The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' safety position in 2020 was as young and as heavily influenced by recent drafts as the cornerback group, but it was considerably more stable.
While the Buccaneers' cornerbacks encountered some late-season injuries and some shuffling of responsibilities between Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, the teams safeties might have been the most unchanging position on the team outside of quarterback.
Jordan Whitehead and Antoine Winfield Jr. each started every regular season game and reserves Mike Edwards and Andrew Adams were active and played in all 16 of those contests as well. That quartet also nearly made it through the playoffs unscathed, although Winfield missed the NFC Championship Game due to an ankle injury.
All of those players are back except for Adams, who saw just 60 snaps on defense during the season, more than half of them in the game that Winfield missed. Adams was a valuable role player and occasional starter for three seasons in Tampa but the Buccaneers should have little trouble finding a fourth safety-slash-special teams contributor to fill his spot.
Whitehead, Edwards and Winfield were all selected, in that order, between the second and fourth rounds of three successive drafts from 2018-20. All have proved to be starting-caliber players but it is likely Winfield, the second-round steal in 2020, who has the highest ceiling. He won a starting job in his rookie training camp and proceeded to stay on the field for 98% of the team's defensive snaps outside of the one game he missed. He made an early splash by winning NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month honors in September and is the type of safety every team is looking for, one who can make splash plays at every level of the defense.
Head Coach Bruce Arians thought his young safety should have gotten another piece of hardware at the end of the season, noting that Washington edge rusher Chase Young had taken home Defensive Rookie of the Year after his 7.5-sack rookie campaign.
"[I] can't say enough about him," said Arians of the former Minnesota standout. "To me, he's the Defensive Rookie of the Year. Seven and a half sacks isn't anything to what he's done."
Barring injury it seems unlikely that the Buccaneers will mess with the stability at the top of their safety depth chart, but there does look to be room for competition for a fourth and possibly a fifth spot. That competition will begin on July 25 when the Bucs start their training camp, a date now less than a month away. As players and coaches get a last bit of time away from work, this is a good time to do a position-by-position review of the Bucs' depth chart as it stands for that camp. Today we finish up with the back end of the defense, leaving only the specialists to conclude the series later this week. 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
After missing the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay, Winfield returned to put a nice cap on his debut campaign with an interception of Patrick Mahomes in Tampa Bay's Super Bowl LV rout of Kansas City. Whitehead also powered his way through a shoulder injury in the Super Bowl after being forced out of the Packers game early.
Whitehead subsequently had shoulder surgery and did not practice in the team's mandatory mini-camp earlier this month. However, Arians is not concerned about Whitehead – or any of the Bucs' starters – missing the opening of training camp.
"No, he's a little further off," said Arians of Whitehead during the mini-camp. "He's a little further off, but he'll be fine by camp. None of those guys will have any problem for training camp."
In addition to good health, the Buccaneers' defensive lineup also has amazing cohesion, with every starter and every significant role player returning from the Super Bowl roster. Still, every NFL team has some percentage of roster turnover from season to season and both Arians and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles have mentioned safety as one of the positions that will have some interesting battles in training camp.
"It's going to be tough competition," said Bowles. "That's what you want. As you become good, you want the competition to be better and you want them to have you make difficult choices. It's not just going to be [at inside linebacker] – it's going to be outside 'backer, safety and we've got a bunch of D-linemen fighting, so I'm looking forward to a spirited camp."
The Buccaneers do in fact have four new players in their safety room this summer, including two veterans with a good amount of NFL experience and two undrafted rookies looking to make an impression. Here's how the safety group has shaped up for 2021 so far:
- Mike Edwards…Entering the third season of his four-year rookie deal after being drafted in the third round in 2019; Played in all 20 games and started one playoff contest, playing roughly one-quarter of the team's defensive snaps; Recorded three interceptions and eight passes defensed, including the postseason.
- Javon Hagan…Re-signed to a two-year contract on February 10 after finishing the season on the practice squad; Spent entire 2020 season on Bucs' practice squad but did play in the NFC Championship Game in Green Bay after being elevated to the active roster for the contest.
- Jordan Whitehead…Headed into the final season of the initial four-year contract he signed after being drafted in the fourth round in 2018; Started all 20 games in 2020, playing 83% of the snaps, and finished fourth on the team with 74 tackles to go with t2.0 sacks, two interceptions, four passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery; Added two forced fumbles in the playoffs.
- Antoine Winfield, Jr.…Going into the second year of his four-year rookie contract after being selected in the second round of the 2020 draft; Started 19 of 20 games in his rookie season, missing the NFC Championship Game with an ankle injury but otherwise playing in 98% of the team's defensive snaps; Was third on the team in the regular season with 91 tackles and added 3.0 sacks, one interception, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles and a fumble recovery; added 18 tackles, an interception and a forced fumble in the playoffs.
