The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' cornerbacks are young but growing up fast. The Buccaneers are counting on that continuing, because there are no seasoned veterans to fall back on. Ronde Barber isn't walking through that door.
The Bucs are very young at corner, in fact. At 26, Ryan Smith, who has been primarily a special teams player the last two years, is two years older than any of the other seven players in his group. Two of the others are 24, two are 23 and three are 22. That's what happens when you spend four second and third-round draft picks on cornerbacks over a two-year span.
Tampa Bay also used its first-round pick on cornerback Vernon Hargreaves in 2016, but that failed to produce a long-term solution at the position and Hargreaves was waived in November of last year. Fortunately, the more recent attempts seem to be working out better; the Buccaneers appear to have found a trio of starters, at the very least in Carlton Davis (2018 second-rounder), Sean Murphy-Bunting (2019 second-rounder) and Jamel Dean (2019 third-rounder).
It was the swiftly improving play of those three, in particular that fueled the second-half turnaround of the Buccaneers' defense after some rough early outings. Tampa Bay's front seven was relatively consistent throughout the season, particularly in terms of stopping the run and getting pressures off the edge, but the secondary significantly improved its coverage down the stretch and with those two working together things got much more difficult for opposing quarterbacks. Over the last eight weeks of the season, Tampa Bay led the NFL with 57 passes defensed, seven more than the next team on the list. On the season, Davis, Murphy-Bunting and Dean combined for 44 pass break-ups.
With the midseason release of Hargreaves and Dean's second-half integration into the defense, the most significant changes to the defense took place before the 2019 season ended. As such, there has been little movement at the position in the 2020 offseason. The Bucs used big chunks of their available cap space to keep the front line intact and also bolstered the safety position in the draft with Antoine Winfield. Their outside free agency work was largely aimed at the offense with the signings of Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Joe Haeg.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 53-man roster.
So, again, the Buccaneers are content to let youth be served at cornerback in 2020.
Over a six-week span in May and June, we have been going through the Buccaneers depth chart to see where each position stands now that the draft and most of free agency are in the rear view mirror. Some positions needed more attention in the offseason than others after the 2019 season, but almost every spot on the depth chart has already seen some turnover. Today we look at the cover men.
Roster Review Schedule:
· Monday, May 18: Quarterbacks
· Wednesday, May 20: Running Backs
· Monday, May 25: Wide Receivers
· Wednesday, May 27: Tight Ends
· Monday, June 1: Offensive Tackles
· Wednesday, June 3: Guards & Centers
· Monday, June 8: Defensive Linemen
· Wednesday, June 10: Outside Linebackers
· Monday, June 15: Inside Linebackers
· Wednesday, June 17: Cornerbacks
· Monday, June 22: Safeties
· Wednesday, June 24: Specialists
The 2019 season was the Bucs' first with Bruce Arians at the helm, and Arians began constructing his coaching staff by reuniting with Todd Bowles, who had served as his defensive coordinator in Arizona before becoming the Jets' head coach. Bowles obviously knew he was inheriting a defense that skewed very young, particularly in the secondary, and one that had struggled in recent seasons. At one point, he referred to the young defenders on the roster as "pups."
The Buccaneers' stunning second-half turnaround, which was enough to allow them to finish fifth in DVOA, as determined by Football Outsiders, couldn't have happened without those pups seeing some significant growth. It might actually be good news that they still have quite a bit of growing to do.
"Physically, they've grown," said Bowles. "Mentally, they're still puppies. But they played what we called last year and they played it well. They understand what we're doing on defense but this year they have to graduate mentally to understand what offenses are trying to do them and get a better grasp of the game that way.
"The fact that we got the same guys back, there's some continuity. The fact that they're starting to get it mentally with each other as well as the opposition is encouraging. But, again, we've got to get everybody in and start that over again."
Murphy-Bunting understands what he and his young teammates need to do, and despite this offseason spent in quarantine he has been able to put valuable work in towards that pursuit.
"It's just being consistent, and more consistent early on," he said. "I know at the beginning of the year, obviously just being a rookie and being young, I had a lot of things I had to adapt to, whether it was the speed of the game or just the nature of it. It's understanding route concepts and recognizing formations, stuff like that. So that's what I've been doing this entire offseason. I've been watching a lot of film and mainly believing and trusting what I see, and making sure that what I see is what I see."
