All-22 All-Stars: Lavonte David, the Next Great Linebacker
The All-22 All-Star Team is an attempt to provide some insight on the NFL’s 22 most underappreciated players. Some will be All-Pros who haven’t fully gotten their due; some will be names few casual fans have ever heard. All will, for one reason or another, have been overlooked.
With 34 seconds left in Week 1, the Jets’ offense walked back onto the field trailing 17-15. By that time, every other game from the 1 p.m. slot had already ended. Any idle TV in any sports bar around the country likely featured Geno Smith, in his first start, looking to begin his career with something memorable.
Most of those casually watching the final minute of Jets-Buccaneers probably hadn’t heard of Lavonte David before that Sunday. A second-round pick out of Nebraska in 2012, David had started every game for Tampa Bay in his first year, but even finishing eighth in the league in tackles isn’t enough to earn attention for a rookie on a 7-9 team featured in just one prime-time game. For many, their first exposure to David came on the second-to-last play of that Week 1 game, when the linebacker hit Geno Smith just as the quarterback stepped out of bounds on a scramble. Out of field goal range and without any timeouts before the play, the Jets were gifted life with the personal foul, and those 15 yards were just enough for Nick Folk, who drilled a 48-yard field goal to win the game.
Considering how well he played as a rookie, it would be a shame if that were the first time some football fans heard Lavonte David’s name. But it wouldn’t even compare to the shame of not hearing it since.
The first half of this season was an awful stretch for Tampa Bay. The Bucs started 0-8 and were out of the playoff race by October. But the past five weeks have seen the start of a turnaround — with the Bucs winning four of their last five, including a road win at playoff-bound Detroit — and David is one of the reasons for it. It’s not just that David wasn’t playing great early on; it’s that in recent weeks, he’s somehow played even better. In only his second season, David’s had more than a Pro Bowl season. He’s had a historic one.
With his fifth interception of the year against Buffalo on Sunday, David became just the seventh player to ever record five picks and five sacks in a season. Through 13 games, David has 81 tackles. If he can manage 19 more in his final three games (just about his per-game average), he’d become only the third player in NFL history to record 100 tackles, five sacks, and five interceptions in a year. Wilber Marshall — considered by some to be the most fearsome player on the greatest defense of all time — did it twice, and Rodney Harrison managed it in 2000. It would be a feat that says everything about the strides David has made from his first season to his second — turning from tackling machine into one of the game’s most complete linebackers.
When David was finished with his slow walk back to the locker room at MetLife Stadium in September, Buccaneers pass-rush coach and former NFL linebacker Bryan Cox pulled him aside. “He came up to me and said, ‘Hey, man, don’t worry about that. We need you on this team,’” David says. They do, and if David keeps playing like he has, they’ll need him for a very long time.
In the mid-2000s, Miami Northwestern High School boasted what may have been the best high school football team in the country. The Bulls went 15-0 and won the 6A state championship in Florida in 2006, and in 2007 they again went undefeated, including a 29-21, nationally televised game against Southlake Carroll (Texas) designed to unofficially crown the best high school team in America.
Like most great high school teams, Northwestern had its share of high-profile recruits. Quarterback Jacory Harris, linebacker Sean Spence, defensive tackle Marcus Forston, and wide receiver Tommy Streeter were all either four- or five-star talents according to Rivals, and each chose to play at the University of Miami. Further down the recruiting rankings was a 6-foot-2, 190-pound two-star safety/linebacker recruit named Lavonte David.
David had a handful of offers coming out of high school, but academic issues sent him on the junior college route. In his second year at Fort Scott Community College, David helped the Greyhounds to the JUCO national championship, where they were set to face off with Blinn Junior College, a Texas school led by a young quarterback named Cam Newton. Blinn walked away with the win, but David and Newton were named the game’s defensive and offensive MVPs, respectively.
His time at Fort Scott turned David into one of the more highly sought JUCO players in the country, and by the end he had offers waiting from half the schools in the Big 12. He landed in Nebraska, and all David did during his first season in Lincoln was break the school’s single-season record for tackles. In two seasons, David put up two of the top five tackle totals in Nebraska’s history, and was first-team all-conference in both. Still, when the draft came, he was considered a second- to third-round pick.
