Rookie CB E.J. Biggers proved to be a fast learner during the Buccaneers' three-day camp
E.J. Biggers hasn't yet faced Antonio Bryant or Michael Clayton or Maurice Stovall (average size: 6-3, 213 pounds), but he's already discovered that the adjustment to the NFL practice field won't be an easy one.
Biggers competed in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' rookie mini-camp last weekend, one week after he was drafted in the seventh round. The majority of his opponents on the other side of the line were rookies on tryout contracts, though he did get to match up with fellow seventh-rounder Sammy Stroughter on occasion. It will be another week and a half before the 6-0, 180-pound Biggers tries to execute some bump-and-run coverage on Tampa Bay's collection of big receivers.
The main challenge for Biggers during the mini-camp was absorbing and implementing the fundamentals of cornerback play in a Jim Bates defense. Tampa Bay's new defensive coordinator is implementing a new system that asks for more physical play by its cornerbacks, but not in a simple way that can be accomplished by mere aggression. The idea is to disrupt routes and take away the quarterback's option so that the ball remains in the backfield a second or two longer.
Biggers spent the weekend learning what Buccaneer veterans found out during the voluntary mini-camp at the beginning of April: There is a learning curve ahead.
"To play bump the way we play it you just don't do it overnight," said Bates. "It takes a lot of work, a lot of practice. Just getting confidence and patience with the release of the receivers, getting your hands on the receivers, being able to turn and get on top of routes…there's a lot to it."
The good news: Biggers was a fast learner during the three days of camp. After the first day of camp, Bates said that the rookie out of Western Michigan – quite understandably – had some technique issues to clean up, but that it had been a good opening effort. Head Coach Raheem Morris saw that effort pay off as Biggers progressed steadily from Friday through Sunday.
"E.J. had a big day today," said Morris after the final practice of camp. "He went out there and he covered. He locked in on the system earlier in the week and kind of just did his job, but you've seen the movement, you've seen all the stuff you want to see from him. And then today he kind of stood up a little bit and kind of got in some people's faces that challenged him and challenged those guys. So it was really good."
There was some speculation after the draft that the Bucs might take a look at Biggers at both cornerback and safety, but Bates indicated that he sees the rookie staying at his natural position. That said as much about the state of Tampa Bay's secondary depth chart as it did about Biggers.
"We're working him at corner and just seeing what he can do there," said Bates. "That's where we need the most help. He's a good athlete; he showed that out there [at mini-camp]."
The Buccaneers lost one of their 2008 starters, Phillip Buchanon, to free agency, but had the obvious replacement in '08 first-rounder Aqib Talib, who tied for the team lead in interceptions last year. Right cornerback starter Ronde Barber, a four-time Pro Bowler, returns, but Talib's elevation means that the nickel back position is up for grabs. That is, and has been for some time, an interesting role in that the third corner generally comes in and plays on the outside while Barber moves into the slot, which is traditionally the "nickel back" position.
Even as a seventh-round pick, Biggers has a real opportunity to compete for an important role. Also in the running are Elbert Mack, who saw a smattering of playing time on defense last year, particularly early in the season, and Kyle Arrington, who was on the practice squad in 2008.
"Of course, Ronde and Aqib are the top two, and then E-Mack's there," said Bates. "Then we have…Arrington and of course now we have E.J. Biggers involved in there and we may bring in another corner. But it's going to be a battle to see who's going to be the third corner. Ronde will move inside on nickel; he plays at a high level and is great. We're still looking for that guy to jump out and say, 'Hey, this position is going to be mine.' It's going to be into training camp before the competition really gets into full swing."
Biggers and his veteran teammates will be adjusting together to Bates' scheme, though of course players like Barber have volumes of NFL experience to help them make the transition. Bates said that even Barber struggled a little bit with the new system in the very first practice of the full-team camp in early April, but that the veteran caught on very quickly.
"Ronde's played at such a high level," said Bates. "It's mainly been playing off, playing in the Tampa Two, then going into nickel on third down. He improved every day as far as in the first mini-camp. You have to be able to adjust as far as, 'Hey, what kind of speed does that guy have? Can I get my hands on? Can I get good cut-off angles?'"
Biggers has to figure that out, too. He also has to battle against more experienced players as the available roster spots start to dwindle. His work is just beginning and it's a long road ahead. But a good start always helps, and Biggers got just that last weekend at One Buc Place.