The Tampa Bay Buccaneers may soon face a scenario they have not had to face in over a decade: Life without Lavonte David.
The long-time Bucs linebacker is expected to test free agency this offseason, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. While the Bucs would like to have him back, they have more money counting against the cap than any team in the league.
Replacing David would be a tall order. Even at 33, he is still one of the best linebackers in the game. His instincts are as good as any linebacker in the NFL, and he is the rare linebacker with legit coverage skills.
Seeing as David is arguably the best linebacker entering free agency, the Bucs are unlikely to find an upgrade there. The draft at least gives the Bucs to get younger at the position.
Here are five options the Bucs should consider if David leaves in free agency:
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If the Bucs are going to replace David with another veteran, their best bet is Kendricks.
An All-Pro selection in 2019, Kendricks made his bones as a top-flight coverage linebacker, racking up 10 interceptions and 43 pass breakups over his career. He had a down year in 2022, which led to the Vikings cutting him.
At 31 years old, Kendricks is old for a linebacker, but that should also make him relatively inexpensive. The change of scenery might be just what the doctor ordered to get him back to form.
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A younger free agent option is Smith. A former first-round pick, Smith could revive his career in Tampa.
Smith started his career in Dallas and showed a lot of promise in his first two years. After his production dipped in 2020, the Cowboys drafted Micah Parsons and traded Smith to Green Bay just a few weeks into the 2021 season.
Smith has his moments in pass coverage and can occasionally be called upon as a pass rusher. His greatest asset is his tackling. Over his career, he has missed just 7.3% of his tackles per Pro Football Focus, which compares favorably to David’s 9.9 career missed tackle rate.
Last season Smith played on the veteran minimum, counting just $745k against the cap. After a lackluster year in New York, Smith isn’t likely to earn much more, so the Bucs would be making a cheap bet that they can maximize Smith’s output.
(AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
If the Bucs are looking for an old-school linebacker with a modern day skill set, their only real option is Campbell.
At 6’5″ and 246 pounds, Campbell has prototypical inside linebacker size. He also proved at the NFL Combine that he has ideal explosiveness and agility (via Relative Athletic Score):
More so than his testing numbers, Campbell is a natural at the linebacker position. He flows to the ball in run support, gets off blocks like a pro and has high-level football instincts. He is also superb in coverage, recording 2 interceptions and allowing a 70.2 passer rating when targeted in 2022.
Campbell projects to be a long-term starter in the NFL, a distinction David has obviously enjoyed. Adding Campbell would be a key piece of Tampa’s defensive reload this offseason.
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Williams would be a more analogous replacement for David. Undersized but fast and excellent in coverage, Williams could be a value pick on day 2 of the NFL draft.
Williams has the main quality that NFL defenses look for in linebackers: the ability to pass cover. He allowed opposing passers a 67.1 passer rating in 2022 and ranked third among all linebackers in coverage according to Pro Football Focus’s grading (minimum 80% of defensive snaps).
David managed to fall to the Bucs in the second round during the 2012 draft. It is likely that Williams would have the same path.
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Another undersized prospect, Henley is greener than the Bucs’ other options but comes with the most upside. A former wide receiver, Henley has high-end athletic traits and a profile ideal for a modern NFL offense.
Henley transitioned from receiver to linebacker full-time in 2019, so he still has some learning to do. Still, in the short time he played defense, he became a playmaker, forcing 3 fumbles and snagging five interceptions in just the past two years.
While the Bucs would need Henley to get up to speed quickly, he would provide an athletic upgrade in the middle of the defense. All it would cost would be Day 2 pick.
Story originally appeared on Buccaneers Wire