Antonio Hamilton played in Super Bowl LV as his Kansas City Chiefs fell to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, 31-9. Now Hamilton is trying to join the Buccaneers for their attempt to defend that title. Whether or not he gets that opportunity is one of the most interesting storylines left in Tampa Bay's process of carving out a 53-man roster for the 2021 season.
Hamilton became an unrestricted free agent in March after playing nearly every special teams snap for the Chiefs in the Super Bowl. He signed with the Buccaneers on May 17, becoming one of the very few veteran additions on a team that was mostly consumed with keeping its championship roster intact. A proven special teams performer who also saw more than 130 defensive snaps in each of the last two seasons (one each with the Giants and Chiefs), Hamilton appealed to a Tampa Bay team that was trying to get better in the kick-and-return game and could use some experienced depth at cornerback.
Three months later, the Buccaneers are nearing the final cuts that will form their initial regular-season roster and Hamilton is one of eight cornerbacks still vying for a spot. The trio of Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean – last year's starters – is locked in but there is nothing certain after that. Ross Cockrell seemed likely to maintain his role as the fourth corner but has been working at safety this summer. That could provide both flexibility in the Bucs' roster-shaping decisions and potentially another spot for a cornerback. Head Coach Bruce Arians said on Monday that the Buccaneers would either keep 10 defensive backs or 10 linebackers. Which group gets the extra man is still being sorted out.
Hamilton's fellow competitors are first-year player Herb Miller, who impressed on the practice squad last year, fellow veteran additional Dee Delaney and seventh-round draft pick Chris Wilcox. Hamilton has significantly more regular-season experience than the other three. And he believes he has proved he is deserving of a spot on the 53-man roster.
"I think I've done a good enough job to if not land a spot here or somewhere else," said Hamilton. "I've made plays that have come our way. So far, I've only given up one catch as far as it comes to man-to-man throughout the numbers of plays I've been in, and I've made tackles. I made a play on the ball the other night so I'm just trying to progress each and every rep and opportunity that I get when I'm out on the field and just see where it lands me."
Indeed, Hamilton notched four stops, a tackle for loss and a pass defensed in last Saturday's loss to the Tennessee Titans, and he did it on just 22 snaps. Delaney (49), Miller (34), Wilcox (28) and the since-cut Nate Brooks (28) all got more reps but Hamilton made the most of his, and the coaching staff may feel as if it already has a good idea of what he can do. That's certainly the case on special teams, where he has ceded most of the gunner reps to younger players who are trying to prove that they can handle that role, too. And he's helping those young players to do exactly that.
"I haven't had a number of reps in the games at the gunner because they know what I can do," said Hamilton. "So with me being kind of a little bit of a savvy vet, this being Year Six, they've given me a little [opportunity] to help along with getting the rest of the guys prepared within the upcoming games, that they get the opportunities so they can go out there and put their best foot forward and put good stuff on tape so they can get a job. I think that's what Coach [Keith] Armstrong and Coach [Keith] Tandy are doing and I'm thankful for that opportunity, that they're giving me a role as far as teaching them, to be able to give my wisdom to them so that they can go out and perform at a high level.
As for the defense, Hamilton has handled slot corner duties well but Arians said earlier in camp that he needs the reserve cornerbacks to be able to fill in outside and inside, as Cockrell did so effectively last year. Fortunately, Todd Bowles's defense is similar to what Hamilton played in with the Giants 2018 and 2019 and he believes he's absorbed the playbook well. As a slot corner, he has to be more involved in run defense and he's eagerly thrown his body into the mix on rushing plays.
"I just want to get in and stop the ball. Period," said Hamilton. "I have a lot of plays where I'm involved with the run gap and within the run scheme of the defense. I just try to get in and throw my pass where they need to be at and make a play on the ball."
The core of the Bucs' Super Bowl-winning secondary was formed in the 2018-20 drafts, which brought in Davis, Murphy-Bunting, Dean and the safety trio of Jordan Whitehead, Mike Edwards and Antoine Winfield, Jr. Barring injury, those six young players should soak up almost all the defensive back reps in the regular season. But they certainly wouldn't mind having an experienced vet on hand to help along the way.
"He's not a young guy, but he's a new guy," said Edwards. "Hamilton, he's a phenomenal player, he's a vet, knows the game inside and out. As you can see, he's been playing for a long time."
Only 28 himself, Hamilton may only be a grizzled veteran in the eyes of the Bucs' very youthful secondary. But he's certainly a known commodity, especially on special teams. Soon, the Buccaneers will decide if that is more valuable to the 53-man roster than some more young and less-proven talent.