The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have nabbed a safety within the first four rounds of each of the last three drafts. Jordan Whitehead arrived as a fourth-rounder in 2018, followed by third-round pick Mike Edwards in 2019 and second-rounder Antoine Winfield Jr. this past spring. Toss in veteran Andrew Adams, who started 11 games last year, and 2019 training camp standout D'Cota Dixon and the Buccaneers appear to have some very intriguing depth at the back end of their secondary.
At the same time, the Buccaneers have not had any safety start all 16 games in a season since Bradley McDougald in 2016. In each of the last two years, the Bucs had two different players starting at safety in Week 17 than they did in Week One. As the Buccaneers progress through a new-look training camp trying to get ready for the September 13 regular-season opener, there is no position on their depth chart that features a better intersection of opportunity and depth of talent.
In other words, the competition is on at safety.
"It makes everybody better," said Edwards of that battle. "Antoine is a real good player. He came in and he's real versatile. Andrew Adams, he's our vet in our room. He brings enthusiasm and can play all different safety spots. Jordan Whitehead, he's the vocal guy in our room. He's a hard hitter – that's my boy right there. We've got a lot of depth in our secondary, so we all can play different safety spots and we're just flying around, getting all the guys on the defense lined up and just playing football."
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
Whitehead is the closest thing the Buccaneers have to an established starter, as he opened 11 games as a rookie and would have gone wire-to-wire last year if he hadn't suffered a hamstring injury in the 14th contest. He admits that early exit was frustrating because he felt like he was just starting to get on a roll, within a young secondary that took a massive step forward in the second half of 2019.
"I felt like I was just getting started and the defense as a whole was just getting started, so missing those last two games definitely hurt because I know it would've rolled over into this year," said Whitehead. "But, I got to watch from the sidelines the last two games [and] reflect the whole offseason. These guys are hungry – I'm more hungry than ever right now. We've got a whole new start this year. We've got the same players and we need to start building. We can't start slow this year; we have to start fast."
Edwards stepped into the lineup next to Adams when Whitehead went down and now the two of them are seeing a lot of time on the field together in training camp. Head Coach Bruce Arians recently said that he expects Winfield to compete for a starting job "quickly," but the rookie will have to be very impressive to unseat some of the veterans – albeit very young veterans – that are returning from last year's squad.
"Yeah, we are definitely more comfortable this year," said Edwards. "We've got pretty much all the guys back that we had and added a few more. We are kind of jelling now [and] we've got more chemistry, so [we are] definitely harping on communicating better getting people lined up in the right spots. Especially in the secondary, we've got to communicate a lot to the linebackers, D-Linemen, the corners and everybody on the whole team. We get everybody lined up and Coach [Todd] Bowles and the safeties kind of harp on communicating and getting people lined up."
The Bucs' young DBs have definitely become a tight-knit group and they've quickly welcomed Winfield in. The competition may be real, but it isn't mercenary.
"For me, I'm just competing every day, just like everybody else," said Whitehead. "There ain't no clear starters, and that's how it's supposed to be in the NFL. I'm working every day. I compete with myself and I focus on what I've got to do. I cheer on my teammates – I want them to be great, too. I just strive for greatness."
Arians sees young players who are rapidly getting better and a rookie who could help the defense in a variety of ways.
"Jordan looks good – he's playing the pass better, he's a little bit stronger to a point," said the coach. "You know he's going to throw his face in the fan – no question about that – so the weight should help him there. I like Mike's progress. He's getting his hands on balls, breaking on balls, getting out to centerfield [and] covering a lot of ground, and he's doing a better job tackling when we're tackling.
[Winfield] is a player that could be dime, nickel, back end safety – his versatility allows him to be with any group of guys we want out there, whether it's three corners, three safeties, whatever package we want to put in, he could be in there."
Arians mentions three-safety packages and said there was "no doubt" that Edwards, Whitehead and Winfield could all be on the field at the same time at points this season. Whitehead thinks that could help sow confusion for opposing offenses.
"You just get different looks out of that with three safeties on the field," he said. "You got guys that can cover, they don't know if they're down in the box. They could be playing man, they could be playing zone. It just gives the quarterback a different look. You could blitz – just a lot of different things you could do with having three safeties on the field. It's hard for offenses to game-plan against that when they see so many different people out there. Then, you get breaks, so you have two safeties coming in [and] you stay fresh."
Bottom line? Says Whitehead: "There are a lot of good things that can come with the more depth you have."