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Burning Questions: Defensive Backs

Posted Feb 19, 2018

We begin a position-by-position look at the biggest questions facing each man on the Bucs' roster by breaking down a secondary filled with a lot of young players

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers currently have 75 players on their 2018 roster, 15 of whom will become unrestricted free agents if they don't re-sign with the team before March 14. Some of those players have more obviously defined roles for the season ahead; Gerald McCoy will be anchoring the defensive line, for instance, while Jameis Winston will still be directing the offense. Others will spend the months ahead trying to clarify their roles; it's not clear who will be the primary ballcarrier in the backfield, for example.

No matter how secure their spots in the lineup are or are not, however, every player on the roster faces some uncertainty in 2018. Every season is different, for the team as a whole and players individually. Some Buccaneers will reach new career heights in 2018, some will face frustrations. Hopefully, for the sake of Tampa Bay's playoff aspirations, there will be more players in the former group than the latter.

Every Buccaneer has questions to answer in 2018. In the weeks ahead, we're going to pinpoint one of those burning questions for each player on the roster, going position by position. Will McCoy get his first 10-sack season? Will Winston improve his touchdown-to-interception ratio? Where will Ali Marpet line up? How many snaps will Chris Godwin get? We may not have the answers yet, but we sure know what questions to ask.

We'll start with the secondary and work our way towards the line of scrimmage on defense, then turn to offense and special teams. As will be the case at every position, we are only including players who are currently under contract for 2018, or will likely have tender offers as restricted and exclusive rights free agents. For the pending unrestricted free agents, obviously, the burning question that must be answered first is, 'Will they be back?'


One Burning Question for Each Buccaneer: Defensive Backs

(Potential unrestricted free agents: CB Brent Grimes, CB Robert McClain, S Keith Tandy, S T.J. Ward.)

CB Jude Adjei-Barimah: Will he receive a tender offer as a restricted free agent?

Adjei-Barimah hasn't played since November of 2016. A league suspension and a simultaneous injury kept him out of the last six games of that season and he spent all of last year on injured reserve after getting hurt at the start of training camp. He was waived/injured at the time and then reverted to the Bucs' I.R. list. A former undrafted free agent, Adjei-Barimah had long stretches as the Bucs' primary nickel back in 2015 and 2016. He is due to become a free agent in March. He would be a restricted free agent if the Bucs extend the necessary qualifying offer, and an unrestricted free agent if they do not. Adjei-Barimah could re-sign with the Bucs even if he doesn't get a tender offer, but he would also be free to sign elsewhere.

S Chris Conte: Will he have competition for his starting spot?

Conte went into his third season with the Bucs, and his seventh in the NFL, as a starter and never really lost that job, despite the team adding a high draft pick (Justin Evans) and an unrestricted free agent (J.J. Wilcox…who was later traded and replaced by another veteran, T.J. Ward). Conte started 14 of the Buccaneers' 16 games and finished third on the team with 76 tackles. However, while Evans quickly became an every-down player, Conte did have to split snaps for a good portion of the season, primarily with Ward and occasionally with Keith Tandy.

Both Ward and Tandy are due to become unrestricted free agents in March, so there's no guarantee that either will be back to compete for snaps in 2018. Tandy has been a valued contributor on defense and special teams for years so the team may be particularly motivated to try to re-sign him again, but Tandy's snaps on defense were pretty limited last year even while healthy. With only the untested Isaiah Johnson providing signed depth at the moment, the Buccaneers are likely to add some depth to the back of the secondary. Will they repeat their approach from last year and add safeties who clearly can compete to be starters, thus providing competition for Conte once again. Buccaneers coaches are high on Conte and often tout his superior athleticism.

CB Javien Elliott: Will he be in the competition for the slot corner job?

Elliott only played 134 defensive snaps last year, most of them coming in two games when the secondary was hit hard by injuries. However, he finished out the 2016 season – his rookie year – as the primary nickel back in the absence of Adjei-Barimah. The following spring, the Buccaneers signed veteran Robert McClain to compete for the nickel job, and indeed McClain started the season in that role. Later, McClain saw fairly extensive time on the outside, as well, thanks to injuries and the decision to look at Vernon Hargreaves as a slot corner.

McClain is due to become an unrestricted free agent and thus may not be around to compete for that nickel position in 2018. Or he might be re-signed after a solid season .However, the Buccaneers may choose to start with Hargreaves in that role, and/or they may add more cornerback talent early in the draft. The depth of the competition for the slot corner job has yet to be determined, and that will impact the size of Elliott's eventual opportunity.

S Justin Evans: Will his three rookie-season interceptions prove to be the first sign that he is the sort of ball-hawking safety for which the Bucs have long been searching?

Though he missed the last two games of the season with an ankle injury, Evans, a 2017 second-round draft pick, tied for the team lead with three interceptions. If he can match or exceed that total, he would become the first Tampa Bay safety with consecutive three-pick seasons since Jermaine Phillips in 2007 and 2008. (Ronde Barber had three interceptions in 2011 and four in 2012, but 2012 was the only season he played safety.) The Bucs have been trying for some time to find an all-around safety who could hit and create turnovers in the secondary, and they drafted Evans high last April believing he had that sort of full skill-set.

