By the end of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2019 season, the five primary positions in the secondary (including the nickel back) were being manned by three rookies, one second-year player and one fourth-year graybeard in 27-year-old safety Andrew Adams. It was an extremely young group – nobody besides Adams was older than 23 – but a young group that definitely appeared to be on the rise.
The three rookies were all 2019 draftees in cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean and safety Mike Edwards. Edwards was admittedly a late addition to the starting lineup, but he replaced another 23-year-old in second-year safety Jordan Whitehead after Whitehead landed on injured reserve with two weeks to go. The other second-year player was cornerback Carlton Dean, who is actually a couple months younger than Dean.
Heading into the 2020 season, the Bucs' safety position appears to be a bit unsettled, and a new rookie was added to the mix in second-round pick Antoine Winfield, Jr. However, Tampa Bay appears ready to roll with the trio of Davis, Dean and Murphy-Bunting at cornerback after all threw showed great promise in the season's second half. In fact, Davis ranked second in the NFL in passes defensed with 19, just one behind the league leader, and Dean was tied for fourth with 17 despite essentially only playing on defense in eight games. Murphy-Bunting added eight pass break-ups and led the team with three interceptions, one of which he returned 70 yards for a touchdown to clinch a late-season win in Detroit.
The Buccaneers didn't add any cornerbacks in free agency or the draft, which provided a boost of confidence for those young corners.
"It skyrockets," said Murphy-Bunting during a videoconference on Wednesday. "Confidence is a big thing as far as being a DB, and being a corner especially. It lets us know that they have a lot of trust in belief in us as a young secondary, as a young group. The sky's the limit for us and we're going to do everything we possibly can to be great."
Murphy-Bunting did not say the Bucs' young secondary has achieved greatness yet, but he knows exactly what the missing ingredient is.
"We definitely need more turnovers," he said. "That's what we need to make our secondary known for, is creating turnovers and getting interceptions. We had a lot of plays where we were in position to make plays and we didn't, or we broke the pass up. Obviously, those things are always good, but at the end of the day we all want to be great, and so turning some of those PBUs into interceptions and turning those interceptions into pick-sixes, it makes a big difference in a game. It makes a big difference in a season. So that's what we're striving to do, create more turnovers and just be that savvy secondary that the Bucs should be known for."
Indeed, the Bucs had chances for more big plays. The improvement in most of the pass-defense numbers from the first half to the second was stark. Tampa Bay was tied for last at midseason with 311.9 passing yards allowed per game but shaved 43 yards off that average over the last eight games. The Bucs had 39 passes defensed in the first eight games, which was tied for ninth in the NFL at the time. Over the last eight, the Bucs' 57 PBUs were the most in the NFL. Tampa Bay's defense went from 15th in completion percentage allowed (64.1) to sixth (58.9) in the second half.
However, after picking off five passes in the first half of the season, the Bucs added only seven more in the second half even as they greatly increased the number of times they got their hands on the football.
Murphy-Bunting attributed the secondary's improvement and his own steady development in 2019 to a gradual increase in understanding of Todd Bowles's defensive concepts. He said the Buccaneers should be in position to continue getting better at a fast rate in 2020 because the players will all go into it with that groundwork already laid. That should create more takeaway opportunities, and doing a better job of them is a matter of both instincts and putting in the work on specific skills.
"It can be a little bit of both, honestly," said Murphy-Bunting. "You could put it like 'either/or.' But definitely Jugs machines – you've got to be able to catch the ball and you've got to be comfortable catching the ball. For me, I've been a centerfielder my whole life for baseball so just being able to judge the ball and read the ball, I've always known how to do it. Just being able to actually catch a ball in awkward positions…being familiar with having the ball in your hands can go a long way. So just staying on the Jugs machine and deep-ball drills and stuff like that definitely help you as an overall DB in every asset of the game and helps you create more turnovers."
While the Buccaneers didn't add any cornerbacks in free agency they weren't sitting on their hands. A sizeable portion of what at one point was roughly $80 million in free cap space went to retaining front-line stars Shaquil Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh. The former got the franchise tag while the latter two were signed just before and shortly after the start of free agency. Barrett led the NFL in 2019 with 19.5 sacks, Pierre-Paul added 8.5 despite missing the first six games and Suh was a main reason those players got one-on-one opportunities and the Bucs had the league's best run defense.
Keeping that front intact was critical to the continued development of the back end of the defense and their quest to create more turnovers.
"Having those three guys back means interceptions," said Murph-Bunting. "They're going to get to the quarterback and we're not going to worry about that. We're not going to worry about what they're doing up there because I know they're going to get to the quarterback. So that means a lot of balls are going to be in the air and there's going to be a lot of opportunities to make plays."
Murphy-Bunting said the Bucs' defensive backs would be competing fiercely with each other in training camp to see who could pile up the most practice-field interceptions, because a lack of production in practice leads to the same thing on game days. If that work does indeed lead to more takeaways for Tampa Bay's young defensive backs in 2020, then they truly may become one of the NFL's great secondaries.