The Tampa Bay Buccaneers saw a significant amount of upheaval at the safety position during the 2018 season. It took five different players to account for the 32 starts at the two back-of-the-secondary spots, and a sixth man to help get through an especially difficult stretch in December. The two players who got the starts on opening day were on injured reserve by season's end, and in the end it was a rookie who would absorb the most safety snaps.
However, the Buccaneers might have emerged at the other end with a pair of starters it can rely on for the long haul, both still under the age of 24.
Veteran Chris Conte was joined by second-year man Justin Evans, a 2017 second-round draft pick, in the starting lineup to kick things off, but Conte only lasted three games and was only to make it through the first one completely unscathed. Evans made it through 10 contests before joining Conte on injured reserve. Rookie Jordan Whitehead, a fourth-round pick out of Pitt, started 11 of the last 12 games but the rest of the snaps were soaked up by two in-season acquisitions – Andrew Adams and Josh Shaw – and first-year man Isaiah Johnson.
The Buccaneers' pass defense was not strong in 2018, and the safeties are not absolved from that, but there were some reasons for optimism. Evans made some big plays early in the season and Whitehead came into his own late in the campaign. Adams, a third-year player cut by the Giants in September, was snapped up by the Bucs for depth after the Conte injury but ended up leading the team in interceptions and proving he could play at several spots on the field.
The Buccaneers need better results on defense in 2019 and hope that a new coaching staff led by head man Bruce Arians and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles can make a big difference. There will be changes in personnel, too, and the Bucs could seek upgrades at any or all three levels of their defense. Still, there are some young and interesting pieces to work with at the safety position.
That said, this is a particularly unproven crew, so – like every player on the team – the safeties on the roster heading into 2019 face some important questions. 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. In recent weeks we've gone through the offense: tight ends, wide receivers, running backs, offensive line and finally the quarterbacks. Now we move to the other side of the line, starting at the back end of the defense.
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: Safeties
Players under contract for 2019: 2 (Justin Evans, Jordan Whitehead)
Potential unrestricted free agents: 2 (Chris Conte, Josh Shaw)
Potential restricted free agents: 1 (Andrew Adams)
Potential exclusive rights free agents: 1 (Isaiah Johnson)
Andrew Adams: Will the versatility Adams displayed in 2018 be attractive to a new coaching staff that has previously used defensive backs in creative ways?
Adams joined the team in late September and saw a small percentage of defensive snaps in most of the next eight games, contributing a handful of plays that included three passes defensed. It was in Week 13, however, that he really broke out, intercepting Carolina's Cam Newton three times in a 24-17 victory. Adams became just the third player in Buccaneers history to have a three-pick game, joining a pair of rather notable names in Ronde Barber and Aqib Talib.
Adams' role on offense had actually been growing up to that point thanks to injuries not in the secondary but at linebacker. The Bucs were so thin in the middle of their defense that they took to playing Adams in a sort of hybrid role that put him closer to the line of scrimmage in a three-safety set and took advantage of his physical style of play. It was an impressive display of versatility for the young player, especially considering he didn't have a training camp to learn the Bucs' defense.
Adams continued to play that role in sub packages but also started the last four games alongside Whitehead, playing a more traditional safety role in base packages. He would finish the season with four interceptions – no one else on the team had more than one – and a team-high nine passes defensed despite being on the field for only 370 of the team's 1,047 defensive snaps.
Adams is set to become a restricted free agent in March, if the Buccaneers choose to extend a qualifying offer. That move would indicate the team wants to keep him around for at least another training camp and see if he continues to ascend, and he had certainly made a good impression on the previous coaching staff. Obviously, the arrival of Arians and company adds another layer of uncertainty on the issue, not just for Adams but for many players on the team. The new staff recently completed a thorough film review of the entire roster; where they came down on each player won't be clear until the team starts reshaping the roster in the spring.
That said, the versatility that Adams displayed last fall would seem to be a mark in the plus column when it comes to being evaluated by the new staff. During their time with the Arizona Cardinals, Arians and Bowles showed a willingness to use their defensive backs in creative ways to maximize their skills. This was especially true of Tyrann Mathieu and Deone Bucannon, both of whom were listed as safeties when they were drafted in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Mathieu played both free safety and slot corner for the Cardinals, sometimes in the same season, while Bucannon began his career starting at strong safety before transitioning to more of a linebacker role.
View some of the top photos of S Andrew Adams vs. Cam Newton and the Panthers
Justin Evans: Will a more aggressive, attacking defense bring out the big-playmaker that Evans appeared to be developing into at the start of last season?
