A new league year begins, ushering in change. From free agency departures to re-signings, to draft selections, the roster evolves. With the Tampa Bay Buccaneers win-now approach as Tom Brady returns for his 23rd season in the NFL, the organization is striving to remain atop the NFC hierarchy in 2022. Each position group will be evaluated during the offseason workout program as turnover shifts the depth chart. Next up in the series, let's take a look at the cornerback position.
The Bucs' secondary will face a plethora of explosive offensive attacks in 2022, including the Cowboys, Packers and Chiefs during the first four-week stretch of the season. Those first four games will serve as a barometer for the Bucs' pass defense. The secondary, specifically the cornerback corps, will have no room for error going against multiple top-tier quarterbacks.The top three spots on the depth chart are entrenched with Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting in the slot – stepping inside during the Bucs' nickel packages that adds a third cornerback to the mix. With Logan Ryan's versatile skillset, he could also get work inside but for now, he is lumped into the safety position group.
On areas of improvement for Jamel Dean and Sean Murphy-Bunting, cornerbacks coach Kevin Ross said, "I think they're on the right track – their mindset is really great. We still have goals of trying to get those guys to be All-Pro players and trying to get those guys in that mindset. We always want to lead [the league] in takeaways on defense, and they're a big part of it."
Murphy-Bunting is heading into his fourth NFL season with Tampa Bay and has only scratched the surface of his potential. Over his three-year tenure in 41 game appearances, he has registered four interceptions, one defensive touchdown, 14 passes defensed, three forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, five tackles for loss, one quarterback hit and 157 combined tackles. He also set a franchise postseason record in 2020 with an interception in three consecutive games. Murphy-Bunting possesses superb short-area quickness and can mirror receivers on short, intermediate routes with a fluid hip-flip. In Todd Bowles' dynamic defensive scheme, Murphy-Bunting is a cornerstone defender.
Dean has emerged as a lockdown corner for the Bucs. According to PFF metrics, no NFL cornerback has allowed fewer yards per coverage snap in press coverage since 2020 than Dean, a testament to his production on the back end. Dean was selected by the Bucs in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft, a year after Auburn teammate Carlton Davis joined the Tampa Bay squad (second-round 2018 draft). Both feed off one another and when Davis missed time due to a quadriceps injury in 2021, Dean took advantage of the starting role in his absence. In 42 games played for the Bucs, Dean has posted five interceptions, one defensive touchdown, 33 passes defensed, one fumble recovery, 136 combined tackles and five tackles for loss. He is physical at the line of scrimmage and challenges at the catch point. Dean has the recovery speed to close on receivers with ease and will continue to develop on the back end.
Davis is a physical, downhill tackler. He uses his size and length to gain leverage to win the battle when the ball is in the air. The multi-faceted corner is productive in both man and zone coverage, looking to shut down top-talent receivers in 2022. Over his four-year career, Davis has tallied six interceptions, 52 passes defensed, two forced fumbles, three fumble recoveries, 207 combined tackles and two tackles for loss in 51 game appearances (50 game starts). He effectively jams and blankets receivers, elevating the Bucs' secondary. Davis signed a new, three-year contract extension in March, a representation of the corner's value as the Bucs work towards another Super Bowl run in 2022.
The Buccaneers have added to the depth chart with fifth-round pick Zyon McCollum, who is undergoing the transition from Sam Houston State to the pros. He will likely start out as a contributor on special teams, possessing the rare speed element for a gunner, but has the potential to insert himself into a larger defensive role.
"He has excellent size, speed and [good] change of direction," Ross exclaimed on McCollum. "He seems to be a very smart player and he fits into our scheme and how we do things here, so he should be a good fit for us."
With rare athleticism and ball-hawking ability, McCollum primarily played as the outside cornerback in defensive coordinator Clayton Carlin's press-heavy scheme at Sam Houston State. As a five-year starter, McCollum impressed with the ability to pattern match receivers. He possesses the vertical speed to stay with deep threats on go routes, a coveted trait in today's pass-centric league. Granted, he will undergo a learning curve as he adapts to the speed of the NFL game. McCollum presents a unique upside and developmental prospect for the Buccaneers.
The Bucs were decimated by injuries last year in the secondary and three corners who made the roster last season will be battling for spots on the 53 to round out the group: Ross Cockrell, Dee Delaney and Rashard Robinson. Delaney is off to a stellar start in OTAs, accumulating two impactful plays during team drills on Tuesday. He intercepted Kyle Trask and tipped a pass from Blaine Gabbert, creating a pick for Mike Edwards. Delaney has taken advantage of opportunities thus far as competition heats up on the grass at the AdventHealth Training Facility.
As the 2022 season kicks off with four marquee matchups and juggernaut offensive opponents, all eyes will be on the Buccaneers' secondary. With the start of the regular season on the horizon, they will be the squad to watch throughout the offseason workout program.