TAMPA — Devin White will convince you. The linebacker out of LSU pours passion out of every cell. He tells you he will be the quarterback of your defense. At 21, he can lead grown men with kids and mortgages. He can tackle like Patrick Willis, diagnose plays like Luke Kuechly and inspire like Ray Lewis.
“My personality being a (middle) linebacker fits pretty well,” White said. “You can’t be a guy that shies away from leadership. You can’t be a guy that doesn’t study and knows what he is doing on the field. You’re the quarterback of that defense. You got to get everybody lined up, and you have to know what you’re doing. You got to play fast, calm, collected. And you have to be a playmaker and an absolute stud. Me, I am not shy.
“I just turned 21 (in February). I got to be able to go into the league and win those guys over and show them, ‘Hey, I got the same passion as y’all. My love of football is the same as y’all, and I want to win.’ And I’ve got to start leading those guys after I get that part of the phase done.’’
Ah, but conventional wisdom in the NFL about inside linebackers is that their value is rarely worth spending a top-10 draft pick on. Well, maybe they should hold a new convention.
This year’s draft, which begins today in Nashville and goes through Saturday, is stacked with game-wrecking defensive linemen. Players who are closer to the ball have the best chance to affect the quarterback. That’s why in the defensive huddle, they make the most money.
But White may be one of those outliers, a linebacker so valuable that he is worthy of not just a top-10 pick, but a top-five pick.
“What I love about him is you’re bringing in a leader,” said ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay. “You’re bringing in a guy who loves the game. You spend some time with this guy and you realize why he’s so special. … I think he’s one of the most impressive young men in this draft. And at five? Listen, I get the pass rushers and the quarterbacks. This guy, if you take those type of players out of it, I think he’s the best positional player outside of rusher and quarterback in this draft.’’
The Bucs were fond of calling Kwon Alexander the heart and soul of their defense before he signed a four-year, $54 million free-agent contract with the 49ers this offseason. And Alexander attracted that offer despite recovering from a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee.
New Bucs defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is installing a 3-4 defense, and the defense’s only Pro Bowl talent outside of Jason Pierre-Paul is Lavonte David.
White’s production leaps off the stat sheet. In the past two seasons, the Butkus Award winner as the nation’s best college linebacker has recorded 256 tackles, 261/2 for loss, with seven sacks, three forced fumbles and an interception.
LSU coach Ed Orgeron was on the coaching staff at Miami with Lewis and at Ole Miss with Willis.
“I’ve been a part of Ray Lewis,” Orgeron said before the Fiesta Bowl last January. “I’ve been a part of Patrick Willis, and (White is) right there. He’s one of the best I’ve ever been a part of as far as middle linebackers go. He’s very talented, and I think he’s still getting better.”
So if the top defensive linemen are gone and the Bucs get an offer they can’t refuse to trade down from No. 5, what then?
Well, the Bucs could try to target another inside linebacker who is better than everyone at his position except maybe White: Devin Bush from Michigan.
ESPN analyst Louis Riddick, who played with Devin Bush Sr. with the Atlanta Falcons, says Bush is the best overall player in this year’s draft.
White and Bush mirrored each other in testing at the combine. At 6 feet and 238 pounds, White is an inch taller. In his last two seasons with the Wolverines, Bush recorded 161 tackles, 10 sacks and one interception.
The problem for the Bucs is if they roll the dice and move down, Bush may not last long. After that, there is a huge dropoff in talent at inside linebacker.
“After Devin White and Devin Bush, there’s probably not an off-ball linebacker you’d want to pick until the mid-fourth round,” McShay said.
Replacing Alexander won’t be easy for the Bucs. Somebody may pick up his tackles, but what they will miss is his energy. But is linebacker a bigger need than defensive tackle, with the Bucs expected to move on from Gerald McCoy?
Or if Alabama’s Quinnen Williams and Houston’s Ed Oliver are gone, would the Bucs place more value on an edge rusher such as Kentucky’s Josh Allen than they would on White?
“You can’t draft for need,” new coach Bruce Arians said. “If you draft for need, you get fired. You take the best player. If you got two players, now you’ve got three of them. Just take the best player available. Now if you’ve got four players right there together and one of them is a need? That’s a home run.’’
That could happen tonight, and if White if the best player remaining, the Bucs would be thrilled.
Since 2010, fewer than a handful of inside linebackers have been taken in the top 10: Rolando McClain (2010), Kuechly (2012), Anthony Barr (2014) and Roquan Smith (2018).
It would be no surprise if White, or Bush, is added to the list.
“It’s very important for me to be the top inside linebacker in this draft,” White said. “I feel like I put the work in, I showed it throughout my career, I progressed every year, I did everything right on and off the field as far as being a great guy, having that attitude, going to work every day and leading my team. That was the biggest thing.’’
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected]. Follow @NFLSTROUD.
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected]. Follow @NFLStroud.