Right now the sun is shining bright in Tampa Bay. With Tom Brady at quarterback, one of the best passing arsenals in the NFL, a solid offensive line, and a growing defense that returns the league’s sack master from 2019, there are legit Super Bowl aspirations for the Buccaneers for the first time in over a decade.
But it’s never too early to look and plan for the future, and the Buccaneers could be in quite the salary cap predicament next offseason.
Slated to hit free agency on the right roster right now are names like Shaq Barrett, Ndamukong Suh, Rob Gronkowski, and Chris Godwin. Though each of those players are going to be important to what the Buccaneers do in the years that follow 2020, there’s another name—a name with a Buccaneer legacy within it—that must be taken care of: Lavonte David.
David, the Buccaneers’ 58th pick in the 2012 NFL Draft, has been a cornerstone for almost a decade. Since coming to Tampa Bay, David has only experienced one winning season with the club, and that was a 9-7 year where they did not make the playoffs. David has been in the middle of the Buccaneers’ 12-year postseason drought, yet he’s been in the middle of it with incredible accomplishments.
Since coming into the league, there is an argument that can be made that no linebacker has been better. And, yes, that includes his 2012 classmates Luke Kuechly and Bobby Wagner.
Here are David’s career numbers to this point:
Games Played: 121
Total Tackles: 1,008
Solo Tackles: 724
Tackles For Loss: 116
Passes Defended: 45
Forced Fumbles: 21
Fumble Recoveries: 14
Takeaways Forced: 32
There are only three categories (total tackles, interceptions, and passes defended) where Kuechly had better production than David, and only two categories (total tackles and passes defended) where Wagner has David beat.
In every other stat, David is king.
I don’t bring that up as a slight to those players; both have been incredible and have shaped the league during their time. But Kuechly has seven Pro Bowls and five All-Pros to his name, and Wagner has six Pro Bowls and five All-Pros. As for David, he has just one Pro Bowl and one All-Pro—one of the greatest crimes I can name in terms of recognition robbery.
David has not been given the love he deserves outside of Tampa Bay, but when it comes to the team he’s been on his entire career, they know his worth. After playing out his full four-year, $3.5 million rookie deal, the Buccaneers signed David to a five-year, $50.250 million deal back in 2016. But that deal is set to expire next spring.
So what can we expect to see the Buccaneers offer their long-time franchise linebacker; and a player whose name will surely be in the team’s Ring of Honor once he hangs up his cleats?
David, who is now 30 years old, signed his last contract at age 25, with his All-Pro year and Pro Bowl year already under his belt. That contract had an average salary of $10.05 million. He’s older now, but there is reason to believe he’ll be making even more for at least a few years on the other side of 30.
It’s hard to find a similar contract situation for David because there simply are not many linebackers who have the resume (both in success and longevity) that David does. With Kuechly now retired, we look to Wagner. Fortunately for us, Wagner recently signed a deal that we can compare.
At age 29, Wagner signed a three-year, $54 million extension in 2019, which made him the highest-paid middle linebacker in the NFL. Wagner still holds that title with an $18 million per year average. Right behind him is C.J. Mosley at $17 million. Moseley signed an insane five-year, $85 million deal last offseason.
On the surface, David could command something close to that in the $15-17 million range. But his situation in Tampa will likely drive down that price.
I would doubt that David would chase the biggest payday he can get. He’s been a Buccaneer his entire career, and I don’t think that he wants that to change. He won’t play on an egregious discount, but I do think he would settle for less than his open market value to stay and compete for division titles and maybe even Super Bowls in the final year of his prime for the team he’s given so much for.
Knowing that Suh is likely not going to be retained and that Godwin is about to get a monster deal, the big domino for David’s final numbers will likely depend on the kind of season Barrett has. If he has another double-digit sack season, the Buccaneers are going to have to pony up to keep him around in their winning window. That might force their number to comfortably offer David, yet continue to have a roster worth of Super Bowl contention, down to around $13-14 million per year. That range would put him behind Zach Cunningham, who just signed a four-year, $58 million extension, and ahead of Shaq Thompson, who signed a four-year, $54.2 million extension at the end of last season. Cunningham is set to make an average of $14.5 million while Thompson makes $13.6.
Those guys have some youth on David, which is why I could see a reality where he takes a lower total given his age on a three- or four-year deal. But if Barrett doesn’t have a high impact season on the edge, I’d expect the team to give David a bit of his dues and make him the third highest-paid linebacker in the league between $14.5-$15.5 million.
The bottom line is I would be shocked if David suited up for another team in 2021. I think he’ll be back as a Buc, and compared to what he can give back, what the Buccaneers give him will likely be a bargain, even if it’s the biggest payday of his career.