- Andrew Adams…Signed with the Philadelphia Eagles as an unrestricted free agent on March 24; Played in all 20 games for Tampa Bay in 2020 but almost exclusively on special teams, getting just 60 snaps on defense.
- Raven Greene…Signed a one-year contract with the Buccaneers on May 5; Played in 10 games for Green Bay in 2020, contributing 44 tackles, one interception, five passes defensed, 1.5 sacks and one forced fumble.
- Curtis Riley…Signed a one-year deal with Tampa Bay on May 17; Has played in 49 regular-season games with 20 starts, compiling 131 tackles, five interceptions and eight passes defensed.
- Augie Contressa…Signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent on May 13; Started for three seasons at Stony Brook and was a second-team all-conference choice in 2020.
- Lawrence White… Signed with the Buccaneers as an undrafted free agent on May 13; An honorable mention All-Big 12 selection each of the past two years at Iowa State, he played in 37 career games and recorded 150 tackles, 2.0 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, two interceptions and eight passes defensed.
Greene and Riley were both signed after the draft. The Bucs were down to just four safeties on the offseason roster before the draft and did not, for the first time in five years select one during the draft. (Ryan Smith was originally drafted with the plan to convert him to safety in 2016, followed by Justin Evans, Whitehead, Edwards and Winfield in the next four drafts.)
With the two veteran additions and the two undrafted rookies the Bucs are now at eight safeties; they took seven into the start of training camp a year ago, though Justin Evans was never able to return to the practice field. By shear numbers, the Bucs thus have a deeper safety competition than they did in the summer of 2020.
Greene actually played quite extensively for the Green Bay Packers last season, missing about a half-dozen games to injury but otherwise racking up a good amount of stats, as noted above. Originally an undrafted free agent himself, out of James Madison, Greene made the Packers' roster as a rookie but had stints on injured reserve in each of his first three seasons. That injury history is likely the reason Green Bay chose not to tender him as a restricted free agent this spring, making him free to sign in Tampa Bay. He has played in 20 regular-season games and has 56 tackles, one interception, seven passes defensed, two forced fumbles, 2.5 sacks and four quarterback hits.
After signing with the Bucs, Greene reviewed tape of the Bucs' top trio of safeties and came away impressed. He hopes to fit in with that group by showing he can do a little bit of everything.
"They're a really talented group and I'm looking forward to getting to know them and learning from them once things get rolling here," he said. "[I want to] show that I can contribute in a variety of ways and do whatever the team needs me to do. Just be versatile and open to still learning. Going on Year Four, there is still plenty to learn."
Riley has been in the NFL even longer, first signing as an undrafted free agent out of Fresno State with the Titans in 2015. After a rookie year spent on injured reserve he played two seasons in Tennessee, one in New York with the Giants and one in Oakland before splitting last year between Arizona and Minnesota. His most extensive action came with the Giants in 2018 when he started all 16 games and picking off four passes. In all, he has 49 games and 20 starts of NFL experience and has started at least one contest in each of the last three seasons.
Those two veterans will compete with the undrafted rookies and 2020 holdover Javon Hagan to replace Adams on the 53-man roster and possibly prompt the coaches to keep five safeties this year. The Bucs liked what they saw last season from Hagan, another former undrafted player, and the first-year player appears motivated to take advantage of this opportunity in 2021.
"Riley has been in the league," said Arians. "Hagan looks really good. He's lost about 10 or 12 pounds and looks really, really good."
As noted last week in the cornerback review, the Buccaneers finished 21st in the NFL in pass defense in 2020, giving up 246.6 yards per game. But there were a lot of teams bunched in the middle of those rankings and the Bucs were pretty close to league average. In addition, coaches do not tend to worry much about yardage rankings, particularly passing yards in today's increasingly aerial NFL, and the Bucs finished eighth in points allowed at 22.2 per contests.
The Buccaneers also had 22 interceptions over 20 games, including the playoffs, and 99 passes defensed, or almost exactly five per game. The team's safeties accounted for seven of those 22 interceptions and 21 of the 99 pass break-ups. Winfield and White also combined for 5.0 sacks during the regular season.
Winfield finished third on the team and first among non-linebackers with 91 tackles in the regular season, adding 3.0 sacks, four QB hits, an interception, six passes defensed, two forced fumbles and one fumble recovery. Despite missing one of the Bucs' four playoff games he still made a huge impact with 18 tackles, two tackles for loss, one interception, one forced fumble and two passes defensed. His forced fumble against Saints' tight end Jared Cook was considered the pivotal moment in the Bucs' Divisional Round win in New Orleans, leading to a game-tying touchdown at the start of a successful comeback.
