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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs Anticipate Fierce Competition at Cornerback in Camp

With multiple legitimate starting options both outside and in the slot and several young players looking to step into bigger roles, the Buccaneers expect a battle for playing time in the secondary this season


Technically, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers didn't add to their cornerback group in last weekend's NFL Draft, despite it being widely considered a position of need for the team. That perception was heightened by the trade of six-year starter Carlton Davis to Detroit in March. However, the Buccaneers believe they are actually deep at the position, and are anticipating a fierce battle for playing time in training camp.

Part of the disconnect between those two perceptions is the continued blurring of the line between position groups. Players listed as safeties on the roster are taking snaps in the slot, a la Christian Izien. Players listed as cornerbacks are pitching in at safety, a la Zyon McCollum. Some players are so positionally malleable they are simply listed as "defensive backs," a la Dee Delaney in recent years.

Such is the case with the first of the Buccaneers' two third-round picks in this year's draft, Georgia's Tykee Smith. Smith is officially a safety, and will be trained at the strong safety spot in Bucs' camp, but he's also going to get a serious look at the slot corner position, given his change-of-direction skills and knack for making plays around and behind the line of scrimmage. Smith collected four interceptions and 8.5 tackles for loss in his final year with the Bulldogs.

As such, it wasn't surprising to hear Buccaneers Cornerbacks Coach Kevin Ross talking about Smith as if he was one of his own on Tuesday.

"He's another guy that's got versatility," said Ross. "He can play nickel and safety. He should fit in real well with us. He had a lot of production in college, so we'll see what happens. Hopefully it transfers over to the pros."

Take a look inside the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' draft room over the course of the 2024 NFL Draft.

The Buccaneers were willing to trade Davis in part because they believe McCollum is ready to step into an everyday starting role. Actually, McCollum essentially did that already in 2023, starting nine games due to injuries to Davis and Jamel Dean and playing the most defensive snaps of any of Tampa Bay cornerbacks, though some of those snaps came at safety. Knowing how critical depth is in the secondary – as evidenced by those Davis and Dean injuries last year – the Buccaneers also signed former Jet Bryce Hall and former Texan Tavierre Thomas in free agency. Those additions, the flexibility of safeties like Smith and Izien and the expected continued development of such young players as Josh Hayes and Keenan Isaac, has Ross anticipating the most wide-open competition he's seen since he arrived in Tampa in 2019.

"This might be the most competitive camp we've had as far as corners go – who's starting, who's playing, this, that and the other," said Ross. "You can't say, 'Well, he's been here, so he's going to start.' I don't think that's the way it's going to go. These guys are very competitive and we should have competition at their position."

Dean and McCollum are the presumptive starters on the outside but the Buccaneers have had interest in Hall for a while and believe he has starting potential that was blocked by the very good duo of Sauce Gardner and J.R. Reed in New York.

"There's going to be a lot of competition between those three," said Ross. "Bryce Hall is a legit starter, I think, in this league. He prepares well, very focused, knows what he's doing and knows where his help is."

Hayes is a 2023 sixth-round pick who excelled on special teams as a rookie but could also factor into the outside corner competition in his second year. Ross praised Hayes for his reliable hands – an area that has generally been an issue for Bucs' corners in recent years – and physical style of play. Second-year man Keenan Isaac, an undrafted free agent out of Alabama State, has "come a long way" since his rookie season, according to Ross.

"I like our length out there, I like our ability out there," said Ross. "We're good at the outside. We've got to find that guy that's going to be inside. That guy inside, he does a lot of stuff, he does a lot of blitzing and stuff. You can get sacks, interceptions and everything. That spot's important for this defense."

There are at least three serious candidates to stick at slot corner, which is essentially a third starting spot given the high percentage of snaps the Bucs' defense plays in sub packages: Izien, Smith and Thomas. Izien is the incumbent, Smith was drafted with that role in mind and Thomas has a lot of experience playing in the slot from his years in Houston.

"Very physical player," said Ross of the former Texan. "He will compete for the nickel job as well as the safety job. He should bring some good intensity to that position, as well."

Despite being an undrafted rookie and a nominal safety, Izien won that job last year by continually showing up with notable plays in training camp. He then had an interception in each of his first two NFL regular season games. That's the kind of production the Bucs will be looking for as they sift through their candidates for the slot.

"Make plays, make plays," said Ross. "They've just got to show out there. We can't put it on paper. You can say, 'Okay, this guy's going to be the starter,' but it really comes down to who makes the most plays, who gives up the least."

And speaking of all that positional crossover, Ross may specifically run the cornerbacks room but he was as thrilled as the rest of the Bucs' coaching staff when the team re-signed safety Jordan Whitehead after he spent two seasons with the Jets. In addition to the depth and competitiveness of his group, he sees great potential in the safety duo of Whitehead and first-team All-Pro Antoine Winfield Jr. Ross referred to Whitehead as the "engine" that drove the Bucs' swarming defense during the 2020 Super Bowl season.

"We now have heat-seeking missiles back there, so people better be careful," said Ross. "I like what we've got. I like this year's secondary…I should say I love this year's secondary."

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