Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
“I’m a mixed breed. I’m a lion, I’m a tiger and I’m a gorilla all in one. I’m a mixed breed. You can only find me in jungle. You feel me?”
– Buccaneers linebacker, Kwon Alexander
I wasn’t on the media side in 2015, but my boss, PewterReport.com publisher Scott Reynolds, was. He told me a story about when he went to training camp after the 2015 NFL draft where the Buccaneers hauled in not one, not two, not three, but four starting players, that there was surprising hype around one of them. He told me that he spoke to a member of the Buccaneers’ organization, and that they kept hearing the name “Kwon Alexander” as the name with all this hype during the rookie mini-camp and OTAs. Mind you, this was the same year the team drafted quarterback Jameis Winston.
I remember him telling me that he and my editor, Mark Cook, looked at each other and thought, “Why is there all this hype about a fourth-round pick?” Every time he ends that story he ends it with, “Now we know why.”
It’s almost as if the team drafted two quarterbacks that year, one for the offense and one for the defense. Alexander, a fourth-round pick out of LSU, was thought of as the player to fill in at strong side linebacker in 4-3 base packages. But, by the time Week 1 of his rookie season rolled around, not only was Alexander starting, he was starting at the MIKE (middle) linebacker position. That doesn’t happen too often for first-round picks, let alone Day 3 picks.
Two years later and now we all know why there was so much hype for Alexander, and why the team was more than fine with starting him as early as he could. At 6-foot-1, 227 pounds, Alexander was thought to be just a speed linebacker who couldn’t take on the bigger ball carriers to earn a full-time role coming out of LSU. That’s why he slid to Day 2 of the draft. Two years later, he led the entire NFL in solo tackles, and had the most single-game tackles in 2016 with 21 against the Cowboys.
It didn’t take long for the local media to know Alexander’s name as they got to see his impact on a week-to-week basis. But outside of Tampa Bay, he’s remotely heard of. Pro Football Focus seemed to give Alexander the most praise this offseason. After saying that Alexander’s rookie season, “wasn’t as good as you think,” they ranked Alexander as their most improved second-year player.
But, outside of that, despite his name being at or near the top of many linebacker statistical rankings, Alexander remains an unknown. He wasn’t up for many top linebacker awards or honors in his best season thus far, and he was left off the Pro Bowl as well. NFL Network even left him off their All-Under 25 team. That was a crime.
Let’s dive into some of those snubs starting with that NFL All-Under 25 team. Now, I know that this isn’t the be-all, end-all for player recognition. After all, it’s just one writer who is compiling the names he recognizes who have had great season. But, that’s just the thing. These are the names he knows. Alexander isn’t one of those names, and that’s the problem here.
The three linebackers chosen for the honors were Denver’s Shane Ray, Houston’s Benardrick McKinney and Atlanta’s Deion Jones. If you want to throw Ray’s name out for one of the spots Alexander should have taken, fine. Ray is much more of a pass rusher than a traditional linebacker, so it’s not the same comparison. However, the other two, I don’t have an excuse for.
If we’re talking strictly stats – which, we don’t have to in order to make Alexander’s case – it’s one-sided. In his two seasons of play, Alexander has 167 tackles, six sacks, three forced fumbles, three interceptions and one defensive touchdown.
Let’s start with McKinney. In 2016, Alexander led the NFL in solo tackles with 108. That was almost more tackles in one year of play than McKinney had in both of his first two seasons. If you cancel out the fact that both men have six sacks to their careers, Alexander’s superior statistics in coverage with more interceptions, passes defended and defensive touchdowns, McKinney doesn’t have a leg to stand on.
Now let’s move on to Jones, another LSU product, like Alexander. He was a treat to watch last season as the Falcons’ young starting middle linebacker. Jones gets the flashy publicity because of his top-tier athleticism for a MIKE linebacker. In his stellar season, he was used as more of the rangy coverage and pursuit linebacker, recording three interceptions, two defensive touchdowns and 11 passes defended. Even though all three of those categories were better than Alexander’s lone 2016 season, both of the players are even on their careers, and Alexander, while playing a coverage role to record high coverage statistics in 2016, he also recorded 39 more combined tackles than Jones did – not to mention sack production in favor of Alexander, too.
Another note that should have been taken into consideration is this: minus a four-game suspension that Alexander served in 2015, he has started every single game of his career at middle linebacker, not missing any time due to injury or lack of production. Those outside of the Buccaneers’ following may respond to that by saying that the Bucs didn’t have talent at the linebacker position other than Lavonte David when Alexander arrived, so that should’ve been easy.
