The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost a rangy, playmaking inside linebacker from LSU in free agency and added a rangy, playmaking inside linebacker from LSU in the draft.
That's a coincidence; the departed Kwon Alexander and the arriving Devin White are not the same player, though both are expected to make a huge impact on their new teams in 2019. But the Buccaneers also have a constant among their inside linebacking corps, and that's Lavonte David.
New Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles was given a new weapon in the draft when the Buccaneers took White with the fifth overall pick, but months before that he inherited a defense that, despite its struggles in recent years, has a star player and a leader right at its heart. That combination of David and White looks awfully good to Bowles now.
"You really want a quarterback on every level of the defense – up front, in the middle and in the back, and to have one in the middle [in White]…not that Lavonte wasn't one, because he is," said Bowles. "He's a heck of a player. We've got two in the middle right now and that makes me comfortable."
David's resume includes a first-team Associated Press All-Pro award and a Pro Bowl berth, and he would probably have several more of the latter if the outside linebacker position didn't lump pass-rushers and off-ball players in together. Since arriving in Tampa as a second-round draft pick in 2012, David has racked up more tackles than everyone in the NFL except Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner, and those three are comfortably ahead of the rest. David also has more tackles for loss than everyone except J.J. Watt and Von Miller and the most forced fumbles of any off-ball linebacker in that span.
If you made a list of all the players in the NFL who have accumulated, since 2012, at least 500 tackles, at least 50 tackles for loss, at least 20 sacks, at least 10 interceptions and at least 10 forced fumbles, you would start with Lavonte David and then…your day would be done. That may be an arbitrary grouping of statistics but David is well beyond several of those criteria, and in any case they paint a picture of a player who can affect the game in many ways.
And Bowles and the rest of the Bucs' new coaching staff expect David to continue to thrive in their new defense, even if he happens to be called an "inside linebacker" now instead of a "WILL."
"The type of player he is, he has proven that he can make plays," said Mike Caldwell, who's in charge of the inside linebackers. "In our scheme, we want guys that are able to get on the field and able to make plays. He's done that a variety of ways – in the box, on the end of the line, in coverage. He can do it in multiple ways, so we're just going to see how fits with us and see how the other guys fit in and then we'll put a defense out there."
Caldwell is right to emphasize David's versatility and scheme-transcending skills. David has two seasons in which he's had double-digit passes defensed and two in which he's had five or more sacks. Once he did it both, with the practically unheard-of combination of five interceptions and seven sacks in 2013. David's primary job in the new defense may not be that much different than what he did in the old one – chasing down ballcarriers and, not infrequently, causing turnovers. But he might also get more chances to blitz (as will White), and/or he may more often get matched up with pass-catching running backs like Carolina's Christian McCaffrey.
"We might ask guys to cover, we might ask guys to rush," said Caldwell. "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. We're going to put them in their best position to make plays for us."
While the Bucs might expect more consistent pass-rush from 3-4 outside linebackers like Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib, Bowles' schemes are known to be varied and unpredictable. He has sent inside linebackers on the blitz before and he probably will do it again when he sees how good David and White are at that task. David had 3.5 sacks just last year.
Caldwell said that the ability to get to the quarterback from the inside linebacker spot is a combination of scheme and inherent talent.
"It's a little bit of both," he said. "You can scheme it up, and in this league it's very rare that you have a free runner, but we can scheme it up and try to get them. But really it comes down to teaching them that you've got guys in coverage that are dependent on you to get to the quarterback. How bad do you want to get to the quarterback and not hang your guys out there to dry. We try to teach that, and teach drills as far as understanding how to pass rush, where to go from it, how to attack the running back you're going against or the lineman you're going against. It normally works out pretty well for us."
While Caldwell handles the inside linebackers, Larry Foote will be working with the OLBs. However, Foote played 13 years in the NFL and most of that was as an inside 'backer in a 3-4 defense, including one year with Bowles in Arizona. He had three or more sacks in five of those seasons. Foote may not be actively coaching David every day but he's seen enough of the Buccaneer star to know that he will thrive in his new defensive environment.
"I've been watching him for years; he's just a stud," said Foote. "With that type of talent, no matter what system he's in, he's going to dominate."