The Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected two cornerbacks and a safety in the first four rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft, taking advantage of a series of trades by General Manager Jason Licht that greatly improved the team's stock of picks. That was an unusual amount of attention paid to the secondary in one weekend – consider that it is the first time the Buccaneers have ever selected three defensive backs in the first four rounds of a draft – and it all but guarantees big chances to the unit, certainly in the future and potentially right away.
There are changes to every position on the depth chart every offseason, which is the exact reason why we are looking at them in turn now that the draft and free agency are in the rear view mirror. But the Buccaneers saved their most extensive remodeling for the secondary and the defensive line. While the D-Line was rebuilt mostly through free agency – save for one very big addition in the draft – all the newcomers in the defensive backfield are rookies.
On one hand, it has been demonstrated over and over again that the draft is a better way to build the core of a team and that free agency is very difficult to master. On the other hand, the Buccaneers at least have a pretty good idea of what they got in such veterans as Jason Pierre-Paul, Vinny Curry, Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein. If those linemen can simply perform to the baseline NFL levels they've already set, the Bucs will be much improved up front.
The same cannot be said for the secondary. The Buccaneers obviously believe they have identified players who can become long-term pieces in their pass defense, but those players still must prove themselves. In addition, while the new defensive linemen will mostly step into pretty obvious roles – for example, Pierre-Paul is the presumptive starting left end – the rookie DBs are just at the beginning of defining their roles on defense. It's not immediately clear how the young additions will integrate with such holdovers as Brent Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves and Ryan Smith.
Still, let's take a look at where we are with the offseason program over and training camp looming just ahead. The 90-man roster is essentially set for camp, though there usually a few back-end tweaks in July. After running through the offense first (here are our breakdowns for quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and the offensive line), we've now worked through the three levels of defense to the back. The defensive line and linebackers were examined in the past two weeks.
Today's position: Defensive Backs
Addition(s): Carlton Davis (second-round draft pick), Godwin Igwebuike (undrafted free agent), Mark Myers (undrafted free agent), M.J. Stewart (second-round draft pick), Jordan Whitehead (fourth-round draft pick)
Subtraction(s): Jude Adjei-Barimah, Robert McClain, T.J. Ward
Returning Players: Chris Conte, Javien Elliott, Justin Evans, Brent Grimes, Vernon Hargreaves, Isaiah Johnson, David Rivers, Josh Robinson, Ryan Smith, Keith Tandy
While it's true that there were no additions to the Bucs' 2017 group of defensive backs until the draft, there was still work to be done earlier in the offseason. The single most important bit of pre-draft work was to re-sign Grimes, who had finished the two-year deal he signed with Tampa Bay in 2016 and was clearly considering retirement. The Buccaneers made it clear that they would love to have Grimes back for at least one more year, and in March he came to the same conclusion and signed a new one-year deal. The Buccaneers also re-signed young corner Javien Elliott, who was an exclusive rights free agent.
Grimes is the surest thing in this wide-open secondary competition, the likely starter on the left side, as he has been for the last two seasons. Grimes has been the team's most productive and most consistent cornerback the past two seasons and he's the only player in the NFL with at least three interceptions in each of the last five seasons. Elliott could be a factor in the slot, though that competition seems a lot deeper with Hargreaves getting a shot at the job and M.J. Stewart coming aboard in the draft.
The Buccaneers chose not to re-sign free agent cornerback Robert McClain, who played a lot of snaps, both inside and outside, in his one year with the team. Safety T.J. Ward also departed via free agency. Neither has yet landed with another team. Cornerback Jude Adjei-Barimah, who spent last season on injured reserve, did not get a qualifying offer as a restricted free agent and thus became free to sign elsewhere.
And that brings us to the draft. By trading down five spots in the first round, Licht added a pair of extra second-round picks. That meant the Bucs could still use their own high second-round choice on a running back, as they were widely expected to do, and still add a pair of cornerbacks. Licht used the 53rd overall pick on Stewart, out of North Carolina, then 10 picks later landed Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis. In the fourth round, the Buccaneers snapped up Pittsburgh safety Jordan Whitehead.
"We needed to get some guys and Jason and the staff did a great job with M.J. and Carlton," said Secondary Coach Jon Hoke. "M.J. is a guy at North Carolina who played multiple positions. He played outside, he played inside. He moved all over the place and adapted well. He’s a very smart football player. He understands concepts, so that was a big part of it, his versatility and his ability to handle both. Carlton had a lot of different coaches when he was at Auburn. He had three different coordinators and so he adapted. Every style was a little bit different from his freshman year to his sophomore year to his junior year. So, it was good to be able to see him, when you watch him from his freshman year when they played off to his last year when they played more up. So, it was easy to see the skill set that he had."
The Bucs also made Northwestern safety Godwin Igwebuike a high-priority target among the ranks of undrafted players. The final addition to the secondary is another undrafted rookie, but Mark Myers had to do a bit more to prove himself, first coming to the Bucs' rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract. Potentially the first NFL player produced by the fledgling football program at Southeastern University in Lakeland, Myers impressed in that camp and was given a spot on the 90-man roster.
"Godwin did a good job [at rookie camp]," said Hoke. "A young man from Northwestern, he did a good job. Mark Myers, who was really a tryout guy and I’ll be honest, I didn’t even know about his college. One of the scouts showed me a tape and I said that he should definitely be a tryout guy. He’s not very big, but he is very quick, he’s explosive and he’s fast. It’s interesting."
How do they all fit? That's the unknown we referred to above. There are essentially five starting spots to be filled, when one includes the nickel back job, though the Buccaneers are sure to use more than five DBs over the course of the season. At corner, the Bucs have Grimes plus Hargreaves, who started 23 games over his first two seasons after he was taken 11th overall in 2016, and Smith, who opened 10 games last season and got some very valuable experience. That could be your starting three, with Hargreaves in the slot and Smith joining Grimes outside, unless one of the two second-round rookies muscles his way in.
