Like all of the other positions on the defensive side of the Bucs' depth chart – and very unlike the offensive side of that chart – the safety spot seems to have been affected by relatively minimal losses and additions since the 2018 season. However, while the status quo has held almost completely in the front seven and at cornerback, the Buccaneers' safety position is actually one in considerable flux.
Though the Buccaneers' only spent one draft pick on the safety position in late April, it was a second-rounder used to nab versatile playmaking safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. out of Minnesota. That high of a draft investment suggests Winfield has a real chance to shake up the safety position. Jordan Whitehead has been the most entrenched player at the back end of the defense the last two years but the team has drafted not one but two safeties on Day Two since Whitehead arrived as a fourth-rounder in 2018. Kentucky's Mike Edwards never really settled into a starting spot as a rookie but could make his move in 2020.
Then there's Justin Evans, yet another Day Two pick (a second-rounder in 2017) who looked like a good bet to be a long-term fixture at safety for Tampa Bay after a promising rookie campaign. Instead, he had an up-and-down start to his sophomore season before a foot injury cut it in half, and he has yet to step back on the field since. Evans is a true question mark heading into training camp after COVID-19 quarantining efforts wiped out the offseason program. Perhaps even more of a mystery is second-year player D'Cota Dixon, a former undrafted free agent out of Wisconsin who has received a lot of praise from Head Coach Bruce Arians before and after a shoulder injury wiped out Dixon's entire rookie season.
That obliterated offseason program, with no OTAs or mini-camps has made it much more difficult to answer such traditional pre-camp questions as, 'Which position will feature the most heated competition?' and 'Which rookies are likely to make the most immediate impact?' Still, if such questions were asked the answers would probably revolve mostly around the safety position. It appears as if there will be a training camp in some form in the near future, and when the players and coaches do get back on the field they will have a lot of work to do to arrange the safety depth chart before the games begin. There are at least six safeties on the roster who could be considered legitimate options to start, and while Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles is no stranger to utilizing packages with three or more safeties on the field, for the most part we're talking about two jobs.
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 finish our run through the defense with the players on the back end.
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 Buccaneers' defensive efforts in 2019 was a tale of two halves and, as noted last week in our review of the cornerbacks, things went well enough in the second half to propel that group to fifth in DVOA, as determined by Football Outsiders. Much of that was attributed to remarkable growth from the young cornerback trio of Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, as the play of the front seven had remained fairly consistent. Those three were clearly the answer at corner by season's end and will head into 2020 in the same roles. In contrast, the Buccaneers didn't really establish a permanent lineup at safety, in part due to a couple injuries.
As such, the Bucs had safety on their list of potential needs heading into the 2020 offseason, though the possible contributions from Dixon and Evans made even that thought unsure.
"I think we could still look at a safety," said Arians just after the 2019 season ended. "But I loved D'Cota Dixon and he was possibly going to be our starting strong safety until he knocked out his shoulder, so getting him back – hopefully getting Justin Evans back – I'm not sure we do [need another one]. We're fine at corner. But again, if there's somebody on the board and he's the best player on the board at that position we'll take him."
The Buccaneers' first combination at safety was actually Whitehead alongside veteran Darian Stewart, who had been added for depth in August after Dixon's training camp injury. Edwards, the rookie, then stepped in after the first game to replace Stewart, but his run in the lineup only lasted a month. The Bucs then turned to Adams, who had started about half of the Bucs' games during the 2018 season, albeit in a different system. The Buccaneers didn't re-sign Adams after Arians and his staff took over and Adams went to Detroit instead. After the Lions released him in their final roster cuts, the Buccaneers brought him back just before the season opener.
Adams took over for Edwards and proved reliable, which kept him in the lineup through the rest of the campaign. However, Edwards did log two more starts at the end of the season after Whitehead went on injured reserve with a hamstring strain.
The Buccaneers had tabbed Edwards in the third round of the 2019 draft because they liked his versatility and felt he was a good fit specifically for the defense Todd Bowles was bringing in. The fact that he had starts at both safety spots might have highlighted that versatility, though it may have been more about the way Bowles uses the two safety spots.
"We do so much interchanging; the title of 'free' and 'strong' is just for the label," said Bowles. "You learn them all. That's what we do as a defensive coaching staff, make them learn them all. But come game day, depending on who's playing and we know their strengths and weaknesses, we'll put them where they need to be. I won't make somebody do something that they can't do. We try to let elephants be elephants and giraffes be giraffes, as Coach Parcells used to say."
The Bucs feel the same way about Winfield's versatility, perhaps to even greater degree; more on him below. Before the troubles with his foot injuries began, Evans was seen as a potential 'complete' safety, one who could deliver hard hits in the box but also make acrobatic plays on the football and deny big plays down the field. Evans is definitely the wild card in the Bucs' safety hand heading into training camp, and while he's been out of sight for a while he is not out of the team's mind.
