The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' cornerback corps is growing up together. And last January and February those cornerbacks had a shared life experience that should help immensely with that growth.
Since Tampa Bay stormed through the 2020 playoffs and walked off with the Lombardi Trophy in Super Bowl LV, the team has lost its longest-tenured corner. Ryan Smith, a 2016 draft pick, departed for the Los Angeles Chargers in free agency after several seasons as one of the team's best special teams players. That Smith himself is still only 27 years old illustrates well how youthful the Buccaneers' cornerback room is.
The core of that corps, if you will, came from a Day Two shopping spree in the 2018 and 2019 drafts. The Bucs used second and third-round picks on four corners over those two offseasons: Carlton Davis III and M.J. Stewart in 2018 and Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean in 2019. Only Stewart didn't work out; he's now in Cleveland after failing to secure the nickel back job in Tampa. Meanwhile Davis, Dean and Murphy-Bunting comprise the team's starting trio of cornerbacks, when one considers that slot corner position as a starting job.
Davis has flourished in Todd Bowles' defense since the new coaching staff arrived in 2019, leading the NFL with 37 passes defensed over the past two seasons and emerging as a lock-down corner when the Bucs want to eliminate the opponent's top receiver. Dean and Murphy-Bunting may be on the verge of making the jump to that next level in 2021 after some very promising but at times uneven play. The catalyst may well be the playoffs, in which Tampa Bay's young defensive backs faced down a gauntlet of eventual Hall of Fame quarterbacks and made a series of game-changing plays. Murphy-Bunting, in particular, built confidence and momentum for the upcoming season by intercepting a pass in three straight games.
Cornerback depth is difficult to cultivate and maintain in the NFL, which often leaves a secondary just one or two injuries away from being very vulnerable. The Bucs, however, have some promising options for depth behind those aforementioned three, including intelligent veteran Ross Cockrell, 2020 find Herb Miller and a trio of recently signed young veterans. More on that below.
The Buccaneers added those three veterans after the draft as they gradually took their roster up to 90 players by fleshing out certain positions. That 90-man roster is essentially set for training camp, so it's a good time to do a position-by-position review of the Bucs' depth chart while players and coaches get one last break. As we near the end of the series, we get to the back end of the defense and a position that could prove to be a strength in 2021. Below is a full schedule of all the positional reviews, including the ones already completed:
- Tuesday, May 25: Quarterbacks
- Friday, May 28: Running Backs
- Tuesday, June 1: Wide Receivers
- Friday, June 4: Tight Ends
- Tuesday, June 8: Offensive Tackles
- Friday, June 11: Guards & Centers
- Tuesday, June 15: Defensive Linemen
- Friday, June 18: Outside Linebackers
- Tuesday, June 22: Inside Linebackers
- Friday, June 25: Cornerbacks
- Tuesday, June 29: Safeties
- Friday, July 2: Specialists
The Buccaneers signed the veteran Cockrell after they had already played two games in 2020, and they initially only found a practice squad spot for him. However, it quickly became clear in practice that the former Panther would be an asset on game days and he was promoted to the active roster after Game Five, essentially replacing undrafted rookie Parnell Motley. After the season – one in which General Manager Jason Licht aggressively continued to build the roster with additions such as Leonard Fournette, Antonio Brown and Steve McLendon, Head Coach Bruce Arians called Cockrell, "one of the best pickups we've had the entire season."
Cockrell would eventually help the Buccaneers weather some late-season absences by Davis and Dean, demonstrating that he could ably fill in outside or in the slot. He should head into camp as the favorite to once again serve as the team's fourth corner and always-ready Band-Aid in the case of more injuries.
Herb Miller came to the Bucs late in 2019 after he entered the league as an undrafted free agent with the Chiefs. He showed enough to land a spot in Tampa Bay's 2020 training camp and then make it into the practice squad. He stayed on that unit throughout all of the Bucs' 2020 run to the title but was called up repeatedly to provide depth in games in November and December. He snared his first interception in Detroit when he got a chance to play late in a lopsided rout. This spring, Arians pointed to Miller as one of those players who could make the leap from intriguing practice squad guy to full-fledged member of the active roster in 2021.
To stay ahead of some of the team's young additions since the end of last season, Miller will likely have to make his mark on special teams, too.
"I think there are about five spots that are going to depend on special teams," said Arians. "It's going to be that fifth or sixth corner, that fifth or sixth safety, that fourth or fifth running back, the fifth or sixth receiver and even tight ends. If you can play special teams then you're going to move yourself in front of other guys. That part of practice isn't as important as special teams is for some of these guys."
- Ross Cockrell…Signed a new two-year contract with the Buccaneers on April 13; Played in 12 games during the regular season, with two starts, seeing most extensive action when Jamel Dean and Carlton Davis separately missed time due to injury over the last five weeks; Had 11 tackles, one QB hit and one pass defensed in the regular season plus a tackle and a pass defensed in the playoffs.