The concern about David, despite his undeniable productivity, was the same one he’d faced his entire football career. He’s too small. David weighed in at just 233 pounds at the 2012 combine, and the worry was that although his speed and instincts were enough to overcome his stature at the college level, the size disadvantage might be too much when he reached the NFL. “I feel like being little doesn’t mean anything,” David says. “I’ve been underestimated my whole life and been labeled a small linebacker, and I’ve been proving it ever since. I’ve done it on every level.”
His chance to prove it on the highest level came early. The 58th overall pick, David saw his opportunities with the first-team defense grow throughout training camp, and by the preseason he was a starter at outside linebacker.
Almost every facet of the Bucs’ defense improved in their first season under Greg Schiano, but the run defense was a different story. Tampa Bay went from having the 30th-ranked run defense DVOA in football in 2011 to no. 3 in 2012. A front four featuring Gerald McCoy and Michael Bennett was part of that success, but as a rookie David proved to be one of the most prolific tacklers in the league. Tampa Bay’s aggressive, attacking brand of defense was perfect for a player whose career had been predicated on tracking down ball carriers. Whether it was moving downhill, scraping over the top, or running sideline to sideline, David was often everywhere.
This is a play from this season, but it’s the exact sort of play David made so often as a rookie. Moving over the right guard as a wide receiver motions to the offense’s left, David never fully sets his feet as he begins to shuffle. He creeps both to his right and forward, and at the snap, he’s already attacking the play-side A gap. It’s likely this is a product of David reading the play pre-snap, but still, it’s the sort of play few linebackers in the league could make. David is past the helpless center before the offensive lineman has even taken a second step, and the result is Jacquizz Rodgers going down four yards in the backfield.
Speed will always be the trademark of David’s game, but it has more to do with how quickly he closes than how fast he’s ultimately moving. David ran just a 4.65 at the combine, but in a helmet and shoulder pads he covers 10 yards faster than any other linebacker in football. There are moments when that speed is enough to turn David into a pass-rushing factor, like on the play above from Tampa’s loss to the Eagles earlier this season.
But where David’s game has improved the most from last year to this one is in understanding the nuances of how to get after the passer from the linebacker position. David had one sack last season. He has six this year, and there are still three games to go. David worked on improving as a pass-rusher during the offseason. “It was just understanding where I was supposed to be, and where guys were supposed to be on certain blitzes,” David says. “You’re studying offensive linemen, learning where they’re going to stop other guys on our defense in order for me to come free.” While David’s speed might be his greatest asset, occasionally a pass-rushing linebacker’s best trick is how slowly he can make his move while still getting to the quarterback. On this play from the first quarter against the Bills on Sunday, David waits just a second from the time the ball is snapped to when he makes a break for EJ Manuel, and it makes all the difference. The offensive line has already committed, and thanks to that closing speed David is still able to get to Manuel before the ball is gone.
David’s pass coverage has also greatly improved, even though his interception total isn’t the best proof of how far he’s come in that area — several of those interceptions are from tipped passes or batted balls. The stat may not be an indicator of how David has performed in pass coverage, but it is a product of what stands out most about his game. Watch any Bucs game and it’s clear from the first play how David always manages to end up around the ball. Part of that is speed, but part of it is also an inherent quality that no one can really pinpoint or explain.
He’s able to find the ball even in traffic, and when he does, he stands out in one of the most underrated areas in all of football — David is a great tackler. This is a play from Tampa’s win over the Lions. Detroit is driving, and on this second-down run near the goal line, it runs a zone play to the left for Reggie Bush. Again, David’s ability to take whatever turf opens up is evident from the snap. The backside guard, moving off a combo block, is responsible for David, but by his second step David is already in the backfield. Once there, he goes after Bush in a very controlled way. David closes down the hole, and it’s clear that as he approaches the ball carrier he slows down — a way to both respect the cutback and also to break down to make the tackle. At contact he wraps up Bush’s legs, and it’s all over.
The Bucs’ run defense isn’t what it was a year ago. They’re seventh in DVOA this season. But combined with a massive jump in their pass defense, Tampa Bay is sixth in overall defensive DVOA, compared to just 20th a year ago. Whether Schiano returns next season or not, this is a defense with enough talent for anyone to be excited about. Gerald McCoy is having an All-Pro season, and Darrelle Revis is still one of the best cornerbacks in football. After this year, David’s name belongs right alongside those two. There’s plenty of reason for hope in Tampa Bay, and it actually might start with the undersized linebacker who’s proving it all over again.