Evans had a promising 2017 rookie season, emerging from an early-season four-way carousel of safeties to become the one consistent starter. He also recorded three interceptions and showed at times why he had a reputation as a very hard hitter at Texas A&M. The Bucs had high hopes for him developing into a producer of big plays in the secondary, and that seemed to be happening in the early going in 2018. He had a nifty scoop-and-score fumble return for a touchdown in a season-opening win in New Orleans and an impressive diving interception against Pittsburgh in a Week Three Monday night game.
Those big plays did not start a trend, however. Evans was not involved in another turnover and he recorded just one other pass breakup before his season was cut short after 10 games by a toe injury. The ailment caused him two games in November and he tried to come back in Week 13 only to aggravate the injury and land on I.R.
Evans also did not record a sack and had just one tackle for loss, but that likely had more to do with the deeper role he was asked to play as primarily the free safety. Even so, the Bucs surely would like more turnover production from that position in the form of both interceptions and forced fumbles. Most of Evans' four picks so far have been of the acrobatic variety, and his hard-hitting ability should eventually produce some loose balls.
Upon their respective arrivals in Tampa, both Arians and Bowles made it clear that they would be calling an aggressive, attacking style of defense. During their two seasons together in Arizona before Bowles left to become the New York Jets' head coach, Arizona ranked fifth in interceptions with 38 and first in defensive touchdowns with nine. This is a defense that could very well bring out the best in Evans and allow him to become the big-play machine the Bucs believed they were drafting in 2017.
Isaiah Johnson: Can he take the next step forward to being a regular starter on defense?
The Buccaneers' 2018 season didn't go particularly well but it was a very important year in Johnson's career. After two (almost) full seasons on the practice squad, Johnson broke camp with the 53-man roster in his third year. The Buccaneers released respected veteran Keith Tandy to go with the younger player instead. The practice squad is a good stepping stone to a more permanent NFL job for a lot of players…but certainly far from all of them.
Johnson stuck around for two years (and got a couple of brief promotions to the active roster in 2017) because the coaching staff could see his continued development on the practice field. He also played well on special teams during his three regular-season games in 2017, so the team was confident in him in that regard. By keeping him on the roster over Tandy to start the season last year, the coaches were showing that they were confident in Johnson if he was called into service on defense, as well.
That eventually happened last year thanks to the various injuries noted above. Johnson drew four starts and was on the field for 404 snaps, third most among all the safeties behind Evans and Whitehead. His final line included 45 tackles, one interception and two passes defensed.
If Johnson has been on a steady incline since he arrived as an undrafted free agent out of South Carolina in 2016, the next logical step forward is to compete for a starting job, or at least a prominent role on defense. He had that for a good portion of last year, but that was mostly necessitated by injuries elsewhere. Assuming the Buccaneers give Johnson the qualifying offer that would make him an exclusive rights free agent in March – which in turn would essentially guarantee he's back for another shot in camp – he'll have a chance to fight for that bigger role on defense. Depending upon the number and prominence of players the Buccaneers add to the secondary in the upcoming offseason, Johnson could also be fighting to keep his spot on the active roster.
Jordan Whitehead: Will his second-half surge as a rookie earn him a top spot on the depth chart heading into training camp?
As noted above, Whitehead's 11 starts and 660 snaps were the most by any safety on the roster last year, but that likely was not the plan. When the Buccaneers took the undersized but rugged safety in the fourth round last spring, they already had Conte and Evans penciled in as starters, and at the time Tandy was also a consideration. Whitehead played only one snap in the season opener at New Orleans.
However, Conte's injury misfortune began in Week Two and Whitehead found himself on the field for 91 defensive snaps in the next two games. He missed the Bucs' next game, at Chicago, with a hamstring injury but then played every snap on defense in the next contest. From that point on, Whitehead was a significant part of the team's defensive plans.
After a bit of a slow start, the rookie took to that job well, eventually finishing second on the team with 76 tackles, including four for a loss, while also breaking up four passes. Tampa Bay's secondary played somewhat better down the stretch and Whitehead individually was more productive in the team's last six games. During that span he recorded 33 tackles and all four of his pass-breakups. With Evans and Conte on the shelf, Adams playing a hybrid role and late-season addition Josh Shaw seeing meaningful snaps in several games, the Bucs needed Whitehead to handle his role like a veteran, and he did.
With Conte headed to free agency, assuming he is not re-signed in the next few weeks, the Bucs would seem to have an obvious pair of front-runners for their two safety jobs in 2019. Evans and Whitehead didn't get a lot of time to play together in 2018, but each individually showed promise. The question is, how much competition for those jobs will there be by the time the Bucs hit training camp this summer? As mentioned earlier, the Bucs could look to free agency and the draft to add talent at any level of the defense, given the results last year. Whitehead finished 2018 as an incumbent starter in Tampa Bay's secondary but how solid that position is could depend on the team's transactions in the months to come.