Murphy-Bunting's first chance to watch and learn was in September of last season, as the Buccaneers initially started out with Davis and Hargreaves starting and M.J. Stewart getting most of the snaps in the slot. After four games, Murphy-Bunting began to take snaps away from Stewart, and then he joined Davis as a starter when Hargreaves was released. Davis missed two midseason games due to injury but otherwise played 95% of the snaps when he was available. Dean essentially didn't play at all until the eighth game and then also logged zero snaps in Week 11 before it became clear that he was producing too well to be kept out of the mix.
Dean famously had his hands full in his de facto debut in Seattle, giving up some key plays but also deflecting five passes. After that game, he made a point of meeting with Bowles for extra film study, a practice that spread to the rest of the cornerback room. All of the young players credited that extra work with fueling their turnaround.
"The difference was really just keying in and buying into everything that he was saying and that Coach was doing," said Murphy-Bunting. "He had us watching film, and it's one thing to watch it but another thing to understand it. And as time went on we started to understand more and more what the concepts were that we were trying to do as a defense and what the concepts were that they were trying to do against us an offense. I know for me specifically when I understood certain defenses and where they were trying to beat us at, I could show different things but I knew ultimately what I had to do and what they were going to try to do. So it just made a lot of things easier when you understand the concept of it."
· Carlton Davis…Heading into third season of initial four-year contract after being drafted in the second round in 2018; Started 14 games and ranked fourth on team with 59 tackles, while also breaking up 19 passes to rank second in the NFL
· Jamel Dean…Heading into second season of initial four-year contract after being drafted in the third round in 2019; Played roughly half of rookie season on defense but still tallied two interceptions and 17 passes defensed
· Herb Miller…Re-signed for 2020 after finishing 2019 season on practice squad; Was with the Bucs for final two weeks of the season
· Sean Murphy-Bunting…Heading into second season of initial four-year contract after being drafted in the second round in 2019; Started 10 games and played hybrid outside/slot role, leading team with three interceptions, including one returned for a touchdown
· Ryan Smith…Signed new one-year contract for 2020 two weeks after becoming an unrestricted free agent; Played primarily on special teams and tied for team lead with seven kick-coverage stops
· M.J. Stewart…Heading into third season of initial four-year contract after being drafted in the second round in 2018; Played 270 of his 341 defensive snaps during the first five weeks of the season
· Mazzi Wilkins…Signed two-year contract covering 2020 when promoted from practice squad in Week 11; Saw limited defensive action in three games and had three tackles
· Parnell Motley…Signed out of Oklahoma as undrafted rookie free agent in May; Ranks fifth in Sooners history with 33 career passes defensed and also notched six interceptions
(* While none of the cornerbacks from the Bucs' roster at the end of the 2019 season have departed, John Franklin, who was previously listed as a cornerback, is now designated as a wide receiver on the current roster. Vernon Hargreaves was also released in November and so was not on the roster at the end of the year.)
Once Hargreaves had departed and Dean was in the mix, the Buccaneers started using a specific rotation with their three young corners. Davis and Murphy-Bunting would start in the base package and then Dean would come in for sub packages, playing on the outside while Murphy-Bunting slid into the slot. The Buccaneers will go to training camp with that same rotation in place but there is a chance for Dean to earn even more playing time.
"[Murphy-Bunting] plays outside in base," said Bowles. "He plays inside in the nickel and Dean comes in on the outside. And that hasn't changed. It will be the same thing, but it's a lot of good competition out there. So we're going to let those guys play and it's a healthy competition. That's better for the coaches."
Of course, the nickel defense is the most common package for virtually every team in today's NFL, so there will be plenty of work for all three of those corners, if not more, in 2020. The Buccaneers had five defensive backs on the field on 65.2% of their plays in 2019, and also ran 19 snaps with six DBs.
"At the end of the day, it's up to Coach Bowles," said Murphy-Bunting of how the corners would be arranged. "I just truly feel like we have a good secondary and definitely a corner room that all of us can play a bunch of positions if need be. Each of us is ready to step up and be that number-one guy when called on. It's really up to him. Whatever he feels is best for the defense is what we're going to do. We're going to take that and thrive in it.
