Why Bucs use Lavonte David as 'standard' for draft prospects

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TAMPA, Fla. -- When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' front office convenes several times over the next few weeks to solidify its big board for the upcoming draft, it won't have to look far for inspiration.

There is a silhouette of a football player hanging on the wall of their draft room that reads, "I AM THAT MAN," in all capital letters. It's a template of sorts -- of how it's all supposed to look in human form. It lists the specific traits they covet: Accountable, competitive, confident, passionate and resilient.

This man of inspiration is Lavonte David.

"This is the person that we want in a player," general manager Jason Licht said. "It doesn't show his face, but it is Lavonte. He is the one that we look for every year. He is the standard."

The Bucs will look to select players in the three-day NFL draft starting April 25 -- with their first pick of seven coming in the first round at No. 26 -- based on the metric of David. He is a former second-round pick and is the longest-tenured Buccaneer on the roster.

David is returning for a 13th season after signing a one-year deal this offseason at age 34.

"He is the epitome of it. He is the poster child, literally, for us," Licht said. "Everything about Lavonte, and what makes him the player that he is, is elite -- his preparation, his competitiveness. His desire and his passion are a 10 [on a] 1 to 10 scale. ... As a player, he's a 10 on that, too. Everything about him is elite. That's what makes him who he is. That's what makes it special to be around him every day."

In 2023, David quietly put together a stellar season that went largely unnoticed -- including missing out on yet another Pro Bowl. He's been only once (2015) -- despite being the only player in the league with over 100 tackles, 15 tackles for loss and 3 sacks. His 17 tackles for a loss this season were seventh most. It only adds to the stunning body of work he's accumulated.

His 160 tackles for a loss are fifth most in the league since 2008, when ESPN Stats & Info began tracking that metric, and third most among active players, behind only Calais Campbell (175) and Von Miller (164) and the most of any off the ball linebacker. His 28 career forced fumbles ranks him 31st all time and second most among active players, while his 18 fumble recoveries are the most of any active player. His 64 passes defensed are second among active players as well.

David's 1,478 career tackles are more than Pro Football Hall of Famers Junior Seau (1,396) and Brian Urlacher (1,290) in their first 12 seasons. His 33.5 career sacks are more than Hall of Famers Ray Lewis (30) and Zach Thomas (19.5) in their first 12 seasons. His 28 career forced fumbles are more than Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks (21) and Lance Briggs (19), who are the only off-ball linebackers even coming close to that statistic, while his 18 fumble recoveries are more than Seau (16), Urlacher (14) and Lewis (13).

"He's a baller, man. It's crazy because he's still running around like he [is] 21," safety Antoine Winfield Jr. said this year.

Coach Todd Bowles called David, who has been a team captain for 10 consecutive seasons, the "ultimate professional."

"He's one of my favorite players I've ever coached," Bowles said. "I don't even look at his age -- he plays timeless. He plays timeless football, he plays it the right way, he prepares the right way."

This season David will move into third all time for most seasons suited up for the Bucs -- ahead of Buccaneers Ring of Honor member Paul Gruber and longtime Bucs color analyst and former tight end Dave Moore. He'll sit behind only Pro Football Hall of Famers and Ring of Honor members Derrick Brooks (14 seasons) and Ronde Barber (16).

David laughed when asked if he was chasing Barber on that list, having already surpassed him (1,428) this past year for second-most tackles in franchise history.

"No, Ronde was a different type of cat," David said. "Ronde played 16 years with all types of stuff going on, and I commend him for that. Ronde was kind of like a mentor for me for that short year that we had together. Still, I have a relationship with Ronde to this day. He's definitely a guy who I respect tremendously."

Pass game coordinator/inside linebackers coach Larry Foote said that after the Bucs beat the Jacksonville Jaguars 30-12 in Week 16 and David racked up a game-leading eight solo tackles and a sack, a couple of the Jaguars coaches jokingly asked, "What is he taking?!"

"What a leader. Everybody should look towards [him] and try to be and emulate him," Foote said. "He's a pro. I tell guys -- not just linebackers -- [to] watch him and see what he does. I wish the whole outside of Tampa [knew] that. He is special, and I can't see another linebacker playing better than him right now. He's a good example for the young guys. Everybody should just look at him and try to copy everything he does."

David said it's by the "grace of God" that's kept him healthy and playing at an elite level each year for five different head coaches, including transitioning from a 4-3 weakside linebacker to a 3-4 inside linebacker during the later part of his career in 2019.

And we could see more changes in 2024 with the departure of fellow inside linebacker and mentee Devin White, who signed a one-year deal with the Philadelphia Eagles after a difficult season in 2023. At times, White struggled in coverage, which meant David would often cover underneath when White would rush the quarterback in one of Bowles' exotic blitz packages.

David said he would enthusiastically welcome more opportunities to blitz, something he did quite a bit of earlier in his career, notching a career-high seven sacks in his second season.

"I would love that, but it's [not] up to me," David said. "Whatever we do right, we stick with it. That's one thing I do respect about coach Bowles, and that I really like [that] he finds what is working for guys to make things comfortable for guys, and whatever is working and makes you comfortable, he's going to do it."

When Licht was was asked about his philosophies on balancing the needs of today versus the future as far as the draft goes -- especially when it comes to succession plans for aging players like David -- he expressed his affinity for both sides of the coin.

"Last year we took [SirVocea Dennis] -- and we really like Voss and we think Voss has a really bright future -- so we hopefully took some steps to hopefully take care [of the] future," Licht said. "But I'm hoping Lavonte plays another seven years."

David said he's unsure of when the time will come to hang it up, though. Ever since he got to Year 10, he's taken it one year at a time.

"We're going to worry about [Year] 13 right now, and then we're going to go from there," David said. "Honestly, I always say, the good Lord has blessed me tremendously to be here, and I love it and I enjoy it. We're just going to keep on taking it one day at a time.

"We're just going to try to get to the Super Bowl this year, and then I'll let you know after that."