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2020 Buccaneers Position Preview: Linebackers

The 2020 Position Preview series rolls on today with a look at Tampa Bay’s talented group of linebackers.

With the expected start of training camp approaching, we’re going to dive into the 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers position by position. Today, we continue with the linebackers.

The Buccaneers haven’t been strangers to solid linebacker play throughout their history, regardless of how things have gone for them in terms of wins and losses over the years. Even lately, in the current playoff drought that dates back to 2007, Tampa Bay has fielded some strong linebacker groups. A lot of that has had to do with the presence of the perennially underrated Lavonte David, of course. Having one of the best linebackers in the game be a consistent force over the last eight seasons, even on some bad defenses, has never been lost on Buccaneer fans.

But of course, one man can’t be responsible for the production Tampa Bay gets out of the linebacker position. Luckily for the Bucs, David is surrounded by an exceptionally talented group of guys. And with the switch to a 3-4 base defense under new coordinator Todd Bowles in 2019, we saw just how talented the unit was, both off the edge and on the inside. Things are looking good for this linebacking corps once again heading into 2020, but before we preview what they’ll look like in the new season, let’s take a glance back at what they were able to do last year.

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Rewind

Tampa Bay’s defense as a whole ended 2019 on a very strong note. In fact, the unit was one of the league’s best throughout the second half of the season. Some of that can be attributed to improvement in the secondary, but it was the play of the front seven that was much more consistent throughout the year. Even when things weren’t going so well in the back half of the defense, there was a lot to love about what the front seven—especially the linebackers—brought to the table.

The big story of 2019 for the linebackers was newcomer Shaquil Barrett. Signed to a one-year deal in the offseason after being stuck in a reserve role with the Broncos, the former undrafted free agent had a breakout year—and that’s putting it lightly. Playing outside linebacker in Tampa Bay’s new-look 3-4 defense under Bowles, Barrett led the NFL in sacks with 19.5, setting a new single-season franchise mark in the process. He was an absolute force off the edge for the Bucs, and he was only further helped by Jason Pierre-Paul’s return in Week 8. After spending the first part of the season on the shelf due to a neck fracture, Pierre-Paul came back strong, totaling 8.5 sacks in 10 games.

Barrett and Pierre-Paul held things down in terms of sack production for the Tampa Bay defense in 2019, with Carl Nassib adding six to finish third on the team. After moving to inside linebacker in the 3-4 scheme, Lavonte David was his normal productive self, totaling a team-high 123 tackles (82 solo), three forced fumbles, a fumble recovery, an interception, a sack and seven passes defended.

Joining David on the inside after Kwon Alexander left in free agency was No. 5 overall pick Devin White. White missed time early in the season due to sickness and then an injury, but he went on a tear to end the season. After he came back at full health, White was making plays all over the field. The former LSU standout finished his rookie campaign with 91 tackles (58 solo), 2.5 sacks, three forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries, an interception and two defensive touchdowns. He was the NFC’s Defensive Rookie of the Month in both November and December, putting an exclamation point on what was a pretty strong debut season.

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Meet The Group

The Bucs enter 2020 with a linebacking corps that looks pretty similar to the way it did in 2019. The big loss was Nassib, who signed with the Raiders in free agency. Making up his production won’t be easy for Tampa Bay, but there are some guys who have the potential to do so (more on that in a bit).

As for the starting roles, things look the same. Barrett is back, playing under the franchise tag. Pierre-Paul signed a new deal back in March, so he is back to man the other outside linebacker spot. And the middle, of course, will continue to be occupied by David and White, who make up one of the league’s best linebacker duos.

Behind the starting four, the Bucs have a number of guys looking to secure depth roles. On the outside, 2019 fourth-round pick Anthony Nelson should have a bigger role, and on the inside, veteran Kevin Minter should continue to be a reliable backup. The rest of the group is more unknown, with Quinton Bell, Jack Cichy, Kahzin Daniels, Noah Dawkins, Michael Divinity, Cam Gill, Nasir Player and Chapelle Russell all vying for roster spots.

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Who’s New?

With little turnover in terms of high-impact players at the linebacker position, the only newcomers to the group in 2020 are rookies. The Bucs spent one of their seventh-round selections on Temple’s Chapelle Russell and later signed Michael Divinity (LSU), Cam Gill (Wagner) and Nasir Player (East Tennessee State) as undrafted free agents. All are listed on the team’s roster as outside linebackers, giving them a decent shot to secure a depth role, as Bell and Daniels are the only two returners looking to earn a spot behind Barrett, Pierre-Paul and Nelson.

Given the lack of rookie mini camp or OTAs this offseason, plus the fact that the NFL has agreed to do away with preseason games this year, training camp will be the lone chance for any of these rookies to prove they deserve to start the 2020 season on the Bucs’ roster. They would presumably be at a disadvantage in comparison to returners like Bell and Daniels, but they’ll surely be looking to impress the coaching staff as much as possible once the team gets together.

Of particular interest may be Divinity, who was teammates with Devin White at LSU. He had a strong junior season and could’ve entered the 2019 draft, but chose to stay with the Tigers instead. While he did end up being a part of the national championship team at LSU last year, he missed nine games due to suspensions (one three-game suspension and a six-gamer). He has the talent to play at the next level, but his stock fell in 2019 and now he’s left having to play catch-up. Nonetheless, he could be an interesting name to keep in mind over the next month and a half or so.

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Biggest Question: Is There Enough Depth?

Ah, depth. It’s always important, but it’s going to be more important than ever in 2020. Given the lack of offseason programs, injuries could be more prevalent early in the season as teams start to get back to live football. Not to mention, COVID-19 is still a significant concern, so much so that no one really knows whether or not the NFL will actually be able to pull off a season. But if they do, of course health will be a frequent topic of conversation throughout the year.

So, when you look across the Buccaneers’ roster, it’s important to question depth. And when you do so with the linebacker position, you may start to feel a little concerned, no? There’s no doubt that Tampa Bay’s starting group is formidable. Barrett, Pierre-Paul, David and White stack up pretty well when compared with any unit in the league. But behind them, there’s plenty of question marks.

Nelson is presumably the man to replace Nassib, who was productive both as a starter and a reserve for the Bucs over the 2018 and 2019 seasons. A fourth-round selection in 2019, Nelson showed little flashes of potential in limited action before going down with an injury. He will have to take a significant step forward in 2020, especially considering the rest of the unknowns that Tampa Bay may have to use on the outside. Daniels, Bell, or any one of those rookies could be the Bucs’ No. 4 outside linebacker, so Nelson needs to be solid in that No. 3 role. Plus, as much as everyone is hoping to see a full season of Barrett and Pierre-Paul playing together, health is never a guarantee.

As far as depth on the inside goes, Minter is definitely a good No. 3 to have. He knows the defense well and contributes when called upon. But behind him, there are more questions. Cichy has been around the team for a couple of years now, but he has unfortunately proven to be injury-prone. Dawkins is another guy who was around last year, but didn’t see much playing time as a reserve. And again, the Bucs surely hope they don’t have to rely too much on reserves in 2020, but given the state of everything right now, they may have to dip into their depth at one point or another. So, is there enough?

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