As noted above, it didn't take long last year for Evans to emerge as the one safety out of four potential starters who needed to be on the field at all times. His first career interception came off Patriots great Tom Brady in a nationally-televised game. He added two more later in the year, and several were of the very athletic variety. Evans surely still has a lot to learn about playing the safety position in the NFL, but he appears to have the athleticism and hands to be a playmaker in centerfield if he can put himself in position for more turnovers.

CB Maurice Fleming: Will he have a chance to deliver on his promising rookie training camp?

A rookie free agent out of West Virginia, Fleming started strong in his first NFL training camp, drawing praise from the coaches that was captured by the Hard Knocks cameras. Fleming might have had a real shot at following in the footsteps of Adjei-Barimah and Elliott and making the active roster as an undrafted rookie. Unfortunately, his preseason was cut short by an injury and he was waived with an "injured designation."

When players are waived with that designation, they can't re-sign with the same team until a certain number of weeks have passed. That's what happened with Fleming, who got healthy, got a new tryout in late November and signed back with the Bucs' practice squad. After the season, he got a new reserve/futures contract to have another go at it in 2018.

So, can Fleming prove his work early in his rookie camp was no fluke? The Buccaneers clearly have seen something in the young cornerback and want to take a longer look.

CB Vernon Hargreaves: Will he have a single defined role for the entire season?

Hargreaves' second season didn't go as well as hoped, particularly when a hamstring injury proved severe enough to sideline him for the entire second half of the season. Before the injury, the 2016 first-round pick was transitioning into a new role as the primary slot corner.

The former Florida star, chosen 11th overall in 2016, had a typical rookie season, with some early struggles but the trajectory pointing steadily up. That set up high hopes for his sophomore campaign but Hargreaves struggled early and didn't play with the same aggressiveness that had marked a good finish to the previous season. Obviously, the Buccaneers still have high hopes for the talented defender, but it will be interesting to see how those hopes are defined. Will he start off 2018 in that same slot role or move back to the outside? Hargreaves even got some experience in 2018 playing a hybrid outside/inside role, a la Ronde Barber. And will Hargreaves start out hot enough to stay in whatever his initial role proves to be?

S Isaiah Johnson: Will he make the active roster to start the season for the first time in his third NFL year?

Johnson came to the Buccaneers as an undrafted rookie out of South Carolina in the spring of 2016 and he's been with the team without interruption ever since. However, he has played in just four regular-season games and has yet to see a snap on defense in the games that count. Johnson spent all of his rookie season on the Bucs' practice squad and started there again in 2017 before two separate promotions gave him some exposure.

Can Johnson break out of the gate with the 53-man squad this season? He's already taken the first step by proving during his relatively brief playing time that he could help out on special teams. In just those four games Johnson recorded four kick-coverage tackles as well as a touchdown on a fumble return in the season-capping win over New Orleans. With several 2017 safeties possibly hitting free agency, Johnson may have a very good opportunity to prove that he should play 16 games next fall.

CB David Rivers: Can he make an impact on special teams?

Rivers will be hoping to advance in the same way that Johnson did. He spent time with three different teams as an undrafted rookie last year, signing first with the Packers before going to training camp with the Jets. The Bucs picked Rivers up for their practice squad early in the season and then released him in November. However, when some late-season injuries hit the secondary, Rivers came back, to the active roster this time, and appeared in one game.

Thus, Rivers is on track to go to his first camp with the Buccaneers next summer. Cornerback depth is difficult to find and Rivers has good size, so if he can flash on defense in July and August he could get a longer look. Still, the quickest way for any inexperienced player to make the roster is to stand out on special teams, so his performance in that area could make the difference.

CB Josh Robinson: Will he re-emerge as the Bucs' best special-teamer?

Robinson's prowess in the kick-and-coverage game in 2016, his first year in Tampa, earned him a second contract in 2017 as well as a team captaincy for special teams. That prowess was on display at the very end of last season when he caused the fumble, noted above, that Johnson returned for six points. However, Robinson lost a lot of time in his second Buc year to free agency and in the long run wasn't the team's most productive player on special teams. Linebacker Devante Bond led that squad in tackles, Tandy played multiple important roles and wide receiver Freddie Martino might have been the most impactful special-teamer on a per-snap basis.

But the new deal that Robinson got last spring was for two seasons, so he will have the opportunity to come back strong and again be a leader in the kicking game. Robinson had a Pro Bowl-caliber campaign in that regard in 2016; does he have another season like that in him?

CB Ryan Smith: Will his significant experience in 2017 pay off in his second year at cornerback?

The Bucs started the season with Hargreaves and Brent Grimes as the top two cornerbacks and McClain playing in the slot. However, it didn't take long for injuries to hit the cornerback room, and they essentially never stopped hitting, making that position a revolving door all season. In the end, it was Smith who was the most constant presence in the lineup.

Tampa Bay drafted Smith in the fourth round in 2016 with the notion of converting him to safety, a project that went on for much of that season. However, as the year wore on, Smith's work on the practice field convinced the Bucs' staff that his talents would be best utilized at cornerback. He moved to that position full-time in 2017 and began developing his game. It was probably not the team's intention, however, to have him in the starting lineup by the second game and to have him essentially stay there the rest of the year.

Smith had some struggles early but did progress as the season went on. Did he show enough to have a firm hold on a starting job heading into 2018? That remains to be seen, but all the exposure he got last fall certainly gave him ample opportunity to learn on the job.