- Carlton Davis…Entering the final season of the four-year contract he got as a second-round draft pick in 2018; Started the first 14 regular season games and all four playoff contests, missing the two in the middle due to a groin injury; Led the team with four interceptions and 18 passes defensed in the regular season and had 21 tackles and three pass break-ups in the playoffs.
- Jamel Dean…Entering the third season of his original four-year rookie deal signed after he was selected in third round of the 2019 draft; Played in 14 games with seven starts in the regular season and then started all four postseason contests; Had 59 tackles, one interception and seven passes defensed in the regular season, including a pick-six against Green Bay that was Tampa Bay's only defensive touchdown of the season, and added 16 tackles and three passes defensed in the postseason.
- Herb Miller…Re-signed to a two-year deal on February 10 after finishing the 2020 season on the Bucs' practice squad; Technically spent all of 2020 on that practice squad but was elevated on game day five times and appeared in four games; Recorded three tackles and an interception.
- Sean Murphy-Bunting…Like Dean, heading into third season of a four-year deal he signed as a rookie after being drafted in the second round in 2018; Played in all 20 games with 17 starts, including all four in the postseason, and contributed 66 tackles, one interception and three passes defensed during the regular season; Emerged as a standout in the playoffs, intercepting a pass in each of the Bucs' first three games and recording five total passes defensed.
- Ryan Smith…Signed with the Los Angeles Chargers as an unrestricted free agent on March 31; Played in all 20 games but almost exclusively on special teams, with his two snaps on defense coming in the Super Bowl.
- Nate Brooks…Signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay on May 6; Originally an undrafted free agent with Arizona in 2019, has seen action in four regular-season games with Miami and Baltimore over the past two seasons, logging 11 tackles.
- Dee Delaney…Signed with the Bucs on May 25 after not playing in the NFL in 2020; An undrafted free agent in 2018 with Jacksonville, has played in three regular season games with Jacksonville and Washington.
- Antonio Hamilton…Signed a one-year contract with the Buccaneers on May 17; Has 57 games of NFL regular season experience with the Raiders, Giants and Chiefs and last year played in all 19 Kansas City games, including Super Bowl LV in Tampa, primarily on special teams.
- Chris Wilcox…Selected in the seventh round (251st overall) by the Buccaneers out of BYU in the 2021 draft; Played in 31 games for Cougars and recorded 84 tackles and eight passes defensed.
Tampa Bay had two late seventh-round picks in the 2021 draft and they used them both on defenders who could potentially help right away on special teams, if nothing else: BYU cornerback Chris Wilcox and Houston linebacker Grant Stuard. If Wilcox can beat out some of the competition in camp he could emerge, at least as first, as a one-to-one replacement for Smith, one of the Bucs' best gunners in recent years.
"We definitely see some ability there as a gunner," said Licht after the Bucs' drafted Wilcox. "We liked him as a corner because of his length and his speed. He fits the profile of the guys that we have here. Our guys are long, have long arms and can run. He's going to fit right in with them, he can learn with them and hopefully develop into a good player."
Wilcox first made his mark as a gunner at BYU before getting significant playing time at corner, so he's been down this road before. That initial job on special teams could once again give him a shot on defense, and he thinks he has the skills to excel in Bowles' aggressive defense.
"I like to play press-man," said Wilcox. "I think that's my favorite. Just get up in the receiver's face, put hands on them. Let's just ball. You versus me, and let's see who wins. That's just what I like to do and what I like to bring to the game."
The Buccaneers took eight cornerbacks to training camp in 2020 but had only nine on board after the draft and the departure of Smith. Thus, as they filled up the last five or 10 spots on the 90-man list they hit cornerback repeatedly, eventually ending up nine deep. The post-draft additions were Antonio Hamilton, Nate Brooks and Dee Delaney.
While Brooks and Delaney have gotten just a smattering of regular-season playing time so far, Hamilton has already played in 57 games and even made two starts with the Giants in 2018. He's played in 48 games over the last three seasons, including the postseason, and was a good special teams player for the Chiefs in 2020. His most recent game played was Kansas City's Super Bowl LV loss to the Buccaneers at Raymond James Stadium.
If special teams do indeed prove to be the deciding factor in the battle for fifth or sixth cornerback spots (not to mention possible practice squad openings), most of those guys have already made a good impression on Special Teams Coordinator Keith Armstrong.
"When you look at the drills that we've had and you take a look at guys – the defensive backs, several of them – the Hamilton kid has done a nice job for us, Antonio Hamilton," said Armstrong during OTAs. "He's been in the rookie mini-camp. He was a tryout guy – did a nice job for us. We like him. Dee Delaney has been a guy that's done it. Obviously, you look at Nate Brooks – a quick kid that's done it. Wilcox has the length; he has some long speed. The biggest thing is you've got to get into live action. Those three preseason games will be great to find out who those guys are because that's when we'll rotate them. It's a special teams nightmare, but you've got to find out in those preseason games who can play. We've got to get all those guys out there and give them a chance to rotate and find out what's going out with that."
