Begin the speculation: How good can Lavonte David be?
The question is enticing because David’s potential is so large. Consider last season a breakout fall for the second-year Nebraska product. With 145 tackles and five interceptions, he was Tampa Bay’s most-dynamic player on defense, and expect the same in years to come.
Beyond David, Mason Foster and Dekoda Watson showed ability at various points. Foster had a skill for finding the ball, collecting a career-high three interceptions and seven passes defensed. He also scored two touchdowns, including an athletic 85-yard interception return in a loss to the New Orleans Saints in Week 2. Jonathan Casillas, a four-year veteran, also provided sound depth in 12 games.
How will the Bucs build around David? Linebackers coach Hardy Nickerson, who played the position for Tampa Bay from 1993 to 1999, sees a strong foundation already in place.
”I think we have some pieces in place to be good, so it’s just a matter of getting the puzzle put together and everybody doing their part and working hard to make it happen,” he said.
”You’d loved to get all the Derrick Brookses and get a ton of those, and we’d be in great shape. We’re looking for Derrick Brookses.”
Here’s a closer look at the Bucs’ linebacker situation …
Lavonte David, OLB — The first-team All-Pro was deserving of a Pro Bowl bid, even if he never received it. He led Tampa Bay with 145 tackles and five interceptions. He also had a career-high six sacks. There were times when he appeared to be everywhere on the field, which was a testament to his versatility and athleticism. The whispers have begun: Perhaps David, only 24 years old, can become as dynamic as Hall of Fame linebacker Derrick Brooks one day. He has a ways to go to reach that mark, but why not try for that goal?
Dekoda Watson, OLB — He played in 15 games and had a career-high 42 tackles with one forced fumble and one interception. His two sacks also were a career-high. At 25 years old, the Florida State product is young enough where he’ll continue to grow. Next season could be another step forward for him.
Mason Foster, MLB — He started 13 of the 15 games he played during his third season with the Bucs. He had 92 tackles, a slight decrease from his career-high 105 in 2012. His two sacks matched a career-high, and he also produced a career-high three interceptions with two touchdowns. If he stays healthy, he has the potential to be a factor for years. At age 24, he still has much to show.
Jonathan Casillas, OLB — He had 35 tackles and one forced fumble in his first season with the Bucs, after spending the first four years of his career with the Saints. He had two passes defensed, which matched a career-high total set in 2011. He was placed on injured reserve with a knee injury in December, but before then, he played in 12 games (started four).
Adam Hayward, MLB — The seven-year player was asked to provide a veteran voice during the height of the Josh Freeman and MRSA controversies. He played in all 16 games for the fourth consecutive season, starting in two, and he had 25 tackles with one pass defensed.
The Bucs have some decisions to make here. Casillas, Hayward and Watson could all be free agents, and it might be wise to keep at least two. Watson was the most productive of the group, but Casillas and Hayward have made cases that they bring value to the roster as well. David will continue to be the staple of this group, but if Tampa Bay chooses to look into free agency for possible depth, perhaps names like Blake Costanzo and Jason Worilds could be worth glances.
BEST DRAFT OPTIONS
The Bucs have greater needs elsewhere, so like with free agency, it’s hard to see them investing too much in an early round selection at this position. Still, names like Jordan Zumwalt, Adrian Hubbard and Christian Kirksey could be worth watching at outside linebacker in the middle rounds. At inside linebacker, Chris Borland, Christian Jones and Lamin Barrow also could go in the middle rounds.
David is stellar, and he’ll continue to anchor the Bucs’ linebacker corps for the foreseeable future. Building around No. 54 becomes the biggest issue, though. With more pressing needs elsewhere, the Bucs might be wise to keep many of the key components of last season’s group in place. Casillas and Watson, in particular, are young and could offer plenty in the coming years.