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Film study with Bucs linebacker Lavonte David, 0-time Pro Bowler

Despite being regarded as the one of the NFL's elite linebackers, Lavonte David has not yet been selected to play in a Pro Bowl. [Getty Images]
Published Apr. 28, 2015

"With the 49th pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the San Diego Super Chargers select … Kendall Reyes, defensive end, Connecticut."

Buccaneers general manager Mark Dominik exhales and calls the owners of the 50th pick, the St. Louis Rams.

No.

"Who you taking?" Dominik asks.

He hangs up and tries the Eagles, who are next with the 51st pick.

No.

"Who you taking?"

On to the Titans, and then the Bengals, Lions, Falcons, Steelers and Broncos.

No, no, no, no, no and no.

Finally, the Texans, at 58, are willing to move down 10 spots to No. 68, but they want a fourth-round pick to do it. Dominik agrees.

On behalf of the Bucs, former safety and Super Bowl XXXVII MVP Dexter Jackson takes the stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York and makes the announcement.

"With the 58th pick in the 2012 NFL draft, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers select … Lavonte David, linebacker, Nebraska."

Having worked in the organization since the days of Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks, Dominik witnessed Sunday after Sunday how a disruptive interior lineman and a playmaking linebacker could take over games. Two years earlier, he drafted his disruptive interior lineman in Gerald McCoy. Lavonte David was the next piece, the playmaking linebacker, and Dominik wasn't going to sit on his hands.

"I felt like he was too good of a player to wait on," he says.

• • •

Here, he's anonymous, just another guy eating a fried shrimp platter. He's sitting right smack in the middle of Lee Roy Selmon's, but like the Rob Thomas song playing in the background, no one pays him any attention.

It's typical, really. He says he doesn't go out very often, and when he does, people don't realize he's a starting linebacker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, until they have to ask for his ID or his name.

And then it clicks.

"Oh, you're Lavonte David? You look so much bigger with your equipment on."

No matter how productive he has been, no matter how much he has proven himself on the field, the 6-foot-1 (if you round up), 233-pound David has never been able to escape questions and comments about his size. In 2010, his first season at Nebraska after transferring from Fort Scott Community College in Kansas, David — built like a major-league centerfielder — racked up 152 tackles, a school record. He added 133 more in 2011, third-most in the Big Ten. Still, speculation persisted before the 2012 draft that he might not be a fit for 3-4 defenses (the Bucs run a 4-3 defense) and that he might be better suited at safety.

"He really needs to bulk up if he wants to play linebacker in the NFL."

"Can get rag-dolled on occasion."

"He's not big enough to be a dominant all-around force."

The knocks on his size only further motivated David.

"I've been undersized my whole career," he says, "and at each level I've been able to prove people wrong. I just keep working hard and keep that chip on my shoulder just like I always have."

Though David was named an All-Pro in 2013, it seems Pro Bowl voters — preoccupied with the sack totals of 3-4 outside linebackers — need a little more persuasion. After three seasons, he's still waiting for an invitation to Honolulu (or wherever it is they play the game these days).

• • •

You might not recognize him at a restaurant, but he's going to make sure you can't miss him on the football field. In Week 5 last season against the Saints, he was flying all over Superdome, tackling everyone but the beer man.

David's range proved to be too much for four-time All-Pro and six-time Pro Bowl guard Jahri Evans, who by comparison looked as though he was running in sand.

Evans is 3 inches taller than David and more than 80 pounds heavier, but on a Saints first down early in the fourth quarter, David negated Evans' size advantage when he sniffed out a toss to the running back. Ahhhh, film study: the great equalizer.

Let's go to the All-22 footage for a closer look. The Saints come to the line with Khiry Robinson in the backfield and a receiver and tight end in close on each side of the offensive line. The Bucs counter by bringing 10 defenders near the offensive line; safety Major Wright is alone deep. An alignment like this can mean the defense doesn't respect the pass, but in this case, it recognizes what's coming.

David knows that Evans will climb up from his right guard position to try to block him, so he begins moving to his right just before the ball is snapped.

David explains: "I tried to put myself in better position where if it is a toss play, I could be able to beat him and he couldn't get his hands on me."

By the time Evans reaches David, he's past him and has a clear path to Robinson, whom he brings down for no gain.

This was just one of David's 49 run stops last season, the most among 4-3 outside linebackers, according to Pro Football Focus data. He was tops at his position in run stops each of his previous two seasons as well, with 51 in 2012 and 53 in 2013. (PFF credits a player with a stop when the offense fails to gain 40 percent of the yards needed for another first down on first down, gain 60 percent of the yards needed for a first down on second down or convert a third or fourth down to a first down.)

His stellar production over his first three seasons has come at a bargain basement price, too — an annual average of less than $900,000. That will come to an end soon, however, as his rookie deal expires after this season, and he could command a contract with an average annual of more than $7 million. David says his agents and the Bucs front office will talk about an extension after the draft.

Though his future in Tampa Bay remains somewhat unsettled for the time being, he says he's not looking at 2015 as a contract year.

"It's just a matter of me going out there and doing what I'm doing, keep producing like I have the past three years, keep going out there having fun, enjoying myself every time I'm out there on the field," he says. "If people see that and say that I'm a guy who they can't let go, then so be it."

