That bold statement will likely draw disagreement and strong cases can be made for several exemplary players, including Patrick Willis, Sean Lee, Luke Keuchly, Von Miller, Brian Cushing, Clay Matthews, and Aldon Smith.
While I will address individual cases shortly, an immediate qualifier must be added to my statement. In a league where players seemingly age quickly, and injuries often prove career-changing, I am defining "young linebacker" as a player who is 25 years-old or less and possesses three or fewer seasons of experience.
By that definition, a young linebacker is a player who has typically yet to reach the peak of athletic prowess. These linebackers have already flashed greatness, but are just now entering the primes of their careers and the odds generously indicate a team will enjoy their services for half a decade or more.
Keeping this definition in mind, let's break down why Lavonte David sits atop the list of the NFL's young linebackers.
Time is on the Buccaneers' Side
Many dominating linebackers, including players like Willis and Lee, are slightly more advanced in their NFL journeys. Others, such as Cushing and Matthews, have already dealt with significant injuries from hard-nosed play, which has limited past use and will likely will present future problems.
Thankfully, these dual factors are non-issues for David, who will turn 24 years-old next month and has never missed a game in his two seasons for the Bucs. The Florida native was selected with the 58th overall pick in the 2012 draft and his selection has already become one of the shrewdest second-round moves in team history.
Not highly recruited out of high school, David followed time in junior college with two impressive seasons for Nebraska. Recognized as an All-American by nearly every major service in 2011, he additionally set a school record with 152 tackles in 2010. Despite that achievement, and representing a substantial miscalculation by so-called experts, the prospect's stock largely dropped because of his size. At 6'1" and 230 pounds, many scouts feared David lacked ideal frame to be a dominant linebacker. It cost him a ticket to the first round.
Just as Russell Wilson is dispelling the myth that height hinders talent on offense, nobody would complain David lacks stature anymore. The young linebacker plays ferociously in all aspects of his game, including reaching the quarterback, dropping into pass coverage, and blistering tackles all over the field. Being a little lighter on his feet has even proved an asset for David, who possesses incredible speed at getting to the ball.
Keuchly Offers Competition at Middle Linebacker
Surely the scouts who passed on the Bucs' unquestioned leader regret the advise. One such decision that proved accurate, however, was the earlier selection of Luke Keuchly with the ninth overall pick of the same 2012 draft by the Carolina Panthers.
Achieving recognition at Boston College, the middle linebacker rocketed up draft boards and has lived up to the hype. Kuechly enjoyed a sensational rookie campaign, which saw him post an eye-popping 164 tackles last year and become the AP Defensive Rookie of the Year
Though Keuchly embarked on a flashier start, David is the better long-term prospect. Both players must be commended for their ability to stay on the field for nearly every defensive play. Keuchly capably fulfills the classic middle linebacker role, as evidenced by the gaudy number of wrap-ups supplied for his team. Yet, David adds far more overall tools to a defense and that begins by lining up on the outside, where he can more easily assist in pass coverage.
Furthermore, though not expected to become a dominant pass rusher in the Bucs' 4-3 system, David's ability to reach the quarterback matures with each contest. Whereas Keuchly possesses only two career sacks, David has taken down opposing passers six times in 2013 and also produced a forced fumble. Though asked to do much more, David is progressing into a robust pass rusher. Such penetration is a definite asset for the Bucs' linebacker, since he simultaneously serves as one of the league's true tackling machines.
In fact, through 13 games of the current season, Keuchly has produced 113 total wrap-ups, while David has brought down ball carriers 116 times. Advantage: Lavonte David.
Sacks Are Great, but the NFL's Best Linebacker Must Do More
Each generation showcases a handful of exceptional linebackers whose talents are best encompassed by the dynamic ability to reach the quarterback. Perhaps no player represented this better than Lawrence Taylor, who redefined the outside linebacker position in the 1980's.
Von Miller of the Denver Broncos and Aldon Smith of the San Francisco 49ers are two young linebackers in the same tradition. Both are explosive individuals who excel at beating blocks to create havoc in the backfield. The stats certainly reflect this ability. Miller posted an impressive 18.5 sacks in 2012, while Smith racked up an even flashier 19.5 sacks.
Lavonte David will never approach that figure. Not only is he not asked to play a different role, but the second-year man indeed lacks the size that here benefits Miller and Smith. Although these young pass rushers are gifted play-makers, they do not provide the versatility David adds to Tampa Bay's increasingly effective defense.
I already alluded to David's contributions to the Bucs' pass coverage, but his five interceptions in 2013 is truly an astounding number. After all, Miller and Smith each possesses only a single pick in their entire careers. David has grabbed one in three consecutive games. With a smaller frame, David can cover backs and tight ends like a safety, while still offering the tackling power one expects from a linebacker.
Grouping the trio together one final time, it must be noted that Miller and Smith have been affected by off-the-field troubles in 2013 that have limited their time on the field. In contrast, Coach Schiano has praised David's overall contributions to the team, and it bears repeating that he has never missed a game.
Conclusion: Reminiscent of Derrick Brooks
Defenses are asked to handle three separate tasks: tackle the ball carrier, provide coverage against receivers, and disrupt the opposing quarterback. In each of these aspects of play, Lavonte David has already showcased exceptional ability, and the league is beginning to take note.
Currently fifth in the NFL in total tackles, David is further making history with his diverse play, as he becomes just the seventh player ever to produce at least five sacks and five interceptions in the same season in 2013.
Not long ago Bucs' fans watched another all-around talent at linebacker in Derrick Brooks. Many aspects of David's game are similar to the future Hall of Famer's exploits. It may even be argued that the current leader of Tampa Bay's linebacking corps is more advanced than Brooks after two years of play.
That is high praise. Yet, as the case grows increasingly clear that Lavonte David is the best young linebacker in the NFL, it is fitting.
Jeff Briscoe is a writer who covers sports for the Yahoo Contributor Network. A loyal Tampa Bay Bucs' fan, he co-hosts the Florida-based radio show, The Sports Train.
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