The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' secondary struggled for much of the 2018 season, statistically, but it also struggled to keep any sort of consistent lineup on the field. As we noted last week while posing questions about the safety position, it took six players to absorb all the snaps from those two spots. If anything, there was even more upheaval with their brethren in the secondary, the cornerbacks.
In 16 games, the Buccaneers used eight different starting combinations at cornerback, if one includes the contests in which the team started in a nickel package (and there were 10 of those). They did not employ the same combination in any more than four games, though veteran Brent Grimes and rookie Carlton Davis were by far the most common corners on the field. Seven different cornerbacks started at least one game for the Bucs in 2018; five of them started at least five games.
This unpredictable lineup was largely due to injuries, as Vernon Hargreaves was lost for the season after one game and Grimes, Davis and M.J. Stewart all were sidelined from time to time. Add to that that both Davis and Stewart were getting their initial introductions to the league and De'Vante Harris was a midseason addition and it's a little less surprising, if still disappointing, that the team finished 26th in the NFL in pass defense. In fact, considering that things only got more shaky, lineup-wise, as the season wore on, it's at least a little bit impressive that the team rebounded from dead last at the halfway point.
Yes, the Buccaneers' secondary was somewhat better down the stretch, and rookies like Davis and safety Jordan Whitehead, seemed to increasingly get their feet underneath them in the second half, but there is still plenty of room for improvement for this group in 2019 under new Head Coach Bruce Arians and his staff. Individually, the Bucs' cornerbacks, like the players at every position, face some important questions heading into the new season. In the weeks leading up to the new league year, we are going position by position and proposing one burning questions for each player on the 2019 roster. Last week we started on the defensive side of the ball at the back end, examining the safeties first. That followed a run through the offensive positions in previous weeks: tight ends, wide receivers, running backs, offensive line and finally the quarterbacks. Now we finish up the secondary by looking at the cornerbacks.
As will be the case at every position, we are only including players who are currently under contract for 2019, or could 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: Cornerbacks
Players under contract for 2019: 5 (Carlton Davis, Vernon Hargreaves, David Rivers, Ryan Smith, M.J. Stewart)
Potential unrestricted free agents: 1 (Brent Grimes)
Potential restricted free agents: 2 (Javien Elliott, De'Vante Harris)
Potential exclusive rights free agents: None.
Carlton Davis: Will he flourish in Todd Bowles' aggressive scheme?
The Buccaneers drafted two cornerbacks within 10 spots in the second round of last year's draft, and they went after two specific types to handle certain roles. While M.J. Stewart (picked 53rd overall) was thought to be a good fit, potentially, in the slot, Davis (#63) was a bigger corner with an aggressive style of play. The Bucs thought he could be a good weapon against the league's larger wide receivers, particularly in press coverage.
The Buccaneers didn't necessarily intend to thrust either rookie directly into the starting lineup. As the season dawned, the starting cornerback duo was expected to be Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves, and Hargreaves would move inside, opening up one of the outside spots to either Davis or Ryan Smith for about 40% of the snaps. Smith was expected to get the call in the opener. However, Grimes missed the first two games of the season due to injury and that meant both Smith and Davis were on the field. With Hargreaves going down at the end of that opener, Davis was suddenly a regular.
In the end, the rookie would start 12 of the 13 games in which he would play, missing some time of his own due to two separate injuries. He finished with 40 tackles, four passes defensed, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery but will go into his second season still seeking his first interception. Davis's season mirrored that of the secondary as a whole, with some deep struggles in the first half of the season but more steady play down the stretch.
Due to all that rookie playing time and his improvement during the season, Davis looks like he could be a long-term fixture in the Bucs' secondary. That's particularly important with Grimes headed towards free agency and unlikely to return. What remains to be seen is how much of a leap forward Davis takes in his second year and if the defense imported by Arians and coordinator Todd Bowles will be even better suited for his talents.
Bowles is generally considered a very aggressive defensive play-caller. He's not afraid to blitz on any down and to play with a single-high safety, leaving his corners in man-to-man coverage. Davis should expect to be in a lot of one-on-one coverage, and he'll likely be asked to press in order to disrupt the quick routes an offense would use to counter those blitzes. That seems to be right up Davis's alley.
