The night before the Lavonte David’s Buccaneers played the Broncos in Denver on Sunday, the Nebraska Cornhuskers finished up their regular season in the Big Ten Championship Game against Wisconsin. Nebraska won’t play again until January 1, in the Capitol One Bowl against Georgia.
That means if David was still in Lincoln, rather than playing in the NFL as a rookie with the Buccaneers, his season would be essentially over. In fact, counting the NFL preseason, he has already played three more games than his old college buddies on the ‘Huskers. This is what analysts call “The Rookie Wall,” that point in a player’s first NFL season where the extra work catches up to him and his production tails off during a month in which he had become used to resting.
If there was a rookie wall in front of David, however, it looks as if he has flown right over it. Instead of dipping, his production has actually spiked in the second half, and he may be coming off his best game yet in Denver.
When asked how he feels after 16 of the Buccaneers’ 20 preseason and regular-season games were in the books, David responded quite matter-of-factly.
“I’m good,” he said. “I’m good. I’ve been taking care of myself. A lot of the veteran guys around here have been helping me out, giving me tips and pointers about how to keep myself healthy. I’ve been trying to take care of my body because I knew it was a long season. I knew I had to prepare for it, so I’ve just been doing that.”
Since the start of November, in fact, David has led all NFL players with 57 total tackles, five more than fellow rookie Luke Kuechly of Carolina. David’s edge in solo tackles alone is even greater – he has 47 and the next closest player is Jacksonville’s Russell Allen with 37. As if that wasn’t enough, during that span David has seven “stuffs” (tackles behind the line of scrimmage on running plays), which is tied for the league lead with NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate J.J. Watt. Overall this season, Watt has the lead on David in that category, but only by one, 14.5 to 13.5.
David constantly spreads the credit around to the entire defense when discussing his season, and the actual numbers in his stat line are not that critical to him. He says he did have a specific ambition coming into the season, but it wasn’t 100 tackles or 10 sacks or any particular number.
“I did set some goals, just to come out and compete and do my job whenever I can,” he said. “So far I’ve been holding up to that. The sky’s the limit – not for me but for everybody here. I’ll just keep working.”
David’s second-half push has made him a prime candidate for the Associated Press Defensive Rookie of the Year award, something a Buccaneer has never won. He certainly helped his cause in Denver with a 10-tackle effort that also included three tackles for loss (he has 17 now), two passes defensed and his first career interception. Off Peyton Manning, no loss.
“It felt alright, but I would give all that back to score a ‘W’ because the guys worked really hard and we feel like we deserved to win,” said David of his pick, though he did concede that he kept the football for his trophy room. “Unfortunately, that didn’t happen.”
David might eventually have another prized item for his trophy room if he is judged to be the most impactful defensive rookie in the NFL this year. It certainly doesn’t look as if he’ll be slowing down over the season’s final month.