But, the team had just signed linebacker Bruce Carter in free agency to be that starting middle linebacker, and he didn’t even the start Week One. Alexander earned a starting role in the NFL within the four weeks of training camp. No other linebacker on that list can say they’ve started every game they’ve played in.
Finally, I want to touch on another honor Alexander is chasing, an honor that he’s pursuing passionately, and one that Bucs fans might be inpatient on, but I think that’s just because he’s been so vocally passionate about it himself – remember, he’s only 22 years old. That honor would be the Pro Bowl, and despite a fantastic season in 2016, which also included a pick-six against Los Angeles, Alexander was not chosen as an original participant or as an alternate.
Let’s do the same kind of comparison we did for the All-Under 25 team with the three men who were chosen instead of him for the Pro Bowl. Bobby Wagner of the Seattle Seahawks was selected as the starter. His 167 tackles was most in the NFL (Alexander was fourth). Wagner had a great year with 4.5 sacks and an interception to add to that. Not meaning to take anything away from Wagner, but Alexander’s year was very comparable, and even better in some ways.
Carolina’s Luke Kuechly was next, even though he missed six games with an injury. Then, instead of Alexander being the man to replace him, they chose Dallas’ Sean Lee. Lee and Alexander had identical combined tackles on the season at 145, but what should have separated Alexander were the other statistical categories. Lee had zero passes defended, zero interceptions, zero sacks and zero touchdowns. Alexander had eight, two, three and one in each of those categories, respectively.
Alexander’s train isn’t going to stop, either. As the NFL gets faster and faster with more spread offensive looks, Alexander will have more plays to rack up even more stats – and he will.
Earlier I noted that we don’t even need to talk about the stats to justify how good Alexander has become as the quarterback of the defense. At a very young age, he’s learned to control emotion and use it to his advantage.
Football is a game of adrenaline and emotion. There are ups and downs that can change how a player performs. For Alexander, look no further than his game versus Atlanta in his rookie season where, 48 hour after his brother was killed, he recorded double-digit tackles, an interception and a fumble recovery – a performance that helped his team get an important victory.
Alexander was in tears as his teammates handed him the game ball. It’s rare in sports and in life to find people who can turn tragedy into something that motivates them; something they wish to play for to honor. That’s when you know that a player takes their craft seriously, when they play for something more.
But Alexander isn’t just becoming a master of his own emotions. He’s learning how to use them to be a good teammate as well. The evidence for that was most notably shown a year later when a teammate of his, Alterraun Verner, had to play with a heavy heart after the passing of his father. In that game, Verner recorded an interception, and as he was tackled, he collapsed to the ground, overwhelmed with emotion. Who was the player to lead block for him on that interception return, and the one to pick him up off the field? Alexander.
As the team’s OTA practices and mini-camps rolls on this offseason, Alexander’s leadership isn’t just evident in his play (though it is there, too). He’s as vocal as any one else on the team. He’s constantly celebrating when any player on the defense unit makes a play. Even on the days he’s missed because of rest, he’s not on the sideline tossing a football around, he’s with the linebacker ground watching, teaching an encouraging. Playing a position that is so reckless in a game that involves so much chaos, Alexander is well ahead of the curve in production and in maturity.
But, I wonder if Alexander really will ever get the attention he deserves.
He might make the Pro Bowl someday, maybe even in 2017 because social media will be all over the NFL about it if he has another year like 2016. But even though he’s extremely charismatic when the helmet comes on, he’s very calm when it comes off. He’s both smiles and serious any time I’ve had the chance to interview him, but he is softly spoken. He’s sort of reserved in that sense. He doesn’t give you the hot-take, off-the-cuff answers. In other words, he’s not a player broadcast networks will be dying to make a name of – and that’s the sad truth of honors like the Pro Bowl.
Alexander learned the hard way this season that there is an element of politics that goes into NFL honors, and it sucks that it’s one he had to learn. There were tweets and Instagram pictures that he posted with some underlying frustration about being snubbed for something he’s probably dreamt his whole life of obtaining, only to realize it does take more than hard work to get it (it shouldn’t).
Kwon Alexander is a mixed breed. He’s a lion, a tiger, a gorilla, a tackler, an interceptor, a pass defender, a vocal leader, a mentor, and one hell of football player. Who knows if he’ll ever get the recognition he truly deserves, and it may take a deep playoff run as a team for Alexander to obtain that. But though that question remains, one question does not, and that would be a question of who he is.
“Watch list” or not; Pro Bowl or not; fame or not, Kwon is Kwon, and he’s only just begun. You can either recognize him now, or play catch up in the future.
Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: email@example.com