The NFL's 2020 calendar year begins on Wednesday, March 18, with the free agent market opening at 4:00 p.m. ET. That's an important date for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who can't help but be players in free agency, if only due to their own expiring contracts and an interesting salary cap situation. The Buccaneers currently have 19 players who could become unrestricted free agents on that mid-March Wednesday, and they have more than $90 million of estimated cap space, pending any re-signings in the interim.
The Super Bowl is now in the rear view mirror and only six weeks remain before that 2020 free agency kickoff. That's the amount of time left for the Buccaneers and the other 31 teams to devise a strategy for shopping on the market and potentially reducing their own list of free agents before the March 18. As free agency approaches we're taking a position-by-position look at what the Bucs have, who they could lose and who they could look at from other teams on the open market. Our 2020 Free Agency Primers continues this week with the cornerback position.
2019 Output: Tampa Bay's pass defense gave up 271.5 gross passing yards per game over the previous two seasons (2017-18) and then allowed 290.4 this past fall. That might look like another step back for the Buccaneers' secondary, but the numbers are misleading. Tampa Bay's young defensive backs, particularly the cornerbacks, actually took a big step forward in the second half of the 2019 season.
The yards tell a part of that story but certainly not all of it. The Bucs' defense gave up 311.9 passing yards per game during the first half of the season and then trimmed that to 269.0 in the second half. More significant were the numbers that went _up_ – the plays on the football that had largely been missing for the last several years. The Bucs had 39 passes defensed at the season's midpoint, tying for ninth in that category; in the second half, they led the league with 57 pass breakups. They also got seven of their 12 interceptions after the midway point.
More stark was the difference between the Bucs' own pass breakup totals in 2019 as compared to the previous two years, when they ranked last with 56 in 2017 and 28th with 56 in 2018. Tampa Bay's 96 passes defensed in 2019 led the entire NFL. And much of that was the work of their young cornerbacks. Second-year player Carlton Davis III racked up 19 passes defensed, second in the NFL and just one behind NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore. Rookie Jamel Dean was not far behind, with 17 to tie for fourth, which was especially impressive since he barely played until Week Nine. And fellow rookie CB Sean Murphy-Bunting had eight pass breakups and led the Buccaneers with three interceptions.
Davis was also the Bucs' fourth-leading tackler, with 59, and he and Murphy-Bunting also forced a fumble. Vernon Hargreaves had 40 tackles, four passes defensed and a pick-six in the opener before he was waived in November.
Under Contract for 2020: The Buccaneers heavy draft investments in recent years means they have a high number of cornerbacks locked in for several more years. That includes the three mentioned above – Davis, Dean and Murphy-Bunting – as well as 2018 second-round pick M.J. Stewart . The first three seem like the best bets to top the depth chart in 2020, though Stewart also got in a good amount of playing time in the slot near the beginning and end of the season.
The Bucs have a couple other young corners who will have a chance to get a longer look in the offseason and in training camp. One is former USF standout Mazzi Wilkins, who was promoted in November after the waiver of Hargreaves. Wilkins mostly just played on special teams after that but he had been impressive in practice before his promotion and he is brimming with confidence. The Bucs added rookie corner Herb Miller to the practice squad for the last two weeks of 2019 and then re-signed him for 2020 in January. First-year man John Franklin is still listed as a cornerback on the roster but the Buccaneers actually changed his number to 14 and gave him a couple plays on offense in the season finale against Atlanta. It's unclear what position the Bucs will have him focus on when the offseason work begins.
Buccaneers' Pending Free Agents: This will be quick. The only cornerback who finished the 2019 season on the Buccaneers' roster and now has a date with free agency is fifth-year man Ryan Smith. Smith has been one of Tampa Bay's best special teams players for the past several seasons but he played only 52 snaps of defense in 2019, 49 of them in one game.
Smith was a fourth-round draft pick in 2016 and while he's had several long stretches in the starting lineup along the way he has made his biggest impact in the kicking game. Tampa Bay doesn't even have any restricted or exclusive rights free agents to worry about at the cornerback position.
Potentially Available Free Agents: This year's list of potential free agent cornerbacks is at least more interesting than last year's crop, which was headlined by Ronald Darby and Steven Nelson. Darby only got a one-year deal to stay in Philadelphia and may have to settle for another one-year contract after an uninspiring 2019. Nelson did get three years from the Steelers but only the first one was guaranteed for $7.5 million.
