Bucs Training Camp Battle: Linebacker

Tampa Bay's starters are set, but there will be plenty of action to fight for behind them.
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The Buccaneers might have one of the best starting linebacker corps in the NFL. The bench is another matter altogether, with training camp shaping up to be a vital testing ground for the depth players.

No offense in the NFL is going to look forward to facing Tampa's starting linebackers. Last year, outside linebacker Shaq Barrett led the NFL in sacks (19.5) and quarterback hits (37), was second only to Aaron Donald in tackles for a loss (19) and was third in forced fumbles (6). History suggests Barrett will not be able to repeat such gaudy numbers, but as long as he continues to bring a high degree of pressure, he will be among the most feared pass rushers in the NFL.

In a sense, the Bucs are already off to a better start this year because OLB Jason Pierre-Paul doesn't have a broken neck and should be available to start the season. Even at 31-years-old, Pierre-Paul is a dangerous pass-rusher. Last year, he collected 8.5 sacks and 16 quarterback hits in just 10 games.

The Bucs face a real problem with the depth behind Barrett and Pierre-Paul. Losing OLB Carl Nassib was a serious blow to their linebacker rotation, and the Bucs failed to acquire an experienced veteran to replace him. The outside linebacker depth competition is likely the most pivotal camp battle in Tampa Bay this year.

Given the lack of action to sign a veteran, the Bucs may be signaling a lot of faith in 2019 fourth-round pick Anthony Nelson. Faith is the operative word for Nelson as he did little last year to warrant much confidence, recording eight tackles and forced fumble.

Nelson's competition, or lack thereof, is another reason he likely his roster spot is safe. Kahzin Daniels and Quinton Bell are not rookies, but they might as well be considering their lack of on-field experience. 

Undrafted rookies Cam Gill and Nasir Player can't be discounted because of the lack of experience ahead of them. Both are small school products but were outstanding in their respective careers. Gill set a Northeast Conference record with 36 career sacks, and Player was a second-team FCS All-American for East Tennessee State last year.

Given the lack of experience behind Barrett and Pierre-Paul, the Bucs could very well add a veteran during training camp, especially if Nelson and company don't show much progress. With less than $3 million in cap space per Spotrac, Tampa may lack the resources to sign a top free agent, at least without making moves elsewhere on the roster.

At inside linebacker, Devin White and Lavonte David comprise one of the best linebacker duos in the entire NFL. White is an athletic freak and a rising game-breaking playmaker who looks like he will live up to his fifth-overall draft position:

David is the worst-kept secret in the NFL. He is still ridiculously fast, a world class tackler and has some of the best football instincts in the NFL. He also happens to be one of the best pass-defending linebackers in the league, which has become one of the most coveted traits for modern NFL defenses (via Pro Football Focus):

White and David are every-down caliber players, with skills sets to give the defense considerable flexibility. Their primary back-up is veteran Kevin Minter, who was an adequate filler last year when White missed five games with a knee injury.

Though Tampa started last season with six inside linebackers, they finished with just four, so it is likely just one spot up for grabs. Former 2018 sixth-round pick Jack Cichy may be facing a do-or-die scenario in camp as he has not seen the field much in his two NFL seasons. Noah Dawkins may have the inside track thanks largely to his 190 special teams snaps last year, which accounted for 38 percent of Tampa's special teams plays.

2020 seventh-round pick Chapelle Russell could sneak into the last spot or even make a case for an extra inside linebacker if he can stay healthy. The former Temple Owl tore his ACL twice in college, hindering what could have been a very promising career for the otherwise athletic linebacker.