TAMPA — A season that began in torment for Lavonte David could end in personal triumph for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ second-year linebacker.
The 50th pick in the 2012 draft has raised his level of play after an outstanding rookie year, when he led Tampa Bay with 139 tackles. Despite his team’s 0-7 start, the former Nebraska standout is the only NFL player with at least 60 stops and five sacks.
“He’s on his way to doing some great things in this league,” said Bucs safety Dashon Goldson, who signed in March as a free agent from San Francisco, where he played with Pro Bowl linebackers Aldon Smith, Patrick Willis and Navarro Bowman. “He’s already one of the best I’ve ever been around. Lavonte’s a football player, not just an athlete. He can do it all.”
David is excelling at the weakside linebacker position that Derrick Brooks defined during his 14-year career in Tampa.
Brooks remembers watching the Bucs fall to the Jets 18-17 in the season opener as David was flagged for hitting rookie quarterback Geno Smith out of bounds in the final seconds, setting up New York’s winning field goal.
“I was sick to my stomach,” Brooks said. “But I also knew that if any player could come back from that kind of adversity, it would be Lavonte.”
Opponents and broadcasters can’t help noticing David’s blend of athleticism and intelligence.
After making 10 solo tackles at Atlanta, David was credited with 12 stops against the Panthers in Thursday night’s 31-13 setback.
“He’s playing as well as any linebacker in this league,” said former Bucs safety John Lynch, who worked the Atlanta game as a Fox analyst. “If he played baseball, you’d say Lavonte is a 5-tool player ... he has so many skills.”
Tampa Bay’s disappointing season has a chance to end in personal satisfaction for David. Pro Bowl voting has started and fans, coaches and players will select the rosters for Hawaii.
“The Pro Bowl would mean a lot to me in terms of recognition for working hard all year,” David said. “It would be a great honor.”
But outstanding players from losing teams often struggle to hit the pineapple trail to Waikiki. Carolina linebacker Luke Kuechly didn’t make the 2013 Pro Bowl, despite leading the league in tackles and being named the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year.
Before Thursday night’s matchup, Kuechly praised David’s instincts.
“He’s a player, that’s for sure,” Kuechly said. “No. 54 is always around the ball. He’s either tackling or he’s close to it and I think that’s something he takes pride in.”
David, 23, said he’s a more confident player in his second season calling Tampa Bay’s defensive signals.
“I’m definitely thinking less,” he said. “Still, there are times I get caught up thinking more than I should and that’s when bad things happen.”
David makes almost all of his noise on the field, where his ability to operate in space has prompted comparisons to Brooks.
“That’s not fair to Lavonte or Derrick,” said former Bucs middle linebacker Shelton Quarles, now the club’s director of scouting. “But I will say that Lavonte’s speed jumps off the game film. Lavonte’s the most unassuming guy you’ll ever meet. He doesn’t say a word and he keeps to himself ... very low maintenance. I didn’t know whether he’d be able to handle being an every-down linebacker as a rookie and getting everyone lined up, but he did it with ease.”
David’s five sacks are the most by a Tampa Bay linebacker since Lonnie Marts in 1996 and he is rarely victimized by a mental mistake.
In Week 1, he made a doozy.
“I wasn’t just mad, I was disgusted with myself,” David said of his late gaffe at the Meadowlands. “I couldn’t believe it because it was a stupid thing to do and I’m better than that. The next day, I watched the film, talked about it and learned from it. At that point, I was over it. You learn that growing up. You’re going to have tough times on the field, but you’ve got to get over them because guys are counting on you. I don’t plan on letting them down.”