Javien Elliott: Will Elliott be in the thick of the competition for the slot corner job?
Elliott took over the nickel corner job about midway through the season when Stewart was sidelined by a persistent foot injury. Because the pass defense played better down the stretch and Elliott seemed to be holding his own without any glaring problems, he held onto that job after Stewart returned to action. Elliott was one of five Buccaneer defensive backs to pick off a pass in 2018, an area in which the team was sorely lacking, and he added 24 stops and three tackles for loss.
Elliott notably did the same thing in his 2016 rookie season, when he got a promotion from the practice squad and found himself as the primary slot corner for the last six games of the year. That year, too, the Bucs' pass defense showed significant improvement down the stretch. That said, Elliott played very little on defense in his second year and was used only on special teams for the first half of 2018. He even went down to the practice squad for a week at midseason.
So how will the tenacious young corner be viewed by the new coaching staff. He's already been a success story multiple times over in his football career, making the Florida State squad as a walk-on and eventually finding a prominent role before signing as an undrafted free agent in Tampa. He's made the most of that opportunity, as well. He's a potential restricted free agent, which means the first question is whether or not he is extended a tender offer by the team. If that happens, he'll have another shot at the slot corner job but will also be contending with a healthy Hargreaves, who seemed to have that job locked in when the 2018 season began.
Vernon Hargreaves: Will the former first-round pick have better injury fortune and deliver on the promise he showed in the opener of 2018?
After being selected 11th overall in the 2016 draft, Hargreaves had a very promising season. He played nearly every defensive snap, and while he had the usual rookie ups and downs, he appeared to be peaking near season's end. However, his second season was a rough one. He was urged to play more aggressively by the coaching staff but was on the wrong end of several big plays, and both Head Coach Dirk Koetter and Hargreaves himself expressed concern over his play. Before he could right the ship, a hamstring injury took him out for the second half of the season.
Hargreaves did appear to be back on track in 2018. He competed to be one of the starting outside corners as well as the primary nickel back and succeeded in winning both jobs. He started the season hot, standing out in a 48-40 Week One win at New Orleans that included very few notable defensive performances. In fact, it was in the process of making an acrobatic and critical pass defensed in the red zone of that game that he sustained a shoulder injury that would send him directly to injured reserve.
So it's that 2018 opener that is fresh in everyone's minds as Hargreaves heads into his fourth season and prepares to work under a new coaching staff. It was a very promising game, seeming to show that Hargreaves was blossoming into the player the Bucs thought they drafted high two years earlier, but of course it was only a single game.
After his injury misfortune of the last two seasons, Hargreaves is due for a better run of health in 2018. Assuming he gets it, the Bucs will be looking for more of what they saw in Week One a season ago.
De'Vante Harris: Will his cameo with the Buccaneers last season show enough to the new coaching staff to bring him back in 2019?
Harris played two seasons in New Orleans after signing on as an undrafted free agent in 2016 and even started a pair of games but the Saints let him go in the middle of last year's preseason. The Bucs nabbed Harris with a waiver claim but he sustained an injury in the subsequent weeks and was let go with an injury settlement. When the required time had passed and Harris was healthy, he was re-signed on October 23.
For the next five weeks, Harris did nothing but play special teams. Then, with Cam Newton and the Panthers coming to town in Week 13, the Bucs ran into a rash of injuries at the cornerback spot, with Carlton Davis, Brent Grimes and M.J. Stewart all out. Harris was pressed into service as one of the outside starting cornerbacks and he played every snap in what proved to be a very good defensive game for the Buccaneers and, more importantly, a win. The Bucs cleared up their injury issues quickly after that and Harris only played 15 more defensive snaps over the final four weeks.
The question is, was that one good game enough to make the team want to bring Harris back. That's not a given, because he's slated to become a restricted free agent, but only if the Buccaneers extend to him a qualifying offer. The complicating factor, as we've noted several times in this Burning Questions series, is that it no longer matters how the previous coaching staff felt about Harris. By this point, Arians and his staff have completed their own evaluations of Harris and the rest of the players on the team. What did they think of that one bit of game film?
