As more and more pass-centric offenses take shape each year, the NFL has evolved. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, a club with an esteemed run defense, opponents are forced to throw the ball 40-plus times. The mindset of the Bucs' defense is simple: take away the run and force offenses to become one dimensional. As teams utilize 11 personnel, more pressure is placed on Tampa Bay's secondary, specifically the safety position.
Last season, the Bucs' secondary was decimated by injury down the stretch, contributing to the acquisition of depth during the offseason to shore up the depth chart. The club signed two veterans during free agency, former Falcons safety Keanu Neal and former Patriots cornerstone Logan Ryan. Former Bucs safety Jordan Whitehead signed with the Jets and Mike Edwards could step into the vacated role at strong safety. Third-year pro Antoine Winfield Jr. will be incumbent starter at free safety. There will be different roles in certain packages, but one thing is certain, Todd Bowles wanted competition. Request granted with the additions of Neal and Ryan. Several Bucs' defensive coaches spoke with local media on Tuesday to provide an outlook on the safety position heading into the offseason.
"He [Mike Edwards] will start off at that strong safety position and then we will see what [Keanu] Neal does," safeties coach Nick Rapone described. "That is what Todd [Bowles] wanted to do. He wanted to create so we have some competition back there at safety. Now, [Antoine] Winfield and Edwards, they are looking at Logan Ryan and Neal, which makes a healthy group, and they go out and they compete."
Neal will resume his natural position at safety after transitioning to linebacker last year with the Cowboys under Dan Quinn. He played around 50% of the defensive snaps in Dallas, posting 72 combined tackles. Neal was part of the linebacker rotation in nickel packages last season and will join the Bucs' safety room. Prior to his stint in Dallas, Neal was the model cover 3 strong safety for the Falcons and was stout against the run in the box.
"Now, if you go back to Neal's first couple years, there wasn't a better strong safety in the league," Rapone stated. "He's extremely physical."
Neal was known for his coverage ability, carrying running backs and tight ends, garnering a Pro Bowl nod in 2017 after posting a career-high 116 tackles, four tackles for loss and three forced fumbles. Injuries have interrupted his otherwise ascending career (ACL tear- 2018, Achilles tear- 2019) and the Bucs are hopeful for rejuvenation on the back end.
Ryan reunites with Tom Brady, whom he won two Super Bowls with in New England. Last year with the Giants, Ryan accumulated a career-high 117 combined tackles, eight passes defensed and two forced fumbles. He has stellar short-area quickness and excels in press coverage at the line of scrimmage. Ryan provides flexibility, having played both as a slot corner and safety over the previous few seasons. Throughout his career with the Patriots, Ryan logged 705 combined tackles, 13 sacks, 18 interceptions, and 14 forced fumbles in 140 career games. His athleticism will bolster the secondary and fuel competition on the field.
Mike Edwards is known for his "ball hawk" skills, resulting from his cerebral approach and instincts. He was selected by the Buccaneers in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft and has been used as a rotational safety and as a slot corner in nickel packages, when the Bucs' added a third corner on the field. Edwards can blitz, cover slot receivers, and outpace rushers to the perimeter. He adds value and will have the chance in the offseason to earn an increased role on the field opposite Antoine Winfield Jr.
With a new season on the horizon and high expectations placed on the Buccaneers in their quest for another Super Bowl run, the safety position will be one to watch throughout the offseason.