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NFC South Most Feared Players 2014: Lavonte David

Tampa Bay severely underperformed for their talent in 2013. With the firing of former head coach Greg Schiano and the hiring of defensive guru Lovie Smith, the Tampa defense is poised to come back in a big way, but none moreso than linebacking phenom Lavonte David. In a year where seemingly nothing went right in 2013, David was a lone bright spot, anchoring a defense that did its very best to stay afloat. If Tampa Bay's defense is finally able to break out, David will have to be a key piece why.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The NFC South looks to be tremendously competitive in 2014.  From the Buccaneers going back to their Tampa 2 roots, to the Panthers fielding one of the best front sevens in football, to the Falcons shoring up their roster and retaining key pieces after an injury plagued 2013, from top to bottom it looks like it will be a dogfight from Day One when the Saints travel to Atlanta.

Each team has low talent, average talent, high talent, and "how the hell did he do that?" talent.  As we all know from 11 years of heartache, the NFC South is an incredibly difficult division to win.  So difficult, in fact, no team has done it in consecutive years.  There is seemingly always a dark horse team coming up from behind to take the crown, and going into every season the question is: who will it be now?  In 2013 it was Luke Kuechley and the upstart Panthers, in 2012 it was Julio Jones realizing his full Super Saiyan potential, and in 2011 it was our own Saints led by the old 2009 gang.

Football starts at the individual level, and it’s coaching that adds the cohesiveness that translates onto the field.  Some players are so good that coaches, whether they're coaching them or coaching against them, are forced to gameplan around those players.  This series is about those types.  I’m looking at my most feared players from each team, and evaluating exactly what it is that makes them so scary.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Lavonte David

It isn’t often that a 4-3 outside linebacker strikes fear into the hearts of men, but if there’s one player that’s capable of doing so, it’s Tampa Bay’s Lavonte David.  Going into his third year in 2014, David not only didn't suffer the dreaded sophomore slump, he defied it.  As a rookie in 2012, David enjoyed an impressive campaign.  Here are his stats:

Tackles Sacks Passes Defended Interceptions Fumbles Forced Fumbles Recovered
139 (112 Solo; 27 Assisted) 2 5 1 0 0

These stats could be viewed as fairly pedestrian, even for a rookie every down linebacker.  His tackles are on par with a middle linebacker, but nothing amazing.  His coverage stats aren't horrible, but they're nothing to sign a mega deal over either.  As a rookie, David came in as an average to slightly above average 4-3 outside linebacker.  In 2013, however, David improved in every single defensive measuring stat:

Tackles Sacks Passes Defended Interceptions Fumbles Forced Fumbles Recovered
145 (106 Solo; 39 Assisted 6 9 5 2 1

The increases were the most noticeable in "difference making" plays, in which a major advantage was given to Tampa from the result.  Plays such as sacks, interceptions, fumbles forced and fumbles recovered (particularly the latter) fall into this category.  David is a ball hawk type linebacker, one that always finds himself around the ball carrier and ready to make a play.  While this takes him out of position from time to time, he still manages to find his way back into plays, a defining characteristic for a top flight LB.

In terms of pure volume, David struggled a bit in the passing game in 2012.  He gave up 4 touchdowns throughout the season, third most among linebackers.  In 2013, however, David gave up only one touchdown throughout the entire season.  He was able to read his zones better, and he stayed with his men.  As a result, we see the improvement from 5 passes in 2012 defended to 9 in 2013, along with four more interceptions from from his first to second seasons.  While the jury is still out David in the passing game, he saw a drop-off in everything from targets (66 in 2012 to less than 50 in 2013) to total yards allowed, to yards after the catch, and there is no reason to believe that this upward trend won't continue in new coach Lovie Smith's defensively geared philosophy.  Smith is the linebacker whisperer, after all, and he is one of the best coverage coaching minds in football.  Players like Brian Urlacher and Lance Briggs don't just happen.  They may have all of the physical tools from the outset, but they have to be coached into using them before they thrive the way that they did in the Smith defense.

However, despite his almost astronomical improvement in the passing game, where David really sets himself apart is at the line of scrimmage.  David led all linebackers in 2013 with 17 tackles for a loss.  According Pro Football Focus, his Run Stop % (that is, tackles that lead directly to a full defensive stop) was 13.5%, highest among all 4-3 outside linebackers.  On 393 snaps, David registered 64 tackles and 53 stops in the running game, and one could infer that this means that nearly all of his tackles are high impact tackles based purely on percentage.

Keeping up with LoS play, David also exponentially increased Tampa Bay’s defensive pass rush productivity on plays in which he was brought on the blitz.  These statistics were as of November 27, 2013, or through Week 12 of the 2013 season.  Take a look at Tampa’s defensive line productivity with a standard pass rush:

Team Pass Snaps Sacks Hits Hurries Total Pressure Pass Rush Productivity
Tampa Bay 1644 15 36 88 139 6.57
League Average 1667 21.6 32.4 103.5 157.5 7.41

Interesting little aside about these numbers, Tampa Bay was actually the closest to the league average in terms of snaps, so if any team could be compared using these numbers, it’s the Buccaneers.  Tampa Bay was 14th of 17 4-3 defenses, very close to the bottom of the barrel, despite a strong defensive line in terms of names.  However, when sending four or less, the Buccaneers were among the worst in the league in terms of pressure.

Now, here is the productivity on plays in which Tampa Bay blitzed up against the league average productivity:

Team Pass Snaps Sacks Hits Hurries Total Pressure Pass Rush Productivity
Tampa Bay 194 11 8 25 44 18.43
League Average 172.1 4.9 5.1 19.1 29.5 13.58

Tampa Bay was the most efficient 4-3 blitzing team in the NFL in 2013, and David was a huge reason why.  Of the 194 times that the Bucs blitzed, David was sent 77 of them.  In that time, he racked up an astounding 23 (one more than half of Tampa’s total on blitzes) pressures, coming up only 6.5 short of the entire league average.  In fact, David’s individual PRP would come up at 29.8, nearly 17 points ahead of the league average.  The only player ahead of David’s stats in terms of volume is The Denver BroncosVon Miller, a linebacker only in name.  And, despite rushing the quarterback 159 times (82 times more than David), Miller turned in only two more pressures at 31.  This put Miller’s PRP at 19.4, a little over 10 points less than what David had.

There is a very good chance that Lavonte David is the premier outside linebacker in the NFL, and nearly no question that he is the premier 4-3 OLB.  In a league where hybrids and 3-4 staggered formations have become more and more common, having a true linebacker has become a progressively rarer thing.  Players drawing comparisons to Derrick Brooks has become even more rare.  David has the chance to bring about a resurgence of the true 4-3, and if he’s going to do it, he’s going to do it in a Smith defense.  That, in and of itself, is a very scary prospect for not just the Saints or the NFC South, but for the league as a whole, because David may be the player best suited in the league to carry his defense to wins.  Add this to the fact that he doesn't have to carry the likes of Gerald McCoy, Alterraun Verner and Mark Barron, and the Buccaneers have the potential to be a dangerous dark horse team in 2014.