Sunday, May 28 2023

Between the Bucs‘ salary-cap constraints and life as a 33-year-old inside linebacker, there was uncertainty this spring as to whether Lavonte David would be back for a 12th season in Tampa, able to continue playing his entire career for one team.

Fans breathed a sigh of relief when the two sides agreed to terms on a one-year deal, and David said Thursday he’s grateful.

“I’m happy to be back,” David said on a video call with reporters after the team announced he was returning. “I feel like I’ve still got some good football left to play, and hopefully I can finish it out as a Buc.”

David is now fifth on the team’s all-time games played list with 166, and he’ll be just the fourth Bucs player to log 12 seasons in Tampa and not any other team, joining two Pro Football Hall of Famers in Ronde Barber (16 years) and Derrick Brooks (14) and a Ring of Honor member in Paul Gruber (12). Tight end Dave Moore played 13 seasons in Tampa, but also briefly with the Dolphins and Bills.


“For me to be able to come to my 12th season with one organization is very, very rare, especially in this day and age, when everybody’s jumping teams and looking out for themselves,” David said. “I feel like once you start somewhere and you want to build a legacy somewhere, you’ve got a lot of good things going at one organization, why would you want to leave?”

David, a nine-time captain, has already put together a prolific career — 1,346 tackles, including 143 tackles for losses and an incredible 27 forced fumbles. He’s spent the last four years alongside Devin White as the leaders in the middle of this defense, and while the personnel will change both in front of them and on the back end, there’s a continuity in having those two in the middle of the defensive huddle.

The Bucs will be considerably younger in 2023, with quarterback Tom Brady retiring at age 45 and several other 30-something Bucs still unsigned — defensive linemen Akiem Hicks and Will Gholston, receiver Julio Jones, safety Logan Ryan and others. Tampa Bay has won back-to-back division titles and still has much of its 2020 Super Bowl team still around, but went a disappointing 8-9 last year, bowing out in the wild-card round with a lopsided home loss to the Cowboys.

“I will say the whole season, not just the end of the season, everything was just so up and down,” David said. “We weren’t consistent, and we’re a better football team than what we displayed. That playoff loss, losing at home in our wild-card game, we probably played the worst game of the season. We were outmatched. We just didn’t play the way we know how to play football. The best place to redeem myself was to stay in Tampa, to kind of finish where I started.”

The Bucs started the offseason about $57 million over the salary cap — Brady’s contract, structured to allow room for more talent the last three years, will count $35 million against this year’s cap even though he’s no longer playing. And despite those constraints, Tampa Bay’s front office was able to free up enough space to re-sign David, as well as young cornerback Jamel Dean, seen as one of the league’s most coveted free agents at any position. The Bucs also brought back outside linebacker Anthony Nelson, with new additions including quarterback Baker Mayfield and defensive tackle Greg Gaines.

Buc sign Mayfield

Skip Bayless and Shannon Sharpe react to news the Buccaneers signed former No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield to a one-year deal.

For fans, David might have been the most important, as the team’s longest-tenured player in Tampa, going back to 2012, a run that has had him playing for five different head coaches.

“Lavonte is one of the greatest, beloved players in the history of this franchise, so it is extremely gratifying that he will remain a Buccaneer,” general manager Jason Licht said in a team statement. “It’s rare for a player to perform at such a high level for so many years in one place. He is the prime example of an individual that you build a team around, and we are ecstatic to be able to keep him in Tampa Bay.”

The rest of the NFC South has also been busy this month — the Panthers hired Frank Reich and traded up to get the No. 1 overall pick in next month’s draft, the Saints added quarterback Derek Carr and running back Jamaal Williams, and the Falcons were big spenders both in keeping their own free agents and adding players like safety Jessie Bates and tight end Jonnu Smith.

Last year’s NFC South saw first and fourth place separated by a single win, the Bucs at 8-9 and the rest of the division close behind at 7-10. That makes the South very much up for grabs, but gives all four teams a sense of confidence and being in the hunt, a motivation for everyone in the offseason.

“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.”

David was willing to take a significant pay cut to stay in Tampa — he had made $25 million over the previous two seasons on his last deal, but his new deal is just for $7 million, all guaranteed. In years past, players had taken less for the chance to play with Brady and chase a championship, but he said the goal is to continue the winning culture that Brady helped instill over the last three years.

Is Baker Mayfield an upgrade?

Nick explains Baker Mayfield could possibly average more points per game with the Bucs than Tom Brady did last season.

Asked where the Bucs’ defense can take a step forward in 2023, he points to two areas — creating more turnovers and improving on third downs. Last year’s Bucs finished with 10 interceptions and 10 fumbles recovered, ending the year with a negative turnover margin. The Bucs defense finished sixth last year in third-down conversions, but he’s still looking for improvement there.

Tampa Bay will have much lower expectations from outside this fall, with Brady’s retirement factoring heavily in that, but David said his mindset is to have a new start with so much back from last year, giving them a chance to show a better version of themselves, on the scoreboard and in the standings as well.

“This year, you get a fresh start,” he said. “I’m looking forward to it, and I’m sure a lot of people are looking forward to it as well.”

Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.  

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