FAB 3. Why The Bucs Didn’t Re-sign Alexander
Heading into 2019 free agency, Bucs general manager Jason Licht had only lost one free agent that he wanted to keep – wide receiver and special teams captain Russell Shepard, who signed a multi-year deal with Carolina in 2016. Licht loved Shepard’s leadership ability and special teams prowess, but the Bucs viewed Shepard as a No. 4 wide receiver and core special teamer. Meanwhile, the Panthers viewed him as a possible No. 3 receiver and paid Shepard accordingly with a three-year, $10 million contract.
As most free agents do, Shepard went for the big payday over staying in Tampa Bay for a lesser deal, which was probably wise on his part. But he bombed in Carolina and was cut after just one season when Shepard refused to take a pay cut.
On Monday, Licht lost the second free agent he wanted to keep since becoming the team’s general manager in 2014 when middle linebacker Kwon Alexander signed a mega-deal with San Francisco. Licht spent a fourth-round pick on Alexander in 2015 and loved the intensity, heart and speed that he played with for four seasons in Tampa Bay.
Although he personally wanted to keep Alexander, whom he called “the heartbeat of the defense” in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine, Licht did the wise thing professionally by letting Alexander go. Saying goodbye from an emotional sense was difficult because Alexander had a Pro Bowl season while with the Bucs, was a team captain and was beloved by his teammates and the fan base. Seeing him lay on the ground gripping his injured knee before halftime of the Cleveland game was a gut punch to the man who drafted him.
But Licht did the rational thing and didn’t give Alexander $54 million over four years with $27 million guaranteed like the 49ers did. It would have been easy to do so and justify matching the 49ers’ offer. Most Bucs fans would understand Licht doing so because of their love for Alexander’s intensity and work ethic, and that he was one of the few bright spots on an otherwise awful and forgettable Tampa Bay defense. Known more on a first-name basis as “Kwon” rather than “Alexander” to Bucs fans, his love for Tampa Bay was solidified when he died his hair Buccaneer red back in 2017.
Instead of pulling the sentimental trigger when it came to Alexander, Licht looked at the facts surrounding his fourth-year linebacker and set aside the emotions when weighing how much the LSU product would be worth.
Simply put, Lavonte David is the Bucs’ best linebacker. He’s better than Alexander.
David has averaged 126 tackles, 5.5 pass breakups, three sacks, 2.5 forced fumbles, 1.9 fumble recoveries and 1.4 interceptions per year over his seven seasons in Tampa Bay.
Alexander has averaged 95 tackles, 5.5 pass breakups, 1.5 forced fumbles, 1.5 interceptions, one interception and 0.5 fumble recoveries per year.
You might argue that this statistical analysis is skewed because Alexander missed the most of last year – 10 games – and using a season-by-season comparison may flawed.
Okay, but David’s numbers are still better, as he has averaged 8.4 tackles, 0.37 pass breakups, 0.20 sacks, 0.17 forced fumbles, 0.12 fumble recoveries and 0.10 interceptions per game over his seven-year career.
Alexander has averaged 8.2 tackles, 0.48 pass breakups, 0.15 sacks, 0.13 forced fumbles, 0.13 interceptions, and 0.04 fumble recoveries per game over his four-year career.
Comparing David and Alexander on a per game basis actually draws the two much closer statistically – until you realize that David has missed seven starts in seven years, while Alexander has missed 18 starts in four seasons. David averages one missed start per year and has played in all 16 games in four of his seven seasons, while Alexander has missed an average of 4.5 starts per year and has played in a full 16 games just once in his career.
Dirk Koetter didn’t get many things right in Tampa Bay as the team’s former head coach, but his line about the greatest ability in the NFL being “availability” is spot on. Players can’t help the team sitting on the sidelines, and there is a good chance that Alexander will be sidelined to start the 2019 campaign in San Francisco as he continues to recover from his torn ACL.
Licht felt uneasy about committing more than $10 million per year to Alexander in part because David is the better linebacker and makes $10.05 million per year, but even more so due to Alexander’s torn ACL. If Alexander starts the season on the PUP (physically unable to perform) list with the 49ers it will mark the third year in a row that he won’t be available for all 16 games in a season.
And how will Alexander play in 2019 in his first season back from injury? Would he be right back at a Pro Bowl level? Alexander would have to learn a new defense either in Tampa Bay or San Francisco this year, and wouldn’t be available to do on-field work until midway through training camp at the very earliest – and that’s being optimistic. Alexander had at times struggled with being assignment sound in Tampa Bay, and missing the install periods in the offseason and training camp due to his ACL recovery would likely catch up to him on the field in a negative way in his first season in a new scheme.
Would you bet that Alexander has a Pro Bowl-caliber season in his first year back from an ACL tear? Licht wouldn’t. That’s obvious by the fact that Alexander is headed to San Francisco.
For all of Alexander’s splash plays, he has missed 78 tackles according to Pro Football Focus, which is the second most of any linebacker since entering the league in 2015. In fact, there were some within the Bucs organization that thought Kendell Beckwith actually did a better job subbing in at middle linebacker in 2017 than Alexander did when he went to the Pro Bowl that year.
I’m not here to suggest Alexander is a bad linebacker, because he’s not. He’s a good linebacker when healthy, and at age 24, he has plenty of upside. But he’s not a great linebacker – yet. And he’s not healthy – yet. 49ers general manager John Lynch just paid Alexander “great linebacker” money by San Francisco.
The best move for Licht and the salary cap-strapped Bucs was to let Alexander walk away. As a general manager, Licht showed tremendous restraint in having a contract threshold, believed to be between slightly north of $10 million, and sticking to it.
Should the Bucs not dabble too much more in free agency this year, Alexander’s mega contract – and Adam Humphries’ deal – could fetch Licht a compensatory draft pick – perhaps as high as the third round – in 2020.
Throw in the fact that the newly signed Deone Bucannon knows the scheme, is better in coverage than Alexander due to his background as a safety, and comes to Tampa Bay for $2.5 million in 2019 with another $1 million in playtime incentives and I’m intrigued. I’m not saying that Bucannon is an upgrade over Alexander – yet – but he’s certainly much more affordable and healthy.