The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2019 draft was all about the defense. And what a difference it made!
The Buccaneers used a fifth-round pick on a kicker (Matt Gay) and a sixth-rounder on a receiver (Scotty Miller) but the rest of the class, including the first five picks, were all defenders. It started with LSU star Devin White at number five overall, the highest pick the franchise had ever spent on an off-the-ball linebacker.
The secondary then got a jolt with cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean in the second and third rounds, respectively, safety Mike Edwards in the third round and outside linebacker Anthony Nelson in the fourth round. Tampa Bay also used its seventh-round selection on defensive lineman Terry Beckner but he was the one member of the class who did not crack the active roster this fall.
By season's end, White, Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Edwards were all starting. Nelson played regularly in the outside linebacker rotation during the season's first half before a significant hamstring injury cost him almost all of the second half. Together, those five helped Tampa Bay's defense pull off a stunning turnaround from midseason on, as the Buccaneers led the NFL in sacks, quarterback hits and passes defensed from Week 10-17 and were second in tackles for loss and forced fumbles in that span.
Overall, Tampa Bay's Class of 2019 was the most productive group of rookie defenders in the entire NFL. For instance:
· The Bucs had the most passes defensed by rookies (35) of any team in the NFL.
· The Bucs had the most interceptions by rookies (six) of any team in the NFL.
· The Bucs had the most defensive touchdowns by rookies (three) of any team in the NFL.
· The Bucs were tied for the most forced fumbles by rookies (5) of any team in the NFL, matching the Washington Redskins' total.
Devin White punctuated his class's output in Sunday's season finale by taking a fumble 91 yards for a touchdown, the longest fumble return touchdown in franchise history and the seventh-longest Buccaneer TD of any kind. It was his fourth fumble recovery of 2019 and his second touchdown return, to go with 91 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five QB hits, three forced fumbles, one interception and three passes defensed. White filled up every bit of his stat line, as the Bucs thought he could, despite missing three games and most of a fourth to an early-season knee injury.
"I feel like that's one of the things that I do, my biggest attribute is to always be around the ball," said White. "This year it was always, get the ball to the end zone and if you can't get it to the end zone get as close as you can. I'm just glad that I was able to create some turnovers, help get the ball for the offense, and I feel like I can do that so much more next year. I feel like that's a big part of my game.
White's month-long absence from the defense kept him from cracking 100 tackles as a rookie but still brought down ballcarriers at a higher per-game pace than any other rookie in the NFL. He also tied for the league's rookie lead in fumble recoveries and finished just one behind the leader in forced fumbles.
Most Tackles Per Game, Rookie, NFL, 2019 (minimum eight games played)
1. LB Devin White, Buccaneers: 7.0
2. LB Devin Bush, Steelers: 6.8
3. S Taylor Rapp, Rams: 6.6
4. LB Cole Holcomb, Redskins: 6.3
5. LB Dre Greenlaw, 49ers: 5.4
Most Fumble Recoveries, Rookie, NFL, 2019
1t. LB Devin White, Buccaneers: 4
1t. LB Devin Bush, Steelers: 4
3. DE Nick Bosa, 49ers: 2
4t. Many Players Tied: 1
Most Forced Fumbles, Rookie, NFL, 2019
1. DE Maxx Crosby, Raiders: 4
2t. LB Devin White, Buccaneers: 3
2t. LB Cole Holcomb, Redskins: 3
4t. Seven Players Tied: 2
Meanwhile, Murphy-Bunting and Dean patrolled the Buccaneers' secondary with ever-increasing effectiveness. Murphy-Bunting started getting regular playing time in Week Five and was a starter from the eighth game on. Dean had to overcome an early-season ankle injury and he didn't see more than a handful of defensive snaps until Week Nine. However, he was prominently involved in the secondary in seven of the last nine games and in that relatively short period of time was able to lead all NFL rookies in passes defensed. Murphy-Bunting tied for the NFL rookie lead in interceptions with a team-high three, one head of Dean.
Most Interceptions, Rookie, NFL, 2019
1t. CB Sean Murphy-Bunting, Buccaneers: 3
1t. S Juan Thornhill, Chiefs: 3
3t. CB Jamel Dean, Buccaneers: 2
3t. LB Devin Bush, Steelers: 2
3t. LB Ryan Connelly, Giants: 2
3t. CB Nik Needham, Dolphins: 2
3t. CB Amani Oruwariye, Lions: 2
3t. S Taylor Rapp, Rams: 2
3t. S Darnell Savage, Packers: 2
Most Passes Defensed, Rookie, NFL, 2019
1. CB Jamel Dean, Buccaneers: 17
2. CB Nik Needham, Dolphins: 11
3t. CB Byron Murphy, Cardinals: 10
3t. CB Trayvon Mullen, Raiders: 10
4t. Four Players Tied: 8
The rapid growth on defense gives the team that isn't headed to the playoffs the next thing it wants the most: hope for the following season. In the Buccaneers' case, the fact that the defensive turnaround was so clearly tied to the development of its youngest players is particularly encouraging for the future, not just next season but beyond. Head Coach Bruce Arians wishes he didn't have to wait a few more months to continue developing those players.
"A lot of it was the growth in the secondary, but not all of it," said Arians. "The growth in the secondary gives me so much hope because our front seven was so solid all year. The way we started playing defense in the middle of November gets me excited. It really wants me to keep working this week."