Harris plays a position at which it is tough to find depth in the NFL, and he has logged a pretty decent amount of experience in his three years in the league. Will the Bucs be motivated to give him another long look in 2019?
David Rivers: In his third professional season since entering the NFL as an undrafted free agent, will Rivers make an opening day roster for the first time?
Rivers has followed a path similar to that taken by many undrafted players who show enough early on to pique the interest of at least a team or two. That's why he's still on the Bucs' roster heading into 2019, two years after he first signed with the Green Bay Packers out of Notre Dame.
Rivers got hurt not long after arriving in Green Bay and was let go, but the New York Jets picked him up right before training camp. He didn't make the Jets' roster but the Buccaneers signed him to their practice squad about halfway through that 2017 season. He was later let go and signed by the Miami Dolphins to their practice squad but the Bucs brought him back to their active roster at the very end of the season.
Rivers thus went into his first full NFL offseason in Tampa and actually saw a good amount of first-team snaps during spring practices due to injuries to other players and Grimes's absence from most of those voluntary sessions. That gave him some momentum heading into his first Bucs' training camp, but that was stalled by an injury in mid-August that led to his release with an injury waiver. Because of that method of release, Rivers wasn't eligible to re-sign with the Bucs until midseason, but he came back to the practice squad in October and then was promoted to the active roster in late November. He saw action in two games, most of it on special teams though he did log 13 defensive snaps.
This past September, safety Isaiah Johnson made the Bucs' opening day roster after two years spent mostly toiling on the team's practice squad. That's the goal for Rivers now as he enters the same portion of his career as Johnson was in last year.
Ryan Smith: In the final year of his rookie deal, will he show enough on special teams and on defense to warrant a second contract in Tampa?
Smith wasn't drafted until the fourth round in 2016 and he spent his first year attempting to learn the safety position at the coaches' behest. Considering those two factors, the fact that he has started 16 games at cornerback over the past two seasons counts as a pretty good return on a pick at that portion of the draft.
There were ups and downs over those two years of course, but at one point last year Koetter said that Smith was playing the best football of his career to that point. The third-year player would end the season with 33 tackles, one interception and six passes defensed in six starts. Those six passes defensed tied for second on the team despite his somewhat limited playing time, and his interception in Week 12 against San Francisco ended a long and annoying drought for the Bucs' defense.
Smith heads into the final year of his initial four-year rookie contract this fall. Given his experience and the need for depth at that position, as well as his very good work on special teams, he would seem like a strong candidate to retain his spot on the roster. Assuming that occurs, will Smith get the opportunity to show the new staff what he can do, and will he take enough advantage of it to be in the team's plans as he heads towards unrestricted free agency a year from now?
M.J. Stewart: Will he head into his second camp as a cornerback exclusively or will he also get a look at safety with the new coaching staff?
As noted above, Stewart was the team's primary nickel back for a good part of the first half of the season before he ran into injury problems and missed five games. When he came back, the rookie played exclusively on special teams while Elliott handled the job in the slot. However, towards the end of that season the Bucs' previous coaching staff began working Stewart at safety in practice because that position had grown a bit thin. Had any more injuries hit the safety position, the rookie out of North Carolina would likely have stepped in at that spot.
It's worth noting that in the run-up to the 2018 draft, some scouting reports on Stewart mentioned that he might be a good fit at safety in the NFL because of his physical style of play and his sure tackling. He was compared to Micah Hyde, who has also played both corner and safety in the NFL for Green Bay and Buffalo.
It would have been an interesting question as to where Stewart would have started his second season even if the previous coaching staff had been retained. It is even more interesting with Arians, Bowles and company in charge. Bowles in particular has a history of playing to his charges' strengths and taking advantage of versatile players, such as Tyrann Mathieu. Will Stewart be seen as just a cornerback, or just a safety, or perhaps as some kind of hybrid who can help in multiple ways? How his role unfolds in the offseason and in training camp will be one of the more interesting storylines produced by the Bucs' defense.