Near the beginning of the offseason, General Manager Jason Licht indicated that he thought Evans was headed towards a return to the field at some point in the 2020 offseason.
"We do and we think, if he gets healthy, at that point we're going to have a hell of a competition there because Justin is an extremely talented guy," said Licht. "We are not writing Justin off whatsoever."
· Andrew Adams…Re-signed to a new one-year deal in late March; Started 11 games at safety after rejoining team in September and recorded 45 tackles, one interception and three passes defensed
· D'Cota Dixon…Heading into second year of three-year contract signed as undrafted rookie in 2019; Had strong start to training camp ended by shoulder injury, causing move to IR
· Mike Edwards…Heading into second year of four-year contract signed after his selection in the third round of the 2019 draft; Started seven games and recorded 45 tackles, one sack and six passes defensed
· Justin Evans…Entering final year of four-year contract signed as a second-round draft pick in 2017; Spent entire 2019 season on injured reserve due to foot injury suffered in 2018
· Jordan Whitehead…Entering third-year of four-year deal signed as a fourth-round draft pick in 2018; Led Bucs safeties with 14 starts and finished third on team with 68 tackles, adding one interception and nine passes defensed
· John Battle…Not re-signed after spending entire 2019 season on Buccaneers' practice squad
· Darian Stewart…Remain an unsigned unrestricted free agent after spending one season in Tampa; Started one game for Bucs and had nine tackles and one pass defensed
· Orion Stewart…Not re-signed after spending all of 2019 season on Buccaneers' injured reserve list
· Javon Hagan…Signed out of University of Ohio as unsigned free agent in May; Four-year starter for Bobcats, finished with 313 tackles, six interceptions, 26 passes defensed and seven forced fumbles
· Deiondre' Hall…Signed to a reserve/futures contract in January; Former 2016 fourth-round pick by Chicago has played in 23 games for the Bears and Eagles
Between the end of the 2019 season and draft weekend, the Buccaneers' resolve to add to the safety position apparently hardened. The team didn't address the position in free agency despite a fairly deep group of available players. In fact, the Licht and company haven't sign a single veteran defender from another NFL team so far in 2020. That's understandable, of course, because the team was busy devoting time and huge chunks of the salary cap to keep its front seven intact and add Tom Brady, Rob Gronkowski and Joe Haeg on offense.
Given that the team now has spent four picks between the second and fourth rounds on safeties in the last four drafts, it's also understandable that the coaches would want to roll with and develop that young depth, as they have done at cornerback. That's particularly true after the selection of Winfield, who had seven interceptions in his final season at Minnesota. If the Buccaneers were on the fence about adding a safety in January (more likely they were keeping their cards close to the vest), they were all in by late April.
The Buccaneers used the 45th overall pick at safety even though there were some compelling options available at two other apparent areas of need, running back and wide receiver. The Bucs did hit those two spots with their next two picks, getting Vanderbilt tailback Ke'Shawn Vaughn in the third round and Winfield's Gopher teammate, wide receiver Tyler Johnson, in the fifth. Winfield was the one they couldn't pass up.
"I guess I would say that we obviously had Antoine Winfield graded pretty high," said Licht. "It's also a position that we wanted to address in the draft. We felt that as the draft rolled along that we'd be able to hopefully get a running back that we liked that we had graded at a high value and that's the way we did it. We felt the safeties were coming off pretty quick and if we left Antoine sitting there on the board, he wouldn't be there. We feel very good about the decision we made here and we're excited to have Antoine here."
Arians got good results out of versatile safeties, particularly Tyrann Mathieu, during his time as the Arizona Cardinals' head coach. Licht sees Winfield as having the potential to develop into that sort of player.
"Well, it's one of the things that we really loved about Antoine," said Licht. "I hate doing comparisons to players in the NFL right now because he hasn't stepped foot on the field in the NFL, but some of the reasons that we liked Budda Baker and Tyrann Mathieu – and I'm not putting him in that category yet – but we feel that he has the ability to play free and strong [safety]. We play interchangeable in our scheme. He's dropped down to nickel and done a really nice job there too. So, [when] you've got a safety that can do all of those different things, it really raises his value. He's a very smart guy, a very intense guy, who loves football and we're just excited to get him here and get him rolling."
The Buccaneers would desperately like to find a long-term answer at safety who can provide more plays on the football than they have been able to produce in decent years. Evans looked like he might be headed in that direction before his injuries, and perhaps he can still provide that production for the Buccaneers. The team is definitely hoping that is what they have in Winfield, who had nine interceptions in his collegiate career.
