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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2024 State of the Bucs: Safety

Taking a position-by-position breakdown as the Buccaneers head into the 2024 season, continuing with safeties


Position Group: Safety

Players: Antoine Winfield Jr., Ryan Neal, Dee Delaney, Kaevon Merriweather, Richard LeCounte II (Reserve/Future),

2023 Evaluation: Bucs' free safety Antoine Winfield Jr. produced a historic season in 2023 for the Buccaneers, earning first-team All-Pro honors. In Week 18, Winfield Jr. capped off his sensational year with five tackles (one for loss), 1.0 sack, one quarterback hit, and a touchdown-saving forced fumble within the 1-yard line to preserve a division-clinching 9-0 shutout win for the Buccaneers. His third-down sack also pushed the Carolina Panthers back nine yards, forcing a missed 52-yard field goal, keeping 10 points off the scoreboard between his two game-shifting plays. Winfield Jr. put forth an NFL Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season in 2023, posting 122 tackles (six for loss), 12 passes defensed, eight quarterback hits, 6.0 sacks, six forced fumbles, four fumble recoveries and three interceptions.

He finished the year with a share of the league lead in both forced fumbles and fumble recoveries, joining Haason Reddick (2022) as the only players to accomplish that feat since at least 2000. Among defensive backs in 2023, Winfield Jr. finished first in sacks (6.0), first in forced fumbles (six), first in fumble recoveries (four), tied for third in takeaways (seven) and third in quarterback hits (eight). Winfield Jr. earned a 91.2 grade this season from PFF, putting him as the league's highest graded safety in 2023. He rarely came off the field, notching 1,100 defensive snaps for Tampa Bay. Winfield Jr. played like his hair was on fire, bolstering the back end with instinctual play. His recognition of play designs put him in position to make plays on the football. Winfield Jr. is adept at taking effective angles to the ball and leaves no mercy as a tackler. The ball-hawk can do it all: work the post over the top, set the edge against the run, play the slot and blitz the quarterback with ferocity. Due to his range and awareness, Winfield Jr. reverted back to a role at free safety in 2023 but was used in the box on occasion to collapse the pocket/invade the backfield.

Ryan Neal, the team's starting strong safety, played 581 snaps and accumulated 76 tackles, four tackles for loss in 13 game starts. Neal, an offseason acquisition for the Bucs via free agency, was signed to fill the void left by veterans Keanu Neal and Logan Ryan. With Seattle in 2022, Neal stepped in for Jamal Adams and became the team's X-factor. He finished the 2022 season with an 86.5 overall PFF grade — more than 25 grading points higher than his previous career high. Neal totaled six pass breakups and 25 defensive stops, earning 79.5-plus grades in both run defense and coverage per PFF. After primarily serving in a rotational role for Seattle in nickel and dime packages, Neal earned a starting gig in Tampa Bay opposite Winfield Jr.

Kaevon Merriweather worked solely on special teams (289 snaps) and undrafted rookie Christian Izien, who primarily served as the club's nickel corner, split time at strong safety throughout the course of the season.

2024 Outlook: Tough decisions loom for the Buccaneers as both Winfield Jr. and Ryan Neal are impending unrestricted free agents. Winfield Jr., who has established himself atop the hierarchy in the league at his position, will be a top priority this summer for the Bucs' brass. His resumé speaks for itself and he will undoubtedly command a lucrative deal for his contributions on the field. Winfield Jr. sets the tone on defense and the Bucs could look to franchise tag him while a long-term contract extension is negotiated with the All-Pro safety.

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