On Monday, Staff Writer/Reporter Brianna Dix invited me into a little point-counterpoint debate (is there any other kind?) about who the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' most valuable offensive player was. I clearly made the right choice there with Chris Godwin, but I also got to go first. So let's reverse the process here and look at the other side of the ball. Brianna, today you and I are going to debate who was the most valuable defensive player for the Buccaneers in 2022.
Tampa Bay's defense tied for ninth in the NFL's main defensive rankings, which are based on yards allowed (324.3 per game for the Bucs). It was also ninth in passing yards allowed, fifth in first downs allowed, sixth in third-down percentage allowed, 12th in sack percentage and 15th in rushing yards allowed. Overall, it was a pretty respectable showing and it helped the Buccaneers secure their second straight NFC South title.
Individually, there were quite a few impressive performances but nothing overwhelming, at least statistically speaking. Vita Vea led the Bucs' defense with 6.5 sacks, nobody had more than two interceptions, Devin White had the most QB hits with 16 and Lavonte David had the most tackles for loss with 10. Carlton Davis led the way with 12 passes defensed and Anthony Nelson had a team-high three forced fumbles. This was not a group driven by one or two big stars, like San Francisco's Nick Bosa and Fred Warner or the Cowboys' Micah Parsons and Trevon Diggs.
That makes picking an MVP from that group a little more difficult than usual. When Shaq Barrett led the NFL and shattered the franchise record with 19.5 sacks in 2019, it was a pretty easy pick. The next year, White racked up nine sacks and 16 QB hits and also ran away with the team tackle lead so, yeah. In 2021, Vea, Barrett and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. all made the Pro Bowl, so there were some pretty clear top candidates. This one looks like a toss-up to me. What say you, Brianna, as you make the point to which I will have to counterpoint?
Brianna Dix: ILB Lavonte David
Several defenders certainly vied for contention, but I have to go with Bucs' inside linebacker Lavonte David on this one. He was a disruptive force for the Buccaneers throughout the 2022-23 season and finished as Tampa Bay's leading tackler in the Wild Card round, logging 14 tackles and one quarterback hit. David's 14 tackles marked the most of any playoff game in his career. Throughout his 11-year career in Tampa Bay, David has achieved both consistency and longevity in the NFL – a rare combination. He sets the tone in the middle of the Bucs' defense and elevates the play of those around him. In 17 game starts in 2022, David amassed 124 combined tackles, 10 tackles for loss, three quarterback hits and five passes defensed.
Although the outcome of the 2022 slate was not the desired goal for the franchise, David regularly generated splash plays. The tackling machine showcased his instincts, speed as a blitzer and coverage ability versus tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. David has the ability to read offensive linemen to get to the place he needs to be and possesses an understanding of angles and leverage to shed blocks. His pursuit to the flat, paired with exceptional read-and-react skills, allows him to meet players where they ultimately will be on screens, dump-offs, outside zone runs or jet sweeps.
"One thing I can speak for myself as a player, when you start getting towards the end, that kind of motivates you a little bit," Pass Game Coordinator/Inside Linebackers Coach Larry Foote described on David's maturation. "It rejuvenates you because you know that the end is near. Lavonte, he's a pro. He still looks good. I really judge how he looks on the practice field and he's still breaking, getting out of his cuts. I call him the screen-sniffer because every time they run a screen, he finds a way to make the play, but he's playing at a high level. Those type of guys, when you're playing that well in your thirties, God has truly blessed you."
David, who has been a team captain in Tampa Bay for nine consecutive seasons and is the longest-tenured player on the Bucs' roster, is a centerpiece of the team' defense. He is one of only two players in NFL history to have 1,000-plus tackles, 20.0 sacks and 10 interceptions through his first eight seasons, joining Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. In 2022, David continued his perpetual cycle of dominance from the middle of Tampa Bay's defense. No. 54 does not always receive the recognition he deserves, but he has warranted an honorary "Defensive MVP" accolade for his contributions this year. Scott, who do you select?
Scott Smith: DL Vita Vea
I applaud you on your game play, Brianna. Choosing Lavonte David is like choosing Tom Hanks for a career achievement award on Oscars night. Who doesn't love Tom Hanks? Nobody. Everybody loves Tom Hanks.
Everybody loves Lavonte David, too, and for good reason. He has been spectacularly underrated throughout his career, which will undoubtedly end with his name on the Raymond James Stadium façade as a Ring of Honor member. And yes! He did have a great 11th season in the NFL, one that makes me hopeful he and the team will figure out a way to keep him around for at least number 12. Good pick.
However, the most dominant player on the field for the Bucs' defense in 2022 was mountainous nose tackle Vita Vea. As I noted above, Vea led the team with a career-high 6.5 sacks, which is kind of secondary to his main job, which is to collapse pockets, occupy multiple blockers and make it impossible for teams to run the ball up the middle.
Here's a little nugget from NFL Next Gen Stats: Since 2020, opposing ballcarriers have averaged 0.7 yards before first contact against the Buccaneers' defensive front when Vea is on the field. When he is not on the field, that average goes up to 1.5 yards per carry. That's a massive difference. I know that's a stat not confined specifically to this past season, but I think it's fair to say the Bucs are a lot harder to crack up front when Vea is on the field.
Vea also had the only sack for the Bucs in their lone postseason game. I guess that doesn't really matter a ton in the grand scheme of things, but it's a nice cherry on top. And you mentioned David's 14 tackles in that game, so it's only fair for me to counter.
So, basically, here it is: Vita Vea led the defense in sacks and may have been their most important defender against the run. Top that.