The Tampa Bay Buccaneers started the 2021 campaign with Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting as their three primary cornerbacks, and they felt good about it. A young secondary with those three and the likes of Antoine Winfield and Jordan Whitehead at safety had come together impressively down the stretch in 2020 and been a major reason why the Buccaneers ended up with the Super Bowl LV trophy. There were high expectations for that ascending group heading into this season.
That group was intact for less than a quarter. Murphy-Bunting suffered a dislocated elbow 16 plays into the opener and would spend the next eight games on injured reserve. Davis joined Murphy-Bunting on I.R. three weeks later due to a calf injury and hasn't played since. Dean was able to make it back from a Week Three knee injury after missing one game but now is a question mark again after sustaining a shoulder injury in Sunday's win over the Colts. Richard Sherman, brought in to patch up the secondary when the cornerback room caught the injury bug, is on injured reserve and not expected back anytime soon. Cornerback Rashard Robinson is also on I.R.
Murphy-Bunting has been back for the past two games and playing well, and he was able to return on Sunday from an undisclosed injury after missing just one play. Davis was designated to return to practice last week and could come off injured reserve at any time. Now Dean's shoulder is a new concern. As has been the case all season, the Bucs are left waiting to see who is available by the end of the week and devising contingency plans to cover potential absences. For example, safety Mike Edwards has assumed the slot corner job in recent games but he bruised a knee, according to Head Coach Bruce Arians, while making the game-saving tackle on Isaiah Rodgers' 72-yard kickoff return on Sunday. On Edwards, said Arians, the Bucs will "wait and see."
So where does the Bucs' constantly shifting cornerback corps stand at the moment, with a trip to Atlanta looming this weekend? There's some good news and there's a whole lot of uncertainty.
First, the good news: There is a chance Davis will be able to play this weekend against the Falcons after missing the last seven games with his calf injury. Davis has been the Bucs' most dependable cornerback the last three seasons when on the field and he led the entire NFL with 37 passes defensed over the 2019-20 seasons combined. He had five more break-ups and an interception in his four games this year before going down at New England.
"He had a real good week of practice last week and we'll see how this [week] goes," said Arians on Monday. "He had a great workout before the game. Right now, I'm hoping he'll be ready to roll."
As for the uncertainty, it's still too early in the week to get a read on whether Dean will miss any games. Dean was hurt making a sideline tackle on Colts tight end Jack Doyle on the Bucs' fifth defensive play of the game and did not return. Dee Delaney was his immediate replacement in the lineup but he got just a few snaps before the Bucs turned to Pierre Desir the rest of the way. The Bucs may have to rely on Delaney and Desir again next Sunday.
"Dean, again, he's a wait-and-see guy with a bruised shoulder," said Arians. "But it doesn't look like there's any structural damage, so it just could be a pain-tolerance thing."
Desir was on the spot for his second interception of the season on the final play of Sunday's game but the Bucs' would obviously like to have Dean on the field as much as possible. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, opposing passers have a 61.9 passer rating when targeting a player with Dean as the nearest defender. Those passers have had an expected completion rate of 58.8% on their passes in Dean's area but he has allowed only 51.1% of them to actually be completed.
And so the Bucs will wait. And at the end of the week they'll see. Whichever cornerbacks are available when the team is ready to head off to Atlanta, the Bucs will put them on the field with confidence. As Arians noted Monday, that's quite a compliment to the team's cornerbacks coach, Kevin Ross. Ross is instead a former star NFL cornerback, one known for his hard-nosed style of play.
"Well, Kevin was one of the toughest players I've ever coached and seen," said Arians. "He brings the level of toughness to his room. He does a great job of having everybody prepared and ready to go just in case their number is called. And you better play fearless because that's what he coaches."