The Buccaneers drafted Stewart with the belief that he could excel in the slot and also potentially win a job on the outside. They picked Davis because he's bigger than any of their other corners and can play a physical game against the many oversized receivers in the league. Davis, in particular, has been drawing a lot of attention in spring practices and has even gotten a lot of first-team work with Smith sidelined by injury.
Meanwhile, Whitehead joins what seems to be a perpetual competition at the safety position. When last year began, the starting duo was Chris Conte and Keith Tandy, with rookie second-rounder Justin Evans and Ward, the late free agency addition, looking to muscle their way in. Evans did so and, a year later, seems like the surest thing in that group. He was a full-time, every-down player by about a third of the way into last season. Conte and Tandy are still around, though, and each is capable of holding down a starting spot. With Whitehead's arrival, there are a lot of ways the top four on the depth chart could be arranged, and this one might not even be settled by the start of the regular season.
"I think Whitehead is a really good guy to talk to," said Defensive Backs Coach Brett Maxie. "He’s very bright, he’s from Aliquippa. He’s a good person. Obviously you know he’s a good player. Just like every year, it’s our responsibility to make sure that everybody gets a chance to compete, and they will. Us as coaches, we have to make sure that the best players play."
Notable 2017 Numbers: Simply put, opposing quarterbacks didn't have much difficulty completing passes against the Buccaneers' defense last year.
Tampa Bay surrendered a completion rate of 67.6%, which was fourth worst in the NFL. The Bucs also gave up 260.6 net passing yards per game, which ranked last in the NFL, and opponents picked up a league-high 2,489 yards after the catch. The Bucs' interception total (13) was smack dab in the middle of the league's rankings but they clearly were not contesting enough additional passes.
It must be acknowledged, of course, that Buccaneer defensive backs were operating in an unfavorable situation. Tampa Bay's defense recorded a league-low 22 sacks, and opposing passers too often had more than enough time to survey the field and find an open man. The Buccaneers hope their revamped defensive line will generate much more pressure this year, which would surely make life easier for the men in the secondary.
"On the defensive line, I just think that rushing and coverage works together," said Maxie. "I think we did a really good job of trying to address that. We have to hold up our end of the bargain obviously because the longer the quarterback can hold the football, in terms of coverage, we’re going to give those guys more time to get there. The guys that we’ve added this year, we expect the same from them."
Here's another series of telling numbers: 13, 10, 9 and 8. That's the number of starts made by, in order, Grimes, Smith, (the since-departed) McClain and Hargreaves last year. (Elliott also made one start). Those numbers add up to more than 32 because the defense opened in a nickel on nine occasions, but they still indicate that the team had difficulty getting settled at the position. That was in large part due to injuries. Hargreaves missed most of the back half of the season with a hamstring injury and McClain and Grimes were both sidelined for a handful of games at times. As is the case most seasons, the Buccaneers' cornerback depth was tested. With the additions of Stewart and Davis, the Bucs hope that depth will be more reliable in 2018.
And here's another one: $63.2 million. That's the combined cap hit just this year on the salaries for Drew Brees, Cam Newton and Matt Ryan, the other three starting quarterbacks in the NFC South. The Bucs have to play six games a year against those three, which include two recent MVPs and a passer who is about to break the NFL's all-time record in passing yards. The Bucs had the NFL's fourth-ranked passing attack last year, but New Orleans was fourth and the Falcons were eighth. A secondary that can stand up to that kind of firepower is practically a necessity for a team trying to navigate through this division to the playoffs.
Key Question:** What will Vernon Hargreaves role be?
Hargreaves had a typically up-and-down season as a rookie in 2016 but he did get extensive playing time, starting every game and playing 98% of the defensive snaps. He struggled early in 2017 while starting on the outside, but looked good when he was moved into the slot role around midseason. Unfortunately, his hamstring injury didn't allow him to build on that bit of success for very long and he eventually ended up on injured reserve.
Whether it is due to injuries or not, Hargreaves hasn't had the sort of production through his first two years that either he or the team would have hoped for. That said, Dirk Koetter and the Bucs' coaching staff have made it clear on multiple occasions this offseason that they still see a lot of potential in the former Florida standout. Koetter has said that Hargreaves will have the opportunity to compete for a front-line spot both on the outside and in the slot, and that he could even fill a Ronde Barber-type of role, playing outside in base packages and moving inside in the nickel.
"I think he’s just got to help us as a football player overall," said Hoke. "Vernon is smart, he always figures it out, in my opinion. He knows what he needs to work on. He needs to be better outside. We feel very comfortable with him inside. When we moved him inside, the first thing I thought was, 'Wow, you have good recall,' and he said, 'It’s the first position I learned when I got here,' because that’s where he started. So, he’s going to be apt at both. We’re giving him an opportunity to play at both and then let them all compete from there."
How it falls out for Hargreaves could be what sets the dominoes in the secondary in motion. If Hargreaves is starting in the slot only, that makes the outside spot opposite Grimes the key concern. If Hargreaves is playing on the outside instead of in the slot, then the nickel competition becomes more important and could fall to Stewart or Elliott. If Hargreaves does end up in a dual inside-outside role, the team still needs to identify who is the best option to play outside in the nickel, whether that's Smith, Davis, Stewart or someone else.
The Buccaneers' secondary is the position that will most be in need of defining roles when training camp begins. There is suddenly a lot of young talent in the mix, and a lot of room for improvement from last season. The potential lineup combinations are plentiful; the Bucs need to find the best one to slow down the powerful passing offenses in the NFC South.