This year, a couple of cornerbacks will probably land more premium deals, starting with the Cowboys Byron Jones. A former first-round pick who played primarily at safety his first three years, Jones has settled in at cornerback the past two seasons and excelled. He only has two interceptions in five years but has developed into a shutdown corner, which is a highly-valued asset in the NFL.
There are lots of either-or options in this year's list of potential free agent corners. Do you want the ascending Jones or Denver's Chris Harris, who is 31 and thus possibly past his prime. Harris will probably get a big deal, too, and he brings more of a track record. Another team may choose to move him back into the slot, where he has excelled in the past.
Or how about the duo of Minnesota's Trae Waynes and Carolina's Brian Poole, who have different NFL pedigrees? Waynes is a former first-round pick who has great speed and has been good enough to start the last three years but has never really developed into a star. Poole, meanwhile, was an undrafted free agent who got a shot in Atlanta due to injuries at the position and earned a one-year deal with the Jets last year. Poole had a good season in New York playing in the slot and might now be able to command a longer contract in free agency.
The contrast between Tennessee's Logan Ryan and Kansas City's Kendall Fuller is one of risk management. Ryan is one of the safer options on the corner market, if the Titans let him get there. He's been a good and productive defender for seven years in New England and Tennessee and last year he picked off four passes and tied for third in the league with 18 passes defensed. Fuller was part of the trade that sent Alex Smith to Washington after he had a strong season playing in the slot for the Redskins in 2017. Last year, however, he got hurt and lost the slot job to Tyrann Mathieu; at the end of the season, the Chiefs were giving him a look at safety. Could he return to a slot corner role and excel?
As may be obvious from the previous paragraphs, there are a lot of options for teams who specifically want help in the slot, and the profile of the nickel corner has grown in recent years. In addition to Harris, Poole and Fuller, other possible slot options on the market are Mackensie Alexander, Darqueze Dennard and Tramon Williams. Dennard comes with some injury concerns, having missed 10 games over the past two years. Williams struggled some in 2019 and will turn 37 two days before free agency but finished the season strong.
If the Buccaneers decide to spend at cornerback, they could poach a couple players from division foes. Carolina's James Bradberry is likely to join Jones and Harris near the top of the market after developing into the Panthers' best corner. He's big and has had plenty of experience going against the league's best receivers in the NFC South, including Mike Evans, Julio Jones and Michael Thomas. Eli Apple was the 10th overall pick in 2016, just before Hargreaves, but was traded by the Giants to the Saints in 2018. He has started all 25 games he's played in New Orleans and could still deliver on the first-round promise.
There will also be a number of 30-something veterans on the market this spring. That includes Jimmy Smith, Johnathan Joseph and perhaps former Buccaneer Aqib Talib. Bradley Roby and Kevin Johnson are younger options.
Bucs' Interest Level: Low.
Cornerback depth is hard to cultivate and maintain in the NFL, so every team is constantly searching for more talent at that position. If the right deal were to present itself, the Buccaneers would certainly pay attention.
That said, given their young and locked-in talent at the position, which looked quite promising as the 2019 season progressed, this doesn't look like a spot at which the Buccaneers would allocate a large part of their finite amount of cap space. There are other spots on the defense that are going to need that attention, particularly with the high number of outside linebackers and defensive lineman on the Bucs' own roster that could hit free agency.
Then there's the comment below by Head Coach Bruce Arians just after the 2019 season, when he was asked about the secondary and the possibility of adding to it in the draft. After discussing some of the uncertainties at safety, Arians followed with this about the cornerback spot:
"We're fine at corner. But again, if there's somebody on the board and he's the best player on the board at that position we'll take him."
There's a difference between choosing not to pass up a talented corner if he falls to your spot in the draft and actively going shopping on the free agent market. As noted above, Davis, Dean and Murphy-Bunting all have a good chance to open 2020 as starters (including the slot job as a starting position); if the Bucs were to add a high-priced veteran, how would those pieces then fit? Expecting three corners to all be healthy for 16 games isn't wise, so depth is necessary, but the Bucs will likely find more economical options.