The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent a draft pick in the second-to-fourth-round range in 2018 (Jordan Whitehead), in 2019 (Mike Edwards) and 2020 (Antoine Winfield Jr.). All three showed traits early that indicated they could thrive in a starting role. However, there are only two starting safety positions in the Buccaneers' defense, of course, and after Winfield arrived it was mostly Mike Edwards who was the odd man out. While he showed a nose for the football when he did get on the field, Edwards started only four contests over the 2020-21 seasons combined.
After the 2021 campaign, Whitehead hit free agency and signed a nice deal with the New York Jets, which in turn opened up a spot for Edwards to be an every-down player. However, that wasn't the only change to the Bucs' safety position in 2022. With Winfield coming off his first Pro Bowl appearance, Todd Bowles and the defensive coaching staff devised a new role for him that would make use of his impressive tackling and blitzing skills around the line of scrimmage. Winfield would start at safety in the base defense but then move into the slot in nickel packages. This also allowed the Bucs to get savvy and versatile veteran Logan Ryan, an offseason acquisition, on the field at safety in those sub packages.
While the logjam at safety was eased, the new role for Winfield created another battle for playing time at cornerback. The Bucs essentially had three starting cornerbacks for three positions – including slot corner – in Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, prior to the switch for Winfield. Now, with Davis having one starting corner spot locked up, the other one became a competition between Dean and Murphy-Bunting. While both players performed well in training camp, the job eventually went to Dean.
Murphy-Bunting mostly played on special teams in the early going, then missed a total of five games due to a quad injury. However, non-overlapping injuries to Dean and Davis in the stretch run allowed Murphy-Bunting to get back into the starting lineup, and he also started the Bucs' lone playoff contest, even with Dean back to active status. He made the most of it, particularly with an interception, six passes defensed and a forced fumble over the final four games of the regular season.
"When he got hurt early in the year it gave Dean a chance to play and when he came back Dean was playing great but then Dean got hurt," said Head Coach Todd Bowles. "I thought Sean came in and he had a heck of a second half of the season. I thought he played man-to-man well, he played zone well, he had great vision, he was confident, and he looked like he did two years ago. He's finally healthy, and I thought he had a heck of a year."
Murphy-Bunting strong finish to the season came just as he was heading to the possibility of unrestricted free agency. He is one of 22 pending unrestricted free agents from the Bucs' 2022 roster (not counting the retired Tom Brady) and one of eight defenders who logged at least 400 defensive snaps last year. Clearly, the Bucs have a lot to sort through between now and March 15, when the new league year begins and any of those 22 players who have not inked a new deal with the team become unrestricted free agents.
Roster turnover from season to season is a given in the NFL and it's certain that the Bucs won't be able to retain all of those potential free agents, but they will surely try to retain as much talent as possible, especially homegrown talent. And so, in the weeks leading up to the start of the new league year, we are going to look at 10 players who are currently poised to become unrestricted free agents in mid-March. This is the full schedule of our 2023 Free Agent Focus rundown:
- February 15: WR Julio Jones
- February 17: ILB Lavonte David
- February 22: OLB Anthony Nelson
- February 24: CB Jamel Dean
- March 1: S Mike Edwards
- March 3: DL Will Gholston
- March 8: CB Sean Murphy-Bunting
- March 10: DL Akiem Hicks
- March 14: S Logan Ryan
- March 15: OLB Carl Nassib
This list is subject to change based on potential roster moves in the coming weeks. However, we resume this week with yet another player from the Bucs' very successful 2019 draft class.
Player: Sean Murphy-Bunting
Age at the Start of the 2023 Season: 26
Experience: Entering fifth NFL season
How Acquired: Selected in the second round (39th overall) in the 2019 NFL Draft
Previous Contract(s): Played first four seasons on standard-length contract given to players drafted after the first round.
Rank in Pro Football Focus Top 100 NFL Free Agents for 2023: Not listed. Ranked 68th on the top 100 list by CBS Sports' Pete Prisco. Prisco comment: "He's battled through some injuries in his career, and he's been beaten up at times, but he has the talent to be a starter. The Bucs rave about his smarts playing the position, but does he have the skill set to lock down receivers?"
2022 Performance: Murphy-Bunting ended up playing 12 games with five starts in the regular season, four of those coming in the last four weeks. As noted above, he also started the Wild Card round playoff game against Dallas. He finished the season with 27 tackles, one tackle for loss, two interceptions, seven passes defensed and one forced fumble. His interception total tied for the league lead and he ranked third in passes defensed behind Davis (12) and Dean (7). He did so while logging 430 defensive snaps, roughly half of the totals for Davis (810) and Dean (885).
Murphy-Bunting's second interception of the season, against Carolina in Week 17, came at the Bucs' two-yard line and prevented the Panthers from expanding their 14-10 lead in the third quarter. The Bucs went on to win, 30-24, in the process clinching their second consecutive NFC South title. He also picked off eventual NFL Most Valuable Player Patrick Mahomes in Week Four against Kansas City. He added six tackles against the Cowboys in the playoffs.
Murphy-Bunting also played 120 snaps on special teams and made four kick-coverage stops.
Career Accomplishments: Murphy-Bunting quickly worked his way into the starting lineup as a rookie after he was one of three defensive backs the Buccaneers drafted in the second and third rounds in 2019 (also Dean and Edwards). He played in all 16 games and started 10, finishing with a team-leading three interceptions. One of those interceptions was a pick-six against Detroit in Week 15 that aborted an Lions comeback attempt in an eventual Bucs win.
After playing in every game, including the playoffs, in his first two seasons, Murphy-Bunting missed a total of 12 contests over the 2021-22 seasons due to injuries. Still, over his first four NFL campaigns he has played in 53 games with 36 starts and has amassed six interceptions, 21 passes defensed, four forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, 1.0 sacks and six tackles for loss.
In the playoffs, Murphy-Bunting has started five of the six games he's played, recording 29 tackles, one tackle for loss, three interceptions, five passes defensed and a fumble recovery. During the Bucs' run to the Super Bowl LV championship after the 2020 season, he became the first player in franchise history to intercept a pass in three straight postseason games. His interception late in the first half of the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay proved to be a pivotal play, as it set up a Scotty Miller touchdown catch just before halftime in what would prove to be a five-point victory.
Other Potential Free Agent Cornerbacks: James Bradberry (Eagles), Jonathan Jones (Patriots), Marcus Peters (Ravens), Cameron Sutton (Steelers), Emmanuel Moseley (49ers), Troy Hill (Rams), Patrick Peterson (Vikings), Rock Ya-Sin (Raiders), Tre Flowers (Bengals), Eli Apple (Bengals), Bradley Roby (Saints), Anthony Brown (Cowboys), Byron Murphy (Cardinals)
Top Cornerback Prospects in 2023 NFL Draft: Christian Gonzalez (Oregon), Devon Witherspoon (Illinois), Joey Porter Jr. (Penn State), Cam Smith (South Carolina), Kelee Ringo (Georgia), Emmanuel Forbes (Mississippi State), Deonte Banks (Maryland), Clark Phillips (Utah), Tyrique Stevenson (Miami), Kyu Blu Kelly (Stanford), Julius Brents (Kansas State), D.J. Turner (Michigan), Eli Ricks (Alabama), Jaylon Jones (Texas A&M)