since the linebacker part comes first, we're going to include him here. He and Kevin Minter are the likely second-string duo at inside linebacker behind Lavonte David and Devin White, and it's a fair bet that Bucannon will get on the field a good amount this fall.
"To me, he's a linebacker," said Inside Linebackers Coach Mike Caldwell. "He played safety in college but he's moved up, he's a linebacker. He's a linebacker that can take on linemen, take on fullbacks, cover tight ends, cover running backs. You don't want just a … first and second-down linebacker anymore. You want a guy that can play all downs, and he's one of those guys."
But, yes, this crew starts with the duo of David and White, the veteran and the rookie who will hopefully form one of the better playmaking duos in the NFL. Those two will also likely be leaders for the new defense, David because of his well-earned standing on the team and White simply because of his charisma and enthusiasm, which have already been apparent on the practice field.
"You really want a quarterback on every level of the defense," said Bowles. "Up front, in the middle and in the back, and having one in the middle – not that Lavonte [David] wasn’t, because he is and he’s a heck of a player. So, we have two in the middle right now and that makes me comfortable."
David is a known commodity, though he has always been referred to as an "outside linebacker" during his first seven seasons in the league. In the new 3-4, he's designated as an inside linebacker, but his range, sure tackling and turnover production (more on that below) will play just as well in Bowles' scheme.
"The type of player he is, he's proven that he can make plays," said Caldwell. "In our scheme, we want guys that can get on the field and are able to make plays, and he's done that in a variety of ways – in the box, at the end of the line, in coverage. He can do it in multiple ways, so we're just going to have to see how he fits with us, how the other guys fit in, and we'll put a defense out there."
The Bucs were thrilled to get White with the fifth overall pick in the draft, passing up some potential edge-rushing help to get a player they believe can make plays all over the field, help out immensely in coverage and even give the pass rush a boost.
"He's a guy that's a leader, a guy that's a proven playmaker, and we're just looking forward to him coming in here and continuing to do what he's been doing all his life," said Caldwell of White. "He has speed, he has knowledge. He's able to cover guys. He'll just get in there and we'll let him do what he can do."
Like Bucannon, Minter has played in the Bowles scheme and under Head Coach Bruce Arians before. Arians' Cardinals drafted Minter in the second in 2013 and he started 37 games under Arians in four seasons. Minter actually joined the Buccaneers' partway through last season when injuries depleted the linebacker position and was making a good first impression before a calf injury landed him on injured reserve.
Jack Cichy, a sixth-round draft pick a year ago, also landed on IR, suffering an ACL injury in the same game that Alexander met a similar fate. Cichy has had a tough run of injuries dating back to his last two seasons at Wisconsin, so there's still some mystery around what he has to offer. Before his misfortune began, he was looking like a playmaker with pass-rushing skills for the Badgers. The rest of the Buccaneers' inside linebacker depth is relatively unproven. Devante Bond has been in Tampa for three-plus years but has started just six games. Emmanuel Smith hasn't played in a regular-season game yet. Corey Nelson is actually in his sixth NFL season, already an accomplishment for a seventh-round draft pick, but has logged just six starts in 54 games.
Still, a position that looked like it might be shallow a couple months ago appears to have enough depth now to be a real strength for the Buccaneers.
"You see talent," said Caldwell. "We're not lacking in talent. There are guys out there that have played and made plays. We just have to put them in the best position. To go back through Todd's history, that's what he's hung his hat on, being able to get guys in position to make plays."
Notable 2018 Numbers: Tampa Bay's rush defense wasn't particularly effective in 2018, ranking 24th in the NFL at 123.9 yards allowed per game and 20th at 4.65 yards per carry allowed. The 2018 Buccaneers had a number of games in which they quickly fell into lopsided deficits, and that would lead one to believe that some of the team's run-defense troubles were situational. The numbers don't necessarily bear that out, however.
