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One Dozen Debates: Safety Depth Chart

Posted Jul 17, 2017

The Buccaneers appear to have four prime candidates for two starting safety positions, and the competitors will begin that battle when camp opens on July 28.

The third Monday of July brings with it the last week that will be free of Tampa Bay Buccaneers football. That Monday is the 17th and it begins a countdown of 12 days to the first practice of the Buccaneers' 2017 training camp. That's a dozen days to contemplate what questions (and, hopefully in the end, answers) will define this year's camp, in which the team will prepare for its most hotly anticipated season in many years.

That is, we have time to highlight One Dozen Debates, looking at the issues that will define this training camp. From the uncertain depth chart at safety to the impact of Hard Knocks to the next step in the development of Jameis Winston, we'll look at one question a day, and – hooray! – that will take us right into the start of football.

We may not have all the answers just yet, but we'll try to define the issues. Read along with us and each day you can let us know where you stand on each debate.

  • Monday, July 17: How will the depth chart at safety shake out?
  • Tuesday, July 18: Can the Bucs improve in the red zone?
  • Wednesday, July 19: Which Buc can break the 10-sack drought?
  • Thursday, July 20: Who will emerge as the Buccaneers' kicker in 2017?
  • Friday, July 21: Will the presence of the Hard Knocks crew affect the Bucs' preparations?
  • Saturday, July 22: Is the new offensive line alignment going to work?
  • Sunday, July 23: Is there enough depth at cornerback?
  • Monday, July 24: How will Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard co-exist?
  • Tuesday, July 25: Can the defense repeat its 2017 turnover magic?
  • Wednesday, July 26: What will the running game look like during Doug Martin's absence?
  • Thursday, July 27: What's the next step for Jameis Winston?
  • Friday, July 28: Is Tampa Bay going back to the playoffs in 2017?

Debate #1: How will the depth chart at safety shake out?

Barring any roster moves over the next 12 days, the Bucs will bring six safeties to training camp. Since the end of the 2016 season, Bradley McDougald has departed but former Cowboy J.J. Wilcox has arrived, Texas A&M star Justin Evans was drafted in the second round and Appalachian State's Alex Gray signed on as an undrafted rookie. Those three newcomers combine with holdovers Chris Conte, Keith Tandy and Isaiah Johnson to form the group from which a safety depth chart will be molded.

Most importantly, two starters must emerge from what is likely to be four prime candidates. The Bucs liked Johnson enough to keep him on the practice squad for the entire 2017 season – a relative rarity for that fluid group – and moved quickly to sign the 6-2, 219-pound Gray, who certainly looks the part. The team may have high hopes for the future of both young players, but given the NFL starting experience of the three veterans and the high draft capital used on Evans, it is those four most likely to be battling for the top spots on the depth chart.

McDougald took his 16 starts in 2016 season with him to Seattle, but both Conte and Tandy saw extensive time on defense last year, essentially splitting the other starting job. Both were also responsible for some of the biggest defensive plays of the year for Tampa Bay, and Tandy in particular closed the season on an impressive run.

That said, Evans is the most likely safety to be starting for the Buccaneers two or three years down the road, and Wilcox surely expected to compete for a starting gig when he left Dallas to come to Tampa as an unrestricted free agent. Since those two defensive backs missed a good amount of time in the offseason due to minor injuries, Conte and Tandy took most of the first-team reps in May and June. It will be very interesting to see how long that remains true once training camp begins, when all four safeties are expected to be ready to go.

Conte and Tandy's big plays were mostly a series of game-changing or game-clinching interceptions. Conte turned in big picks in wins over Chicago and Kansas City just as the team – and the defense in particular – began its second-half surge. An injury then sidelined Conte for several weeks, which allowed Tandy to step in and rack up four interceptions over the last five games, including back-to-back knockout blows against San Diego and New Orleans.

That's what the Bucs want out of the safety position, but in even more abundance. In his one full 16-start season (2014), Wilcox recorded three interceptions, a forced fumble and two fumble recoveries. As an Aggie, Evans had four interceptions last fall, breaking up seven passes. The Buccaneers' coaching staff will be watching those four safeties closely during training camp and – more critically – preseason games to see which two seem to have the most big-play potential.

The Buccaneers also need their safeties to be versatile. In May, Defensive Backs Coach Brett Maxie said the team will start its two best safeties, period, rather than one that is specifically strong at free safety and another that excels at strong safety. Buccaneer defensive backs have to know both positions well because their responsibilities can often switch back and forth in the middle of games.

Thus, the Bucs want a safety that can both patrol centerfield but also deliver hard hits closer to the line of scrimmage. The coaches already know that Conte and Tandy are versatile, and Wilcox showed the ability to do both in Dallas. Before he suffered an injury, Evans impressed during the Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp in May, with Head Coach Dirk Koetter saying he "brings range," and "moves like a corner.”

By season's end, it's likely that the Buccaneers will need defensive contributions from all four of those safeties, and so it's comforting that there is plenty of intriguing depth at the position. But only two of the four can start the opener on September 10, and the battle for those spots starts on July 28.