The Jameis Winston vs. Marcus Mariota debate is over.
The winner: No one.
That doesn’t mean we’re done second-guessing. That’s always in season and will continue Sunday when the Buccaneers face the Jaguars. A new question hangs over this game, though:
Did Tampa Bay make the right call in drafting linebacker Devin White fifth overall in April and letting edge rusher Josh Allen fall to Jacksonville?
For now, we’ll say that it’s too early to draw conclusions, that each player has his entire career in front of him and blah, blah, blah.
And then we’ll draw conclusions anyway.
That’s what we do when we watch football. We overreact. It’s the law or something. Science, too.
What else are we going to do? Thoughtfully consider new information and then draw a conclusion? That’s funny.
Why would we do that? Forget reason. That takes time and effort. It’s easier to double down on our priors. It feels good, too, which is why confirmation bias is so powerful and prevalent.
So beware of what follows, in the next few paragraphs and in the game. I’ll do my best to answer the White vs. Allen question with a clear-eyed view, but I’m only human, and one who, with all things being equal, tends to value edge rushers over inside linebackers.
The Bucs’ decision to draft White was a controversial one, but it became more palatable as comparisons to Ray Lewis and Patrick Willis proliferated water-cooler chats. White’s talent was and never has been in doubt (he was the recipient of the 2018 Butkus Award, given to the nation’s top linebacker). His position was the issue. An inside linebacker in today’s pass-rush-obsessed NFL? And with a bona fide edge rusher still on the board?
Adding to the emotional charge was the Bucs’ history with edge rushers — in particular, their lack of one. For years, they’ve failed to draft and develop them. Among the busts: Gaines Adams, Da’Quan Bowers. Adrian Clayborn. Noah Spence. Not one became the long-term fixture the Bucs thought they were getting. That led to splurges in free agency on players such as Michael Johnson, Robert Ayers and Vinny Curry. How then could they pass on a player like Allen?
Today, nearly eight months later, the skeptics have more ammunition. Granted, comparing inside linebackers and edge rushers isn’t the cleanest of exercises, but Allen has had the better rookie season. Despite playing less than two-thirds of the Jaguars’ defensive snaps, he leads the team in sacks (eight), tackles for loss (nine) and total pressures (32). For reference, Bucs edge rusher Shaquil Barrett, in his sixth season, has registered four and a half more sacks, three more tackles for loss and 23 more pressures but has played 40 percent more snaps.
You wouldn’t expect White, because of the nature of his position, to pressure quarterbacks in the same way, but he’s progressing, with his two best games in terms of quarterback disruption coming in the past month. He generated five pressures, including a sack, against the Seahawks in Week 9 and two pressures, both of which resulted in sacks, against the Falcons last Sunday.
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White, who missed three games early in the season because of a knee injury, has the most room for improvement in pass defense, where he has struggled in both tackling and coverage. He leads the team in missed tackles of receivers (six) and allowed completion percentage (85.3). That doesn’t mean he and the Bucs are doomed. You’d expect a rookie linebacker to see a lot of passes in his direction and for a quarterback to complete a high percentage of them. After all, shorter passes are easier to complete than long ones.
You would, however, like to see White contest more passes than he has. Against the Saints two weeks ago, he allowed Drew Brees to complete all 11 passes into his coverage, four of which resulted in first downs and one of which resulted in a 41-yard gain by Michael Thomas in the third quarter. Minutes later, he allowed another completion to Thomas, this time a 15-yarder. On the 15-yarder, though, it’s fair to wonder why the Bucs left a rookie linebacker alone in coverage against one of the best receivers in the NFL.
The winner: Why wait until after the game to decide? Chances are we’ve already made up our minds.
NFL draft watch: Tampa Bay edition
If the season ended today, the Bucs would have the 12th overall pick in the 2020 NFL draft. If you’re pulling for them to jump into the top five (again), here are the teams you should root for Sunday (odds of landing a top-five pick are in parentheses and are from Football Outsiders):
• Jets (4-7, 5.2 percent) over Bengals (0-11, a virtual lock to land a top-five pick)
• Giants (2-9, 79.4 percent) over Packers
• Washington (2-9, 89.7 percent) over Panthers
• Dolphins (2-9, 91.0 percent) over Eagles
• Broncos (3-8, 40.5 percent) over Chargers (4-7, 12.8 percent)
• Cardinals (3-7-1, 13.5 percent) over Rams
• Jaguars (4-7, 11.6 percent) over Bucs (4-7, 6.8 percent)