For instance, the Buccaneers gave up 1,030 rushing yards prior to halftime in their 16 games, which ranked 26th among the league's 32 teams. After the intermission, they gave up a total of 953 rushing yards, which ranked 19th. Opponents ran the ball on 42.7% of their snaps against the Bucs' defense, which wasabove average, but not by much. Twelve other defenses were run on more often.
Instead, the numbers suggest that the Bucs' run defense was very hit-and-miss, which was likely the result, at least in part, of breakdowns in gap responsibilities. That in turn was probably influenced by the injuries that caused the Bucs to go deep into their linebacker depth as the season wore on. For instance, the Buccaneers gave up 71 runs of 10 or more yards on the season, which was more than all but two other teams. However, they also stopped 11.9% of opponents' rushing attempts for negative yards, which was the fifth best in the NFL.
Tampa Bay's defense also put itself in a tough situation quite frequently by having trouble on first down. On all first-down plays, not just runs, the Bucs gave up four or more yards 53.9% of the time, which was second-worst on the NFL. That opened up opposing playbooks on second down, and when foes did run the ball on that down they did very well, averaging 5.2 yards per carry. That was also second-worst in the league.
Tampa Bay's linebackers in 2018 – the position that equates to inside linebacker in the new defense – combined for 25 tackles for loss, 6.5 sacks, 12 quarterback hits, 10 passes defensed, four forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries. David accounted for much of that, particularly with Kwon Alexander losing 10 games to injury. David had 13 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks, seven quarterback hits, two passes defensed, one forced fumble and two fumble recoveries.
David has been at least that productive, if not more, in all of his seven NFL seasons. In 105 career games he not only has 884 tackles but also 21.5 sacks, 10 interceptions, 38 passes defensed, 18 forced fumbles and 13 fumble recoveries. He is the only NFL player in that span (2012-18) to even have 500 tackles, 20 sacks and 10 interceptions.
Key Question: Will the Bucs' inside linebackers, especially David and White, be used extensively in the pass rush?
As noted above, the Buccaneers' decision to take White with the fifth overall pick was a prioritization of his overall playmaking skills over a designated pass-rusher. What the team noted after the draft is that they got a bit of both, as White can make an impact on the pass rush from his spot in the middle of the field, or perhaps occasionally off the end of the line. White had 8.5 sacks over three seasons at LSU.
David is no stranger to the offensive backfield, either. He hasn't always been asked to be a major part of the pass-rush, but he's shown quite capable when used in that capacity. He has a seven-sack and a five-sack season on his resume and last year he contributed 3.5.
"Right now we're just trying to formulate our overall scheme, trying to put guys in the best position to make their plays," said Caldwell. "We might ask guys to cover, we might ask guys to rush. We're going to allow them to do what they're good at. So if you're good at rushing the quarterback, you're going to see them coming more. If you're good at covering, you're going to see them covering. So we're going to put them in their best position to make plays for us."
Here's a clue that the Bucs are at least preparing for the idea of using David and White as pass-rushers: The coaches are already trying to get them in the right frame of mindfor that responsibility.
"You can scheme it up – and in this league it's very rare that you have a free runner – but you can scheme it up and try to get them," said Caldwell. But really it comes down to teaching them that you've got guys in coverage that are depending on you to get to the quarterback. How badly do you want to get to the quarterback and not let your guys hang out to dry? We try to teach that and teach drills as far as understanding pass rush, where to go from it, how to attack the running back you're going against or the lineman you're going against. And it normally works out pretty well for us."
The Buccaneers have some questions to answer regarding their pass rush, particularly if 2018 sack leader Jason Pierre-Paul misses a significant amount of time due to his neck injury. Though there are many edge-rushing possibilities on the roster, including former second-round pick Noah Spence and this year's fourth-rounder Anthony Nelson, there is little proven yet. If the Bucs have to bring extra rushers to get to the quarterback, they will, and that task could fall in a large way on David and White.