Whitehead continued to provide a heavy amount of thump to the Bucs' secondary, often excelling when close to the line of scrimmage. He, too, made a pivotal play in the postseason, forcing a fumble by Green Bay's Aaron Jones that led directly to a touchdown just after halftime of the NFC Championship Game. Whitehead forced three fumbles in 2020, two of them in the playoffs. He also had a total of 83 tackles, 2.0 sacks, two interceptions and five passes defensed across the 20 games.
Edwards made the most of his playing time, which generally came on obvious passing downs. Despite playing just under 25% of the team's defensive snaps he finished with three interceptions, playoffs included, just one behind Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting for the team lead. Davis and Murphy-Bunting both played more than three times as many snaps as Edwards, who also had a fumble recovery for a fourth takeaway.
Three Key Questions:
- Will there be any newcomers in the Bucs' safety room in 2021?
It seems unlikely that the Buccaneers will go as slim as three safeties on the 53-man roster, so there will technically be at least one new member in that group this season. However, Hagan was with the team for his entire rookie season and even got elevated from the practice squad on two occasions in the playoffs, appearing in one contest. If he wins the fourth spot that will simply be more continuity for the safeties.
However, Hagan will have plenty of competition for the fourth spot, or potentially a fifth spot. Greene and Riley more closely resemble the sort of player the safety room lost in Adams, as they have NFL experience, including starting experience, versatility and a proven ability to help on special teams. The Bucs already know what Hagan can do and are pleased with his physical condition in his first real NFL offseason, which could give him an advantage. But either Greene or Riley or both could be unexpected standouts in camp, forcing their way into the picture.
"Yeah, there are a couple spots that we could fill some roster spots – safety, tight end, offensive line," said Arians. "There are always some last-minute guys that always surprise me in these types of opportunities."
- Can Antoine Winfield, Jr. deliver even more big plays?
Winfield had two interceptions, three forced fumbles and 3.0 sacks in his rookie season, counting the playoffs. That's an encouraging mix of big plays from a rookie safety, one who seemed to carry himself like a veteran from the moment he arrived in Tampa. As noted above, Arians believes his young safety should have been the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and it's clear the Bucs believe he has the potential to be a star in the NFL.
That said, Winfield's big plays were somewhat concentrated at the front and back of his rookie season. He won that monthly award in September after getting 2.0 sacks, three quarterback hits and a forced fumble in his first three games to go with 23 tackles, one tackle for loss and two passes defensed. His first career interception did come at midseason but he didn't have another sack, quarterback hit or forced fumble until December. Winfield then finished with a flourish in the postseason, with his two takeaways, two passes defensed and two tackles for loss in three preseason games.
Winfield is clearly capable of making a wide variety of splash plays in the Buccaneers' defense. If he can do it on a more consistent basis, week to week, in 2021 he could achieve that NFL stardom sooner rather than later.
- Assuming Winfield is once again on the field for every defensive snap, how will the coaches utilize Jordan Whitehead and Mike Edwards?
Winfield will almost surely get a chance to do so, as he's a good bet to be the team's most active safety again in 2021. If he does indeed lock down one safety spot for virtually every snap, how will the Buccaneers utilize Whitehead and Edwards?
Whitehead mostly joined Winfield in playing every snap through the first six games of the 2020 season and Edwards only saw 52 plays on defense in that span. Almost all of them came when nickel back Sean Murphy-Bunting was injured in Denver in Week Three. However, from Week Seven on Edwards started to get some playing time at the expense of Whitehead, as the Bucs sought to utilize Edwards' nose for the ball in clear passing situations. For instance, Edwards got 20 snaps at Las Vegas, 22 against the Rams and 23 against the Vikings, all in place of Whitehead.
Edwards also got to play all 71 snaps in the NFC Championship Game when Winfield was sidelined by his ankle injury, but even with Winfield back for the Super Bowl he was on the field for 35 of the 75 plays on defense. This was telling, as the Chiefs had to mostly abandon their rushing attack when they got down by double digits. Edwards notably had 12 tackles in four postseason games after recording just nine during the regular season.
Some but not all of the 35 snaps Edwards got in the Super Bowl were at the expense of Whitehead. This suggests another strategy for using the Bucs' top three safeties. Tampa Bay ran 16 plays during the playoffs in which Edwards, Whitehead and Winfield were all on the field at the same time. Given the versatility that both Edwards and Winfield possess – both have already played some as a slot corner in the NFL – there may be more opportunities in 2021 for Todd Bowles to play them all at the same time.