TAMPA — There was business, like the process of being patient his first time as a free agent during his soon-to-be 12-year NFL career.
But it was unfinished business that drew Lavonte David back to the Bucs after an 8-9 season that ended with a wild-card loss to the Cowboys.
“I will say the whole season, not just the end of the season, everything was so up and down,” David said Thursday. “It wasn’t consistent. And we’re a better football team than what we displayed. That playoff loss at home in a wild-card game. ... We probably played our worst game of the season.
“... When you’re a competitor and prepare like me, I feel like the best place for me to redeem myself was in Tampa, to stay in Tampa. You know, kind of finish what I started. I’ve been here my whole career, and I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else.”
David, 33, signed a one-year contract worth $7 million to return to the team that drafted him out of Nebraska in 2012.
He said it meant a lot to him to join Ronde Barber, Derrick Brooks, and Paul Gruber as the only players in franchise history to play at least 12 consecutive seasons in Tampa Bay.
“To definitely be mentioned with those means a great deal,” David said. “And for me to be able to, you know, come into my 12th season with one organization is very rare, especially in this day and age with everybody jumping teams. I think once you start somewhere and you want to build a legacy somewhere, you’ve got a lot of good things going for one organization, so why would you want to leave?”
David reportedly received interest from other teams, including the Bills. But having previously signed extensions prior to becoming a free agent at least twice in his career, he had to learn to be patient, especially given the Bucs were at one time more than $57 million over the salary cap.
His $7 million salary is significantly smaller than the $12.5 million he averaged the previous two years. But his production showed no signs of dropping off last year.
After being sidelined by a Lisfranc injury for the final three games of the 2021 season and playing at only “about 60 percent” in the playoffs, David recommitted himself to a plan of body maintenance, a program that included diet and more days off during the week.
“It was just working hand in hand with the training staff, the coaching staff, just managing my practice reps, and then outside of football .. it’s just getting the jump on things, whatever it may be,” he said. “Just doing things here and there. Just get a jump on it before it becomes a big problem. ... That’s something that happened for me this year and kept me fresh and helped me finish out all 17 games.”
The result was David returning to the form that made him a nine-time captain with the Bucs. He finished with 124 tackles, including 10 for loss, three sacks, three quarterback hits, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.
He tied for the team lead in tackles with fellow inside linebacker Devin White, who at 25 is considered one of the best in the league. Keeping the duo together was a focus for the Bucs this offseason.
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“That’s the key,” David said. “I always say, me and Devin, we’re the people who get the team going. I feel like everybody feeds off of us. So me being back and playing alongside him, we can continue doing what we’re doing and improve upon what our performance was last year. It’s definitely a great opportunity to thrive with him and for me watching him continue to grow and become a great football player.”
Still, David insists the defense didn’t play up to its standards last year. A torn Achilles to outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett halfway through the season was a big factor. Barrett is expected to return this year.
David listed two areas where the defense needs to improve: forcing takeaways and on third down. The Bucs ranked among the worst teams in the NFL in takeaways per game, averaging only 1.1. They forced 10 interceptions and recovered 10 fumbles.
“I feel like we’re going to be a confident group,” David said. “We won the division back-to-back years, and now we’re trying to seek it for a third year. I’m sure everybody feels like they can take the division, but I feel like we’ve got the guys in the locker room, with people we added that have that competitive fire to be able to get us to where we need to be.”
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