Stewart has also seen plenty of work in the slot in his first two seasons and he was selected in the second round in 2018 specifically because the team thought he could excel in that role. He has also spent some practice time at safety, giving the team some versatility on game day. Smith only played 52 defensive snaps in 2019, 49 of them in one game, but he did log 16 starts over the 2016-17 season. Regardless of how he fits into the defense he brings great value to the roster with his contributions in the kick-and-cover game.
Wilkins, an undrafted rookie out of nearby USF, carried himself with confidence and impressed on the practice field enough to get a six-week promotion to the active roster. Now he'll have another chance to earn a place on the regular-season roster in his second training camp. The Buccaneers also might have found a candidate to provide that elusive cornerback depth in Oklahoma's productive Motley, who is the only new addition to that group so far.
The Buccaneers actually ranked 30th in the NFL in pass defense in 2019, a list that is based on yards surrendered. That's a bit misleading as the defense shaved off about 40 yards per game in the second half, but not completely misleading. The Bucs did rank 13th in yards per pass play and 19th in yards allowed per completion.
What Tampa Bay's pass defense did best was make plays on the football, leading the NFL with 96 passes defensed, seven more than second-play New England. That works out to an average of exactly six pass break-ups per game, which is definitely an indication of strong coverage.
Despite that, the Bucs were only tied for 17th in interceptions, with 12. Even when their PBU rate went up significantly in the second half, with Davis and Dean in particular on a tear, their interception rate stayed about the same. That is perhaps the one area the Bucs want to improve upon the most – taking advantage of turnover opportunities.
Davis broke up 19 passes, second in the NFL and just one off the league, but only secured one interception. Dean used his half-season of work to nearly match Davis with 17 pass deflections but also only had two interceptions. Murphy-Bunting converted the highest percentage of opportunities, recording a team-high three interceptions among eight passes defensed. He also had one of the team's two pick-sixes, the other belonging to Hargreaves in the season opener. Stewart contributed 35 tackles and two passes defensed. Davis's 59 tackles were the most among the team's cornerbacks and just eight behind safety Jordan Whitehead for the most in the secondary.
Three Key Questions:
· Will the Buccaneers be able to up their interception total in 2020?
There are drills that every team runs to try to create more takeaways, including something as simple as putting the DBs on the Jugs gun for a session after practice. The Bucs' young defenders might also find themselves in position to take the ball away more often if they play all season like they did in the second half last year. Dean notably described his first NFL interception – a huge one against Arizona at the Bucs' eight that led to the game-winning touchdown drive – as being the product of knowing exactly where his man was going to run based on his position just before the snap. All of these things will help but Bowles boils it down even further: "The simple answer is we've just got to catch the ball. We dropped some freebies last year that could turn the game one way or the other. It could have either gotten us back into the game or made it more of a blowout. We've just got to catch the ball, and we're working on that. We have drills for that every day, but come game time you've just got to make the play."
· Just how will the snaps be divvied up?
This feels like one of those proverbial "good problems." The plan to continue with Davis at one outside spot, Murphy-Bunting in an inside-outside hybrid role and Dean on the outside in the nickel looks like a good one based on last year's results. That said, Dean's passes-defensed production in limited action last year is attractive enough to wonder what he would do with even more snaps. Injury problems at Auburn contributed to Dean slipping into the third round of the draft but he has an elite combination of size, speed and ball skills. With the youth of all three and the relative inexperience of Murphy-Bunting and Dean it's hard to predict how well any of them will carry over the momentum of last year in 2020, particularly with the abbreviated preparation time. Maybe the Bucs' coaches will simply go with the hot hand(s), and perhaps they will have a variety of packages to utilize those three in different ways.
· Is their sufficient depth?
At cornerback, that answer is often "no." It is a very difficult position to master and it can be hard to build and maintain depth even when you find a couple elite starters. As noted at the very top, the Buccaneers don't really have any veteran depth to prop up their young corners, so that depth will be coming from other young players, barring a late signing. Smith and Stewart both have starting experience and Stewart offers some nice versatility, so the cupboard is certainly not bare. It would look even fuller if a young player like Wilkins or Motley proved to be a reliable depth piece.