As a unit, Tampa Bay's pass defense produced middling numbers that probably look disappointing next to the team's top-ranked rush defense, but those statistics are probably a bit misleading. The Buccaneers gave up 246.6 passing yards per game to rank 21st but that's only about 10 more yards per outing than Chiefs, who ranked 14th. In today's NFL, giving up passing yards is almost unavoidable; perhaps the more important statistic is the 22.2 points the Bucs allowed per game, eighth-lowest in the NFL.
The Bucs also tied for seventh with 15 interceptions and broke up 70 passes, and their passer rating allowed of 94.3 was almost exactly the league average. Then they turned it up a notch in the playoffs despite facing Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes in rapid succession, snaring seven more interceptions and breaking up 29 passes.
Individually, Carlton Davis was the Bucs' most productive cornerback in the regular season, leading the team with four interceptions and 18 passes defensed and ranking fifth (first among corners) with 68 tackles. He also had several impressive shutdown performances against the likes of Green Bay's Davante Adams and New Orleans' Michael Thomas. Davis had another 21 tackles and three passes defensed in the postseason.
Murphy-Bunting and Dean saw their roles switch back and forth several times during the season based on which one was currently playing at a more consistently high level. They both had one pick during the regular season while combining for 10 pass breakups. As noted above, Murphy-Bunting found his footing in the playoffs and set a Buccaneer record with three straight games with an interception in the postseason. His picks in New Orleans and Green Bay, in particular, were big momentum-swingers in eventual Buccaneer wins.
Three Key Questions:
- Will the Bucs' top three cornerbacks settle into established roles for the bulk of the season?
Davis certainly seems to have his role locked down and might be one of the team's next targets for a long-term deal as he enters the last year of his rookie contract. At his best, Murphy-Bunting fills a Ronde Barber sort of role by pairing with Davis on the outside in base packages and then moving into the slot in sub packages, with Dean then playing on the outside.
However, the Bucs didn't go that route the entire way. At times, with Murphy-Bunting struggling, Dean got the call as the starter opposite Dean in the base defense. Dean had some struggles of his own, though, allowing Murphy-Bunting to eventually regain a larger role. Ideally the Buccaneers would like to see both of those young corners provide more consistent play from week to week, which in turn likely lead to firmer roles for both players. If the playoff experience does indeed prove to be a confidence boost that gets both players to the next level in their games, the Bucs' secondary would be more consistent and impactful in 2021.
- Can Carlton Davis rediscover the takeaway touch he had during the first half of last season?
In 2018, playing in a defense designed by Mike Smith, Davis had a predictably uneven rookie season. He immediately took to Bowles' defense in 2019, however, and thrived in a more aggressive scheme that utilized his press-man skills. Davis was one of the better pure cover corners in the league that season and ended up with 19 passes defensed, just one fewer than the 2019 Defensive Player of the Year, Stephon Gilmore.
What Davis didn't do in either of those first two seasons was pick off a lot of passes. He only had one interception in the 2018-19 seasons combined, which could have suggested that his ball skills lagged behind the rest of his burgeoning game. However, 2020 was a different story as he had a pick in three of the Bucs' first five games and a total of four by the season's halfway point.
Those four interceptions would go on to lead the team in 2020 and tie for seventh in the NFL, but Davis wouldn't add to it the rest of the way. He also did not have an interception in four postseason games.
Given his shutdown capabilities and his high number of pass break-ups (his 37 in 2019-20 are seven more than the next closest NFL player on the list), Davis could easily have a 2021 season that helps the Bucs immensely without it including a lot of interceptions. However, his first half of 2020 suggested that he is capable of producing more takeaways, and a five or six-interception season to go with the rest of his contributions could put him in the Pro Bowl.
- Will the Buccaneers go deeper at the cornerback position, particularly if the reserves prove to be good special teams contributors?
The Buccaneers pretty consistently stayed at five cornerbacks on the 53-man roster in 2020, though the practice squad elevation rule did allow them to deepen the group on some late-season game days when a few players were working through injuries. They seem very likely to go with at least five again in 2021, given their starting trio, the presence of Ross Cockrell and a pretty deep group of competitors for a fifth spot.
Could they possibly carry six cornerbacks? They did so under Arians for pretty much all of the 2019 season. Even after the Week 11 release of Vernon Hargreaves, the Buccaneers promoted Mazzi Wilkins from the practice squad to continue rolling with six cornerbacks. One of the reasons for this depth was the retention of Ryan Smith almost exclusively for his work on special teams. If several players out of the Miller-Wilcox-Hamilton-Brooks-Delaney group shows a lot of promise in the kick and return game, the Bucs might be tempted to keep that sixth corner, as in 2019.
However, that 2019 team only carried two quarterbacks on the active roster and also went lighter at receiver than the current squad is likely to do. For the Buccaneers to keep six corners they'll probably have to go lighter at another spot on defense, and there's already talk of potentially keeping five outside linebackers instead of four this year. If the Bucs want to keep a sixth corner it might make for some tough decisions at that spot or along the defensive line.