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2023 State of the Bucs: Cornerbacks

Taking a position-by-position breakdown as the Buccaneers head into the 2023 season, continuing with cornerbacks

State of Bucs CBs

Position Group: Cornerbacks 

Players: Carlton Davis III, Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting, Zyon McCollum, Dee Delaney, Don Gardner, Duron Lowe  

2022 Evaluation: In 2022, both Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis III set the tone in the secondary – a reimagined look of their previous collegiate tenure at Auburn. The starting tandem played the majority of snaps, with Davis playing 94% of the team's defensive snaps, including 810 total snaps in 13 game starts. Meanwhile, Dean played 90% of the Bucs' defensive snaps and 885 total in 15 game starts. The dynamic pair missed time due to injury, with Davis nursing both a hip and shoulder injury, while Dean dealt with a toe injury. 

Dean has consistently been a top-tier performer throughout his career and the trend continued in 2022. Among all cornerbacks this season, Dean allowed the fifth fewest yards (386) as the nearest defender with a minimum of 60 targets per Next Gen Stats. In addition, since entering the league in 2019, Dean has surrendered the fewest yards (5.7) per target among defensive backs with a minimum of 150 targets. He disrupts releases and possesses the elite combination of size, athleticism and physicality at the line of scrimmage. Dean matches up well against big-bodied receivers and challenges at the catch point. The Auburn product is fluid in-and-out of transition, bolstering the back end of the defense. In 15 game starts in 2022, Dean amassed seven pass breakups, two interceptions and only allowed a 46.6 completion percentage. 

Davis signed a new, three-year contract extension last March, a representation of the corner's value. In 2022, he did not wow on the stat sheet in terms of interceptions (one), but Davis consistently disrupted passing lanes with 12 passes defensed and was a force against the run with 65 tackles. The Auburn product can play the high or low side of the route and he effectively jams and blankets receivers, making him a nuisance to receivers around the NFL.

Sean-Murphy Bunting concluded the 2022 regular season with 31 tackles (19 solo), two interceptions, five pass breakups and one forced fumble across 12 games. The fourth-year defensive back tallied six tackles (four solo) during the wild-card loss to the Cowboys. Murphy-Bunting missed five games in 2022 due to a quadricep injury, but when on the field, he produced his most effective season in coverage yet. Murphy-Bunting surrendered a 37.5 percent completion rate and 3.9 yards per attempt as a key defender across 411 defensive snaps, and both his interception and total pass-breakup totals ranked as the second-highest marks of his career in Tampa Bay. He is adept at shadowing releases and possesses fluid hips to match receivers.

Injuries piled up for the Bucs' secondary down the stretch of the season, meaning that the Buccaneers' back level was in flux and the movement necessitated other players to step in. Subsequently, both rookie Zyon McCollum and second-year reserve, Dee Delaney, received an increase in playing time. McCollum had three starts, accumulating 24 combined tackles (17 solo) in 13 games played. Delaney had one game start, registering one forced fumble, 29 combined tackles (25 solo) and two tackles for loss in 17 games played. Don Gardner and Duron Lowe are listed on the Bucs' Reserve/Future list. 

2023 Outlook: Of the cornerbacks listed above, Jamel Dean, Sean-Murphy Bunting and Dee Delaney are set to become free agents next month. The Bucs have several tough decisions looming with salary-cap restrictions. Dean became Tampa Bay's top performing corner in 2022 and Murphy-Bunting reached new heights over the last year when he was on the field. Although injuries hindered both of their respective seasons, production materialized when their number was called in 2022. As one of the most improved, no player on the Bucs' roster cemented a better case for a payday than Dean did in 2022. Following training camp, he won the starting role opposite Carlton Davis and built an impressive resumé as the NFL's No. 7 graded cornerback by Pro Football Focus (top rated upcoming free agent cornerback). The question remains, can the Bucs afford to keep him? After Murphy-Bunting amassed 31 starts over the course of his first three seasons, he had one in 2022. He routinely made splash plays when given opportunities and several question marks lie ahead for the Bucs' secondary this offseason.

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