TAMPA ― Long after the pursuit should have ended, Devin White was still hunting down the quarterback.
His locker sits directly across from Tom Brady’s in the Bucs’ training facility and, on most days, the gravitational pull is too great for the inside linebacker to resist the blitz of questions that begin long after practice is over.
“He’ll be over there looking at his playbook or looking at his phone and I just go over there and have a conversation with him,” White said of the six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
Having the greatest passer in NFL history to dissect your game is a real advantage, as White is learning. But if you’re looking to debate the best reason to believe the Bucs will reach the postseason and go deep in the playoffs, you might want to start with White, the quarterback of the defense.
White, 22, said he got to work immediately after his uneven 2019 rookie season ended with an overtime loss to the Falcons.
The 6-foot, 237-pounder piloted a defense that was among the best in the NFL the final six games last season, when the unit scored four touchdowns. After a brutal start to his career that included a bout with tonsillitis and a knee sprain that forced him to miss three games, White was the NFC’s defensive rookie of the month for November and December.
If you think he plans to leave the balance of a game or the season in Brady’s hands, think again.
“At the end of the day, we’ve got great guys on our side of the ball, too,” White said. “You know, if I had to put the game on the line, I’d rather my defense be out there than him and the offense, so that just lets you know.”
He’s not alone. It seems everybody is expecting bigger things from White, the team’s fifth overall pick from LSU a year ago.
“There are not many guys at 240 pounds that run a 4.4. There’s about five in the world,” NFL Network analyst Brian Baldinger said. “That final six weeks of the season, that front — and they’re all back — made as many plays as any group in football. They had four touchdowns in the last six weeks, knocking the ball out, intercepting it. (Inside linebacker) Lavonte (David) knocks the ball out against Houston and Devin picks it up, and really (Texans quarterback) Deshaun Watson saves him from scoring a touchdown on that play. They made a lot of plays, and that’s what it’s all about.”
David was ranked No. 100 in the NFL’s top 100 players of 2020 as voted by his peers. Outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who led the league with 19½ sacks last season, came in at No. 32.
White was nowhere to be found. But after watching him produce 91 tackles and score two touchdowns in 13 games, Good Morning Football co-host Peter Schrager predicted the linebacker would vault into the top 10 on the 2021 list.
“Why would I say top 10? I think the Buccaneers are going to be on TV a lot this season,” Schrager said. “They’re going to be on five prime time games. Don’t get it twisted. Fox will put them in that A group every Sunday if they can. ... You’re going to see a lot of Devin White. And when it comes to top 100, there is a momentum, there is a visibility. There is a prime time factor to it. I think Devin White is going to have an outstanding season, and the Buccaneers defense is going to be really good. I’m putting him as a top 10 player next year. Luke Kuechly-like season for Devin White.”
On a team that has Barrett, David, linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul, defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea, and smothering cornerbacks, White might be the scariest player on the defense.
For defensive coordinator Todd Bowles, White is the best of weapons. He’s someone who can fill a hole and stop the run, and he’s the rare inside linebacker who is just as effective away from the line of scrimmage, able to run step for step with tight ends or running backs in pass coverage.
White said his rookie year was not representative of his ability. In addition to the knee injury, he was forced to return to the field for several games wearing a knee brace that “made me feel like as robot.”
“I think it just made me more patient,” he said. “That was my first time I ever missed a game. I don’t even miss practice and I’ve been playing since I was 5 years old. At the end of the day, it boosted my confidence. I was so ready to get back. I had so much time just to study, and it made me a better player.”
Bowles’ defense, with its multiple looks and personnel groupings, can be hard to organize on the field. White had that responsibility on his broad shoulders.
So in the offseason, he dug deeper into his playbook. Forget the 4.5 speed. The only way for him to play faster was to know what he and everyone else on the defense was doing.
“I’m so (much) faster because when he called a play last year, it was telling yourself, ‘Oh you have to do this,'" White said. “You’re a rookie, so you don’t want to make the mistakes. Now he calls the play (and) I already know what I have. I’m trying to see what formation they’re in so I can see how they’re going to attack us (and) so I can call out the play. Everything is easier. I know where my help is at on the field.”
Bowles said White’s knowledge of the defense will enable him to put the linebacker in roles on the field. White has said his goal is to finish with at least five sacks and five interceptions in 2020, which would almost certainly land him in the Pro Bowl if not a defensive player of the year candidate.
“I think he’s a natural leader," Bowles said, "guys gravitate to him.”
That kind of magnetism belongs to Brady on offense, and White has it on defense in only his second season.
When he was drafted, White was compared to players such as Hall of Famer Ray Lewis and former 49ers great Patrick Willis. Now White has the kind of players around him that can make the Bucs defense dominant.
Brady has elevated the Bucs' standard, but White wants to steal of it for his own.
“You want to set a standard, and you want to hold yourself accountable because you know he’s going to come in every morning and he’s going to do the same thing,” White said of Brady. "He’s going to be just as great as he has been in New England. He’s going to do the same thing here.
“I can say it hasn’t been easy for Tom Brady and his crew on that side of the ball going against me and my crew. I can say we got better as a defense, and they got better as an offense. Overall, we’re going to be on the same team when Sunday comes. ... That’s the beauty of it — we make each other better and then we’re going to dominate against other people.”