• • •

The next time Evans whiffs on a block of David, it costs the Saints dearly. On a second-and-8 — Saints trailing 31-28 but in Bucs territory — Brees swings a pass out to running back Pierre Thomas, who has just enough time to cradle the football before his stomach leaps up to his chest to make room for the crown of David's helmet.

Thomas is originally the middle linebacker Danny Lansanah's responsibility, but he and David switch when Thomas runs to the right.

"(Lansanah's) telling me to go," David says. "As I see (Thomas) take off, I just try to get over there because he's my man, and I just tried to make a tackle in the backfield. I knew I had to beat (Evans)."

Evans didn't stand much of a chance. Before climbing up to try to block David, he first had to slow McCoy's rush. When he reaches for David, he's already gone, harder to reach than Manti Te'o's girlfriend. In a flash, Thomas is on his back 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage, and the Saints eventually settle for a game-tying field goal.

• • •

Part of the reason Dominik decided David was too good of a player to wait on in the 2012 draft was his instincts and "great football intelligence."

But what exactly does great football intelligence look like? Let's revisit David's work in pass coverage against the Detroit Lions in Week 14. It's third-and-goal from the Tampa Bay 5-yard line for the Lions, who are looking to take a two-touchdown lead early in the third quarter.

The Lions come to the line in 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three receivers) and set their three receivers and tight end out wide. The Bucs counter with a Cover 2 zone defense and nickel personnel (five defensive backs and two linebackers).

David's responsibility is the zone in front of receiver Jeremy Ross, who is lined up in the slot to the right of the offensive line, and he figures the Lions will want to attack the linebacker-on-receiver matchup. David's job here is to not let Ross inside over the middle and instead to keep him to the outside where he can funnel him to safety Bradley McDougald if he needs help.

After the snap, David sits in his zone at the goal line, shuffles his feet and keeps his eyes on quarterback Matthew Stafford, taking only a quick peek at Ross.

"I looked back at the quarterback, and I saw him just staring me down," David says, "I could feel the receiver was out there, so once I saw him wind up and get ready to throw the football, I made a break on it."

David dives to knock the ball away, but he feels like he should have gotten more.

"I wish I could have stayed up with it. It probably would have been an interception for six."

A pick six (and ensuing extra point) would have tied the score, but David's read and deflection helped hold the Lions to a field goal and, depending upon your perspective, either kept the Bucs in the game or postponed the inevitable.

• • •

In his second season under coach Lovie Smith, David expects his confidence to surge like it did during his second season under Greg Schiano. He describes 2014 as a learning process that was about getting comfortable with what he was supposed to be doing in certain situations and certain defenses. He says he played more decisively in 2013.

Week 7 that season against Atlanta was basically a Lavonte David highlight reel, as the emerging star made 10 solo tackles that afternoon, including three for a loss.

One of those came on a first-and-10 late in the first quarter. The Falcons line up in the I-formation and send receiver Harry Douglas in motion to the slot on the right. The Bucs' original call is a safety blitz, but they have to make an adjustment so that David isn't one-on-one with Douglas in case the Falcons pass.

"With me knowing that it's a wide receiver, I already know I have to blitz," David explains. "I'm not going to be the guy covering him, so I look to the safety (Dashon Goldson). He gave me the heads-up, so he can come down and cover (Douglas). I just take his responsibility and blitz off the edge."

What appears to be an incidental head turn was actually a knowing look between David and Goldson, two players used to being on the field together.

"Because he's a wide receiver, we know he's not going to stop at the tight end position," David says. "As soon as I see him motion, I just look back. We made eye contact like, 'Hey, we've gotta switch.' We had that type of discussion, me knowing and him knowing. He just covered me and I covered him."

Almost as quickly as that exchange, David meets running back Jason Snelling in the backfield.

"We had a real tight bond," David says of Goldson, who was traded to Washington earlier this month. "He was like a real big brother to me. He always looked out for me."

Turnover is just how life rolls in the NFL, David says, and now as one of the leaders of the defense, he'll have to step in and get acquainted with the next guy as much as he can.

"Me and Major (Wright) kind of have that same type of bond," he says. "It's going to be kind of different, but it's something I can adjust to. Season doesn't start tomorrow, so we've got a lot of time to pick up on things."

• • •

Before David arrived in Tampa Bay, he didn't know what it was like to lose.

His high school team, the Northwestern Bulls of Miami, won back-to-back state titles in 2006 and 2007. Academic issues limited his offers, so he attended Fort Scott, where he played for the junior college national championship in 2009 and was named the game's defensive MVP. Nebraska finished in the Associated Press' top 25 in both of his seasons there (2010 and 2011).

The Bucs' win total, however, has declined each season since 2012 — from 7 to 4 to 2 — and losing, he says, is something he doesn't want to get used to. He understands it takes time to build a winner, but his expectations remain high.

So he's setting goals: Eliminate mistakes. Finish the season among the top five defenses. Delay offseason workout program until later in February.

"A lot of the games that we lost last year were very close games that came down to a turnover here and there," he says. "Defensively, our attitude and mentality is going to be to play aggressive and try to change things around."

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