"He's a smart and he's a tough football player, and the ball finds him," said Bowles. "That's rare for the ball to find safeties in college these days. He has a great pedigree. I was actually at the [Outback] Bowl game when they played at [Raymond James] Stadium and he was all over the field. He can do multiple things like we have our safeties do. He can play nickel, he can play strong, he can play free. He can be up, he can be back and he's multi-dimensional so that can't do anything but help us."
Licht emphasized the same thing when Winfield was first draft, also adding that the young safety could get a shot in the return game.
"He can play the high, he can play the post, he can play free [or] strong and he can play the nickel," he said. "He's been making plays, you know, seven interceptions [last season] playing at all of those positions. He's extremely smart, he's fast, he's got great burst and acceleration and he's a really good foot athlete, and super instinctive."
Through the first half of the season, the Buccaneers' defense allowed 311.9 passing yards per game, which was tied with Oakland for the most in the NFL. At the midway point, Tampa Bay was allowing opponents to complete 64.9% of their passes and compile a 100.4 passer rating, while giving up 19 total touchdown passes. They did have 39 pass break-ups at that point, which was tied for ninth-most in the NFL.
In the second half of the season, Tampa Bay shaved about 43 passing yards allowed per game off their average, though that still only ranked 23rd in the league. The gains were much more noticeable in the other areas. For instance, opposing passers only completed 58.9% of their passes during that time; only five defenses allowed a lower completion rate. Opposing passers saw their rating plummet all the way to 79.9, which was eighth-best in the NFL in that span. And while the Bucs' interception total only went up a bit, from five in the first half to seven in the second, their plays on the ball got even better. The Buccaneers broke up 57 passes in those eight games, by far the most in the NFL in the second half.
The Bucs' young corners rightfully deserved a lot of credit for that turnaround, but the safeties contributed as well. Four different safeties combined for eight of those 57 passes defensed, including four by Edwards.
Whitehead was the only full-season starter, only missing the last two games due to injury. He was third on the team and first among defensive backs with 68 tackles, trailing only the inside linebacker duo of Lavonte David and Devin White. Whitehead also broke up nine passes. He and Adams, who started 11 games, each recorded one interception. Adams and Edwards each had exactly 45 tackles and three tackles for loss, but while Edwards didn't pick off a pass he did have the one sack attributed to the Bucs' safeties. That came during a game in which Edwards served as the primary nickel back, an approach the team only used once around midseason before giving that job to Murphy-Bunting.
Three Key Questions:
· Just who is going to start?
That is the top question by far, of course. Fortunately, the uncertainty is not due to a lack of viable candidates, but rather a surplus. That said, it's mostly a young crew, and largely unproven beyond the steady veteran, Adams. Whitehead has started 25 games in two years, including 14 in the current system, and he would certainly seem to be first in line for one of the spots when camp begins. However, if Winfield quickly provides the level of play the coaches expect and Evans returns to some semblance of his original form, Whitehead will certainly have to fight to keep his spot. The Buccaneers surely won't be satisfied with their high pick of Winfield if he isn't part of a long-term answer in the secondary. That said, he won't win a spot merely on draft pedigree, so there's no guarantee he'll be in the defensive mix from Day One. Given the versatility of both Winfield and Edwards, there could be rolls for more than two safeties in some of the game plans, too. And if D'Cota Dixon starts performing like he did in his rookie training camp again, things could get complicated quickly, in a good way.
· How many safeties will the Buccaneers make room for on the 53-man roster?
Tampa Bay started the 2019 season with just four safeties on the roster, keeping Evans through the cut-down to 53 and then putting him on injured reserve and signing Adams. That foursome also included Darian Stewart who, as noted above, had only come aboard a few weeks into training camp. Second-year player M.J. Stewart was also seen as a possible option at safety but was still listed at cornerback and was more involved as a slot corner to start the season. The Bucs never increased that total of safeties during the season and in fact ran with only three the last two weeks after Whitehead landed on injured reserve. Could the Buccaneers pare this group down to just four if everyone remains healthy up to the final cuts? If Winfield, Whitehead and Evans – all players drafted in the last three years – are considered relatively safe than are Evans and Dixon fighting for one spot or could the Bucs rob from the cornerback position to go a little deeper at safety? And if Evans makes a return complete enough to have him in competition for a starting spot, would one of the other young safeties be in danger of losing a spot?
· Will the safeties be more involved in rushing the passer this season?
Bowles believes his young defense can add to their impressive gains in 2019 by becoming more aware of what opposing offenses are trying to do to them and getting better at disguising their own intentions. If such strides are made, he will have the option to be even more aggressive with his play-calling, or at least more varied. That could involve a greater variety of blitz plays, which could involve the safeties to a greater degree, particularly if the team is employing some creative packages with more than two of them on the field. Last year, the Bucs' safeties accounted for just one sack and three quarterback hits. Both Winfield and Edwards showed some blitz ability on the college level and can play in the slot, which is a good spot from which to bring an extra pass-rusher.