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If he wants to be an NFL superstar, Devin White is running out of time

John Romano | The Bucs linebacker does not have the kind of numbers you would expect as one of football’s elite players,
 
A near-miss of a sack against Chicago's Justin Fields in Week 2 has been the only quarterback hit Devin White has been credited with in 2023.
A near-miss of a sack against Chicago's Justin Fields in Week 2 has been the only quarterback hit Devin White has been credited with in 2023. [ IVY CEBALLO | Times ]
Published Nov. 3, 2023

TAMPA — He is only 25, and already rich and famous. Though, as circumstances would have it, not nearly as rich or famous as Devin White expected.

By now, he was supposed to be at the very top of his profession. The player everyone mentioned when talk turned to the top inside linebackers in the NFL. And, for a short time, it looked like life was speeding exactly in that direction.

He was the No. 5 pick in the draft at 21, a Super Bowl champion at 22, a Pro Bowl selection at 23. But somewhere along the line, things got out of whack. The numbers began to dip, the splash plays nearly disappeared.

And now, White is running out of time. He has 10 games remaining before he becomes a free agent. Ten games to prove he is worth the $100 million contract he has talked about in the past. Ten games to be the player the Bucs hoped he would be.

It’s a fickle industry, the NFL. The line between glory and disappointment is never the same for any two players. Expectations have a way of coloring all our opinions.

For instance, White is still a productive linebacker. He still has an enviable $11.7 million salary. It’s just that we had come to expect more. Much, much more.

According to profootballreference.com, there are 69 linebackers with seven or more starts this season. White is 42nd in total tackles among them. He is 59th in tackles for loss. He is tied for 53rd in quarterback hits, and he has yet to record a sack.

Unfortunately, this is not a blip. His numbers are similar, or slightly worse, than last season. And his reputation has dipped accordingly.

Pro Football Focus had him ranked as the No. 25 inside linebacker in the league coming into this season. The Pro Football Network had him at No. 29. Linebackers in that category are not likely to get the five-year, $100 million deal that Baltimore gave Roquan Smith last year.

By its nature, inside linebacker is no longer a flashy position. With increasing emphasis on the passing game, the outside linebackers — or edge players — get big bucks for chasing quarterbacks. And strong safeties are better in pass coverage while also being big enough to stop the run game.

And this seems to be the biggest complaint with White. He’s got the speed to go sideline to sideline chasing running backs, but he’s not forcing turnovers or making plays in the backfield the way he did his first few seasons.

Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (14) tries to evade Bucs linebacker Devin White (45) after a catch during a game last month in Tampa.
Detroit Lions wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (14) tries to evade Bucs linebacker Devin White (45) after a catch during a game last month in Tampa. [ JASON BEHNKEN | AP ]

“Devin does a lot for us and is doing a lot for us,” head coach Todd Bowles said. “Some of the plays he makes with his brain by getting other people ready. You want to see more impactful plays from really all of them over there. He’s playing fine. We’ve just got to get the small plays to become the big plays, He can’t press them.”

White dealt with a groin problem in September and showed up on the injury report several times in October with a foot issue, but Bowles says that is not a factor.

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“There’s a lot of guys out there that (are) just playing off of guts,” Bowles said.

It doesn’t help White’s case that he plays alongside one of the best inside linebackers of the past decade. Lavonte David regularly shows up on lists of the top 2-3 linebackers in the game, and he’s seemingly getting more effective as he gets older.

At age 32, David is averaging a career-high 9.6 tackles per game this season. He may not have the elite speed that White does, but David’s anticipation and knowledge means he is almost always in the right position to make a play.

White, in what should be the prime of his career, is averaging a career-low 6.7 tackles per game. He’s made only one tackle behind the line of scrimmage, compared to seven for David.

There was a time when that was White’s claim to fame. His first two seasons in the league, he had more tackles for loss or zero gain than any other linebacker. He also had nine sacks in 15 starts in 2020 and has gotten only nine more sacks in 41 games since then.

Have injuries played a role? Probably. Has the lack of an outside pass rush in Tampa Bay the past two seasons made it harder for White? Certainly. Is he being used more in coverage than in the past? Yes and no. He has not blitzed as much as 2021-22 but more than 2019-20.

Regardless of the reasons, the numbers say White has not been an elite linebacker the past year and a half. Neither does the eyeball test.

It’s instructive that the Bucs declined to sign White to an extension in the offseason and instead picked up his fifth-year option. You could say Tampa Bay was just being prudent with a player already under contract, but the Bucs have given extensions to Vita Vea and Mike Evans in similar situations in the past.

The inference is the Bucs wanted to see more from White in 2023 before committing tens of millions on him.

White only has 10 games remaining to convince the Bucs.

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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